Rating: Four out of five
Year of Publication: 1953
Motive for Murder: Hatred
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye
Inside Rex Fortescue’s pocket is a handful of rye. He has been pronounced died from poison.
Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie
A few months before four dead black birds were found in the library at his home, Yewtree Lodge.
and shortly afterwards inside a pie
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King
The King was in his counting house counting out his money
Rex, Latin for a king, owns a large and thriving firm based in the City
The queen is in the parlour, eating bread and honey
A day after his death, Adelle Fortescue, his second wife, dies from cyanide in her tea while eating buttered scones and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
Gladys Martin, the parlourmaid at Yewtree Lodge, goes outside the house, having seen someone
When there came a little dickey bird and nipped off her nose
And hours later is found strangled under the washing line. A washing peg is on her nose.
Remember the Leonides in Crooked House? Rex Fortescue is the equal to Aristide Leonides; they are shrewd businessmen whose descendants would benefit from their death. If Grandpa Leonides was poisoned with his eye drops in the insulin injection, Fortescue’s marmalade has been tampered with taxine, the poison substance found in Yew berries. Whilst Aristide’s death was fast, taxine takes a few hours to complete. Furthermore, both men individually have a second wife- a much younger one- who married them for the wealth and commit adultery. Yet Aristide’s wife survived him and got the inheritance. Moreover, a sister-in-law who came to live in the house to look after the children after the deaths of the men’s first wife. As the deaths shake the ground beneath respective families, old feud between them emerge and fear escalates, having realised that a murderer is at large among them.
And forget not the domestic staff, for dangers are lurking over them as well. The Leonides’s long-standing cook’s chocolate drink was poisoned, whereas it Gladys, the parlourmaid, is strangled having just worked for the Fortescues for over two months.
With those similarities it is the motives that are distinctive. The nursery rhyme is perhaps merely a touch, just as the ‘ding dong bell’ poem, which appears in Hallowe’en Party and N or M. Furthermore, the murderer is not the same person who puts blackbirds in a pie. More importantly, there is ‘Mr. Brown’ in sight, ie. a mastermind of the murders.
As regards to the authoress’s choice of the nursery rhyme, there seems to be a certain attachment on it. In the 1929’s short story ‘Sing a Song of Six Pence’ it came up firstly and later on in another short story published as part of Adventures of Christmas Pudding. Was it the song or the interpretations behind it, to which she had been drawn?
The family feud theme in the book can be referred to Christie’s previous novel Death Comes As The End. The bitter rivalry between Percival and Lance, Rex’s sons, are quite like Imhotep’s Yahmose and Sobek. Miss Ramsbottom, Percival and Lance’s elderly aunt, has ears and memories like Esa, Imhotep’s mother. What is missing is the cunning Nofret. Although Adelle Fortescue might be as attractive as the young concubine, Mrs. Fortescue does not stir arguments and bully people the way Nofret did. Besides, Percival’s wife, Jennifer, is nothing like , Yahmose’s wife, who undermined her husband but became frightened after Nofret’s death.
What is most interesting is the dark horse in the plot. She plays a substantial part although she remains in the background throughout. Nonetheless, she is not an equal to Henet, a two-faced servant in the Imhotep household. Instead she is a nice girl, who would not attract many men and therefore will be flattered by one.
How the female sleuth knows well about the girl is for readers to find out in the book. Evidently, the triple murders in Yewtree Lodge make Miss Marple leave her St. Mary Mead for Baydon Heath in the outer part of London. Such move is moving to my mind – for Miss Marple’s care to one of the victims and her apparent anger to what the perpetrator had done. Yes, it irks the gentle elderly woman and she expresses it well to the Chief-Inspector Neele.
It is worth mentioning here the dynamic between Miss Marple and Neele. Christie builds up his character first as he investigates the case with Sergeant Hay; searching the house and interviewing members of family and the staff while two murders then happen under his nose. He is more or less Charles Hayward, Sophia Leonides’s future husband; a smart man who is nonetheless bewildered at the turns of the events. Unlike Inspector Dermot Craddock, he has not been acquainted with Miss Marple prior to the case although he has been aware of her ‘assistance’ to Scotland Yard. No sooner has she arrived at the crime scene than she points out the angle of the case to the above-mentioned nursery rhyme. ‘You really must make inquiries about blackbirds. Because there must be blackbirds!’ she emphasises. Further on, the inquiries towards ‘blackbirds’ produce surprising finding, for it reveals about the Mackenzies and the possibility of revenge to Rex Fortescue from the surviving member of the family (see The Most Fascinating Character).
In this regard Neele has a similar attitude to Craddock; open minded and having attention to details. From a man’s viewpoint, Miss Marple’s suggestion of following the trail of a nursery rhyme is unheard of, but they are willing to try her idea about the keyword ‘blackbird.’ As Neele comes to the conclusion of the case, he is still puzzled by the fact that evidences refer to a male suspect in the family. On the other hand, he has realised that the blackbird in the pie is not a man’s job. Is Miss Marple wrong or has she misled him?
In the end, the blackbird thing is merely a smoke screen to a much simpler affair that will surprise readers.
– A marmalade jar is found in the shrubbery
-Gladys Martin is restless and puts her best nylon (a pair of stockings) the day Lance Fortescue comes to tea at Yewtree Lodge
-Inspector Neele found newspaper cuttings about truth drugs used by Russians in Gladys’s room
-Adelle Fortescue dies without inheriting her late husband’s fortune due to the term in the will that she must survive him for at least a month before claiming her money
-Mary Dove sees a man disappear round the yew hedge before the dark before the second murder occurs
-Gladys Martin sent a letter to Miss Marple, of whom reads it later when she came back from Baydon Heath (when the case is solved)
Cast of Characters:
A. The Fortescues:
Adelle (Rex’s second wife, thirty years his junior)
Effie Ramsbottom (Rex’s sister-in-law)
Elaine (the youngest girl)
Jennifer (Percival’s wife)
Lance (the prodigal son returning home after eleven years with his new wife)
Patricia (Lance’s wife, married to Lance for six months)
Percival (the eldest son, a senior partner in his father’s City firm)
Rex (the head of the family)
B. The Staff at Yewtree Lodge:
Mr. and Mrs. Crump (a butler and a cook)
Ellen Curtis (the housemaid)
Gladys Martin (the new parlourmaid)
Mary Dove (the housekeeper)
Gerald Wright (Elaine Fortescue’s fiancé)
Jane Marple ( Miss Ramsbottom’s guest at Yewtree Lodge)
Chief-Inspector Neele (of Scotland Yard)
Vivian Dubois (Adelle Fortescue’s lover)
The Most Fascinating Character: Jennifer Fortescue
She is the eldest son’s wife and lives in Yewtree Lodge in a separate wing with her husband. She is an ex-hospital nurse and came to know Percival Fortescue when she took a job to nurse him. She reminds of Nadine Boynton (Appointment With Death) due to their similar circumstances. Moreover, both women are unhappy; Mrs. Boynton having to cope with her tyrant mother-in-law while Jennifer’s husband lacks attention to her and the rest of the family have given her their cold shoulders.
To Inspector Neele’s eyes, Jennifer is ‘a mediocre type of woman and not very happy. Restless, unsatisfied, limited in mental outlook, yet she might have been efficient and skilled in her own profession of hospital nurse. Though she had achieved leisure by her marriage with a well-to-do man, leisure had not satisfied her…’
Jennifer has not had the same spirit like Nadine’s nevertheless. Nadine loved her husband but having felt trapped by the marriage and therefore wanted to leave the family. She then told him that she had left for Jefferson Cope, a family’s friend, in the family holiday in Petra, Jordan. Jennifer, however, sounds to accept the fact that she must stay. Is it a fatalistic attitude on her part?
Nor does she agree with Adelle Fortescue, owing to her unfaithfulness and splashing her husband’s money. Yet Jennifer knows one thing: that Adelle has made a will weeks before her death.
The twist about Percival’s wife lies in her past. For her real name is Suzie Mackenzie, the daughter of the man whose death in East Africa was mysterious after he went to Tanganyika with Rex Fortescue to investigate a mine. The late Rex told his sister-in-law that Mackenzie had died from fever. Mackenzie’s wife then accused him to have swindled her husband and let him die there. More importantly, she told her two children afterwards that they must revenge his father’s life.
What has become her in the end? Do you think she is ‘the dark horse’ in the story?
Effie Ramsbottom (to Lance Fortescue):
‘No – I mean that silly little parlourmaid. She’s been twitching and jumping like a rabbit all day. “What’s the matter with you?” I said. “Have you got a guilty conscience?” She said,”I never did anything – I wouldn’t do a thing like that.” “I hope you wouldn’t,” I said to her, “but there’s something worrying you now, isn’t there?” Then she began to sniff and said she didn’t want to get anybody in trouble, she was sure it must be all a mistake. I said to her, I said,”Now, my girl, you speak the truth and shame the devil.” That’s what I said. “You go to the police,” I said, ”and tell them anything you know, because no good ever came,” I said, “of hushing up the truth, however unpleasant it is.” Then she talked a lot of nonsense about she couldn’t go to the police, they’d never believe her and what on earth should she say? She ended up by saying anyway she didn’t know anything at all.”
Gladys Martin (to Inspector Neele):
‘I didn’t do anything. I didn’t really. I don’t know anything about it.’
Lance Fortescue (to his wife Patricia):
‘I’ve wondered if it wasn’t Percival who was behind that cheque business – you know, when the old man kicked me out – and was he mad that he’d given me a share in the firm and so he couldn’t disinherit me! Because the queer thing was that I never forged that cheque – though of course nobody would believe that after that time I swiped funds out of the till and put it on a horse. I was dead sure I could put it back, and anyway it was my own cash in a manner of speaking. But the cheque business- no. I don’t know why I’ve got the ridiculous idea that Percival did that – but I have, somehow.’
Mary Dove (to Inspector Neele):
‘I should hardly advise you to go too much by all I’ve told you. I’m a malicious creature.’