Murderous rhymes

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite detective novelists, writing 66 crime novels and 153 short stories between 1920-1973.

She had many titles in her time, my favourite being, the “Duchess of Death”. She was also known as the “Mistress of Mystery” and (most commonly) as the “Queen of Crime”. She was awarded a DBE for her contribution to literature and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling novelist of all time (only Shakespeare outranks her in the world of fiction). She still remains the most translated individual author, while her novel And Then There Were None is the biggest selling crime novel ever with sales of more than 100 million.

Perhaps surprisingly her two most popular sleuths, Poirot and Miss Marple never appear together in any of her novels or short stories.  Her reason was revealed in an interview.  Christie gently pointed out that “Hercule Poirot, a complete egoist, would not like being taught his business or having suggestions made to him by an elderly spinster lady. Hercule Poirot – a professional sleuth – would not be at home at all in Miss Marple’s world.”

As she wrote so many novels and stories, I am just going to focus on the ones which she coupled with nursery tunes. Dame Agatha was a talented musician. She had hopes at one point of becoming a concert pianist, but her shyness meant that she was unable to perform in public. Although music doesn’t feature hugely in her books, many use nursery tunes and rhymes as their titles.

Dustjacket for first UK edition

Five little pigs

The novel’s title comes from the nursery rhyme, This Little Piggy went to market.

In the novel, Poirot uses the rhyme to organise his thoughts in regard to solving the mystery. Each of the five little pigs mentioned in the nursery rhyme are used as chapter titles, with each corresponding to one of the five suspects.

This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed at home,
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none,
And this little piggy went wee wee wee wee all the way home.

Five Little Pigs was first published in the United States in May 1942 under the title of Murder in Retrospect and was published later in the year in the UK under its more familiar title. It originally retailed at eight shillings.

Three blind mice

Agatha Christie soon saw the potential of expanding her half-hour radio play Three Blind Mice into a full length play. Unfortunately there had been a play of the same name which had a theatrical release just prior to the Second World War. Christie’s son-in-law, Anthony Hicks, suggested “The mousetrap,” the play within a play of Hamlet. And so The mousetrap came into being, the world’s longest running play.

The script was published in 1954 by Samuel French.

Three Blind Mice (X2)
See how they run (X2)
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
She cut off their tails with a carving knife
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
As Three Blind Mice?

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

Another work of art and detective fiction presented to us by Agatha Christie.

This novel was first published in the United Kingdom in November 1940, and then in the US in February 1941 under the title of The Patriotic Murders. When a paperback edition was published in the US in 1953 the title changed yet again to An Overdose of Death.

The UK title is derived from the well-known nursery rhyme, and the chapters each correspond to a line of the rhyme.

An illustration from Journeys through Bookland by Charles Sylvester.
Chicago: Bellows-Reeve, 1922
Chapter headings are slightly different according to the UK / US variants of the rhyme.
Available on Archive.org

Pocketful of rye

This novel was first published in the UK on 9 November 1953, and then in the US the following year. The book features Christie’s famous detective, Miss Marple. Each verse of the rhyme is cleverly represented by a fatal act!

With thanks to bethsnotes.com

Hickory dickory dock

The novel opens at a student hostel, where Poirot becomes curious about a strange sequence of apparently trivial thefts, and vandalism. The thefts include a stethoscope, some lightbulbs, a pair of old flannel trousers, a box of chocolates, a slashed rucksack, boracic powder and a diamond ring later found in a bowl of soup…

Hickory Dickory Dock is one of Christie’s most tenuous links of title and plot as the only real connection is the name of a road.

[Editor’s note: Do have a look at bethsnotes.com, which was responsible for the latter two tunes. There is a fascinating variety of nursery tunes on there, including variant tunes from both sides of the Atlantic]

How does your garden grow?

Taken from the nursery rhyme Mary Mary quite contrary, How does your garden grow? is a short story first published in the Ladies Home Journal (US) and The Strand magazine (UK) (formerly home to Sherlock Holmes) in 1935.

Poirot becomes curious when a woman is poisoned shortly after giving him a packet of seeds. When Poirot discovers that she had also recently sent a letter requesting his help, he sets to work. On arrival, along with his faithful secretary, Miss Lemon, in the dead woman’s village, they notice an unfinished row of shells. Everything else in the garden is perfect and symmetrical apart from this.

This arouses Poirot’s “little grey cells”, and he soon discovers they are oyster shells, and may have had a part to play in the woman’s death…

To find out more do read How does your garden grow? which was later published as part of the Poirot’s early cases anthology.

Sarah Chapman

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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