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The Moving Finger

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The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger
Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image.
Author Agatha Christie
Country United States
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Dodd, Mead and Company
Publication date
July 1942
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 229 pp (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded by Five Little Pigs
Followed by Towards Zero

The Moving Finger is a detective fiction novel by Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in July 1942[1] and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in June 1943[2] The US edition retailed at $2.00[1] and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).[2]

The Burtons, brother and sister, arrive in a small village, soon receiving an anonymous letter accusing them of being lovers, not siblings. They are not the only ones in the village to receive such letters, when a prominent resident is found murdered. This novel features the elderly detective Miss Marple in a relatively minor, deus ex machina-like role; she enters the story after the police have failed to find the murderer in the final quarter of the book, and in a handful of scenes.

The novel was well-received when it was published: "Agatha Christie is at it again, lifting the lid off delphiniums and weaving the scarlet warp all over the pastel pouffe.." One reviewer noted that "Miss Marple [is] a little old lady sleuth who doesn't seem to do much but who sets the stage for the final exposure of the murderer." Another said this was "One of the few times Christie gives short measure, and none the worse for that." The male narrator was both praised and panned.


  • Title 1
  • Plot summary 2
  • Literary significance and reception 3
  • Adaptations 4
  • Publication history 5
  • International titles 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The book takes its name from verse 51 of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The poem, in turn, refers to Belshazzar's feast as related in the Book of Daniel, where the expression the writing on the wall originated.

The title shows in the story figuratively and literally. The anonymous letters point blame from one town resident to another.[3] The Scotland Yard agent determines the envelopes were all "typed by someone using one finger" to avoid a recognisable 'touch'.[4]

Plot summary

Jerry and Joanna Burton, a brother and sister from London, take a country house in quiet Lymstock so Jerry can fully recover from injuries received in a self-inflicted plane crash. Within a week of settling in and meeting their neighbours, an anonymous letter arrives, rudely accusing the two of being lovers, not siblings. They quickly discover that such poison pen letters have been received by many in town, all focusing on a sex theme and none based on truth.

Mrs Symmington, the wife of the local solicitor, is found dead after receiving a letter stating that Mr Dick Symmington was not the father of their second son. Her body is discovered with the letter, a glass containing potassium cyanide, and a torn scrap of paper which reads "I can't go on". At the inquest, a verdict of suicide is brought in. The police hunt for the anonymous letter writer. The Burtons' maid, Partridge, receives a call from Agnes, the Symmingtons' maidservant, who is distraught. Agnes never arrives for their planned meeting that afternoon. The next day, her body is discovered in the under-stairs cupboard by Mr Symmington's awkward, 20-year-old step-daughter, Megan Hunter.

Scotland Yard sends an investigator, who concludes that the letter-writer/murderer is a middle-aged woman among the prominent citizens of Lymstock. Progress is slow until the vicar's wife calls up an expert of her own, Miss Marple. Jerry Burton gives Miss Marple many clues by telling her his observations and ideas on why Agnes was killed. The police make progress when the Symmingtons' governess, Elsie Holland, receives an anonymous letter. The police observed Aimée Griffith, the doctor's sister, typing the address on the same typewriter used for all the previous letters. They arrest her for the letter.

On the way to London for a visit to his doctor, Jerry takes Megan along with him to London where he buys her new clothes more suitable to her age. He realises he has fallen in love with her. When they return to Lymstock, Jerry asks Megan to marry him, and she refuses. Jerry asks Mr Symmington for his permission to pursue Megan. Symmington tells Jerry he will speak with her. Later that evening, Megan blackmails her stepfather by implying she has proof of his guilt in the murders. He coolly pays her off while carefully not admitting guilt. Later, when she is drugged asleep, he tries to murder her by putting her head in the gas oven. He is immediately stopped by Jerry and the police, who were lying in wait. This scheme was devised by Miss Marple to prove Mr Symmington's guilt. Megan was brave enough to carry it out.

Symmington had written all the letters except the one to Elsie. He had used phrases from a similar incident, done by a school-girl, which fooled the police. Miss Marple disagreed with the police theory from the start. None of the accusations was true; a woman in a town like Lymstock would have known the real scandals, whereas a man like Symmington would not know the gossip. He murdered his wife with cyanide, then murdered Agnes for what he thought she saw. He wanted to marry Elsie Holland. Aimée Griffith, who was in love with Symmington, had written the one letter to Miss Holland, out of jealousy and to stop him from marrying the wrong woman. Megan realises that she does love Jerry. Joanna marries the local doctor, and both couples settle down in Lymstock instead of returning to London. Emily Barton and Aimée Griffith go on a cruise together with the money Emily realised on selling her home to Jerry.

Literary significance and reception

Maurice Willson Disher in The Times Literary Supplement of 19 June 1943 was mostly positive, starting, "Beyond all doubt the puzzle in The Moving Finger is fit for experts" and continuing, "The author is generous with her clues. Anyone ought to be able to read her secret with half an eye – if the other one-and-a-half did not get in the way. There has rarely been a detective story so likely to create an epidemic of self indulgent kicks." However, some reservations were expressed: "Having expended so much energy on her riddle, the author cannot altogether be blamed for neglecting the other side of her story. It would grip more if Jerry Burton, who tells it, was more credible. He is an airman who has crashed and walks with the aid of two sticks. That he should make a lightning recovery is all to the good, but why, in between dashing downstairs two at a time and lugging a girl into a railway carriage by main force, should he complain that it hurts to drive a car? And why, since he is as masculine in sex as the sons of King Gama does he think in this style, "The tea was china and delicious and there were plates of sandwiches and thin bread and butter and a quantity of little cakes"? Nor does it help verisimilitude that a bawling young female gawk should become an elegant beauty in less than a day."[5]

Maurice Richardson in The Observer wrote: "An atmosphere of perpetual, after-breakfast well-being; sherry parties in a country town where nobody is quite what he seems; difficult slouching daughters with carefully concealed coltish charm; crazy spinsters, of course; and adulterous solicitors. Agatha Christie is at it again, lifting the lid off delphiniums and weaving the scarlet warp all over the pastel pouffe." And he concluded, "Probably you will call Mrs Christie's double bluff, but this will only increase your pleasure."[6]

An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of 7 November 1942 said, "The Moving Finger has for a jacket design a picture of a finger pointing out one suspect after another and that's the way it is with the reader as chapter after chapter of the mystery story unfolds. It is not one of [Christie's] stories about her famous French [sic] detective, Hercule Poirot, having instead Miss Marple, a little old lady sleuth who doesn't seem to do much but who sets the stage for the final exposure of the murderer."[3]

The writer and critic Robert Barnard wrote "Poison pen in Mayhem Parva, inevitably leading to murder. A good and varied cast list, some humour, and stronger than usual romantic interest of an ugly-duckling-into-swan type. One of the few times Christie gives short measure, and none the worse for that."[7]

In the "Binge!" article of Entertainment Weekly of December 2014 – January 2015, the writers picked The Moving Finger as a Christie favourite on the list of the "Nine Great Christie Novels".[8]


Publication history

Dustjacket illustration of the UK first edition
  • 1942, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), July 1942, Hardcover, 229 pp
  • 1943, Collins Crime Club (London), June 1943, Hardcover, 160 pp
  • 1948, Avon Books, Paperback, 158 pp (Avon number 164)
  • 1948, Pan Books, Paperback, 190 pp (Pan number 55)
  • 1953, Penguin Books, Paperback, 189 pp (Penguin number 930)
  • 1961, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 160 pp
  • 1964, Dell Books, Paperback, 189 pp
  • 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 255 pp
  • 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 255 pp
  • 1970, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 331 pp; ISBN 0-85456-670-8
  • 2005, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1943 UK first edition), 12 September 2005, Hardcover; ISBN 0-00-720845-6

The novel's first true publication was the US serialisation in Collier's Weekly in eight instalments from 28 March (Volume 109, Number 13) to 16 May 1942 (Volume 109, Number 20) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.

The UK serialisation was as an abridged version in six parts in Woman's Pictorial from 17 October (Volume 44, Number 1136) to 21 November 1942 (Volume 44, Number 1141) under the slightly shorter title of Moving Finger. All six instalments were illustrated by Alfred Sindall.

This novel is one of two to differ significantly in American editions (the other being Three Act Tragedy), both hardcover and paperback. Most American editions of The Moving Finger have been abridged by about 9000 words to remove sections of chapters, and strongly resemble the Collier's serialisation which, mindful of the need to bring the magazine reader into the story quickly, begins without the leisurely introduction to the narrator's back-story that is present in the British edition, and lacks much of the characterisation throughout.

Christie admitted that this book was one of her favourites, stating, "I find that another [book] I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years before. One's view changes. Some do not stand the test of time, others do."[11]

International titles

  • Bulgarian: Анонимният подател/Anonimniyat podatel/ (The Anonymous Sender); 2011 edition – Death in Limstock
  • Czech: Není kouře bez ohýnku (There's No Smoke without Fire)
  • Dutch: De giftige pen (The Poisonous Pen)
  • Estonian: Nobe näpp (The Fast Finger)
  • German: Die Schattenhand (Shadow's Hand)
  • Finnish Syyttävä sormi (The Accusing Finger)
  • French: La Plume Empoisonnée (The Poisoned Pen)
  • Italian: Il terrore viene per posta (Terror comes by post)
  • Norwegian: Mord pr. korrespondanse (Murder by Post)
  • Portuguese: O Enigma das Cartas Anónimas (The Anonymous Letters Enigma)
  • Polish: Zatrute pióro (The Poisoned Pen)
  • Slovak: Hroziaci prst (The Threatening Finger)
  • Spanish: El caso de los anónimos (The Anonymous Letters Case)


  1. ^ a b "The Classic Years: 1940 - 1944". American Tribute to Agatha Christie. May 2007. Retrieved 18 August 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Second ed.). Dragonby Press. p. 15. 
  3. ^ a b "Review". Toronto Daily Star. 7 November 1942. p. 9. 
  4. ^ Agatha Christie (1942). The Moving Finger. p. Chapter 3. 
  5. ^ Disher, Maurice Willson (19 June 1943). "Review". The Times Literary Supplement. p. 297. 
  6. ^ Richardson, Maurice (13 June 1943). "Review". The Observer. p. 3. 
  7. ^ Barnard, Robert (1990). A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (edition ed.). Fontana Books. p. 197.  
  8. ^ "Binge! Agatha Christie: Nine Great Christie Novels".  
  9. ^ Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Miss Marple – The Moving Finger Film Focus". Retrieved 18 August 2015. 
  10. ^ "The Moving Finger". BBC Radio 4. 5 May 2001. Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  11. ^ Christie, Agatha (1977). An Autobiography. Collins. p. 520.  

External links

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