"...for that, you will have your reward, Wormtail. I will allow you to perform an essential task for me, one that many of my followers would give their right hands to perform..."
-- Lord Voldemort
We learn of the mysterious murders in the Riddle House fifty years ago, how Frank Bryce was accused but released for lack of evidence, and how the Riddle House fell into disrepair. In the present, Frank interrupts a sinister meeting and is killed when he overhears Voldemort’s plans.
Calendar and Dates
The present is August of 1994, the last days before the second war against Voldemort begins - if one counts the beginning as the events surrounding the Quidditch World Cup.
Since the action of this chapter in the present day takes place on the same morning as that of the next chapter, we know that it takes place on a Saturday in August.
Interesting facts and notes
"The Riddle House" refers both to the fact that the house belonged to the Riddle family, and that there is still a riddle associated with the house.
This chapter is most unusual in the Harry Potter canon, in that (like the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) it is not told from Harry's viewpoint.
The timeframe of the backstory is interesting. As we piece together the events of "fifty years ago," we can't help but note that the beginning of Tom Riddle's transformation into the evil Lord Voldemort coincides with the rise and fall of a Muggle regime with similar philosophies, the Nazis of Germany. We know that Dumbledore defeated the Dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, which would be the year after the murders. One can't help but wonder if all these things are related in some way.
The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it "the Riddle House," even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.
This description of the Riddle House as a grand house on a hill has a somewhat Biblical ring to it. (Although the King James Version speaks of a city rather than a house on a hill, the latter phrase is often heard elsewhere.)
Half a century ago, something strange and horrible had happened there...
Fifty years ago, according to the official timeline, is 1944. We know that these events happened in the summer and most likely in August, which is a few months after the Normandy Invasion of Europe. The end of the war was in sight. In the wizarding world, the Dark wizard Grindelwald was a threat. He would be defeated by Dumbledore in1945.
Every version of the tale, however, started in the same place: Fifty years before, at daybreak on a fine summer's morning when the Riddle House had still been well kept and impressive, a maid had entered the drawing room to find all three Riddles dead.
This little bit of scene-setting tells us quite a bit about the Riddle family.
"Fifty years before" puts the deaths of the three Riddles at the very end of World War II, when (as readers of Agatha Christie should be aware) the era of the huge well-staffed country house was on its way out. Few owners of such houses could afford to maintain them, because the increase in wages over the years of the war made it financially impossible to keep a large enough staff of servants.
The fact that the Riddle House was "well kept and impressive", and that the Riddles could afford to maintain a staff of at least three servants (a cook, a maid, and a gardener are mentioned during the course of the chapter) in the post-war labor market tells us that they were very well off indeed. We are not told whether the cook and the maid were live-in staff, but the fact that the maid was in the Riddle House at daybreak at all suggests that she was at least a full-time employee.
The maid had run screaming down the hill into the village and roused as many people as she could.
"Lying there with their eyes wide open! Cold as ice! Still in their dinner things!"
Although the three Riddles were dining at home with only family members present, they had dressed for dinner. This tells us that they were sticklers for a very formal, old-fashioned form of etiquette.
Nobody wasted their breath pretending to feel very sad about the Riddles, for they had been most unpopular. Elderly Mr. and Mrs. Riddle had been rich, snobbish, and rude, and their grown-up son, Tom, had been, if anything, worse. All the villagers cared about was the identity of their murderer -- for plainly, three apparently healthy people did not all drop dead of natural causes on the same night.
Here the villagers are quite right, of course.
The people described are the grandparents ("elderly Mr. and Mrs. Riddle") and father ("their grown-up son, Tom") of the Tom Riddle who would become Lord Voldemort. At the point of these murders, they had almost certainly never seen Tom Riddle Jr, who was about 17 years old.
The Hanged Man, the village pub, did a roaring trade that night...
Since the village is called "Little Hangleton", the name "the Hanged Man" is suitable for the local pub. The name is significant, however, beyond its obvious kinship with the name of the village.
In a Tarot deck - a tool used in one form of Divination - there are two categories of cards: the Minor Arcana (which correspond roughly to the suits in an ordinary pack of cards) and the Major Arcana. The Hanged Man is one of the Major Arcana cards.
It may be worth noting that in some forms of Tarot interpretation, the Hanged Man's opposite is the card known as the Magician.
Frank had come back from the war with a very stiff leg
Since these events are happening in 1944, we know that Frank Bryce left the service before the end of the war, possibly because of his wounded leg.
the only person he had seen near the house on the day of the Riddles' deaths had been a teenage boy, a stranger, dark-haired and pale. Nobody else in the village had seen any such boy, and the police were quite sure Frank had invented him.
This boy was Tom Riddle, the son and grandson of the people who died in the house that night. Tom Riddle was the murderer, of course. No one else saw him in town, which makes the police suspicious, not realizing that their murderer was a wizard and very likely capable of Apparating.
A team of doctors had examined the bodies and had concluded that none of the Riddles had been poisoned, stabbed, shot, strangled, suffocated, or (as far as they could tell) harmed at all. In fact...the Riddles all appeared to be in perfect health -- apart from the fact that they were all dead. The doctors did note...that each of the Riddles had a look of terror upon his or her face -- but as the frustrated police said, whoever heard of three people being frightened to death?
Although we aren't told how Tom Riddle killed his father and grandparents, most fans assume that he used the Killing Curse, Avada Kedavra. If so, we can note from this passage some of the physiological effects of this spell. Of particular interest is the fact that it leaves no mark. This is in contrast to the Avada Kedavra spell which hit Harry as a child, which left a lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead. Either Tom didn't use Avada Kedavra on his family at all, or the spell which hit Harry was drastically modified from its normal form by Lily's sacrifice. Either explanation is plausible (SVA).
Or, of course, Tom could have tortured his relatives before killing them, in which case SVA's argument above does not apply (MLW).
The wealthy man who owned the Riddle House these days neither lived there nor put it to any use; they said in the village that he kept it for "tax reasons," though nobody was very clear what these might be. The wealthy owner continued to pay Frank to do the gardening, however.
The identity of this wealthy owner is not revealed in the books. Many fans have speculated that it may be Lucius Malfoy, but there is no evidence to support this other than the Malfoys' wealth and Death Eater connections.
They knew that old Frank was devoted to the house and grounds, and it amused them to see him limping across the garden, brandishing his stick and yelling croakily at them.
It isn't enough that Frank is ostracized by people of his own age who fancy they know better than the police what happened to the Riddles; he isn't even being left alone.
So when Frank awoke one night in August and saw something very odd up at the old house...
The murder of the Riddles took place fifty years before a late Saturday in August. Assuming that the official timeline is correct, this would date the Riddle murders as having occurred on the 23rd of August, 1944 (if we assume that "fifty years" is intended as an exact rather than an approximate number). Tom Riddle had left Hogwarts a month before and was then about to go off into the world on his quest for immortality and Dark Arts. Before he went, he had one task to perform: the murder of his hated Muggle family.
"Do not lie to me!" hissed the second voice. "I can always tell, Wormtail!..."
Voldemort is a skilled Legilimens, as we see here.
"You will milk her before we retire, Wormtail."
Snakes, of course, are reptiles, not mammals; they don't produce milk. When people talk about "milking" a poisonous snake, what they're referring to is a process of getting the snake's fangs to produce venom.
One of the many loose ends left dangling as the series progressed was the fate of the escaped boa constrictor from book one. This reference disproves the fan theory that Nagini might have been the same snake, since it shows that she is poisonous and therefore not a constrictor. Prior to the publication of DH, some fans wondered if the two snakes might battle at some point - the boa did owe Harry a favor, after all - but this never came to pass.
Peter Pettigrew is now referred to only as Wormtail in the stories. Occasionally someone will recall that he used to be known as Peter Pettigrew, but for all practical purposes, his name has been irrevocably changed. Of course, his master's name was also changed, but Dumbledore still called him Tom when they faced each other in the Department of Mysteries, recalling their original relationship of master and pupil.
Come, Wormtail, one more death and our path to Harry Potter is clear.
And which death is this? Who is left to murder for the plan to happen? Several more people do die, of course, including Barty Crouch Sr., but none of these deaths were really part of the initial plan. It is very likely that this bit of text is a relic of the rewrite Rowling did part way through writing this book. Perhaps in the earlier draft, Wormtail would have had to murder the teacher that Barty Crouch Jr. would impersonate. As it stands, there is no other murder in the plan, and this text is an error.
"I will allow you to perform an essential task for me, one that many of my followers would give their right hands to perform..."
Voldemort is referring to Wormtail's upcoming role in the spell to be cast on the night of the Third Task, in which Wormtail will provide the "flesh of the servant" component.
I killed Bertha because I had to. She was fit for nothing after my questioning, quite useless
This comment by Voldemort is particularly chilling. In his world view, when someone is "useless" (by his personal criteria), they should be killed. This same type of logic was used by the Nazis to murder the handicapped and other social "misfits" during World War II--in fact, during the same time frame that the previous part of the story was occurring.
he was hissing and spitting without drawing breath
This is a description of Parseltongue. It would seem to be magically generated as much as vocalized, since a human would find it necessary to take a breath. This is quite a separate issue from the fact that snakes do not possess external ears, and are therefore effectively unaware of all airborne sounds (although they can be quite sensitive to vibrations transmitted through whatever surface their bodies happen to be in contact with, such as the earth or a floor).
...it was a gigantic snake, at least twelve feet long... the tip of its diamond-patterned tail
What kind of snake is Nagini? As we've noted, she is not a boa constrictor, since she has poisonous fangs. We need to find a large venomous snake which has diamond patterns on its tail.
Do not lie to Lord Voldemort, Muggle, for he knows...he always knows...
Another example of Voldemort's abilities as a Legilimens. In this case, however, we know that he was not looking Frank in the eye, since he hadn't yet turned around. Perhaps it's easier to read the mind of a Muggle, or perhaps we're seeing a particularly powerful wizard at work (SVA). Also, note that according to Snape, eye contact makes Legilimency easier; he did not say during his tutoring of Harry in Occlumency that eye contact was necessary (MLW).
Two hundred miles away, the boy called Harry Potter woke with a start
Little Hangleton, then, is two hundred miles from Little Whinging. We can draw a circle with a 200-mile radius on a map of Britain and determine where the Riddle House is, although one can never be sure with Rowling. This statement involves both maths and geography, two subjects which she admits are her weak points. Let's run with it, however.
Little Whinging is in the far northwest corner of Surrey (which we know because Harry travelled there by way of Paddington Station in PS5). A circle drawn 200 miles out from that point would mostly be in the ocean. However, the line would cross a bit of Wales and a bit of Cornwall. It would also cut across the midsection of Britain, between York and Middlesborough. No town named Little Hangleton or Great Hangleton appears on maps of those areas, so we are left without a definitive location for the house or the graveyard.
Exceptional character moments
Frank Bryce, who (like Harry) finds that his fear becomes much easier to manage when the time finally comes to take action.
Voldemort, who casually kills Frank Bryce to eliminate him as a possible witness rather than (for instance) casting a Memory Charm. This arrogant action, as it turns out, wasn't a smart move on Voldemort's part, because Frank Bryce's disappearance caught Dumbledore's attention (GF30).
Voldemort's assessment of Wormtail: that he would not have returned to Voldemort if he had anywhere else to go, so that his devotion is nothing more than cowardice.
In fact, the report continued, in a tone of unmistakable bewilderment, the Riddles all appeared to be in perfect health - apart from the fact that they were all dead.
"Wizards who are supposed to be dead would do well not to run into Ministry of Magic witches at wayside inns..."