The Moving Finger (1943) by Agatha Christie in which a Female Rationalist is Greatly Maligned

‘So sweet and funny and old-world. You just can’t think of anything nasty happening here, can you?’

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Spider Web

the-moving-finger

This is another Christie re-read and to date I have normally been re-reading Christies which I have strongly enjoyed. However today’s read is a bit of a departure. I have no qualms with the writing style, nor the characters or the premise of the murder, yet for all that when I first read it a few years I was a little disappointed with it, mostly because Miss Marple didn’t feature more prominently (turning up at page 142 out of 190) and as a consequence I didn’t rate it as highly as other Marple mysteries. In some ways I have felt this book could probably function as a standalone mystery without Miss Marple in it. Nevertheless I decided on a re-read to see if my opinion has changed in anyway.

To briefly recap the plot of the book, Jerry and Joanna Burton, brother and sister, move into the village of Lymstock, on the advice of Jerry’s doctor who feels he needs complete rest, after having been hospitalised due to an aeroplane crash. They predict calmness and even banality while in Lymstock, but events soon change their minds. A poison pen writer is running amuck in the area and eventually this seems to lead to the suicide of Mrs Symmington, the solicitor’s wife. Yet this is far from a simple case as further sinister events occur. One Lymstock inhabitant believes this has to be stopped and calls in an expert on ‘human wickedness.’ No prizes for guessing who this might be…

However, there is more going on in this mystery novel than its’ plot synopsis might suggest and what stood out the most for me were some of the female characters, in particular Joanna Burton and Megan Hunter, Mrs Symmington’s daughter from her first marriage. In fact Megan Hunter is the maligned lady I refer to in my post title. But more on that later.

The Moving Finger

Joanna

Joanna is first presented to us as a “modern” woman. Jerry sums her up as a:

‘very pretty and very gay [woman], and she likes dancing and cocktails and love affairs and rushing about in high-powered cars.’

Joanna, as portrayed by Emilia Fox in the ITV adaptation of this book

Joanna, as portrayed by Emilia Fox in the ITV adaptation of this book

It could also be intimated that she is a woman who needs direction in her life or some form of work as in her fleeting love affair up to the point of this book, she tends to pick men who are apparently unsung geniuses, who she tries to elevate and promote. Alas ingratitude on their part means such relationships don’t last long. During the course of this novel though, another courtship of sorts takes place and leads to her marrying someone who is far from her usual type and there is a definite sense that she’ll be sharing in her new husband’s work and in this she’ll find more fulfilment. Moreover, as the story progresses it could be said that she becomes a character of more substance, rather than being someone only to be known for their appearance, though she does start off a little like that. For example her ideas of fashion which fits into the countryside is quite amusing. Jerry writes that she was:

‘was dressed… for le sport. That is to say she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short-sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect.’

Furthermore, she thinks that she has adopted the right style of makeup because she used her ‘country tan make up no. 2.’ So perhaps there is a little bit of superficiality to her at the beginning, but she becomes a more complex character as the story unfolds.

I think the only other thing I noticed about Joanna is that when it comes to her brother she almost becomes an honorary man. For instance when the Burtons receive their first anonymous note Jerry writes that:

‘In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all costs be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna.’

This of course could be saying more about Jerry than Joanna, but there is still a sense that he perceives her as not a typical woman or that her femininity is only skin deep. Joanna also makes herself an honorary man at one point when she teases Jerry about his response to the Symmington’s nursery maid, where she agrees with his masculine chagrin over the wastefulness of her beauty and also uses masculine language to describe women in general: ‘a nice bit of skirt.’

Megan

From the very first mention of her, Megan is cast apart from other women. She is an

Megan from the ITV adaptation

Megan from the ITV adaptation

‘awkward girl,’ who ‘although… was actually twenty… looked more like a schoolgirlish sixteen.’ Her distinctiveness is also given a more sinister tone with phrases such as, ‘a shadow darkened my plate and I turned my head to see Megan…’ Additionally she perceives herself as a form of outcast, thanking Jerry when he treats her ‘just as though I was a real person,’ which implies other people do not. I had remembered that Megan was an odd one out type of character but it was on this re-read that I think I found a possible reason why (more of which later). I liked how she along with Miss Marple were instrumental in uncovering the guilty person and proving their guilt. It was nice to see a woman taking the active role, with characters such as Jerry, taking a more passive one, in terms of physical action.

Megan and Jerry

Before looking at Megan herself I wanted to look at her relationship with Jerry first. It would be fair to say that Jerry does try to champion her when others criticise her. He is not satisfied with believing the accepted truths around her which portray her as backward. This is a positive thing. However, the way he goes about communicating his championing and supporting of her can be unsettling at times. He may be prepared to regard her as an adult but he is not above appraising her, identifying where she falls short in his opinion and in his own way makes her an outcast sometimes, or rather his outcast or human oddity. This comes across in his tendency to describe her in terms of animals as evinced in this example:

‘It was a remark that one fancies perhaps erroneously that one’s dog would say if he could talk. It occurred to me that Megan, for all she looked like a horse, had the disposition of a dog. She was certainly not quite human.’

It is at moments like this that Jerry’s general championing of her is a bit more complicated and ambiguous than we might first think. Equally the final sentence does show he can be just as bad as the local inhabitants for using demarcating language in his perceptions of her. The dog image resurfaces in a more unsettling way later on in the novel. Jerry is disappointed when Megan stops staying at their home, as he wanted to take her for a walk somewhere. Jerry’s very perceptive sister though quips back with the remark, ‘with a collar and lead I suppose?’ and she follows this up with ‘Master’s lost his dog, that’s what’s the matter with you.’ I suppose I found this unsettling because of the possessive connotations and the implied power balance and it made me rethink how benevolent Jerry’s perceptions of Megan really are. At the denouement of the tale Joanna gives Megan and Jerry a sheep dog as a wedding present with two collars and leads. Megan may be wondering why there is the extra collar and lead, but we and Jerry know of the in-joke. Maybe this is just meant to be read as amusing but another part of me felt a bit unsettled by it and made me wonder what married life will be like for them. Will Megan retain her disregard for social conventions and exert her independent spirit or will she become subordinate to Jerry?

Image result for the moving finger agatha christie

Another key instance of Jerry using animal images to describe Megan is when he writes that: ‘she looked, I decided this morning, much more like a horse than a human being. In fact she would have been a very nice horse with a little grooming.’ Leaving the more criminal connotations of the word ‘grooming’ to one side, it is true that Jerry does try to “improve her,” such as getting her to take more pride in her personal appearance and taking her to London to buy her a complete new set of clothes. This moment even has a slight My Fair Lady or Pygmalion Bride feel to it. He is also interested in her mind such as suggesting that him reading to her 100 Chinese poems will ‘complete… [her] education.’ It interested me greatly that she rejects Jerry’s first marriage proposal. He says he will make her love him, yet her reply is quite telling in light of the all improvements she has been undergoing: ‘I don’t want to be made.’

Megan the Maligned Rationalist

Megan is often referred to as a ‘half-wit,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘queer,’ and even Jerry who loves her, separates her from others through his zoomorphisms of her. Yet early on in the book it suddenly came to my attention to ask the question why is Megan seen as so different and this was followed by the answer because she is a female rationalist. Now for those of you who have been reading my blog for a while might remember that I did a post on Ellery Queen which looked at what his Myers Brigg’s personality type might be. (If this is a new concept to you, click on the EQ post as at the beginning of it there is a general introduction to the topic). Now rationalists are not all that common, in fact it is argued that the four subgroups only make up 5-10% of the population. Moreover, the traits which are said to characterise this group, are amongst others:

  • Being logical and intolerant of logical inconsistencies
  • Pragmatic
  • Sceptical
  • Problem-solvers
  • Independent
  • Strong-willed
  • Self-contained

However, you may notice that a lot of these traits have been seen as stereotypically masculine traits or when seen in woman, as negative ones. You may now begin to see where I am going with this idea. Rationalists tend to be drawn towards jobs such as being scientists, engineers, researchers, lawyers, analysts, inventors, or academics. Therefore looking at the population rate, the key characteristics and job preferences of this personality group it is not surprising that a female rationalist is going to find it hard to fit in and to find an environment or career which allows them to use their natural skills and talents. Considering this book was written in the 1940s this is easily understandable, though even today such individuals find it difficult at times to be understood by others, which is confirmed in blog posts such as this one on thoughtcatalog, which has rationalist females say what they wish ‘the world understood’ about them. Furthermore, another writer on tumblr says that when identifying female rationalists generally, they ‘don’t usually match the gender role/societal expectation of women, often enjoy intellectual debate and research [and that] something often seems a bit off; they may be cold, naïve, eccentric or argumentative’ Now I don’t particularly like the phrasing of the last example, as saying ‘something seems a bit off’, sounds like something is wrong when it isn’t, but in a way the last example on the list does embody some of the feelings some of the character have about Megan.

Image result for the moving finger agatha christie

You might think I am imposing my own ideas on to Megan and female rationalists in general, but aside from the blog link above I also have my own grandmother experiences, who was a female rationalist. Like Megan she may have seemed to be pottering around not doing much, but in her own independent way she pursued her intellectual interests, natural history, gardening and history in general, even undertaking projects such as uncovering a lot of her family tree (before the age of digitalised records). Yet she too was also perhaps hampered by the social conventions of the times in terms of career opportunities.

Yet wait one moment you say. You haven’t actually shown how Megan herself can be read as a rationalist who is being misunderstood by those around her. Well let me remedy this for you. I first keyed into the idea that Megan might be a rationalist when she briefly waxes lyrical on how much she loves Maths, a subject which rationalists are often very good at and enjoy, such as my fellow blogger JJ at The Invisible Event. Furthermore, Megan’s vehement reluctance to join the Guides also reveals her rationalist personality, as she typifies the activities of this group as ridiculous and is not willing to participate in such ridiculousness just to please others. Rationalists ‘are sceptical of all ideas’ until proven to be valid, even their own, so in this light it understandable to see why firstly Megan did not enjoy school, as she says that the teachers could not answer her questions and that their studies lacked depth. Moreover, the methods used to teach them did not appeal and consequently she was reluctant to cooperate with them. Secondly, Megan’s disinclination to follow her parents’ ideas for what she should do is also underpinned by her sceptical nature. Secretarial courses and even breeding angora rabbits is thrown at her as something to do, yet it is understandable to see why the first of these suggestions logically is not a job a rationalist would find fulfilling and as for the second it just has no reason or logic behind it. The question could very well have been in her head, why should I breed rabbits?!

Also like a rationalist Megan can be very pragmatic, such as when she talks about the way she is not liked by her own family, especially her mother. In a blunt but very apt way she says that she thinks cats deal with unwanted children in a better way: ‘Cats eat the kittens they don’t like. Awfully sensible, I think. No waste or mess.’ For those of who are more expressive of feelings, or who expect women to be more emotional around personal problems, this way of describing how her mother doesn’t like her, could be read as misread as cold and unfeeling and this dialogue is clearly the type which fuels the others characters’ notions of Megan being ‘an awkward sort of creature’ who ‘disturbs the pattern,’ of her household. This is hardly surprising since her family is statistically unlikely to have any other rationalists in it, especially not her mother. Even within Lymstock as a whole the chances of another rationalist, especially a female one, is not very high.

Image result for the moving finger agatha christie

Megan’s tendency to potter around and not participate in community activities is often seen negatively by characters, especially the doctor’s sister who bustles around from dawn till dusk running events and organising things (and who most likely has a Guardian personality type). However there is a fleeting moment where Jerry recasts Megan’s behaviour positively and shows there is value in it:

‘It is a theory of mine… that we owe most of our great inventions and most of the achievements of genius to idleness – either enforced or voluntary. The human mind prefers to be spoon fed with the thoughts of others, but deprived of such nourishment it will, reluctantly, begin to think for itself- and such thinking, remember, is original thinking and may have valuable results.’

Though I suppose I am unsure whether Megan will find an environment where she can use her natural talents and skills, as although Jerry values her, there is a tendency in him to try and change or “improve her”. One can only surmise what she will go on to do in her married life. Guessing she is unlikely to become a mathematical professor, though at least one hopes she finds the space to pursue her intellectual interests privately like my grandmother did.

Final Thoughts

So what do I make of this book on a re-read? I got a lot more out of it in terms of looking at Megan and she is more interesting than I remembered. I was also more aware of Christie laying traps for her readers and characters such as the assumptions surrounding poison pen writers and how this effects some of her characterisation. I was also able to see how the police and Jerry’s ideas about the case are misinformed and misdirected by what they see as the evidence and how Miss Marple is able to interpret it correctly. There are also a couple of lines in the book which once you know the solution scream out key clues to it. Yet at the time they are carefully smoke screened so their real import is not revealed. Yet yes I still bemoan the fact that Miss Marple crops up so little and I find her role in the book underdeveloped and rushed, which takes me back to my earlier assertion that this could have worked as a standalone novel, perhaps even better as one. I think the premise of the crime is clever but I don’t entirely enjoy how the mystery is solved, firstly due to the Marple issue but I also think the pacing in the last quarter of the book was too rushed.

Rating: 3.75/5

Interestingly it seems many famous writers have had their Myers Briggs type decided on and Agatha Christie was typed as an INFJ. To check out the others click here.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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18 Responses to The Moving Finger (1943) by Agatha Christie in which a Female Rationalist is Greatly Maligned

  1. I think this should be the prime piece of evidence in the case of me underthinking mystery novels. My basic thoughts on the Jerry and Megan relationship was basically that it felt a bit iffy, partly due to the age difference. But I think the mystery is a cracker with the crucial idea of what one of the victims saw, a lovely piece of misdirection. But it does fall into the classic trap of banging on a little bit too much about… er, being careful of spoilers… the sort of person that the poison pen writer must be as a rather clumsy bit of misdirection, very typical of the Marples.

    At the end of the day though, this is one of my favourite Marple mysteries – I was rather pleased that it came second in the Marple poll over on my blog. Yes, she turns up late, but that’s not too uncommon, and Jerry does a good job of leading things till then. If the sleuth’s page count is important, you’re going to hate John Rhode’s Dr Priestley who often barely shows up and in some cases, doesn’t even help to solve the mystery…

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  2. Brad says:

    I’m afraid I must agree with The Puzzle Doctor here, Kate, in that I hold this novel in very high esteem. I, too, voted continuously for it during the poll, although my heart will always belong to A Murder Is Announced as Miss Marple’s best. (And folks seemed to agree!)

    As for your argument about Megan, it’s certainly interesting. I’m not sure Christie herself would buy it. I think this book gives us a wonderful portrait of a small village that has become so insular as to be corrupted, with that sickness centering on the anonymous letter writer but certainly invading other households, like the Symmington’s. It takes outsiders like the Burtons and Miss Marple to essentially locate that disease and lance it. Megan responds to Jerry because she, too, is an outsider.

    No doubt Megan is smart. She has gone to college, right? (I forget.) Most girls didn’t do that. She knows probably that she got to go in order to get her out of the way while her mother raised a new family with her stepfather. She feels unwanted. Her mother is, at best, neurotic and narcissistic. Her father was a criminal. The awful Aimee wants her to do “good works” that have no worth or interest. The other villagers dismiss her as an ugly duckling (her mother most of all.)She is stifling. She is neglected. She is so angry! I find her fascinating. I bet she rules that marriage with Jerry and becomes a highly independent but loving wife.

    I get your point about Miss Marple entering so late. I have always wondered why Christie even bothered to include her, except that Jerry really isn’t equipped to be the sleuth. Maybe it should have been Megan. However, I enjoy Miss Marple’s presence very much. Perhaps, as the Puzzle Doctor says, this sparing appearance by a series detective was far more typical than we are aware of.

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    • haha yes I did anticipate a lot of people disagreeing with my middling like of this book but then again I’m very good at not being popular. I agree that Megan is an outsider but I think her personality type is what makes her so. If she had been another personality type I think she could have integrated into Lymstock at the very least if not to an extent within her own family. Equally the way she responds to the neglect she receives from her family also ties into her personality type. I do appreciate though that Christie wouldn’t have been aware of Myers Briggs as the original questionnaire was only published in 1943.

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    • Brad, I don’t think Megan has been to college – it would have been VERY unusual for a young woman of her status to have done so at that time: not impossible, but only a woman thought of as very academic would have gone.

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  3. Lucy Fisher says:

    Oh Emilia Fox – that hairdo with that hat! The book was written in the 40s, but set in the 30s as there is no war going on. The hat needs a smooth, short 30s hairstyle and should be worn on the side of the head. But anyway, back to the plot… I love Megan. And AC says in her autobiography that she sometimes wished she could have studied maths. She was also a frustrated singer, played the piano very well, and found her niche in a pharmacy before becoming a writer.

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    • haha you tell them! They’re probably banking on viewers like me that have no ideas when it comes to the fashion styles of different decades. Interesting though that Christie wanted to have studied Maths – never realised that.

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  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    It is strange that Miss Marple appears for the first time only after about 74% of the book is over and that too briefly, making one wonder while reading whether it is actually a Miss Marple book. Even after that, she appears briefly 2 or 3 times till the denouement. It would have been better if she was omitted and the case was solved by the narrator.
    However, this is a better Miss Marple book and I would definitely include this In Miss Marple Top Five. The suspense is maintained throughout and one is kept guessing till the end. I enjoyed reading it.
    A point to note is that the title is not only figuratively but literally correct since the culprit types the envelopes using only one finger.
    Two characters of this book reappear in The Pale Horse (1961). Hence it is better to read The Moving Finger before The Pale Horse, as otherwise it will eliminate 2 possible suspects and may prevent full enjoyment of The Moving Finger.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: L’EXCROISSANCE or, Giving the (Moving) Finger to Christie | ahsweetmysteryblog

  6. JJ says:

    I’m with the Doc on my under-reading of this kind of thing, but I also remember feeling that it’s another case of the narrator’s shortcomings reflecting back on him through what he says about others (see Cyril Pinkerton in my recent review of The Second Shot by Anthony Berkeley). That Jerry chooses to view Megan in this way I felt at the time of reading (a good many years ago now) was always more about his own failings…perhaps some incipient bitterness resulting from his circumstances rather than anything outright nasty about him as a person.

    I suppose it comes down to the zoomorphism you mention, and the fact that — in spite of lightly and easily dismissing Megan in his own mind — he does eventually (er, SPOILERS, I GUESS) end up marrying her END SPOILERS, so can’t really view her in quite the same way any more. Thus, that bitterness or whatever it was that was taking hold of him as checked by the experience of helping solve the murder and giving him some purpose, new perspective, etc.

    It’s a complex one, for sure. Even given the expectations of the era, I can’t believe Christie would write a heroine who was genuinely intended to be viewed and dismissed in this way — we’ll never know, but I think as a female novelist with a huge readership and massive influence in the genre and in a sociological setting only just beginning to appreciate the emancipation of its women she was simply being a little canny in how she presented certain issues. There’s possibly an early-Feminist reading of it in this way, and that’s what I feel I took away from it all those years ago. However, for the time being I’m more than happy to submit to your much more up-to-date intepretation!

    Also, mathematician I may be, but rational I am hilariously not at times…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no I don’t think Jerry is a nasty person, it’s just sometimes the language he uses in regards to Megan is just a bit uncomfortable. But I’d like to think you were right and that with his own health improving and his forthcoming marriage these unsettling perceptions of Megan may disappear – no longer psychologically necessary perhaps? I agree it is definitely possible to do an early feminist reading with this story and the case of doctor’s sister did interest me. Yes she is annoying and intrusive but she also wanted to be a doctor yet her parents only allowed her brother to become one. I think that kind of thwarting could affect a person – despite how busy she is and how happy this apparently makes her, I think she is sad.
      And yes rationalists can have their odd irrational or illogical moments- and yes it is very funny.

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  7. One of my favourites, and I don’t mind at all that Miss M is in so little. I loved Megan when I first read it (when I was younger than her), and when I came back to it later I thought I might be unhappy about the Jerry/Megan relationship, for the reasons you mention – but I was fine with it. She is a great character.

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