Sunday, May 24, 2015

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile (1937)

I read this novel because there's a student I get on really well with, a French guy. He wasn't the first student I've had to tell me they liked Agatha Christie, but he WAS the first to actually offer to loan me a book. Not my usual type of thing (to the extent that I can be said to have a “type of thing,”) but I thought it would be good for horizon-broadening purposes (Christie is one of the most popular authors ever, after all), and also to discuss with him later. And that is how it came to be that I read Death on the Nile.

Pretty simple premise: there are a bunch of people on a trip down the Nile on a boat, including Hercule Poirot, during the course of which a wealthy heiress is killed. Yes, Linnet Doyle is dead. Murdered—and somebody's responsible.

At first I found this kind of boring, and was dreading the prospect of plowing all the way through it. It didn't help that the prose is about as unadorned as prose gets—which, I suppose, is part of why Christie has such appeal to ESL students, but still. I will admit, though, that it got significantly more engaging once the action actually gets to Egypt, and the little puzzle box of a mystery that Christie assembles is clever enough. I must say, though, I was kind of surprised by the general lack of local color. I mean, jeez, what's the point of setting your murder mystery on the Nile if you're not gonna Orientalize it up? Death on the Amazon, Death on the Ganges, Death on the Susquehanna—there would be very minimal difference between them and this. I guess it points to Christie's limitations and/or unambitiousness as a writer.

But boy, you finish a book like this, and you really finish it. Once you know the secret, that's that. It doesn't resonate in any other way. There would be absolutely no point to rereading a book like this. “it passes the time” is the most you can say for it, which is certainly the most you're supposed to be able to, but dammit, I wanted something more. Also, the ending kind of creeped me out. See, the idea—and I'm about to SPOIL this book, so if you have any ambition whatsoever of reading it, you'd better not read on, because there'll be absolutely no point after you've finished this sentence—is that Linnet married this guy who didn't love her so that he and his lover could do away with her and get her money, for which purpose they devise an elaborate alibi. Okay, fine. But then when the scheme is unmasked, at the very end, his lover, Jacqueline, abruptly murder-suicides the both of them, and the other inspector guy says to Poirot, you knew she had a gun, didn't you?, and...well, let me quote:

Mrs. Allerton said: 'You wanted her to take that way out?'

'Yes. But she would not take it alone. That is why Simon Doyle has died an easier death than he deserved.'

THANK GOODNESS WE HAVE HERCULE POIROT HERE TO DETERMINE HOW EASY PEOPLE'S DEATHS DESERVE TO BE. The idea, I suppose, is that this way the plot is hermetically sealed, with not even the smallest of loose ends, but it just seems kind of sociopathic to me. Blah.

It wouldn't be torture or anything to read more Christie, but at the same time there doesn't seem to be much point. It's not hard to do better, even as far as pure escapism goes.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Well, Christie did write dozens of Poirot stories, and they were all pretty long (at least longer than Conan Doyle's Holmes stories). It's not surprising that many (perhaps most) of them were really formulaic. Like Conan Doyle, she also came to dislike her most popular character at some point.

I agree that her style and overall worldview were really limited. If one wants to read detective stories for the style, I think Chandler was by far the best writer working in that genre. It is a bit disturbing how Christie tends to turn murder and detective work into a kind of gentleman's parlour game (exemplified by Poirot's quote in your post). The irrelevance of the "Nile" setting to the content is kind of a part of that view (I think she also had a story called "Murder in Mesopotamia," which I suspect was not any different from the "Nile").

She did have a few high points, though. I think the best Poirot story is "Five Little Pigs," which has a somewhat original perspective for the genre, in that Poirot has to investigate a murder that happened many years ago, so that his investigation has to depend on psychological analysis of witness testimony, rather than "gotcha" evidence.

What would be really awesome is a Phoenix Wright game that adapted some classic detective fiction. Christie would do pretty well in that setting, I think.

SK

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