What struck me in Agatha Christie’s “A Pocket Full of Rye” – my first detective mystery which involves Miss Jane Marple – is how rarely the amateur consulting detective featured throughout the novel. Her two contributions, first halfway through and second towards the end, were critical, yet she was only introduced as a character after the third of three murders, and instead it was Inspector Neele who advanced the investigation. Development of the plot was therefore methodical, with the intelligent but dogmatic inspector (as described by Miss Marple) making the necessary inquiries, narrowing the list of suspects and their motives, and following up with discoveries or revelations.
Miss Marple’s first contribution came right after her introduction, after she was acquainted with the facts of the three murders. Bringing the attention of Inspector Neele to the old children’s rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (a reference to the title of the novel, and reminiscent of Christie’s “And Then There Were None“, which ), with verses corresponding to the murders – of the king counting out his money, of the queen in the parlour eating bread and honey, and of the maid in the garden hanging out the clothes – led to fresh questions and perhaps a broader range of suspects, but at the same time complicated the process too. The novel, after all, already had its fair share of red herrings. Seemingly obvious suspects, especially those with “a very faint smile [on her lips], were either exonerated or even killed off very early on.
Dialogue between the characters in this novel, along this tangent, was not only functional. A re-reading of some of these exchanges – as the reader approaches the resolution – can be illuminating, and also reflects Miss Marple’s subtle approach of getting to know people.
And it was Miss Marple’s second contribution which helped Inspector Neele – who was extremely close to the truth, as Miss Marple assured the reader – work himself out of a cul-de-sac. The little clarification and intervention then allowed an enlightened inspector to dismiss the misleading clues and to align the suspect with the motive and the circumstances, through reasonable explanations. I think some would have preferred a more elaborate resolution, accounting for the reactions of the murderer or the punishment meted out, though as a “whodunit” the ending was to me quite satisfactory.