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.