The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death on the Nile (1937)

Death on the NileIn which wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, much to the latter’s fury. Miss de Bellefort stalks the newly married couple all round Egypt on holiday just so that she can be a thorn in their flesh. Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective is also on holiday in Egypt, where he refuses a commission from the new Mrs Doyle to “do something about it”. However, when one member of the love triangle is found murdered, it is up to Poirot to solve the case, assisted by his friend Colonel Race (whom we met in Cards on the Table). Intrigue piles upon intrigue, and there are many elements to the crime that Poirot identifies and clarifies before finally unveiling the killer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

AlgiersThe book is dedicated “To Sybil Burnett, who also loves wandering about the world”. Sybil Burnett was the wife of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, and she and Mrs Christie met on a boat trip from Rome to Beirut in 1929. Although they took an instant dislike to one another, they soon became firm friends. As Christie describes her, in her autobiography: “she was a woman of great originality, who said exactly what came into her head, loved travelling and foreign places, had a beautiful house in Algiers, four daughters and two sons by a previous marriage, and an inexhaustible enjoyment of life.” No wonder she merited one of Christie’s dedications. Unlike the majority of Christie’s previous books, Death on the Nile wasn’t originally published in magazine instalments, but was first published in the UK on 1st November 1937 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1938.

Peter UstinovI have a slight problem with this book – but it’s a good one; it’s that I cannot put out of my mind the superb film adaptation starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot that was made in 1978. As a result, I can remember large sections of the story in good detail, including all the machinations regarding whodunit. So, unfortunately, there was little sense of surprise in my re-reading this book; but the snippets from the film that I could see in my mind’s eye were very rewarding to remember. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d definitely recommend it.

Pearl handled gunIt’s a highly action-packed book, with an intricate plot and several sub-plots that, whilst appearing to be relevant to the main murder story, are surprisingly tangential. Even though they have no bearing on identifying the murderer, they are fully explained and make perfect sense and are a vital part of the book as a whole. Without giving too much of the game away, there are also several deaths for the reader to enjoy – if that’s your thing – including a couple of surprises.

moustache2Poirot is on sparkling form, as you would expect; he continues that behaviour of being shockingly nosey that was very noticeable in Dumb Witness, such as when he’s given the opportunity to rifle through private documents or overhear private conversations. In fact, this book would be rather lost Poirot doing some injudicious earwigging. Tim Allerton gives us a memorable brief description of Poirot: “that old mountebank? He won’t find out anything. He’s all talk and moustaches.” Captain Hastings is presumably back in Argentina, but Poirot has learned enough from his old friend when to recognise unexpected behaviour from an Old Etonian, which helps him understand one of the sub-plots. Assisting him in the investigation we welcome back Colonel Race, although, again, Race is not quite so interested in the murder as he is in discovering the identity of a political agitator who’s been causing the government some problems over recent years.

Archaeological digPerhaps the most interesting new insight this book gives us into Poirot’s modus operandi is a fascinating comparison between investigating a crime and working on an archaeological dig. Christie had been on a number of digs by this stage, both with and without her husband, and she must have been thrilled when she saw the similarity between the two, which she used to excellent effect in this book. “Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition” says Poirot, “and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do – clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth – the naked shining truth.” It’s particularly appropriate to this book, not only because of the Egyptian setting, but because there’s an awful lot of extraneous matter that clouds understanding and perception of the crime in question.

Pyramids from our hotel roomChristie’s knowledge of the digs frequently added local colour to her more exotically located books and there are many references to real locations in Death on the Nile which set the scene. Linnet and Simon spend a week at the Mena House Hotel, just outside Cairo, where I also spent a few days when we went to Egypt – I’ll never forget the fantastic views of the Pyramids from our balcony. The scene then shifts to the Cataract Hotel in Assuan (modern day Aswan), still today a fantastic residence currently run as a Sofitel. The book takes in the legendary locations of Abu Simnel, Wadi Halfa (over the border in Sudan), Philae (an island in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam), Shellal and Ez-Sebua. There is no attempt by Christie (unusually!) to mask the locations of where the action of the book takes place.

chez-ma-tanteBy contrast, outside of Egypt and the Nile region, there are some invented locations. There is no such place as Malton-under-Wode, home of Lord Windlesham – at one stage prospected husband of Linnet – although there is a Malton in North Yorkshire. Fanthorp is said to live in Market Donnington, Northants, which I suspect is a conglomeration of Market Harborough and Castle Donington, both of which, interestingly, are in Leicestershire. Nor is there a Bellfield in Connecticut, allegedly the home of Miss van Schuyler. The desirable and trendy bistro Chez Ma Tante doesn’t exist – at least not in London, but there’s a well-respected place of the same name in Brooklyn.

Nile_cruisesAs Captain Hastings is absent, the book doesn’t have a narrator; or at least, not until Mrs Otterbourne describes the decision as to whether to go to Egypt or not as “not a matter of life or death”. Christie then writes: “But there she was quite wrong – for a matter of life and death was exactly what it was.” So Christie herself is the narrator, largely story-telling simply through facts, occasionally casting out a few minor asides. The style works well for this book, which has so much content; there isn’t a lot of room for comment too. The first chapter, which is divided into twelve sub-sections, is a good example of how Christie can give you a series of snapshots, all roughly happening at the same time, to act as a first draft of and introduction to almost all of the main players in the story. Rather like Murder on the Orient Express, she gives us a murder that takes place in an enclosed environment – here a Nile cruiser, there on the luxury train. The murderer must come from within, which gives the story an added excitement, and a sense of slight claustrophobia and imminent danger. Also like Orient Express, Poirot conducts interviews with all the passengers on a one-by-one basis, throwing up clues and red herrings as he goes. This structure drives the reader on to read it with an excitable frenzy.

Scarlet kimonoThere are a few references to Christie’s other books; apart from the reappearance of Colonel Race, Miss van Schuyler is a friend of Rufus van Aldin, who featured in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Poirot refers to the discovery of a scarlet kimono in his luggage, which was an occurrence on board the Orient Express. Other quotes include a passage from Frankie and Johnny (he was her man and he did her wrong) and La Vie est Vaine, by Leon Montenaeken, after quoting which Poirot confirms he knows whodunit.

NinonTim Allerton uses a term of – not quite abuse but definitely disapproval – horse coper – to describe Sir George Wode. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s the same as a horse-dealer or maybe today we would say horse-trader as a patronising insult. And Mrs Otterbourne is said to wear black draperies made from ninon – another term I hadn’t heard. It’s a lightweight French fabric made from silk of nylon. I thought it sounded more like when a police car drives past.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are only a few mentioned, but they’re quite relevant in understanding the difference in wealth between Linnet and Jackie. Simon believes that Jackie lives on less than £200 per year. In today’s values that equates to about £9500. She wouldn’t be paying tax, then. By contrast, Mrs Allerton estimates that Linnet’s white dress for dinner alone will have cost 80 guineas, which today would be £4000. Financially the two are miles apart. Linnet’s pearls, which she carelessly just leaves around the house are valued at £50,000. That’s a whopping £2.4m at today’s values.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death on the Nile:

Publication Details: 1937. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in 1972, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a pearl-handled pistol in front of a Tutankhamun style mask. Simple, effective, and true to the story.

How many pages until the first death: One of the longest waits for a murder so far – 98 pages. Of the blogs I have already written, only The Secret Adversary and At Bertram’s Hotel make you wait longer. It’s important for the plot development and for the slant that Christie wants the reader to believe, that a particular picture is slowly painted.

Funny lines out of context:
Not a lot really. Christie does tend to have Poirot “ejaculating” a few times in this book, but that’s all.

Memorable characters: This is one aspect in which this book really stands out. You have Mrs Otterbourne, the over-the-top, sex-mad novelist; Miss van Schuyler, the domineering, class-obsessed old harridan; Tim Allerton, the rather effeminate and affected young man (who surprises you by not being gay); Ferguson, the outspoken and aggressive communist; and of course, Jackie, the obsessive and controlling lover.

Christie the Poison expert:

No trace of poison here. Deaths are caused by gunshot or stabbing.

Class/social issues of the time:

A number of Christie’s usual themes get an airing in this book. In a description of Tim’s attitude to Poirot, Christie puts thoughts in his mother’s mind: “Tim was usually so easy-going and good-tempered. This outburst was quite unlike him. It wasn’t as though he had the ordinary Britisher’s dislike – and mistrust – of foreigners.” We’re not all like that, Mrs Allerton. But she is. “Do you think one of those little black wretches rolled it over for fun?” she asks, when trying to understand why the boulder was sent crashing down the hill.

There are mentions of a “negro orchestra” and the fact that, in ancient times, “negroes must pay customs duties” on entering Egypt; but these are just examples of how acceptable language changes over time. However, the word Christie (as narrator) chooses to use to describe the street vendors and bakshish hunters on the river bank at Aswan is “riff-raff”; a very snobbish and patronising term indeed.

There is a character whom Poirot suspects is a blackmailer. His description of this person’s behaviour: “the murderer comes to her cabin, gives her the money, and then […] she counts it. Oh yes, I know that class. She would count the money and while she counted it she was completely off her guard.” Poirot explains the blackmail activity by believing it is typical of “a class”.

Cornelia, who is portrayed as a sympathetic character, has strong views on equality of the sexes – or, rather, inequality. “Of course people aren’t equal. It doesn’t make sense. I know I’m kind of homely-looking, and I used to feel mortified about it sometimes, but I’ve got over that. I’d like to have been born elegant and beautiful like Mrs Doyle, but I wasn’t, so I guess it’s no use worrying.” Christie has often written characters and plot lines where she clearly disapproves of anything approaching feminism. Cornelia’s attitude infuriates Ferguson, but he’s the kind of person Christie will have disapproved of, so she delights in thwarting his romantic interest in the book.

Simon, too, has strong views about relationships between the sexes: “”You see, a man doesn’t want to feel that a woman cares more for him than he does for her.” His voice grew warm as he went on. “He doesn’t want to feel owned, body and soul. It’s that damned possessive attitude! This man is mine – he belongs to me! That’s the sort of thing I can’t stick – no man could stick! He wants to get away – to be free. He wants to own his woman; he doesn’t want her to own him.”” Those are very much the kind of antifeminist sentiments of which Christie would approve.

Classic denouement: Whilst the denouement is without question exciting, I wouldn’t describe it as a classic. There are a number of loose ends and red herrings that need to get cleared up first, and every time you think Poirot is about to start the j’accuse procedure, he ends up going off on another tangent. It also lacks a certain something in that the murderer isn’t present at the time – and all you have is their follow-up reaction, or indeed the reaction related by a third party. Poirot – or Christie – is also extremely naughty with their reader, for holding back a vital piece of evidence that really gives the game away; Poirot only mentions it at the denouement, and I think the reader can be rightly peeved not to have had access to that information in advance.

Happy ending? Somewhat mixed. Although there are clearly two weddings on the way – both of them rather unexpected – another person who did not win the lady’s affections is left out of the love stakes. And a surprise twist at the end means that you don’t really get the sense of justice being seen to be done.

Did the story ring true? In part. But how did Jackie afford to travel to Egypt and stalk Linnet and Simon when she only earns £200 a year? And the manner of two of the three murders are a blend of far-fetched and extraordinary luck. Despite that, and perhaps due to Christie’s use of real life Nile locations, you can really picture the action taking place with surprisingly realistic effectiveness.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not quite a 10/10 for me, with the slightly less than classic denouement, and Christie cheating by withholding evidence from the reader; but it’s definitely worth a 9/10.

Appointment with DeathThanks for reading my blog of Death on the Nile and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Appointment with Death; a story that features an appalling old woman who, if I remember rightly, gets what’s coming to her. More details than that, I cannot recall. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

2 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death on the Nile (1937)

  1. Great review as always, Chris (love the: ninon, ninon, ninon, reference). Christie came up again recently in our Creative Writing group (I may have mentioned this to you before), and her writing modus operandi was categorised as a ‘loose plotter’ and ‘fervent pantster.’

    One in the group mentioned that she herself rarely knew who the killer was until she was nearing the end of the writing process, and it’s this uncertainty that adds to her narrative pull. I don’t know if there’s any veracity in that, or if it’s just writerly urban-legend?

    • Hi Gerard, thanks for the comment and for your kind words! I feel I ought to know the answer to that question straight off the top of my head – but I don’t! Have you read her autobiography? (it’s just called “Agatha Christie an Autobiography”) In many respects it’s her best book! She does talk about her writing process in there – but it’s only lightly touched on from time to time. I think – particularly in her early writing – she plotted meticulously in advance, but as she grew in confidence that might have changed. Certainly she said that plots just came into her head with regular ease, and she’d just jot down a few notes, and that was it. So maybe she knew the story in advance, but she waited for the characters to develop whilst she was writing first drafts, and it may well have been the identity of the killer that came last. Not so for “Roger Ackroyd” for obvious reasons – apparently Lord Mountbatten suggested the structure of that book to her.

      I agree though that any works of art – books, songs, painting, anything – have an added frisson if the creator didn’t know where the thing was going to end up when he started it. Would you agree with that?

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