Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #18
Preceded by Dumb Witness
Followed by Appointment with Death
The tranquility of a luxury cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.
Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet under the searing heat of the Egyptian sun, nothing is ever quite what it seems.
A sweeping mystery of love, jealousy, and betrayal, Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s most legendary and timeless works.
In his excellent book Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, Mark Aldridge notes that while Murder on the Orient Express may be Poirot’s most famous case, Death on the Nile is ‘better suited for the screen than its more famous predecessor’. Part of that is the story’s exotic setting as even if Christie doesn’t spend too long describing the landscapes, there is great scope for filmmakers to create striking visual moments set against the river itself, at tombs or in grand hotels. I think the greater reason though is that this story offers some really intense dramatic scenes and a large cast of interesting supporting characters for Poirot to suspect.
The victim in this story is the beautiful and enormously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway who had travelled to Egypt on her honeymoon. Before making their trip, Linnet had expressed a belief that she hadn’t an enemy in the world but it quickly becomes clear that she was mistaken. She and her husband Simon are followed throughout their trip by Jacqueline who had been her friend, and in a relationship with Simon, until Linnet stole him away from her. While Jacqueline’s presence is upsetting to Linnet, Poirot reminds her that her former friend is breaking no law.
The couple hope to give her the slip by unexpectedly changing their travel plans to board the Karnak and take a cruise down the Nile. They are surprised then when they board to find her already waiting for them. Several attempts on Linnet’s life follow before she is found dead in her cabin having been shot in the head. The most obvious suspect, Jacqueline, had been under guard all night, leaving Poirot with the difficult task of figuring out who aboard the steamer murdered Linnet and why.
There is a lot to love here but I think it begins with the superb, complex characterization of Linnet. She has many admirable traits – her competence and understanding of business as well as her desire to be generous to her friends and yet Poirot notes that her treatment of Jacqueline was cruel. Her claims to be unfairly persecuted ring hollow when she, with everything in the world, took the only thing that mattered to her friend.
While it may seem hard to believe that such a young woman would have enemies, Christie creates a huge cast of characters and gives most a credible motive for murder (or at least for behaving really oddly). Among the most colorful of those characters are Salome Otterbourne, the romance novelist who keeps trying to push her book on Poirot, the young revolutionary Ferguson and the incredibly snobby Mrs Van Schuyler but even the more straightforward figures – such as the trustee of Linnet father’s estate – feel pretty neatly drawn.
Christie also chooses to bring back Colonel Race, a few novels after he met Poirot in Cards on the Table. I quite enjoy Race’s presence here and appreciate that he provides Poirot with an official reason to become involved though I think his reason for being on the Karnak is the novel’s least satisfying element. The subplot with the spy aboard the boat is far from convincing which is no doubt why I had completely forgotten it. It feels like an afterthought and I think Christie should and could have come up with a better reason to have him there or, alternatively, allow that matter to play out entirely in the background.
The other thing that I really admire about this book, and which I have appreciated more upon revisiting it, is how clearly Christie outlines both the various characters’ movements throughout the evening of the murder and also some of the questions that arise. Revisiting this story, I could see the clues that ought to have suggested the solution but I am pretty sure I came nowhere near working it out the first time I read this.
This is one of Christie’s most interesting murders, both in terms of the mechanics of how it was worked and also in terms of the motive behind it. Where some other celebrated Poirot stories have an audacious solution in terms of the trick being used, the one here struck me as really quite credible both in its conception and execution. On a related note, I feel that the way Poirot reaches that truth is equally convincing.
While a couple of the physical clues are a little obscure – I think particularly of a small bottle – and there is a little bit of luck involved, what impressed me most were the psychological aspects of the case. There are some excellent, subtle inferences that can be drawn from characters’ speech and behaviors and revisiting this novel, I was struck by how well those aspects of the solution are set up.
As impressive as this novel is, it is not without a few faults. One of those, the spying subplot, I have already touched on but I think that the secondary murders feel a little rushed and, in the case of the last, seem to strain credibility in terms of how quickly it seems to be carried out. Rather than reinforcing the cleverness of the crime, I felt that those developments reinforced my feeling that the killer is very, very lucky at several points in this story or to put it another way – the investigators are very unlucky. While any case will inevitably involve some elements of luck, it diminishes the sense that a solution is ingenious when you come away feeling that the killer was very fortunate to have everything come into alignment in the way it does.
Still, in spite of those issues I think that Death on the Nile is another excellent entry in what was a run of consistently very, very good Poirot stories (with a very occasional odd exception) Christie wrote in the thirties. While it may not be the pinnacle of her achievement with the character, it is not all too far off…
The Verdict: Deservedly one of the most famous of Poirot’s cases, boasting one of her most interesting victims and some fascinating human drama.
10 thoughts on “Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie”
It isn’t a perfect novel, as you point out, but this one is among Christie’s better ones, I think. And I couldn’t agree more about the psychology involved. Christie did, I think, a fine job of exploring that angle of the murder. She even managed to weave in a few interesting points of social commentary without being (at least I think) heavy-handed about it. And you’re absolutely right about the setting…
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Absolutely – I think there are some wonderful character dynamics at work here and I find the human drama some of Christie’s most compelling. I am looking forward to seeing the movie after several years of waiting!
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I’m curious about the movie too, but with some trepidation: Will it give us a THIRD filmed version that consistently mispronounces Linnet? It’s not “Lynette,” its LIN-et, like the bird. (“Green finch and linnet bird,” etc.)
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We will have the answer soon…
I better spin this review out on Twitter so that together we can remind people to vote for DotN in the “Spoiler Warning” poll. I know Moira and I want to wax on and on about what a brilliant novel this is while Jim moans and tries to get a word in edgware – I mean, edgewise! I accept the flaws you mention about the spy plot and the rush of the third death – although I think that death is necessary to give a certain person a happy ending. What I think Christie has done here is something epic – setting a brilliantly emotional romantic triangle in the midst of a complex voyage full of people who have their own issues that get exacerbated by Linnet’s murder. So many of these folks change and grow as a result of the murder, even if their relationship to the case is more tangential.
I can’t wait to see the film. The vultures are gathering on the Agatha Christie FB page, determined to hate it for all their worth. I was once small-minded like that, but I thought Branagh’s Orient Express had much to recommend it, and the trailer for Nile looks gorgeous. We will all argue about interpretive moments, but I predict it will be fun to watch. (I also want odds on that bet that they mispronounce the victim’s name!!)
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Ha! Thanks Brad. I actually didn’t vote for this one (sorry) but I wouldn’t be unhappy if it won.
I agree about the reason for that death but I wish the circumstances were a little different. The whole “well, we couldn’t get out of our chairs because one is transfixed for a moment after a shot” explanation feels a little weak to me.
The emotional aspect of the story really works for me though. I will be interested to see how the film presents that.
I am excited about the film too. Yes, a little bit of me wishes there was a different story on the big screen but I think KB will do a good job of making this film look magnificent. I will look forward to reading your thoughts (I will no doubt have to wait to see it unless it debuts on streaming at the same time).
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A little too many plot threads in this one for my taste. You alluded to the spy plot, I wish they dropped at least one of the red herrings. We don’t even know they are onboard until after the murder, and once they have been interviewed they are quickly dropped as suspects.
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It’s really interesting how this feels like Christie at her most epic and it’s the perfect showcase for her talents as a writer. The cast is gigantic and the red herrings (perhaps a little too) plentiful, but at its core it’s about a love triangle and features some of her most convincing character work. The fact that the murder scheme is beautifully orchestrated – I think this is some of the tightest construction in her entire oeuvre – enhances this novel to an even greater degree and puts it firmly at the top of the pack.
I think what the Ustinov feels does makes a lot of sense – there is almost too much story in the book and it streamlines things admirably – and I have a feeling the Branagh film is going to do much of the same. I’m excited for it!
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You are right about how tightly orchestrated this is. The margin for error here is really small, particularly with the later murders, but I do find the emotional backdrop to the story so satisfying.
I am really excited to see what changes Branagh makes. Presumably Bouc is there in the Colonel Race role to give HP an official role. Not long now!