“Death Comes As The End” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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This murder is ancient history...

This murder is ancient history…

“Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.”

Agatha Christie lived an interesting life. After her first marriage broke down, she found happiness with Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of some renown. Being fourteen years her junior never seemed to stop either of them from being incredibly happy in one another’s company and soon Christie was joining him on his digs to North Africa and the Middle East. Her novels Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death all make use of her knowledge of archaeology and the landscape she and her husband were visiting, but then one book took this to a whole new level. Unique among the canon of Christie, Death Comes as the End is the only one that doesn’t take place in, what was to her, the modern day. Instead, we are catapulted to 2000 BC to the shores of the Nile, where we are soon to learn that humans haven’t actually changed all that much in the intervening four millennia.

Young Renisenb has returned to the home of her father Imhotep, a priest, and her extended family. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy live here still with their wives, along with her grandmother Esa, and several other workers around the house including the bright and charming Kameni, the doting and wise Hori, and the snivelling, creeping Henet. Things seem much as they were when Renisenb left eight years ago, but soon her father returns from his travels with a stranger in tow, his new concubine, Nofret. This new woman soon has turned everything in the house upside down.

However, soon things go from bad to worse when Nofret’s body is found at the foot of a cliff, crumpled and dead. Imhotep is adamant that it’s an accident, but Renisenb has other ideas. It seems too convenient that a woman who was so hated has suddenly died, and it’s only when other members of the household start to be killed off one by one that everyone becomes a lot more wary. Murder is hardly a new thing, and here we are, thousands of years in our past, dealing with a serial killer and a complex web of lies, in classic Christie fashion.

As I said above, this is a Christie novel that is in many ways unlike any other, but then again, it contains all the usual hallmarks of her work. Human nature never changes, which is something Miss Marple in particular always notices, so it’s great fun to see a classic murder mystery set somewhere entirely different. The outcome remains the same and the issues of love, family, jealousy and murder are just as at home here as they are in a little English village in the thirties. Esa, indeed, as a character reads a lot like an Ancient Egyptian Miss Marple, and Renisenb has much in common with the spunky, adventurous girls of her modern books. The characters are almost archetypes – the domineering wife, the doting mother, the spoiled child, and creepy servant – and yet each character also manages to be fully fleshed out.

The murderer in this novel, unusually, has a wide range of methods of murder at their disposal, rather than picking one and sticking to it. Christie makes excellent use of her knowledge of the time period and while she occasionally seems to dip into more exposition than is necessary for the story, such as listing of gods or going into detail on burial practices, it actually just adds to the colour rather than distract and feel like showing off.

Christie has done something entirely different and it has worked. This might be one of her novels that I like best. Fresh, smart and a touch creepy.

“Death On The Nile” by Agatha Christie (1937)

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nile

The crocodile did it?

“Linnet Ridgeway!”

I’ve already mentioned that I am a Agatha Christie fanboy, so I won’t go into all of that again, but this one I knew a little better than the last. There is a very simple reason for that – I’d already seen it. About a year ago, I saw the stage adaptation of this novel, then titled Murder on the Nile. The book came first and was adapted by Christie when one of her friends insisted that it would make a good transition. It did. I recieved the book as a gift around the same time as going to see the show, and after debating which one I wanted to experience first, I settled for the show and left the book a year to let me forget things.

And so, while the UK was covered in rain and snow, I donned my sunglasses and SPF 30 and headed back to Egypt.

In Death on the Nile, we meet Linnet Ridgeway, a wealthy heiress who is used to everyone bowing down to her and doing exactly what she says. Money is a superpower, and it has given her the ability to behave exactly as she wants. As such, when she meets her best friend Jackie’s new man, Simon Doyle, she decides that she must have him too. She steals Simon from under Jackie’s nose and they are married within months, soon setting off on their honeymoon down the Nile.

However, things turn sour quickly. Everywhere the happy couple go on their honeymoon, Jackie is already there, one step ahead of them, making it impossible for them to enjoy their time. Linnet confides in a bald Belgian detective – none other than Hercule Poirot who is on holiday on the same ship – about the situation and asks if anything can be done. He says that there are no legal repercussions to Jackie’s behaviour if she is not threatening them. She is free to go where she pleases. Linnet is less than amused.

Also on board the ship are many other colourful characters: Tim Allerton and his mother, who have a very close relationship; Rosalie Otterbourne and her novelist mother, Salome; Linnet’s American trustee Pennington; Italian archaeologist Signor Richetti; the forthright and serious Doctor Bessner; a young socialist, Ferguson; American socialite Marie Van Schuyler and her put-upon companion Cornelia Robson, along with several other characters who may or may not know more than they let on.

This being Christie, you know the death is coming and before long, Linnet is dead and everyone is a suspect. Why would anyone want to do away with this beautiful, intelligent young woman with her whole life ahead of her? A crime of passion? Money? Family ties? The clues immediately point to Jackie, the only person with an obvious grudge against her, but Jackie’s alibi is watertight. So who did her in?

This is such a clever book with a beautiful setting and the usual bevy of Christie characters – the foreign doctor, the hot-headed femme fatale, the rich snob. Setting the action on a boat limits the number of suspects, and allows for more of a farcical story which requires a lot of people to be in the right place at the right time (or, indeed, the wrong place at the wrong time). The pay off is excellent though and if you’ve never read a Christie before, this might be a good place to start.

Maybe keep a list of characters on hand – I was still struggling three quarters of the way in with which one was Ferguson, Fanthorp or Fleetwood. The murder is slow in coming, but all the time beforehand is needed to set up the characters and let you begin to suspect them all. It’s well over halfway through the novel before you can begin to count anyone out for definite, but by then, the entire thing has begun to seem impossible. But who is lying and who is telling the truth?

Death on the Nile is one of those books that cements Dame Agatha’s position as Queen of Crime.