Thursday, September 16, 2010

Agatha Christie and Nursery Rhymes

So today I posted about Nursery Rhymes and Agatha Christie on the Barnes & Noble Mystery Club site. Becke Davis, mystery fan and writer, hosts the site, and you'll want to have a look at everything being written about Agatha Christie this month by so many of your favorite writers, reviewers and fans. And, don't miss Kerrie Smith's Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival.  Let me know of any other Agatha Christie posts this week.

Nursery Rhymes and Agatha Christie

As I mentioned on my blog earlier this week, I’m a huge Agatha Christie Fan, having taught numerous classes on the Queen of Crime, attended the Agatha Christie Centennial in Torquay and the one in the U.S., read everything and anything by and about her, and even set up a Botanical Garden tour based on Agatha Christie’s visit to the UC Botanical Gardens. On Tuesday, I blogged about Re-Reading Christie and the alternative titles of her novels. Because of the multiple titles, I’ve often picked up a book thinking I had found one I hadn’t read, only to find I had. Not a problem, since I usually forget the ending. But that’s also a tribute to Agatha Christie’s terrific plotting.

Agatha Christie drew her inspiration from so many places and nursery rhymes were a rich source for titles as well as themes. Although nursery rhymes may seem jolly with their happy rhymes, the mayhem they describe is fodder for a crime writer. Nursery rhymes, unlike fairytales, are all about ordinary people conducting disorderly behavior. Sometimes punishment is administered, but not always. People go about their daily lives—Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Perhaps that’s a na├»ve one, but even in that one, Jack falls down and breaks his crown, and Jill comes tumbling after. Any chance they were pushed? Many of the people in nursery rhymes have lives marked by anger, deceit, revenge and murder for lots of different reasons.

It’s interesting to note that Agatha Christie was not the first crime writer to use nursery rhymes in titles or build a mystery around the rhyme. S.S. Van Dine (detective: Philo Vance) wrote The Bishop Murder Case in 1928. The entire plot revolved around “Who Killed Cock Rock” starting with Joseph Cochrane Robin shot through the chest with an arrow. But Agatha Christie perfected the use of Nursery Rhymes in the crime genre!

So for the purpose of this post I suggest you read the rhymes along with the novels. Sometimes they add to the plot and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t really matter. You’ll always have a good read.

**SPOILER ALERT**Crimes and plots revealed

1. Mystery: Ten Little Indians (Ten Little Niggers, And Then There Were None) Ten Little Indians

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One chocked his self and then there were nine.
Nine Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself then there were eight.
Eight Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there then there were seven.
Seven Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves then there were six.
Six Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumble-bee stung one then there were five.
Five Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery then there were four.
Four Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one then there were three.
Three Indian boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one then there were two.
Two Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got all frizzled up then there was one.
One Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

I think this nursery rhyme, both title and plot, is the best example of Agatha Christie’s use of Nursery Rhymes in her books. The nursery rhyme is used throughout the novel to create a sense of tension essential to the atmosphere of suspense. The most controversial title, Ten Little Niggers (1939), is taken from a nursery rhyme that actually began as the mid-19th century American rhyme “Ten Little Injuns.” In 1869 Frank Green rewrote it for the British musical stage as “Ten Little Niggers,” the term “nigger” being used in England to refer to any dark-skinned person. The U.S. publishers substituted “Indians” for Christie's original “niggers,” as well as another alternate title from the last line of the rhyme: And Then There Were None.

Ten Little Indians, then, is one of my favorite Agatha Christie Nursery Rhyme mysteries for its sheer ingenuity. In this novel there is a closed society of victims and suspects on an island off the coast of Devon. They begin to die off, one by one, in various ingenious ways, closely aligned to the nursery rhyme. Brilliant multiple points of view! Interesting to note that Agatha Christie adapted this novel herself for the stage with a different, happier ending. All three films adapted from this title were actually adapted from the play. So give the original book a read. I think you’ll be surprised.

2. Mystery: A Pocket Full of Rye
Sing A Song Of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
They all began to sing.
Now, wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the King?

The King was in his countinghouse,
Counting out his money;
The Queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes.
Along there came a big black bird
And snipped off her nose!

In A Pocketful of Rye, the nursery rhyme serves as the key to the solution for the series of murders that are committed along with the progress of the rhyme. In A Pocketful of Rye, it’s Miss Marple who figures out that the rhyme is the link between the series of murders, “Remember the Black Bird”. The first victim isn’t a king, but he’s a rich man. The second victim, his wife, is poisoned with cyanide during tea. The parlor maid has a clothespin on her nose and is strangled by a stocking. Oh, and in the pocket of the victim’s coat is a handful of rye. Maybe the murderer using the rhyme for his series of crime makes it a little easy for the reader, but there are unique characters, and I think it’s a compelling story. It’s also interesting to note that Agatha Christie also used this rhyme in two short stories “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”

3. Mystery: Hickory, Dickory, Dock
Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down!
Hickory, dickory, dock.

Neither the plot nor the characters in Hickory Dickory Dock have much of a connection to the nursery rhyme. Poirot quotes it at the end. As I remember it, the nursery rhyme is running through his mind, when he hears a clock chime. The only other connection is that the story involves a series of thefts at a youth hostel on Hickory Road that starts the investigation. Not withstanding the tangential relationship to the nursery rhyme, the novel itself is an excellent read.

4. Mystery: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

One, two, buckle my shoe
Three, four, knock at the door
Five, six, pick up sticks
Seven, eight, lay them straight
Nine, ten, a good fat hen
Eleven, twelve, dig and delve
Thirteen, fourteen, maids a-courting
Fifteen, sixteen, maids a-kissing
Seventeen, eighteen, maids a-waiting
Nineteen, twenty, I've had plenty

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe actually has the rhyme in the preface, and a line at the beginning of each chapter. The first person to die is a Harley Street dentist who at first seems to have committed suicide. Poirot returns a buckle that morning after leaving the practice. The buckle having fallen off one of the other patient’s shoe. And, so the rhyme continues, as do the crimes. Read the novel.. and the rhyme.

5. Mystery: Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect-a much better title)
Five Little Pigs

This little pig went to the market.
This little pig stayed home.
This little pig had roast beef.
This little pig had none.
This little pig cried "Wee, wee, wee, wee!"
All the way home.

Five Little Pigs is one of the few Poirot novels in which Poirot solves a past crime. Although each character is identified with the little pigs from the appropriate line in the nursery rhyme, and as five consecutive chapter titles, the rhyme doesn’t really define the characters. However, Poirot mentions in the text that he is thinking of nursery rhymes. Again, this is a case of the nursery rhyme not really being important to the novel, except that the five chief suspects are the five little pigs. Nevertheless, another good read.

Agatha Christie also used nursery rhymes as titles for several short stories, too, including “Three Blind Mice”, “There Was a Crooked Man”, “How Does Your Garden Grow.”

So Nursery Rhyme themes and titles are mostly a trope, but one I really enjoy, and I know readers will, too. Sometimes the rhymes add to the plot: sometimes they’re forced. No matter, what’s important is that Agatha Christie’s novels have an incredible variety of viewpoints, plots , characters and sources. You can always pick up a Christie and be entertained!

Listen to the Short Story “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” HERE:


Anonymous said...

Janet - Thanks for this wonderful post! Christie did sew the thread of nursery rhymes throughout the fabric of her novels, didn't she? And you've mentioned some of my personal favourites! Thanks :-)

Janet Rudolph said...

I love your turn of phrase, Margot. Must be why you're a writer!

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Nice post Janet. At least we have two things in common. Chocolate abd crime fiction.

Janet Rudolph said...

And aren't those two great things, Jose!

Dr Holden said...

As a literary critic and self-styled 'literary critical detective', I am fascinated by Agatha Christie's work.

I am consistently puzzled by the richness of her writing and all the echoes it contains. I am currently working on a new essay or 'case' that centres on her novel 'Elephants Can Remember', a text that mananges to be both paper thin and philosophically rich.

I was greatly interested in your post about the rhymes - great observations, thanks.

I have only recently begun to produce my work on Christie and would be grateful for your comments. Find me at my blog:

Becke Davis said...

Janet - thanks so much for a wonderful blog!

Janet Rudolph said...

thanks, Becke, for nudging me. Loved contributing to the Barnes & Noble Mystery Bookclub

Kerrie said...

Excellent post Janet - we need to include this in the October Blog Carnival

Janet Rudolph said...

Thanks, Kerrie. I have an idea about covers, too, but I'll save that for next year, mostly likely!

Janet A said...

Janet, this is your best blog ever. Loved it.

Kerrie said...

I've submitted the post Janet - you should get confirmation

Janet Rudolph said...

Thanks, Janet..