Agatha Christie’s Recurring Child Murderer

Is it your poor child?

Mrs. Lancaster, -“By the Pricking of My Thumbs

I recently re-read (for the 6th time) Agatha Christie’s wonderful By the Pricking of My Thumbs and still got the chills when the creepy old ladies start in. There are spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t read it, go and do so!

Cover art here by the great Tom Adams.

I have odd taste in Christies- her later works are among my absolute favorites when most critics think they are her worst. Pricking is a fabulous book that touches on a lot of things in Christie’s real-life experiences and her exploration of murders that were not discussed much in her day.

Some crimes that were not spoken of were child murders, especially any committed by women or children. Christie, however, did not shy away from these topics and even explored them in a number of books.

Agatha with her older brother, Monty.

Pricking has a serial child-murderer at its heart, and one that is being protected by her husband at that. Many of Christie’s later works deal with crimes of the past and the long shadows of old sins. Pricking delves into this is a unique and favored (in my tastes) way: through an old house.

An old house once used as a hide-out, a place for criminal activity and murder. A house built with secrets and hidden chambers. A murder house. A house that Tuppence sees in a painting she inherits and remembers from a train journey; a house she has to find. The battles of York and Lancaster, graveyards, a good witch, and Tommy all help her solve the mysteries.

Christie might have gone too far with salacious stories of crimes, but she always kept her composed Victorian morals and never, ever went for shock. She definitely writes of evil, but she does so from the ultimate view of justice. Many times she denounced those who felt sorry for murderers, taking the victims’ sides every time. They were the ones to feel sorry for she said. They had paid a high price for someone else’s delight. She did hope that somehow her work would help people be aware of evil. She knew humans would always walk with evil and she felt called to help.

Mrs. Lancaster, the child-murderer from By the Pricking of My Thumbs is finally caught, by this time a mad, mad old woman who kills with poisoned milk. Imagine my surprise when she shows up in other Agatha Christie books. (Though she is not given a name.) Christie must have felt a strong sense of danger in this character.

She appears in Sleeping Murder (WWII written, but published in 1976) in a sanatorium. She wanders up to the main characters Gwenda and Giles. She is holding a glass of milk and says:
“Is it your poor child my dear? “
“Half-past ten-that’s the time. It’s always at half-past ten. Most remarkable.”
“Behind the fireplace…but don’t say I told you.”

The photos of Christie in this post are part of a collection of recently discovered pictures of Christie as a child at Ashfield, her home.

Next, she shows up chronologically in The Pale Horse (1961) when the character David tells of once visiting a mental home when a lady with a glass of milk says:
“Is it your poor child buried there behind the fireplace?”
“Twenty-ten exactly. It’s always the same time every day.”
“Pretend you don’t notice the blood.”

Incidentally The Pale Horse was reported to save at least three separate lives from thallium poisoning, the rare and untraceable poison she used in this book. Several people recognized the symptoms and saved others from being murdered. Christie was very pleased about that.

Finally, she comes to fruition as a main character in By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) where she says to Tuppence:
“I see you’re looking at the fireplace… Excuse me, was it your poor child? That’s where it is you know. Behind the fireplace.”
“Always the same time…Ten past eleven. Yes, it’s always the same time every morning.

There was a doll in the house’s fireplace in Pricking. Here is Christie with hers.

Christie sold her childhood home, Ashfield, partly because of a mental institution that had opened nearby. She says sometimes the patients would wander over and there would be “unpleasant incidents.” Was this old lady with her glass of milk and questions about children one of those incidents? I would like to think that it must be because it it so powerful and Christie used so many things from her real life. To show up in three different books, this lady must have made quite an impression on her.

I searched her autobiography for any references to this dreaded incident and she mentioned it, but did not give specifics.

I will leave you with a late quote loved by Christie and used to full effect in Nemesis where a girl is murdered because she was loved too much.

May justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. -Amos 5:24

With creepy cozy mysteries to you from Kansas Street,

-Jaime

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