Thursday, November 20, 2014

Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile is a 1937 Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, and it is in fact one of her best-known books.

There’s really very little one can say about Christie’s plotting that hasn’t been said before. Suffice to say that once again she delivers the goods.

Christie’s second husband was the archaeologist Max Mallowan and she often accompanied him on field trips. As a result she was very widely travelled in the Middle East and she made good use of this, setting many of her mysteries in this part of the world. And as you would expect, archaeology often plays a part in her stories. One of the suspects in Death on the Nile is an Italian archaeologist. Christie was always anxious not to become known for stereotyped country house settings and exotic locations were useful for adding a little spice. She was also keen on settings such as trains, aircraft and in this particular case a steamer on the River Nile. These proved to have all the advantages of traditional country house settings, with suspects confined to a small group of people, with some additional advantages of their own. 

It also helps that Poirot is the sort of character one can well imagine enjoying such trips. Of course it goes without saying that he does not approach foreign travel the way most people would. Poirot’s holidays are planned down to the smallest detail with nothing left to chance - he knows exactly where he is going to be at any given moment and is thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of varying his itinerary in even the smallest degree. Even his luggage is planned with with meticulous precision. Most people would expect to misplace one or two small items in all the confusion and excitement of travel, but not Poirot. Poirot’s obsessive-compulsive habits are always endearing but they are even more so when he is abroad. Travel involves a constant struggle to maintain order but Poirot is equal to the challenge.

Exotic locales also provide Christie with the opportunity to populate this novel with an array of exactly the kinds of colourful and eccentric characters you would expect to find on a steamer on the Nile in 1937, and to give the novel a nicely multi-national character. 

Poirot is a character who might have been obnoxiously arrogant in the hands of a lesser writer but Christie was well aware of the risks and balances her hero’s egotism with an essentially kindliness and a generally benevolent attitude towards humanity. Naturally Poirot’s tolerant disposition does not extend to murderers, of whom he disapproves most strongly, although even in the case of a murderer he can feel a degree of compassion. Poirot’s kindliness is put to the test in Death on the Nile. The first murder does not occur until well into the story but Poirot has been filled with forebodings right from the start. His great fear is that a particular character for whom he has a certain sympathy will be tempted to, in his words, open her heart to evil. In fact, while Christie never lost sight of entertainment as the primary objective of the detective story, it could be argued that this provides the theme of the novel - that murder is not inevitable, it is a choice.

As for the plot, it has more than enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery fan. One of the things that impresses me about Christie is that while alibis and other such technical details are handled with consummate skill she generally manages to present us with a solution that is psychologically satisfying as well.

Death on the Nile is a very highly regarded example of the genre and it has no difficulty in living up to its reputation. Highly recommended.

2 comments:

  1. I am behind on my Christie reading. (Read a lot of them when I was young, but don't remember much.) I am reading roughly in order ... at least within series. And I am not up to Death on the Nile yet. Not even close. I know what you mean about not coming up with much new to say about Christie's writing, but you had some very good points here. Great review, as usual.

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  2. I enjoyed both the book and the movie, they were marvellous. The motive was very interesting. Very nice review, i agree that Agatha Christie wanted to stress some points through her stories and that Hercules Poirot was quite charming, although he could easily become abnoxious.

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