First published in 1968, Agatha Christie’s 59th crime fiction novel, By the Pricking of My Thumbs might not be the most obvious inclusion in my Dementia bookcase. However, though it never mentions the word Dementia, (the term did not come into widespread use until the 1980s), the novel, much of which is set in a retirement home, is one of the first examples I’ve come across where Dementia -or senility as Christie calls it- is used as a plot device in crime fiction. Recently, we’ve seen a number of crime fiction novels include characters with Dementia as a means of adding confusion, delaying the investigation or increasing the intrigue elements of their plots. I hope to take a closer look at this practice at a later date. Arguably, there is a less well-developed, though even earlier, incidence of this trope in Christie’s work. In her 45th crime fiction novel, A Pocketful of Rye, the story begins with an elderly man experiencing a complete change of personality which, in the 1985 television adaptation, starring the great Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, is quite believably attributed to Lewy Body Dementia.
In, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Christie’s husband and wife sleuthing duo, Tommy and Tuppence investigate what might or might not be a murder after a confused elderly lady in a nursing home tells them there’s a child’s body buried behind the chimney. The plot hangs upon this confusion. Are old ladies with Dementia to be believed when they make accusations and claim there’s a poisoner at large? Or, are they to be brushed aside and dismissed as Miss Packard, the nursing home’s director seems to think?
“They’re like children, really,” said Miss Packard indulgently. “Only children are far more logical which makes it difficult sometimes with them. But these people are illogical, they want to be reassured by you telling them what they want to believe.”
The implication is reasonably clear. Older ladies living with Dementia no longer have any agency. Miss Packard goes on to call their delusions fancies, although she insists they’re harmless enough. “We try not to take any notice, not to encourage them. Just play it down,” she says. In this sense, Christie could be seen to be echoing the predominant feeling of her time. People who developed, what was then known, as senile dementia were best ‘played down’ or even ignored. They were regularly institutionalised and rarely given access to the kinds of therapies, activities and outlets for self-expression which people living with Dementia routinely engage in these days. And so, it is actually quite counter cultural when Christie reveals, (I’ll be careful here to avoid plot spoilers), that the so-called “illogical” and “delusional” old ladies are actually speaking a version of the truth and attempting to draw attention to a real crime which has occurred.
Like many tropes within Christie’s writing I go backwards and forwards on the ethics of what she’s doing with her plot and themes. In one sense her inclusion of people living with Dementia as vital, active and -most importantly- helpful characters is well ahead of her time. In another sense, I have reservations about using Dementia as a plot device. Is it ethical to include a character with an illness like Dementia simply to develop an aspect of the narrative? Isn’t this quite a reductive way to view both the illness and the characters themselves? What does this say about how authors view people living with Dementia or other illnesses? There are far too many questions to answer here in a short review. By the Pricking of My Thumbs is late Agatha Christie and probably not one of her best. But it’s still a very enjoyable read and a great treat for me as a big Christie fan to see her engage with the topic of Dementia. It feels a little like my planets have aligned.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs was published by Collins in 1968