Did Humpty Dumpty fall or was he pushed?
The innocent musings of a curious child. Except that the child in this instance was Phyllis Dorothy James and she grew up to be one of our greatest crime fiction novelists. P.D. James has told the Humpty Dumpty story on many occasions and she cites this curiousity as being one of the many reasons she knew she wanted to write stories. Today I’d like to explore the interrelated nature of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and crime fiction using the brief example of another great novelist. Not P.D. James, but Agatha Christie.
The books and stories we read as children influence our view of the world we grow up in. Whilst our tastes can, and do, change, we remember our earliest forays into literature. Agatha Christie was a voracious reader as a child and her love of literature from this early age is evident throughout the stories she wrote as an adult. So much so in fact, that she transferred this love onto one of her most famous characters, Hercule Poirot. On many occasions she references nursery rhymes and fairy tales in her stories, usually in her book titles (One, Two, Buckle my Shoe 1940, Five Little Pigs 1942 and Three Blind Mice, 1950). Perhaps the most famous example is her outstanding novel And Then There Were None (1939). She also weaved poetry (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, 1962, from The Lady of Shalott by Lord Alfred Tennyson) and Shakespeare (Murder on The Orient Express, 1934, references As You Like It, and A Caribbean Mystery, 1964, references both Hamlet and Macbeth).
Christie isn’t alone in this, and nor is she using other sources to prop up or mask failings in her own writing. Despite the obvious formula used in her Mayhem Parva stories, and the deft yet respectful nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Christie was a brave and astonishingly original writer at times. In Five Little Pigs she weaves a stockbroker (went to market), his sister (stayed at home), a society lady (had roast beef), a governess (had none) and an archaeologist (cried ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home) around the nursery rhyme to brilliant effect. Hercule Poirot is in his element. However, at the end of the novel the reader is unsure as to whether justice will prevail, a theme Christie explored in several novels, sometimes taking it to extreme lengths and letting the murderer walk away entirely. Brave writing of the highest order.
There are, we are told, hidden meanings in nursery rhymes and perhaps fairy tales too. Often these meanings are lost on the curious minds they are read to but if you actually think about it there are a staggering number of these stories that are genuinely scary. My own favourite, in terms of it being scary, is about a woman called Mary Ann Cotton.
Mary Ann Cotton, Gone but not forgotten, In her grave she’s rotten; Sing, sing, oh, what can we sing, Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.
As a child I loved that rhyme. I was in my twenties when I found out Mary Ann Cotton was actually a serial killer from County Durham. She was hanged in 1873 for murdering 21 people, among which were several of her own husbands and lovers. That terrified me and still does, because when I think of the story I can hear the rhyme being sung in a child’s voice.
Good stories, scary or otherwise are timeless. As is good story telling. The stories we read, or perhaps more importantly the stories that are read to us, stay with us. If you are in the business of combining nursery rhymes and inquisitive minds you may wish to think about preparing your answer to the Humpty Dumpty question. You may be reading to a curious child. But it could also be the next P.D. James sharpening her interrogation technique.