Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Agatha Christie and the history of the finger

5

If you think writing a novel is challenging, try coming up with a title. Especially one with a finger in it.

The title is critically important to a book, even more than the cover.  I often agonize over my decision. Many years ago, the publisher of my first book changed its title.

My new book, Dark Ride Deception, focuses on the theft of mind-bending technology for theme park dark rides (indoor attractions), but it includes the discovery of a severed finger. It’s not what the story is about. It’s just clue, a loose finger.  But I became enamored with using that in the title, and I remembered an Agatha Christie novel, The Moving Finger.

Christie wasn’t referring to an unattached digit like the one in my book. In fact, she took the title from the translation of Omar Khayyam verse:

“The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The moving finger is vaguely referenced in her book, including a clue that anonymous threatening letters were typed by someone using one finger.

Immediately I thought about titling my book, The Unmoving Finger. That’s obviously the state of the finger in my book, and it would be an homage to that most famous mystery writer. But how many people would see the connection? The Moving Finger was published in 1942 and was not one of Christie’s most well-known works.

I thought my literary allusion might be wasted, so I aimed for something slightly less sophisticated. Getting the Finger was my first idea. Then I thought I could attract browsers’ attention even better with Giving the Finger.

References such as—to use the vernacular—flipping the bird, stretch farther back than Christie, even farther back than Omar Khayyam. According to Wikipedia, the middle finger gesture dates to ancient Greece and Rome. Also, there’s a story, probably apocryphal, that flipping the bird came into use at Battle of Agincourt between the British and French in 1415. The French supposedly planned to cut off the middle fingers of British archers so they couldn’t shoot.  When it didn’t happen, the British flipped their middle fingers in contempt.

Regardless of its occasionally obscene history, the finger is a popular word in mystery titles, often referring to, or pointing out, someone’s guilt. That was another of my great title ideas: Finger of Guilt. Author Paul Grossman beat me to it with his 2012 short story. The Amazon description of his Finger of Guilt says that star investigator Hans Fraksa claims the authorities have caught “Kinderfresser, the vicious child eater of Berlin.”

The finger is popular in titles for many, possibly less gruesome mystery/crime stories, including:

—  Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (2009) by Janet Evanovich
 — Finger Prints (2009) by Barbara Delinski
 — Fingerprint (2011) by Patricia Wentworth
— The Three Fingered Hand (2013) by Edda Brigitte Walsleben
— Fingered For Murder (2013) by Rodney Wilson, and
— The Finger: A Novel of Love & Amputation (2014) by David L. Robbins.

In addition to the publishing world, Hollywood keeps its finger on the pulse of its customers, and thus for decades a variety of crime and mystery films have used digital nomenclature in titles. Among the best known is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952). Based on a true story, James Mason stars as a British spy working for the Nazis and Michael Rennie as a British agent on his trail. Unrelated to the Mankiewicz film, Laurence Fishburne starred in a 2006 thriller called Five Fingers. In addition, a 1959 television series used the same name.

I ran my finger down a long list of similarly-titled films as I struggled to decide what to call my book. A sampling:

— The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) This spooky mystery/horror film takes place in an isolated Italian manor house and stars Robert Alda and Peter Lorre. Based on the trailer, the entire film happens at night.
— Fingers (1978) Harvey Keitel plays Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, a talented pianist who is also a part-time collector for his mob-connected father.
— Finger Man (1955) Frank Lovejoy goes undercover to finger a mobster.
— Finger of Guilt (1956) Richard Basehart, a happily married film executive, is stalked by a woman he says he does not know.
— Five Fingers of Death (1972) In the poster for this martial arts movie, a guy has hooked fingers that look like claws.

Probably the most famous movie of the batch was the 1964 film that forever cemented James Bond in the hearts of viewers: Goldfinger.

Finally, after research and rumination, I decided that, because it tells what the book is actually about, Dark Ride Deception would be my best title. Fingers crossed. 

5 thoughts on “Agatha Christie and the history of the finger

  1. Vanessa Shields

    This is an amazing post, Mark! I kinda feel bad (silly?) having offered you my thoughts on using ‘finger’ in your title…when I see that there are so many titles that include the word…Goldfinger – of course! In any case, I think your final title is the best…we still get the finger-licious scene right away and it’s finger lickin’ good. No? Well, it’s early and my ‘fingers’ aren’t quite awake, nor is my metaphor machine. Fingers (and toes) crossed for another successful mystery book in the world!

    Like

  2. cirque123

    The Agincourt reference is interesting but Dionne says that the Bird that most English show is the V for victory sign but with the back of the hand showing not the palm, but those are the the two fingers you would use to pull the string. Very interesting how language is created. Thanks

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    1. mbaconauthor Post author

      I knew that Brits use the V symbol as we use the “bird.” That’s why I added the “apocryphal” note on the Agincourt story. I didn’t want to explain any more at that point…. sort of beside the point.

      Like

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