A Pocket Full Of Rye by Agatha Chrisite

PocketRex Fortescue, family patriarch and business man, is found dead in his office, apparently poisoned by his morning tea. Rather oddly, one of his jacket pockets is full of rye. His widow is found poisoned in her rooms, after eating bread with honey. And a housemaid, Gladys, is found strangled with a clothes peg on her nose…

With echoes of a nursery rhyme bouncing around his head, Inspector Neale finds himself tackling his most difficult case yet. With a plethora of suspects, he is rather at a loss to make sense of it all. Luckily the person who trained Gladys turns up to find out what happened to her. Even more luckily, that person happens to be from St Mary Mead. You might have heard of her…

Pocket 2First off, take a look at the blurb on this book – it’s from 1959, six years after the original publication, and look who doesn’t get a mention. In fact, she’s barely in it, showing up about halfway through and then disappearing again to explain whodunit to Neale. Looking at the notes on the book in John Curran’s “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks”, she only gets a mention towards the end of the notes, so it looks to me as if she wasn’t in the initial plans. Despite her brief appearance though, Miss Marple’s appearance lends a emotional weight to the tale that is sometimes missing from Christie’s tales. Still, it’s rather odd that she wasn’t used to sell the book.

I think this is one of Christie’s most underrated tales. She doesn’t follow her usual tricks and there’s a plethora of red herrings to distract the reader. The murderer’s plan is clever (although highly risky, especially one aspect) and the nursery rhyme aspect – often derided as irrelevant – actually make sense (in a slightly insane kind of way). Her writing is on top form here as well – it’s quite a page turner in fact and never seems to stand still.

One mystery though – why is it A Pocket Full Of Rye when, in the poem (even when quoted in the novel) is a pocketful of rye? Always bothered me, that one.

I’ve been re-reading the Miss Marple books – you can find the reviews on my Agatha Christie page here – and I think this is probably my favourite. It’s a clever puzzle with a clever murderer, a great read, and Highly Recommended.

This review is Book 3 of my attempt at Readathon UK for the school where I work – ten books between 6th Feb and 5th March. If you want to make a donation to the children’s charities that they support, then please visit their Just Giving page.

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10 comments

  1. I agree that this is one of Christie’s most underrated tales. I found it very good and enjoyable.
    Talking of Marple’s brief appearance, The Moving Finger is another novel where her appearance is quite brief.
    Agatha Christie seemed to relish nursery rhymes. In addition to A Pocket Full Of Rye, there are several other novels and short stories where there is a reference to nursery rhymes in the story or the title. Examples are And Then There Were None, One Two Buckle My Shoe, Hickory Dickory Dock, Five Little Pigs, Crooked House,Three Blind Mice, How Does Your Garden Grow, Four And Twenty Blackbirds.

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  2. A pocket full means literally a pocket that is filled. A pocketful means the quantity that a pocket will hold but which may not be in a pocket.
    Since in the novel, the rye is actually found in a pocket, the title is quite appropriate, though it may be different in the nursery rhyme !

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  3. I think I’d call this mid-tier Marple. Not a classic, but Christie’s not completely phoning it in.

    I agree this is one of her best uses of a nursery rhyme plot, and it’s certainly underrated in this regard. The fact it seems like it’s just a structural gimmick (and that Christie has written pure-gimmick nursery rhyme plots before) should lull even astute readers into making a fatal assumption.

    But… I’m not sure I can get behind a rave review. Miss Marple’s explanation for how the murderer managed to work part of their plan comes completely out of nowhere, and relies on something completely stupid that’s never mentioned anywhere else (and isn’t even possible!). Did that not bother you? I don’t see how it’s possible to fully solve this one, which for me automatically disqualifies it from the upper echelons.

    It’s also a prime example of “stupid maid syndrome”. I’m happy to accept servant characters as part of the territory with Golden Age detective fiction, but Christie’s contempt for their intelligence is really offputting. Gladys and Sherry (in Mirror Crack’d) are naive to a completely unbelievable degree. Unfortunately this comes up most in the Marples, because of her deduction style.

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    • Good points, Rich, especially the speculative method for one of the murders – I’d overlooked that. Gladys is particularly dim for falling for… something she is told.

      But for me, it’s one of the few Marples where it’s not very obvious who the killer is – partly, to be fair, for the reasons you point out – but I agree, the clueing is lacking here.

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  4. There is an interesting character in the book named Mary Dove who, though highly educated and intelligent, takes advantage of the shortage of domestic help and works as an expensive short-term housekeeper.
    There is a similar character in another Miss Marple novel 4.50 From Paddington—–Lucy Eylesbarrow who, though a brilliant mathematician (first in Mathematics from Oxford !), works as an expensive short-term domestic help to exploit the shortage.
    While the idea is intriguing. it is doubtful that it is possible and seems an Agatha Christie fantasy !

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