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.
- Miss Marple: She trained Gladys in the duties of service in a home or at a restaurant, and feels responsible when she reads of the murders where Gladys works.
- Miss Griffith: Head typist at the offices of Rex Fortescue. She calls his doctor.
- Miss Irene Grosvenor: Competent, beautiful blonde secretary in the offices of Rex Fortescue, his personal secretary.
- Miss Somers: Newest secretary in the office of Rex Fortescue, never able to know when water is boiling for tea.
- Inspector Neele: Detective inspector of the CID (Criminal Investigation Division) who handles the death of Rex Fortescue and the following two deaths at the Fortescue home. He is quick-thinking, making sure of the cause of death rapidly, so it is known to be murder.
- Professor Bernsdorff: Pathologist at St Jude's hospital who discerns the cause of death for Rex.
- Sergeant Hay: Assists Inspector Neele. He finds the discarded jar of marmalade in the yard.
- Rex Fortescue: Wealthy, unscrupulous businessman in London who dies at his office. He is over 60 years old, and suspected by his sons of a serious disease which impairs his functions in the business, Consolidated Investments.
- Percival Fortescue: Eldest son of Rex, working with him in the business. He is more conservative in his investments than his father is. He is called either Percy or Val and is about 30 years old. He seems to get what he wants, and has the most to gain from the deaths of his father and stepmother, but could not have killed the latter.
- Jennifer Fortescue: Wife of Percival for the last three years. They met when she nursed him back to health from pneumonia. She is bored in her life as a wife, without the focus of professional nursing. She was Ruby MacKenzie before she married.
- Lancelot Fortescue: Second son of Rex, nickname Lance. The two argued eleven years earlier, causing a breach, but he retains a role in Consolidated Investments as junior partner. He lives in Kenya, coming home apparently to reconcile with his father because he is very happy with Pat, and wants to settle down. He is handsome, attractive, clever and completely unscrupulous.
- Pat Fortescue: Recently married wife of Lance. They met in Kenya, where she went to start life afresh after losing two husbands, first one to the war, second one to suicide (Lord Frederick Anstice). She loves Lance and he loves her. She is unaware of Lance's crimes, believing the stories he tells of his father sending for him. Miss Marple advises her to return to her childhood home, if troubles should find her in her life again.
- Elaine Fortescue: Daughter of Rex, and youngest child, in her twenties. She is in love and wants to marry, but her father forbids the marriage. Once he dies, she tells her brother she will marry in a month, and start a school with her husband. She is the only person to shed a tear for her father's death.
- Gerald Wright: A schoolmaster who Elaine loves. He comes to the area when Elaine calls him after her father dies.
- Miss Ramsbottom: Aunt Effie, older sister of Rex's first wife Elvira, the mother of their children. She is stern regarding moral behaviour, yet does not call out Lance's lie as to the time he was with her on the day of his arrival. She spends time with visiting missionaries, and is over 70 years old.
- Adele Fortescue: Second wife of Rex, about thirty years younger than he is, about the age of his sons. They have been married two years. She is a beautiful woman who loves expensive things, described by Mary Dove as "a sexy piece".
- Vivien Edward Dubois: Golf and tennis partner, and lover of Mrs Fortescue. He is the sole heir in her will.
- Mary Dove: Housekeeper for Yewtree Lodge. She is competent and calm in the face of murder.
- Mrs Crump: Cook for the Fortescue household, who takes umbrage at the Inspector's suggestion that food she prepared would poison anyone.
- Mr Crump: Serves as butler, not very well, but he is a package deal with Mrs Crump.
- Gladys Martin: Parlour maid at Yewtree Lodge, the family mansion of the Fortescue family, for about two months.
- Albert Evans: The boyfriend of Gladys, who she discusses with Mrs Crump. He is a pose by Lance Fortescue.
- Ellen Curtis: Housemaid at Yewtree Lodge for several years.
- Mrs MacKenzie: Widow of Mr MacKenzie, who found a potential gold mining field in East Africa and sought capital from Rex, twenty years before the story opens. Rex left him there to die. Rex still owns the land, and claimed that it was worthless, as to gold. She is living in Pinewood private sanatorium. She no longer speaks with her daughter as she only argues with her daughter.
- Donald and Ruby MacKenzie: The two children of the MacKenzies, ages 9 and 7 when their father died. Their mother raised them to avenge their father's death. Son was killed early in the Second World War.
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)