When upper middle class businessman Rex Fortescue dies while having tea, the police are shocked. The diagnosis is death by taxine - a poison found as a mixture of cardiotoxic diterpenes in the leaves, but not the berries (darils), of the European yew tree. His wife was the main suspect in the murder, until she also was murdered, after drinking tea laced with cyanide. Going on the only clue, a pocket full of rye found on the victim, Miss Marple begins investigating. Marple realizes the murders are arranged according to the pattern of a childhood nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence.
The next to be murdered is a maid named Gladys with whom Miss Marple was acquainted. She knew Gladys to be romantic and gullible. The other maid, Ellen, was hanging out the washing when she found Glady's body all mangled up in the clothes line with a peg on her nose. The younger Fortescue son, Lancelot, suddenly arrives from Kenya with his new wife. The older son, Percival, admits that his father was senile and ruining the business. Miss Marple discovers that the use of the rhyme in the crimes was to point the finger at an old dealing of the Blackbird Mine, in which old Fortescue was suspected of having killed his partner, MacKenzie, and swindled the mine from his partner's family. The mine is in Kenya. Thinking that one of the two MacKenzie children is responsible, Miss Marple and Inspector Neele trace Jennifer Fortescue (Percival's wife) to be the daughter of Mackenzie - something that she does indeed admit, as well as taking responsibility for placing dead blackbirds near Rex at various times to remind him of his past crimes.
SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK!
Jennifer's involvement, however, turns out to be a red herring as the murderer is, in fact, Lancelot. He had found out that the Blackbird Mine was valuable and wanted to inherit it, and so he met and romanced his scapegoat Gladys. He talked her into joining the Fortescue household and administering the poison in Rex's morning marmalade, telling her that it was a truth drug and fabricating her a story about needing old Fortescue to tell the truth in order to clear his name for something that he had been falsely accused of. Then, he killed Gladys so that she would not turn him in, and killed his stepmother so that the inheritance went to the children.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
Philip John Stead in The Times Literary Supplement of December 4, 1953, said, "Miss Christie's novel belongs to the comfortable branch of detective fiction; it never harrows its readers by realistic presentation of violence or emotion or by making exorbitant demands on their interest in the characters. Crime is a convention, pursuit an intellectual exercise, and it is as if the murderer of the odious financier did but poison in jest. The characters are lightly and deftly sketched and an antiseptic breeze of humour prevails. It is a pleasure to read an author so nicely conscious of the limitations of what she is attempting." He concluded, "Miss Christie has a reputation for playing fair with the reader who likes to assume detective responsibility, and also for being one too many for him. In the present case it may be felt that the hidden mechanism of the plot is ingenious at the expense of probability, but the tale is told with such confidence that (like murder itself, in this pastoral atmosphere) it does not matter very much."
Maurice Richardson in The Observer of November 15, 1953, said, "Not quite so stunning as some of Mrs. Christie's criminal assaults upon her readers; the soufflé rises all right, but the red herrings aren't quite nifty enough. But how well she nearly always writes, the dear decadent old death-trafficker; they ought to make her a Dame or a D. Litt."
Robert Barnard: "Super-stockbrokerbelt setting, and quite exceptionally nasty family of suspects. (Christie usually prefers to keep most of her characters at least potentially sympathetic as well as potential murderers, but here they are only the latter). Something of a re-run of Hercule Poirot's Christmas (loathsome father, goody-goody son, ne'er-do-well son, gold-digger wife, etc.), but without its tight construction and ingenuity. And the rhyme is an irrelevancy. Still, a good, sour read."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsEdit
Adapted into a Russian film in 1983 (using the Russian edition's translated title, The Secret of the Blackbirds) with Estonian actress Ita Ever as Miss Marple and then by BBC on March 7, 1985, with Joan Hickson in the lead. Despite remaining faithful to the novel, apart from giving the title as "A Pocketful of Rye", the characters of Mrs MacKenzie, Gerald Wright and Elaine Fortescue did not make an appearance. In the end the murderer commits suicide while there is no such thing in the novel. The novel was adapted for the fourth series of the British television series Marple broadcast on ITV on September 6, 2009, starring Julia McKenzie as the title character.
- 1953, Collins Crime Club (London), November 9, Hardcover, 192 pp
- 1954, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 211 pp
- 1955, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 186 pp
- 1958, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1964, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 191 pp
- 1981, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-231681-1
- 2006, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1953 UK first edition), January 3, 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-720852-9
The novel was first serialised, heavily abridged, in the UK in the Daily Express starting on Monday, September 28, and running for fourteen instalments until Tuesday, October 13, 1953.
The novel was first serialised in the US in the Chicago Tribune in forty-two parts from Monday, January 11, to Saturday, February 27, 1954.
- Czech: Kapsa plná žita (A Pocket Full of Rye)
- German: Das Geheimnis der Goldmine (The secret of the gold mine)
- Indonesian: Misteri Burung Hitam (The Blackbird Mystery)
- Turkish: Porsuk Ağacı Cinayeti (Yew murder)