Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

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.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #15
Preceded by Murder in Mesopotamia
Followed by Murder in the Mews

Mr. Shaitana is famous as a flamboyant party host. Nevertheless, he is a man of whom everybody is a little afraid. So when he boasts to Hercule Poirot that he considers murder an art form, the detective has some reservations about accepting a party invitation to view Shaitana’s “private collection”.

Indeed, what begins as an absorbing evening of bridge is to turn into a more dangerous game altogether…

You asked me just now to admit that your idea of a collection of murderers was amusing. I said I could think of another word other than amusing. That word was dangerous.

Cards on the Table has long been one of my favorite Hercule Poirot stories, though I will freely confess that prior to rereading it for this post it had been probably fifteen years since I last read the actual book. I have frequently revisited the excellent BBC Radio adaptation that starred John Moffatt however and so when I failed to reread this in time for Jim, Brad and Moira’s Spoiler Warning podcast I fortunately had no trouble following along. Their discussion, which was interesting as always, did leave me curious to revisit the actual book to see whether it would hold up to my memory of it.

Mr. Shaitana, a better dressed but morally-degenerate version of John Hammond, has developed the dangerous hobby of collecting murderers. Instead of a theme park, he irresponsibly gathers his deadly collection of four murderers at a dinner party attended by four exponents of the detection game, drops some not altogether subtle hints as to a secret he knows, clearly enjoying the little mind game he is playing with his murderers.

After dinner a suggestion is made that the party should play some rubbers of bridge and the group divides in two – our four sleuths playing together in one room while Mr. Shaitana goes with the others into the room housing an ornate dagger. The four play while their host seems to doze in an armchair but they soon realize that he is dead, having been stabbed while they were all playing the game. It is clear that the killer must be one of the four players – the problem lies in figuring out which of the four it was.

If the premise of this story sounds a little familiar, it is probably because it basically matches what Poirot describes as his ideal case in the earlier novel The A. B. C. Murders. The reader begins the novel knowing the means and the motive. We can even be certain that it is one of four individuals, each with an equal opportunity to commit the crime. Poirot’s inquiry will therefore look a little different than his usual cases – as Agatha Christie suggests in her introduction, the case is intended to be purely psychological.

In that Spoiler Warning podcast there is quite a bit of discussion of whether the novel is actually as psychologically-rich as is commonly supposed. I would strongly contend that it is but I think things get confused by Poirot’s discussion of the psychological moment – an idea he referenced in several previous cases such as Death in the Clouds. For those unfamiliar with the idea (which is referred to but not actually described in this book) it is that a murderer may manufacture a dramatic moment to draw your attention away from their actions. I do not want to diminish that aspect of the story in any way – it is clearly a central part of understanding this case and is a focus for the investigation – but I think the aspect of the investigation that is intended to be psychological is quite different.

Early in the novel our four sleuths discuss the idea that killers will repeat themselves. This is not meant in a literal way with a repetition of a method but rather that the reasons they will kill will be the same (whether it is for gain, out of fear or for some other motive). The psychological element of the investigation therefore is to understand the reasons that our four supposed murderers may have killed in the past and the circumstances leading up to that decision to see if those instances have any parallels with the Shaitana case. Whether that idea is psychologically sound is, of course, debatable but I feel Christie does a very solid job of exploring the characters of our four suspects.

One consequence of starting the novel knowing that at least some of those four characters have committed murder before is that we are never allowed to presume innocence. Yet most of the four are given moments where they may seem appealing or sympathetic reflecting a richness and complexity that I think elevates them and this book as a whole. Indeed I would suggest that in writing this book, Christie was laying the groundwork for her novel And Then There Were None with its cast of antiheroes which she would write just a couple of years later.

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Christie not only has Shaitana assemble four possible villains, he also brings together four sleuths who will work together to solve the case. In doing this she not only utilized Poirot but also brought back two detectives from previous novels – Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. This was lost on me on the first reading (this being one of my earliest Poirot novels) but I really like the way this establishes that they all coexist in the same universe.

Joining them is Ariadne Oliver, making the first of several appearances in the Poirot novels (she had made a previous appearance in a non-Poirot short story). This character is clearly an example of the author poking fun at her own image as can be seen from the discussion of her irritating series detective which mimics some of the sentiments that she is recorded expressing about Poirot himself. I will admit to not having been the biggest Miss Oliver fan in the past, feeling then that the joke can be rather self-indulgent, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself really enjoying those passages this time around. It perhaps helps too that she makes for a strong contrast to the very masculine energy of Battle and Race.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of giving us four sleuths is that we see four distinctly different styles of investigation take place. Each of the sleuths at points will take the lead in talking with a suspect and we get to see how they use their particular skill set to elicit information and form judgements about that person. These not only help us get to know the suspects, they also cast a great deal of light on the personalities of the sleuths too. This is particularly welcome as it introduces some variety into what might otherwise be a very interview-driven story with comparatively little action (at least for much of the novel).

Where I do find some common ground with critics of the novel is in my feelings regarding the various games of bridge. While I think Christie was clearly wary of writing too much detail about the games for fear of aliening those who do not already love the game, those passages can feel a little alienating and confusing. I understand the necessity for them in that the information they provide will be one of the relatively few clues in the book and Christie does explain why the information is important after the fact, but I would sympathize with those who find them a little dull.

My bigger issue with the book is an aspect of the resolution which always strikes me as a little underwhelming whenever it is employed. Still, while I don’t love the manner in which the killer is captured, I really enjoy the chapters immediately preceding them with contain some really dramatic developments and help bring the story to a memorable conclusion.

As you can hopefully tell, I had a good time rereading this one and was glad to find that it mostly held up to my memories. While there are a few dry bridge-dominated passages and a few moments we might describe as a little stuck in their time, I think the story is a clever and original one that I found significantly more satisfying than the previous Poirot novel.

The Verdict: A clever and original tale that I consider one of Poirot’s better adventures.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

BrownSuit
The Man in the Brown Suit
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1924

As you may recall, I had originally planned to read The Man in the Brown Suit last month as part of my efforts to read all of the non-series Christie novels in order. A mishap with my copy of the book forced me to go in a different direction but I am happy to have finally got around to it.

A lot of what I will be writing about relates in some sense to the labels we use to categorize fiction. These days the boundaries between thriller, adventure, mystery and suspense have become increasingly blurred but genre will still inform the reader’s expectations of a book.

Many reviews of The Man in the Brown Suit will suggest that this book is not really a detective story but that it actually belongs to the thriller genre. The expectation being that the reader should be braced for a story that focuses entirely on the movement of the story and elements of intrigue rather than the process of ratiocination.

Those reviewers who view the book purely from that perspective are certainly correct to draw attention to those thriller elements. There is a very real sense of motion throughout the story as we see the heroine, Anne, begin by moving from the countryside to London, witnessing a suspicious death and learning of another, then boarding a intercontinental liner travelling to South Africa before journeying through parts of that country. In her travels she finds a secret message to decode, an enemy to sniff out and a romance while at points she is kidnapped. All solid thriller material.

There is however a puzzle present too that the reader can consider and participate in – who is the mysterious crime lord known as the Colonel?

Like in any other Christie mystery we have a selection of potential villains to pick from and there are some clues dropped as to that person’s identity. The reader has the potential to deduce who might be the villain prior to the reveal using clues within the book. In short, we have a real mystery on our hands so why is it viewed almost exclusively through the lens of the thriller and does it really matter how the book was marketed?

Addressing the first question – part of the reason is that Christie will undermine the mystery here with some of her subsequent novels as she brings back one of the characters from this adventure as a sleuth. That in itself is an interesting choice and I’ll hold off on discussing that until it’s time to talk Cards on the Table but if you know that character is not the crime boss (and, to be honest, it would be a little on the nose) then your pool of suspects becomes a little too small.

While there is a mystery there for the reader to puzzle out, Christie places the reader’s attention onto her novel’s adventure elements. In short, the mystery becomes hidden by the other elements of the setting. The reason this matters is that Christie utilizes an idea in this story that she would gain far more attention for using a few years later in another novel.

At this point, if you care about being spoiled for this book you should look away. Scroll down and I’ll use bold type to indicate when you can look again!

Christie utilizes a structural device designed to play on the reader’s expectations about what they are reading. The novel is divided into narratives from two separate characters, recollections from Anne, the spirited young woman who dreams of adventure, and sections from Sir Eustace’s private diary. Christie gives each character a quite distinct way of writing and I found the result to be quite entertaining, particularly the diary entries which are often very funny.

Christie’s reasons for doing this are to allow the reader to make false assumptions based on their expectations that a first person account from a narrator is likely to be true. What intrigues me most about this is that it does not seem that this aspect of the book is viewed as particularly remarkable at the time yet when Christie revisits the idea in a later Poirot novel it is the aspect of that book which everybody comments on.

There are a couple of reasons I can think of why this book wouldn’t attract the same level of notice as that other effort though I am not entirely sure how I would weight them. First, I think it is likely that because readers generally experience this expecting an adventure there is little of the sense of outrage at the idea that an author hasn’t played fair (even though, as I will no doubt argue when it comes time to talk that other novel – I don’t agree with that view of the ‘trick’).

Second, I think that by having two accounts the impact of that revelation is probably lessened a little. While both narrators are actually quite likeable, one is clearly more heroic than the other. We place our trust in them and we’re aware that as the other source is being presented as a document it has a slightly different status.

Finally, I suspect that the nature of the respective crimes means that we feel a little more betrayed in that other novel than we do here. Where in that novel we like the criminal less once we realize what they have done, here the guilty party is still strangely affable even in defeat. This, I feel, lessens the sense of shock for the reader and contributes to the moment of revelation feeling underplayed.

From this point onwards it is safe to resume reading!

While I would not describe it as a top tier Christie work, I think The Man in the Brown Suit does have a lot to commend it. Whether it is categorized as a thriller, adventure or mystery, I can say that I found it a very entertaining and enjoyable read. Christie’s story maintains a strong pace and I found both narrators to be charming and distinctive. I found the mystery of the Colonel’s identity fun and enjoyed the moment of revelation enormously.

I was a little less convinced by the romance, in part because we do not spend enough time with the characters as a couple to take this aspect of the plot too seriously but I don’t want to be too hard on this as it is fairly typical of this type of adventure. Similarly, I felt that the villain’s plan felt a little underdeveloped though I enjoyed the sequence in which they finally confront Anne and I particularly appreciated the coda given to that relationship in the final chapter.

It is that character and their relationship with Anne that I felt was the most successful and distinctive element of this novel and while the villain may not feature in a classic story or have a particularly striking plot, I found their personality to be memorable and engaging.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Color in the title (What)

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

SparklingCyanide
Sparkling Cyanide
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1944

Last month I took my first steps in a grand undertaking to read all of the crime stories by Agatha Christie other than those containing Poirot or Miss Marple by reading Ordeal By Innocence. This month I selected Sparkling Cyanide. Technically it is not entirely new to me as I had listened to a radio production a few years ago but it transpired I didn’t remember a thing about it…

Rosemary Barton died from cyanide poisoning at her birthday dinner in a restaurant surrounded by six friends and family. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide but a year later her husband, George, receives anonymous notes that suggest she was actually murdered leading him to suspect that the murderer must have been one of their party.

The novel is divided into three distinct phases. The first introduces each of the suspects and their possible motive for being the killer. The second describes how those six characters end up at a dinner recreating Rosemary’s death. The third and final section features Colonel Race taking up the investigation and solving the mystery.

I really enjoyed the way Christie introduces us to the cast of characters while also outlining the facts of the case. They are an interesting assortment of likely killers and these chapters which vary considerably in length provide memorable introductions for each.

While all of the characters are strong, I was particularly struck by the character of Stephen Farraday, a rising politician. Christie presents him as an opportunist whose tendencies would suggest that he is a Liberal except that he can see no future with them because they have no chance of attaining power. Instead he makes overtures to the Labour party before deciding that his best chances for advancement would lie with the Conservative party. I encountered several Farradays in my time working as a political professional so this character rang particularly true to me.

The other characters are similarly strong however and I think that the quality of that characterization plays a big part in the success of this novel. Given that the formal murder investigation will not begin until two-thirds of the way into the novel, our attention is held because these characters are psychologically interesting and very well drawn. Christie balances the time she gives to the various suspects and utilizes the multiple perspectives approach well, taking care to

Discussion of the mystery itself is a little challenging because there are some key developments that take place late in the novel that I would hate to spoil. What I can say is that Christie devised a puzzle that is very neat and tidy in spite of its seeming impossibility. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that no one had the opportunity to tamper with the glasses of champagne while the party were away dancing and yet the poison was administered.

While I felt I knew who had done it and why, I could not understand how the murder was achieved. When the explanation is given it turns out to be quite devastatingly simple and very satisfying. In my opinion it ranks among Christie’s very best because it does not require elaborate plot explanations to work and it is very easily explained.

The man tasked with providing that explanation is Colonel Race, a name that may be familiar from a couple of Poirot novels. According to Goodreads I am supposed to consider Sparkling Cyanide the fourth book in the Colonel Race series but that feels like a bit of a stretch as in every other respect the book stands alone. Race is certainly a thoughtful and diligent sleuth and I think his plainness makes him an interesting contrast to Poirot in particular but his presence here neither requires or benefits from any prior knowledge. As it happens I had selected the earlier Colonel Race novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, to be my next non-series Christie selection for January so I will soon have another opportunity to reacquaint myself with him.

He is not a particularly flashy detective and his personality is rather dull. On several occasions he is presented in description as being something of a relic of British Imperialism. He does possess a keen mind however and I appreciated that Christie keeps her suspect interviews from dragging on, preferring to keep the narrative moving.

Overall, I think Sparkling Cyanide is a really entertaining Christie story. It is beautifully paced and the characterization is very strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, devouring it in a single sitting and would strongly recommend it to anyone curious to try Christie for the first time.