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)
ISBN 978-0-00-712084-0
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 vile letters. A prominent resident is found dead with one such letter found next to her. This novel features the elderly detective Miss Marple in a relatively minor role, "a little old lady sleuth who doesn't seem to do much".[3] She enters the story after the police have failed to solve the crime 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.."[4] One reviewer noted that Miss Marple "sets the stage for the final exposure of the murderer."[3] Another said this was "One of the few times Christie gives short measure, and none the worse for that."[5] The male narrator was both praised and panned.


The book takes its name from verse 71 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'.[6]

Plot summary

Jerry and Joanna Burton, a brother and sister from London, take residence in Miss Barton's country house in the quiet town of Lymstock, for the last phase of his recovery. Jerry, a pilot, was injured in a plane crash. Shortly after moving in and meeting their neighbours, they receive an anonymous letter that makes the false accusation that the pair are lovers, not siblings. The Burtons quickly learn that such poison pen letters have been received by many in town. Despite the letters containing false accusations, many in town are quite upset by them and fear something worse to happen. Mrs Symmington, the wife of the local solicitor, is found dead after receiving a letter, stating that her husband, 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". While the inquest rules that her death was suicide, the police begin a hunt for the anonymous letter writer. Her daughter, Megan Hunter, an awkward, 20-year-old, stays with the Burtons for a while after the loss of her mother.

The Burtons' maid, Partridge, receives a call from Agnes, the Symmingtons' maidservant, who is distraught and seeks advice. She fails to arrive for the planned meeting, nor is she found at Symmington's when Jerry calls in the evening to check on Agnes. The following day, her body is discovered in the under-stairs cupboard by Megan Hunter. An investigator arrives from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder. He concludes that the letter-writer/murderer is a middle-aged woman among the prominent citizens of Lymstock. Progress in the murder investigation is slow, until the vicar's wife calls up an expert of her own - Miss Marple. Jerry conveys many clues to her from his observations, as well as telling her some of his ideas on the reasons why Agnes was killed. Elsie Holland, governess for the Symmington boys, receives a letter. The police observed Aimée Griffith, the doctor's sister, typing the address on the same typewriter used for all the previous letters, and arrest her for the letter.

Heading to London for a visit to his doctor, Jerry takes Megan along with him to London where he leaves her with Joanna's dressmaker for 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; she turns him down. He asks Mr Symmington for his permission to pursue Megan. Miss Marple advises Jerry to let Megan alone for a day, as she has a task. Megan blackmails her stepfather later that evening, by implying that she has proof of her stepfather's guilt in the murder of her mother. Mr Symmington coolly pays her off while not admitting his guilt. Later in the night, after giving Megan a sleeping drug, he attempts to murder her by putting her head in the gas oven. Jerry and the police are lying in wait for him at Miss Marple's recommendation. Jerry rescues Megan and Symmington confesses. The police arrest him for murdering Agnes and his wife.

Miss Marple reasons that the letters were a diversion, not written by a local woman, because none contained true accusations. One person benefitted from Mrs Symmington's death, her husband. He is in love with the beautiful Elsie Holland, wanting her and his sons in his life. Planning his wife's murder, he modelled the letters on those in a case known to him from his legal practice. The police's theory about who wrote them was completely wrong. The one letter that Symmington did not write was the one to Elsie. Aimée Griffith, who was in love with Symmington for years, wrote that one. Knowing that it would be hard to prove his guilt, Miss Marple concocted a scheme to expose him, enlisting Megan to provoke him with the certain result that he would then attempt to kill her.

Following the successful conclusion of the investigation, Megan realises that she does love Jerry. Jerry buys Miss Barton's house for them. His sister Joanna marries the local doctor, and stays in Lymstock. Meanwhile Emily Barton and Aimée Griffith go on a cruise together.


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."[7]

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."[4]

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."[5]

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]



The Moving Finger was first adapted for television by the BBC with Joan Hickson in the series Miss Marple. It first aired on 21–22 February 1985.[9][10]

A second television adaptation was made with Geraldine McEwan as Marple in the TV series, Marple and was filmed in Chilham, Kent.[11] It first aired on 12 February 2006.[12] This adaptation changes the personality of Jerry a bit from the novel and sets the story a little later than the novel is set, per a review of the episode: "Miss Marple, observing the tragic effects of these missives on relationships and reputations, is practically in the background in this story, watching closely as a nihilistic young man (James D'Arcy) comes out of his cynical, alcohol-laced haze to investigate the source of so much misery." and is "set shortly after World War II."[13]


A radio adaptation was broadcast in BBC Radio 4 on May 2001 in the Saturday Play slot, starring June Whitfield as Miss Marple.[14]

Publication history

Dustjacket illustration of the UK first edition

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."[15]


  1. 1 2 "The Classic Years: 1940 - 1944". American Tribute to Agatha Christie. May 2007. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  2. 1 2 Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (Second ed.). Dragonby Press. p. 15.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Review". Toronto Daily Star. 7 November 1942. p. 9.
  4. 1 2 Richardson, Maurice (13 June 1943). "Review". The Observer. p. 3.
  5. 1 2 Barnard, Robert (1990). A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (Revised ed.). Fontana Books. p. 197. ISBN 0-00-637474-3.
  6. Christie, Agatha (1942). The Moving Finger. p. Chapter 3.
  7. Disher, Maurice Willson (19 June 1943). "Review". The Times Literary Supplement. p. 297.
  8. "Binge! Agatha Christie: Nine Great Christie Novels". Entertainment Weekly (1343–44): 32–33. 26 December 2014.
  9. The Moving Finger Part 1 (1985) at the Internet Movie Database
  10. The Moving Finger Part 2 (1985) at the Internet Movie Database
  11. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Miss Marple – The Moving Finger Film Focus". Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  12. Marple: The Moving Finger (2006) at the Internet Movie Database
  13. "Agatha Christie's Marple: Series 2, Editorial Reviews". Amazon. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  14. "The Moving Finger". BBC Radio 4. 5 May 2001. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  15. Christie, Agatha (1977). An Autobiography. Collins. p. 520. ISBN 0-00-216012-9.

External links

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