Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (book review)

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!”


  1. She must have been doing something right, because Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time, in any language--except for the Bible and Shakespeare--with over a billion copies of her books sold in English and another billion sold in 44 other languages. She wrote 80 novels and short story collections and 14 plays, one of which (The Mousetrap) is the longest-running play in history.

    There has been considerable scholarly inquiry into why Golden Age British detective stories were and remain so popular, and the consensus seems to be part problem-solving (crossword puzzles first became popular around the same time) and part escapism (not just because they seem quaint and old-fashioned by today's standards; the inter-War period that was their heyday was also a time of great disillusionment and cynicism, so good always triumphing over evil would have had the same comforting nostalgic appeal then as it does now).

    As for Poirot's quirks, eccentricity has been standard-issue for virtually all fictional detectives since Sherlock Holmes, who inherited them to some extent from Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin. The idea that different European nationalities have different character traits (the French, for example, being extremely rational) did not originate with Christie, nor is it unique to her, though other authors such as Wilkie Collins satirize this notion, whereas Christie seems to take it seriously. I recall reading somewhere that she was inspired to make him a Belgian by the Belgian refugees billeted at or near her home during the War.

    Not all her detective stories feature Poirot or Miss Marple. She wrote several novels featuring a married detective duo called Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and she also wrote some spy thrillers. The latter can be appallingly jingoistic and sometimes feel as if she's rather out of her depth. For this reason I find the Miss Marple mysteries that revolve around the subtle undercurrents of village life--which Christie clearly knew inside and out--are often more successful.

    However, Miss Marple isn't her only female protagonist; many of her novels feature strong-minded, independent, female characters who cleverly call the shots and control the course of events without flagrantly violating the conventions of that era. In fact, "the woman question" is a recurring theme in British fiction of the inter-War and post-War years because of the huge "surplus" of women left at a loose end after two World Wars had decimated the male population of Europe to the point that it was statistically impossible for all or even most women to adhere to the traditional roles of being wives and mothers--and nothing else--because there simply were not enough men left to go around as husbands and fathers.

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  5. I suppose every group has always liked its superhero. Is that simplistic?

  6. I mean is that a simplistic statement about heroes? Are they heroes according to the culture that birthed them? And that tells us something (a lot?) about the culture? Too grandiose for Agatha Christie? But I'm beginning to find popular culture more and more important, and the folks we now call the Ancient Greeks were once a popular culture, yes?