I have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.
It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.
The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.
The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.
An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.
The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.
I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.
One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.
I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.
While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.
The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.
In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.
Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)
11 thoughts on “Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie”
I enjoyed this novel, for the reasons you mentioned, pertaining to the historical/ cultural background. I can’t quite remember what clues were unveiled as signposts to the culprit, but I recall one scene that pointed towards the culprit – and seemed to think it was fair enough. Then again, my memory of this novel is somewhat hazy.
The scene I have in mind is Satipy’s death, where in retrospect it becomes obvious who, exactly, she was looking at?
I don’t disagree that the scene you reference can be taken as a signpost of the killer’s identity, particularly when taken along with a behavioral change. It makes perfectly logical sense when it is explained but I don’t see it as the only logical explanation. Of course, I may just be stubbornly telling myself this because I didn’t correctly guess the murderer… 😉
Another excellent review, of course reminding me of another Christie novel I need to re-read. I think Christie had access to a lot of new archaeological finds and manuscripts when she was writing this book and her never before performed Egyptian play, whose name I can’t recall at the moment, which I think as you point out shows in her setting up of the historical time period. I like that she doesn’t bog us down in too much detail or background information.
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Thanks! I was very pleasantly surprised by how well it all works. It’s just a shame it was her only attempt at the historical mystery given how well she does with it.
Argh – I have to skip your review for now because I have 80 pages left in this one. I’ll loop back in a few days and tell you what I thought.
I guess this was close to well timed, then! Hope you enjoy the book and I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.
On Thu, Mar 29, 2018 at 10:00 AM, Mysteries Ahoy! wrote:
This may be one of my favorite Christie reads so far. The last third of the book was fairly intense and I struggled to put the book down. There was something eery about the question of what Satipy saw before she died and I had to know what it was.
I never quite figured out what Satipy saw, but I did figure out who the killer was. It was around the time that the two brothers got poisoned. Thinking through everything that happened, there only seemed to be one likely culprit. I felt that I was able to logically spot the killer, rather than simply using intuition, and so I would argue this is fairly clued.
If I had one complaint about the book, it’s that the ending didn’t have any shocking revelation (since I was pretty confident about the identity of the killer). In fact, the revelation of what Satipy saw was somewhat of a let down as it wasn’t as brilliant as what I was hoping for. Still, it was a fine ending.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Clearly based on feedback here I am off base on thinking there were other ‘solutions’ that seemed logical enough. I am very happy to concede that it is fairly clued and glad you enjoyed it so much. 🙂
I’ve read a number of other reviews today and the opinion that this isn’t fairly clued seems to be common.
It’s interesting to hear that. I am a little relieved to hear that I am not entirely on my own to have felt that way.