- For the nursery rhyme with the same name see: Sing a Song of Sixpence
Sing a Song of Sixpence is a short story by Agatha Christie which was first published in the annual Christmas special of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in December, 1929 in the U.K. The story was subsequently collected and published as part of the anthology The Listerdale Mystery which came out in 1934. In the U.S. the story was first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in February 1947 and subsequently in the collection The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories in 1948.
Sir Edward Palliser, a retired barrister, once made a promise to a young girl and travelling companion that she could always come to him whenever she needed help. Ten years later she calls on him. Sir Edward is reluctant but a promise is a promise.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Sir Edward Palliser, KC, receives a visit in his Westminster house from a woman called Magdalen Vaughan whom he met on a boat trip some ten years previously. At that time she had been 17 and he had made love to her. On parting he had promised that if she ever needed help, he would be there to help her.
Now ten years later she begs him for help. Her grand aunt Lily Crabtree was murdered some three weeks ago. The victim was found dead in her downstairs room in her Chelsea house, her head crushed in by a paperweight, which had then been wiped clean. Magdelen was one of five people in the house at the time of the death, together with her brother, Matthew, Miss Crabtree's nephew and his wife, William and Emily and the house servant, Martha. All four of the family members in the house were supported financially by Miss Crabtree and all four would inherit one quarter of her estate. The police have been unable to establish any concrete evidence against anyone in the house but at the same time there was no indication that anyone from outside had entered the house. The occupants of the house live in mutual suspicion of one another and this is wearing on them all.
Sir Edward is reluctant as he is contentedly enjoying his retirement. But a promise is a promise so he sets off to gather information. From Miss Crabtree's solicitor he discovers that the old lady always collected from the latter three hundred pounds in five pound notes every quarter for the next three month's household expenses. Sir Edward then goes to Chelsea and interviews Magdalen's relatives. He discovers the tensions that exist in house. Emily rowed with Miss Crabtree at lunch and retired to her room following afternoon tea with a headache pill. William also went to his room with his stamp collection. Magdalen was also upstairs sewing after apparently having an argument over her plan to become a fashion model. Matthew Vaughan refuses to speak with Sir Edward, claiming to be tired of the whole business.
Sir Edward speaks with Martha who was devoted to Miss Crabtree as she took her into service thirty years before after she had had an illegitimate baby. She confirms that she can hear the creak of the stairs when anyone comes downstairs – and no one did during the period in question – and that Matthew was in a downstairs room typing a journalistic piece and she could constantly hear the keys of the typewriter. She confesses however that Miss Crabtree could have opened the door to anyone and she wouldn't have heard from the kitchen – especially as Miss Crabtree's room faced the street and she would have seen anyone approaching the house. In questioning her as to whether Miss Crabtree was expecting anyone, Martha relates her final conversation with Miss Crabtree, which includes trivial complaints about the household budget and the dishonesty of tradesmen, and a supposedly bad sixpence of a new pattern with oakleaves which she was given in change. Sir Edward searches Miss Crabtree's bag with her personal belongings and money but finds nothing of interest.
Sir Edward is on his way home when Matthew Vaughan stops him in the street to apologise for his behaviour. Sir Edward catches sight of a restaurant sign over Matthew's shoulder: "The Four and Twenty Blackbirds". He gets a sudden epiphany from the nursery rhyme and runs back to the house to confront Martha. When he had searched Miss Crabtree's bag, there had not been a six pence of the new pattern with oak leaves. There was however a handbill with a piece of poetry about unemployment. Someone must have come to the house begging and Miss Crabtree must have given him the new sixpence out of sympathy. Martha breaks down and confesses that the killer was a caller to the house who had been tempted when he saw a wad of five pound notes. It was her illegitimate son, Ben, who has now fled the country.
Satisfied with solving the case, Sir Edward nonetheless advises Magdalen that if she needed a friend again, to please find a younger man. Saying thus, he retreats back into his retirement.
- Sir Edward Palliser, KC
- Magdalen Vaughan
- Lily Crabtree
- Matthew Vaughan
- William Crabtree
- Emily Crabtree
- 1929 Holly Leaves, the annual Christmas special of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, December 1929 with illustrations by C. Watson.
- 1934 The Listerdale Mystery, William Collins and Sons (London), June 1934.
- 1947 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Volume 9, Number 39, February 1947
- 1948 The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1948