I remember now why I don’t read mysteries. It’s like eating dessert without a meal, or ice-skating instead of walking—enjoyable, but it all goes by so fast, and you can’t help but race toward the end, at which point you feel almost cheated, realizing that you know little about the characters and care less—except insofar as they fulfill their roles as puzzle-pieces. That, and the fact that I have no mind for clues—though in this case, at least, I more or less guessed correctly who the murderer was, but my head continues to spin trying to follow Poirot’s elaborate reconstruction of events and motives.
On the other hand, I see now why Christie was so successful—she has a real genius for being at once so spare in detail and prose that even a slow reader finds himself turning pages with abandon while at the same time packing in an astonishing array of fine and subtle details, interesting both in building realism and, of course, in setting up the workings of the mystery.
I picked up Death on the Nile because The Lonely Planet describes the Bou El Mogdad as “like something out of Agatha Christie,” and that title, set on a boat in a different part of Africa, is as close as she came to my own trip down the Senegal River. My boat and hers may be similar, but customs sure have changed. Even the Americans, maids, and other less formal characters seem almost laughably stiff compared to my fellow passengers. My boat has no smoking room, or stewards ready to guard the dining room, or a doctor, colonel, heiress, or nobility. And Poirot himself is unimaginably fussy by today’s standards—but I’ve always taken him to be something of a self-caricature even in his own day.
This brings me to my big question. I’d read a few Christie novels before, and seen some dramatized on PBS as a boy. It never occurred to me then to question Poirot—that was just how storybook detectives were, I assumed. But now I wonder: where did Christie come up with this guy? Did she feel she had to have a male hero, because a woman would be too endangered, or perceived as insufficiently clever or bold? Why would an Englishwoman make a Frenchman the epitome of intelligence and good manners? Did she have to “earn” the right to create Miss Marple? Did she ever like her as well? Did anyone? I can’t remember reading any of the Miss Marple mysteries, though I’m sure I saw at least one on TV. Perhaps a female detective was revolutionary at the time, in which case I congratulate Christie for creating her. But it strikes me that without Poirot, there wouldn’t be much of a show. And this is what’s so vexing: he’s so stereotyped as to be laughable, yet just as irresistible for it. “C’mon, Poirot, do something ridiculously French again!” I kept thinking to myself as I read. “Be impossibly clever! Have superhuman hearing! Be everywhere at once!”