Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally Published 1944
Superintendent Battle #5
Preceded by Murder is Easy

The Blurb

What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan – for murder.

The Verdict

A triumph of thoughtful development of theme and characterization.


My Thoughts

I have previously suggested that one of the important questions to consider when looking at non-series Christie is why she opted not to use one of her more established sleuths as a hero. One can only assume that a Poirot, Marple! or Tommy and Tuppence title would have been a bigger draw in terms of sales and so, I believe, there must be some purpose behind that choice.

There are, of course, a wide range of possible reasons for Christie not to use her most popular characters but usually these are quite clear from the structure or themes of the novel. In many cases there is no formal sleuth at all with the story either adhering to more of an adventure or thriller story structure or telling the case from the perspectives of the suspects themselves. That is not the case here however and, as some will no doubt point out, Christie does actually provide us with a recurring sleuth of sorts in the form of Superintendent Battle (even if his previous appearance – Murder is Easy – was little more than a cameo).

The problem is that no matter how hard I try I cannot believe Christie ever considered Battle to be leading man material – at least, not after his first pair of outings. He is a solid and competent detective but he lacks the personality quirks of a Hercule Poirot as evidenced by a point in this story where he tries to imagine how Poirot would see some details of the crime. It feels like Christie was perfectly aware of his shortcomings as a protagonist but chose to use him regardless.

Before I can explain why I believe Battle was the right choice to lead this novel I need to explain what the book is about. Towards Zero is the story of the brutal murder of an elderly widow in bed during a family gathering. The physical evidence of the crime scene seems to indicate a possible suspect and yet that person’s motives would seem to make no sense.

Superintendent Battle happens to be on a short holiday in the area when he learns of the crime and the local police request his help in solving it. This process involves untangling the deceased’s will and the complicated personal relationships of the house guests who include a famous tennis player and both his current and ex-wife.

Could Poirot have solved this case? Absolutely. I think there is nothing in this case that requires Battle’s quiet yet dogged approach to sleuthing and so I do think that he would likely have performed just as well. They would however solve it quite differently as Poirot would have sought to play a more active role in sorting out the truth whereas Battle allows things to play out and applies his experience and knowledge of people to the situations he is witnessing to good effect. In other words, by using Battle I think Christie is able to give the other characters more space and attention – we are paying attention to them, not the sleuth.

While Battle does not prove an overbearing presence on the story, he does enjoy quite a few moments where I think his qualities and view on the world come through effectively, often reinforcing the broader themes of the novel. I particularly enjoyed his first appearance in this story where we see him solving a much more minor crime that takes place in a school and I loved the way Christie was able to tie that moment into the bigger and more important themes of her novel. By the end of the novel I found I liked him far more than I remembered doing in any of his previous outings and I did feel it was a shame that this would be his last appearance.

(As a sidebar to this discussion, I really wish that the Christie estate was publishing new Battle stories rather than Poirot – I feel that the character would offer a writer more space to develop new ideas and expand on his core traits and history)

In terms of the specifics of this story and its plot, I did appreciate the interesting and colorful cast of characters that Christie creates here. Some characters make only brief appearances or are just mentioned in passing while others are much more significant but I felt almost all were lively and interesting enough to justify the attention. I particularly appreciated the extremely minor character of the elderly lawyer Treves whose story about the prepubescent murderer at the start of the book is genuinely quite chilling and unsettling.

I want to try and be careful about giving away the solution but I will say that it is quite a clever one and it was pretty fair in how it presented itself. The mechanics of the crime are explained well and I appreciated the way Christie was able to tie the seemingly disparate strands of the novel back in together at the end.

So, what didn’t work? Well, I think a romantic subplot falls pretty flat, occurring rather suddenly and seeming quite unconvincing. This is a hazard of the final chapter whirlwind romance structure in general but, though sweet, I do think that it is not properly earned as it feels as though it is a little tacked on to the story. It is hardly unique to this story but regardless it is not done well.

I would also say that while I was reading the novel I was a little frustrated by how several elements were established and then were not returned to for a long time. I trusted that moments involving a man who had attempted suicide, Mr Treves and the school theft would ultimately prove important (I even remembered how – at least in the first two cases) but we are left waiting a long time for Christie to return to them. Happily I think the eventual reveal is worth the wait.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it develops the meaning behind its title which is derived from a conversation with the elderly lawyer Mr Treves who describes how the act of murder should be the culmination of a mystery novel rather than its genesis. This is an interesting idea that makes more sense once it is explained and I feel it is one that generally works well and makes more sense of the narrative as a whole.

Overall I think Towards Zero is an accomplished piece of mystery writing. The situation developed is interesting and the characterizations of the various figures in the case are pretty compelling. Perhaps its most effective aspect though is the development of the novel’s key themes and ideas which are powerful and, at times, quite chilling.

Second Opinions

Brad @ ahsweetmystery describes this as Battle’s best case and lavishes praise on Christie’s development of the killer’s character, placing it in the context of her other work in this period of her writing.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the complex and ‘knotty’ presentation of human relationships here – I love that word which is perfect to describe what we have here – and makes an interesting point about the relationship at the end which had not occurred to me (it is in the spoilers section of the review).

Les @ Classic Mysteries described the book as one of Christie’s most carefully constructed and praises the use of misdirection.

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)

Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.

He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.

Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.

On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.

Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).

If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.

I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.

Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.

With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.

Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…

This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.

This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.

This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie

Passenger to Frankfurt
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1970

My project to read and review all of the non-series works by Agatha Christie hit a bit of a brick wall part-way through last year. I had promised that my next Christie would be The Pale Horse but somehow that just didn’t seem to grab me and I found that I was prioritizing other reading.

Late last year I realized that I couldn’t indefinitely put Christie on hold for a review that might never come and so I started to review some Poirot works. I did not forget about this project however and I eventually decided to pass over The Pale Horse and come back to it with more enthusiasm later. Instead I would tackle Passenger to Frankfurt, a novel that has a bit of a reputation as one of Christie’s worst (it is also the last non-series novel she wrote).

The novel begins with Sir Stafford Nye, a British diplomat who has been passed over for serious postings on the basis of his being a bit of a jokester, encountering a young woman in an airport. She has noticed their physical similarities and asks to borrow his passport, plane ticket and face-covering travelling cape so she can evade some people who are looking for her. Being the sort of man who doesn’t turn down an adventure when one is offered, Sir Stafford agrees and goes along with the plan, drinking a drugged beer to make the story of how he came to lose his passport and ticket more credible.

Before we go any further let’s just take a moment to consider what a terrible set of choices Nye makes here. This is partly a reflection on the differences between the world in 1970 and the world today but it is impossible to imagine this forming the plot of a novel today. One doesn’t just allow someone to assume their identity, let alone board a plane. And to deliberately drink a drink spiked with who-knows-what? I think even the adventurous would balk at that.

On returning to London he quite rightly has a lot to explain to his bosses who amazingly swallow much of the story, accepting this as just the sort of foolish thing he would be likely to do. He soon discovers however that visitors have been to his home to ‘collect’ his suit that he wore on the flight and then there is a strange message in the classified section of the paper instructing him to visit a location at a particular time…

It is rather hard to describe where this story leads from here without spoiling its secrets. In a way though it doesn’t much matter as the plot is rather disjointed and hard to follow anyway. The motivated reader may well be able to force the narrative into a sort of shape but it requires them to imagine connective tissue to stitch the various story threads together into some semblance of order. It is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess.

I am somewhat torn about where to assign blame however. I have previously written here about my feeling that some later works by established authors often suffer from being under-edited and I have a suspicion that we are in the same territory here though it could be a case of the exact opposite – material might have been trimmed by the author or editor that may have made better sense of the story.

One of the issues is that this book feels unfocused, boasting a frankly enormous cast of characters most of whom have little to do. There are several government meetings that take place, each involving their own sets of characters, all of whom say much the same sorts of things. The youth are trouble, rebellion is in the air and so on. Apparently several minor characters are recurring ones from earlier works though I will say that I wouldn’t have known that were it not for Wikipedia.

Of the characters that do stand out, none is quite so vibrant and entertaining as Aunt Matilda. She, like most of the others, reflects on the age she is living in with disappointment and regret but she also sees some signs of the dangers that might arise. She’s sometimes quite witty, at other times quite sharply judgmental. I doubt I would like her if I were to meet her but she is an interesting character and that is enough to hold the attention even if some of the stuff she says is questionable.

The reason that Aunt Matilda is so interesting to me is the way she relates to the primary themes and ideas of the work. You see, on the face of things Passenger to Frankfurt appears to be a rather reactionary piece. All the way through there are references to the dangers of youth and we hear a lot of thoughts from members of the establishment about the risks this poses. Often they focus on the superficial – the way these teenagers look and act – but few characters really reflect on why they are upset or how that may manifest itself.

Aunt Matilda is decidedly of that older generation as well as being part of that establishment. She comes from an old family, has money and lives a comfortable existence. She is also nervous about the youth movements springing up across Europe and yet she is far more interested in the causes behind them and how their outrage and protest could be guided in negative directions by those with bad intent. While it may appear quite conservative, I think that there may in fact be a case to be made that Christie is arguing that society has been too slow to change and adapt.

In that respect it feels like an extension of the themes found in At Bertram’s Hotel, another later Christie work that has its detractors. I wouldn’t say that I think it the most persuasive piece of socio-political analysis I have ever read but I am struck by the idea that Christie is trying to say something that she considers important.

Unfortunately that discussion is wrapped in a plot that is largely impenetrable, particularly in the last third of the novel. There are too many meetings, too much discussion and yet the conclusion seems disconnected with anything that preceded it (except in its relationship to the theme).

I wish I could say something more original than this but it is far from Christie at her best. Those looking for a Christie adventure-thriller would be better served seeking out Destination Unknown or The Man in the Brown Suit which are at least coherent.

Further REading

JJ @ The Invisible Event, like myself, found the book to be much more interesting thematically than it is successful as a mystery or thriller. The comments section is great too with several bloggers who have no wish to revisit the book sharing their thoughts.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Poirot Investigates
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1924
Poirot #3
Preceded by The Murder on the Links
Followed by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Poirot Investigates was the first collection of short stories featuring the Belgian detective. Published in 1924, it is usually described as the third Poirot book though many of the stories contained here were originally published prior to The Murder on the Links.

The collection is an interesting one made up of a pretty diverse blend of cases. While the majority involve murders, there are a couple of thefts and disappearances to solve as well. In short, it makes quite a nice change of pace for the character and allows Christie to show some different sides of his character.

Unfortunately I feel that the quality of these stories also differs quite sharply with only a couple of truly memorable stories and quite a few duds in this particular assortment. On the positive side I would say that The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman are all quite compelling, engaging adventures. I am far less impressed with the others however, finding some stories such as The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor to live up to the promise of their premises while others such as The Lost Mine and The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge are pretty tedious.

One influence that can be felt on many of these tales are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only are they structured similarly, being written as accounts of Poirot’s cases for publication, many touch on similar themes or plot elements. In some cases this can be quite charming but it sometimes means that some parts of a solution stand out a little too much.

I should also probably mention at this point that the stories contained in this book differ based on where you are purchasing it. The American edition of the book is longer, containing three additional stories. Those stories would eventually be collected in the UK as part of the Poirot’s Early Cases collection (which would also be released in the US – go figure!).

For the purposes of this review I am working with that American edition. The three extra stories are each marked in the individual reviews below. While none of the three are classics, I think two of them are very good and significantly boost the quality of the collection.

While I think a number of these stories are quite flawed, I did enjoy rereading this collection and I appreciate the author’s attempts to provide a variety of settings and styles.

Read more

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

linls
The Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1923
Hercule Poirot #2
Preceded by The Mysterious Affairs at Styles
Followed by Poirot Investigates

This year marks the first time in over twenty years in the US that new titles have entered the public domain. This covers books originally published in the United States in 1923 and one of the most prominent titles on the list is this early Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links.

I was shocked when I realized that I have not written about a Christie title in over six months so when I saw this piece of news I couldn’t resist dusting off my copy to take a fresh look at it.

The Murder on the Links was the second of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. It followed his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles which I found an enjoyable read though I felt that the mystery plot was not particularly compelling. I think this novel, though still having some flaws, features a much more interesting and compelling mystery plot.

This novel begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a Paul Renauld who writes requesting his help and asking him to travel to his new home in Merlinville-sur-Mer in northern France. Poirot sets out immediately with his friend Hastings to travel on the overnight train but when they get there they learn that he was found dead that morning. Feeling a sense of obligation to the dead man to honor his commission, Poirot decides to stay and investigate the murder.

It turns out that his body was discovered dead in a shallow grave that had been dug in a patch of ground that would soon be turned into a bunker at a local golf course. He had been stabbed in the back with a letter opener. His wife claims that in the early hours of the morning two masked men broke into their home and tied her up, taking him with them and the French authorities suspect that they may be gangsters from South America but Poirot is unconvinced.

This book strikes me as a more complex and intricately plotted book than its predecessor and one of the reasons is the way this story is set up. Christie provides us with an apparently clear reading of the crime scene supported by physical evidence and witness testimony and yet Poirot spots the small details that suggest that the crime scene has been managed and that something else may be going on here.

The way Christie does this is quite masterful, emphasizing the logical flaws and in one particularly brilliant observation the absence of a piece of evidence that ought to be there. This showcases Poirot’s attention to small details and is an early source of tension between him and Giraud of the Sûreté.

The antagonistic relationship between Poirot and Giraud is one of the joys of this novel for me and I think it helps bolster our sense of Poirot’s brilliance. Giraud certainly makes mistakes and reaches for an easier or more obvious reading of the crime scene and the facts but he is not stupid and we understand that he is a character that is regarded as being at the top of his profession. By creating a competition between the two men which it is hardly a spoiler to reveal Poirot will win makes him seem only more brilliant and builds a sense of his unconventionality which here is identified as lying in his supposedly old-fashioned approach to the art of detection.

At the same time, I think this is a crime scene where we cannot blame Giraud for his errors because it is quite intricately set up. We are given a surprisingly large amount of information in these early chapters and one complaint I have heard is that this makes this chapter feel quite dense. I have no problems with this however because unlike his previous case the important thing here for the reader to solve it is to understand the narratives and psychology implied by the evidence.

Where I think the critics have more of a point is in the argument that Christie incorporates some information about a previous case inelegantly, dropping a hefty amount of back story that takes up a whole chapter before resuming the story in the ‘present day’. I certainly think this is awkwardly structured and a little jarring but I have no inherent problem with a past case being relevant to the present one. After all Murder on the Orient Express similarly requires us to learn about a historic crime and no one really holds it against that novel. I consider it a perfectly fine idea, just inartfully executed.

The historical crime described here is a little complicated and messy in its application to the ‘present day’ case which I suspect to be part of the reason it does not sit quite as well with readers. Certainly I think it adds an additional layer of complexity to some of the character relationships, making it once again feel like quite a dense chapter to unpick. It may perhaps have worked better had Poirot explained it to Hastings in dialogue, putting emphasis on the most important details.

I am less forgiving of the way Christie uses Hastings here. I have no problem with using him as light comical relief but this story requires him at several points to act thoughtlessly, becoming a liability to Poirot and the investigation. In the end no lasting harm is done and yet I find it hard to believe that Poirot would ever be able to trust him on future investigations based on his conduct here. In other stories Christie will often balance any moments of buffoonery with some action or observation that sets Poirot back on track but there is no such moment here and I am struck by how small a contribution he makes to solving the case.

Still, that solution to the case is clever and I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book a lot. I think it does showcase Poirot’s talents well and I did appreciate the story’s French setting which also helps give a sense that Poirot is sufficiently good at what he does that he can command interest in clients from all over the world, further building our belief in his abilities. It is, in my opinion, a big step up for Christie and Poirot although it would soon be overshadowed by his next appearance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

Sittaford
The Sittaford Mystery
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1931

My quest to read and review all of the non-series mystery and thriller novels by Agatha Christie continues this month with a look at The Sittaford Mystery. The only experience I had with this book prior to this read was seeing a very loose television adaptation for Marple! so much of this was new to me.

Bad weather is about to set in on Dartmoor as a group gathers in Sittaford House to chat and engage in a little seance. While the game starts off as entertaining, soon it takes a turn for the unsavory as the spirit spells out that Captain Trevelyan, the owner of the House, has been murdered.

Visibly distressed, Trevelyan’s friend Major Burnaby announces that he will walk to the home Trevelyan is staying in to check on him. When the house is locked on his arrival he is concerned and summons the Police. When they gain entry into the home they find him lying dead and, as Major Burnaby points out, the likely time of death would be around the time the game was taking place.

As with many of the non-series Christies I have read, while there is a detective they are a supporting character in this story. Instead we follow the exploits of a young woman whose fiance becomes the prime suspect in the case and the journalist she manipulates into helping them. This is certainly not a bad thing as both characters are quite charming and make for pleasant company but I am not convinced that the male was really necessary for this plot to work.

The centerpiece of the novel is the seance scene which occurs early and, while only loosely described, does convey a striking sense of dread as we wait for the name to be spelled out. Christie pitches this perfectly, playing with a slightly gothic playbook but never going overboard with those elements.

I also think this makes for a great starting point for the story as our pool of suspects can all give each other alibis for the time of death. We know that the situation cannot have occurred as described, therefore there is a (deliberate) error somewhere in the scenario. Unfortunately while the introduction to the crime is interesting, it turns out to be dressing for a much more pedestrian murder case.

There are a few aspects of the plot that I feel limit its overall effectiveness. The first is that the murder itself lacks any flair or appeal to the imagination. Indeed I would go so far as to label it the least interesting death I can think of in the Christie canon in terms of either the method and the circumstances in which the body is discovered.

The other problem I have with it relates to the table turning at the beginning of the novel and the role it plays in causing Trevelyan’s body to be discovered. The problem is that the murderer seems to rely on that event taking place to spur on the events that followed but they could not have anticipated or prompted the game taking place at the necessary time to suit their purpose.

On a more positive note, I do think Christie finds some clever ways to casually drop  important information into her plot and a few of those clues are quite well designed, sitting in the background until they are needed to explain the solution.

In short, while I didn’t love The Sittaford Mystery I do think that it possesses a few points of interest and I did enjoy reading it. It’s not Christie’s best but I also gather it’s not her worst.

Next month’s selection will be The Pale Horse which will be completely new to me. In the meantime chums, can I ask your opinion on a Christie question? Do you consider the Superintendent Battle stories to belong to a series or not? I won’t be including the Tommy and Tuppence series in this reading challenge but I’m a little stumped as to whether Battle should be regarded as a series or just a recurring character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Weather Event (When)

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComes
Death Comes as the End
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1944

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)