The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger
The Moving Finger  
The Moving Finger First Edition Cover 1942.jpg
Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image.
Author(s) Agatha Christie
Cover artist Not known
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Crime novel
Publisher Dodd, Mead and Company
Publication date July 1942
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 229 pp (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded by Five Little Pigs
Followed by Towards Zero

The Moving Finger is 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]. It features the elderly detective Miss Marple in a minor, deus ex machina-like role, appearing more than halfway through and in only a handful of scenes.


Explanation of the novel's title

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, which is the source of the common phrase the writing on the wall.

Plot summary

Jerry and Joanna Burton, brother and sister from London society, take a country house in idyllic Lymstock so that Jerry can rest from injuries received in a wartime plane crash. They are just getting to know the town's strange cast of characters when an anonymous letter arrives, rudely accusing the two of not being brother and sister, but lovers. They quickly discover that these letters have been recently circulating around town, indiscriminate and completely inaccurate.

Things flare up when Mrs. Symmington, the wife of the local solicitor, commits suicide upon receiving a letter which states that her second child is actually illegitimate. Her body is discovered with the letter, a glass containing potassium cyanide and a torn suicide note which reads "I can't go on".

An inquest is held and the verdict of suicide is brought in. The police begin to search for the anonymous letter writer. The Burtons' maid, Partridge, receives a call from the Symmington's maidservant, Agnes, who seems distraught over something. Partridge asks Agnes over to tea the next afternoon, but Agnes never arrives. Agnes' body is discovered in the under-stairs cupboard the next day by Mr. Symmington's rather shabbily-dressed step-daughter, Megan.

Scotland Yard sends someone to investigate, and comes to the conclusion that the letter-writer/murderer is a middle-aged woman who must be one of 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 some vital clues by telling her of the contents of his dreams and his disconnected thoughts.

There is a break in the case when the Symmingtons' beautiful young governess, Elsie Holland, receives an anonymous letter typed on the same typewriter, proven to have been used to create envelopes for all the previous letters. The doctor's sister, Aimée Griffith, is arrested, since she has been seen both typing the letter and delivering it.

On the way to London for a visit to his doctor, Jerry takes Megan along with him to London where he buys her some new clothes to make her look presentable. He also begins to realize that he has fallen in love with her. When they return to Lymstock, Jerry asks Megan to marry him, and she refuses. As a result, Jerry goes to Mr. Symmington to ask for his permission and to inform him of her refusal. Symmington, who is eager to have Megan off his hands, tells Jerry that he will speak with her.

Later that evening, Megan goes to Mr. Symmington’s office and tries to blackmail him. He coolly pays her, but later, when she is asleep, he tries to murder her by putting her head in the gas oven. He is immediately stopped by Jerry and the police. It is revealed that Miss Marple wished to prove Mr. Symmington’s guilt in this way, and that Megan was brave enough to assist her.

Symmington had written all the letters as a cover-up for killing his wife. He had used phrases from a similar incident, done by a school-girl, which fooled the police into thinking that a woman had been the letter-writer. He murdered his wife by the use of cyanide and then planted the letter and a fake suicide note to disguise his crime. He committed the murders because he wished to marry his children's governess. Aimée Griffith, who was in love with Symmington, had written only the letter to Miss Holland, out of jealousy and to try to protect the man she loved from marrying the wrong woman.

Megan, in light of recent events, finally realizes that she does indeed love Jerry. His sister Joanna marries the local doctor, and both couples settle down in Lymstock instead of returning to London. After explaining the case, Miss Marple returns home to St. Mary Mead.

The book's title, The Moving Finger, is emphasized twice. The first is how the accusatory letters point blame from one town member to another, the second is from the addresses on the letters, which the Scotland Yard agent uses to determine the envelopes were all "typed by someone using one finger" in order to avoid a recognizable 'touch.'

Literary significance and reception

Maurice Willson Disher in The Times Literary Supplement of June 19, 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."[3]

Maurice Richardson in the June 13, 1943 issue of The Observer set the tone thus: "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."[4]

An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of November 7, 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."[5]

Robert Barnard: "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."[6]

Sheldon Cooper references this book twice in different episodes of the TV series The Big Bang Theory; in season 2 episode 11 (7:00), and in season 3 episode 16 (16:12).

Film, TV, Radio or theatrical adaptations

  • The Moving Finger was first adapted for television by the BBC with Joan Hickson in the series Miss Marple. It was transmitted in two parts from February 21 to 22, 1985.
  • A second adaptation was made with Geraldine McEwan as Marple in the TV series Marple. This episode transmitted on February 12, 2006 in the UK.
  • A radio adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio4 on 5 May 2001 in the Saturday Play slot, starring June Whitfield as Miss Marple.

Publication history

Dustjacket illustration of the UK First Edition (Book was first published in the US)
  • 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 0-85-456670-8
  • 2005, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1943 UK first edition), September 12, 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 March 28 (Volume 109, Number 13) to May 16, 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 October 17 (Volume 44, Number 1136) to November 21, 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. The American edition of The Moving Finger has been abridged to remove sections of chapters.

Christie admitted that this book was one of her favourites, stating, "I find that another one [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."[7]


  1. ^ a b American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  2. ^ a b Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
  3. ^ The Times Literary Supplement June 19, 1943 (Page 297)
  4. ^ The Observer June 13, 1943 (Page 3)
  5. ^ Toronto Daily Star November 7, 1942 (Page 9)
  6. ^ Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie - Revised edition (Page 197). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  7. ^ Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. (Page 520). Collins, 1977. ISBN 0-00-216012-9

External links

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