Treading Murky Waters

In the world of literature, there are certain names that have defined particular genres. They are the first names that come to mind. For instance, a reference to magical realism will elicit responses naming Japanese wordsmith Haruki Murakami and even Nobel Laureate in Literature Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the first mention of the horror genre, either Stephen King or Mary Shelley will echo through the din. The same can be said for the connection between magical fantasy and J.K. Rowling. Their works have defined both a genre and a literary era. Their influences transcended time and they have become synonymous with these genres.

In the ambit of mystery and detective fiction, one of the names that stand out is Dame Agatha Christie. Aptly monikered the Queen of Suspense, she had a prolific career that produced over eighty books, including novels, short story collections, and the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap. With over two billion copies of her works sold, she is also listed in the Guinness World Records as the best-selling fiction writer of all time. Her most popular work, And Then There Were None, sold at least 100 million copies alone. She is also one of the most translated writers of all time. Since the publication of her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, Christie has made her mark as a literary titan.

Christie is also known for birthing popular literary sleuths such as Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Parker Pyne. However, it was another detective, who she referred to as “insufferable”, who defined her corpus: Hercule Poirot. Poirot was her most written character and it was also Poirot who took the center stage in the latest of Christie’s works to be adapted into a film, Death on the Nile. It is the seventeenth book featuring the diminutive Belgian detective, who made his first appearance in Christie’s debut novel. Death on the Nile took root in one trip to Egypt taken by Christie.

“Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition – and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do – clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth–the naked shining truth.”

~ Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile

The novel commenced on a steamboat named Karnak navigating through the Nile River on its way to Wadi Halfa. The focal point of the story were newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle who have boarded the steamer as part of their honeymoon trip. Linnet Doyle née Ridgeway, a British socialite, had everything. She was beautiful, had a good-looking husband, and her family’s affluence ensured their future. She was also shrewd and proud. Simon, on the other hand, was the former fiancé of Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline (Jackie) de Bellefort. The betrayal of her best friend, now former, left a bitter aftertaste on Jackie’s tongue and made her resentful of Linnet. Without ado, she totally severed all her ties with her. While Linnet was cunning, Jackie was vengeful and tenacious. To get back at her former best friend, Jackie started harassing and stalking Linnet and Simon, even following them all the way to Karnak.

To Linnet’s luck, a popular detective was also aboard the steamer. Hercule Poirot, while on a holiday in Aswan, joined the Karnak’s tour on the Nile. Cognizant of his reputation as a top-notch sleuth, Linnet took Poirot into her confidence and commissioned him to deter Jackie from further stalking her and Simon. Poirot refused the engagement but he still tried to approach Jackie and dissuade her from further harassing the newlyweds. He was, unfortunately, unsuccessful in his attempt as Jackie was as impertinent as ever. It didn’t take time before trouble started brewing, eventually percolating into the titular “death” on the Nile. Again, Poirot found himself in the thick of the action, a reluctant participant in yet another situation not of his own design.

The case seemed straightforward. The reader thinks that he or she has figured it out already, that there is not much of a mystery to the cold-blooded murder. You have a pair of newlyweds in a confined space, with an embittered former lover to boot. It surely wouldn’t be difficult to add one and one. At times, even Christie convinces you that your hunches are right. But better think again. In an Agatha Christie crime story, there is no such thing as straightforward, especially where the misanthropic detective is involved. Just when you are one step ahead of Christie, with ease, pierces that confidence by shrouding the mystery with more veils of mystery.

The sudden turn of events put everyone’s guard up. Tension permeated the air, which soon percolated into full-blown chaos, when not just one, but two more murders were perpetrated following the first death. Three deaths on a river cruise? Are these deaths pure coincidences? Or are these cases somehow connected? If yes, what connections do they have? Who is or who are the killers? What drove the killer or the killers to execute the murders? These are but some of the questions that slowly seize the readers’ mind as Christie relentlessly build up the tension.

“Yes, it is very true, that. And it is just what some people will not do. They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.”

~ Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile

As is customary in her storytelling, Christie populated the novel with an eclectic cast of characters, including Linnet’s maid, Louise Bourget, and her trustee, Andrew Pennington. Also in the mix is a romance novelist, Salome Otterbourne and her daughter Rosalie; Tim Allerton and his mother; an elderly American socialite, Marie Van Schuyler, her cousin Cornelia Robson, and her nurse Miss Bowers; an outspoken communist, Mr. Ferguson; an Italian archeologist, Guido Richetti; a solicitor, Jim Fanthorp; and an Austrian physician, Dr. Bessner. With their contrasting views and personalities, each character gave the story an interesting texture. The strange mix also added complications to the solution to the murder.  

Uncharacteristically, Christie carefully fleshed out each of the characters, painting their backstories with relish. They are not the formulaic and faceless background characters that were typical of her works. We read stories about kleptomania and substance abuse. There were also overtures into the challenges writers face, poverty, communism, and betrayals. Christie’s astuteness, however, was most ostensible in her exploration of repressed family dynamics., such as how the younger generations endeavor to hide dark family secrets. As all of these elements swirl into a big pool, we see a tapestry of real people dealing with real-world concerns. Add in tinges of conspiracy theories and we have a labyrinthine narrative on our hands. Touching base with the characters’ lives, however, barely detracted neither Poirot’s nor the story’s focus. Pared down, each character, it seemed, had the motivation to commit murder. 

The strengths of Christie’s storytelling were on prominently showcased in Death on the Nile. The novel’s structure is an aberration in the ambit of traditional Poirot stories. These stories tend to open with immediacy, with the perpetration of the crime. As the story progress, the key players in the story are introduced and studied from the perspective of Poirot. However, in Death on the Nile, the opening chapters were fixated on the construction of the psychological profiles and the complexities of the characters. The female characters were particularly well-drawn. Linnet, for instance, was a woman of paradoxes. She was charming and generous but, at the same time, she has a penchant to be uncaring, especially when exerting her privileges.

Equally scintillating was the portrait of Jackie’s psychological landscape. Jackie is passionate, the antithesis of Linnet’s calm but calculating demeanor. Because of her passion, she tends to be vulnerable. She loves too much and gives herself up entirely for the person she loves. She was a person, in Poirot’s words, “who cares too much.” She was drawn to excesses. Her passion can also be her undoing as it clouds her judgment, as shown in her hounding of her former lover. She was cognizant that her actions were taking a toll on her. She knew it was wrong but she can’t stop. She was a woman on a mission and she was relishing every bit of it. As the adage goes, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” So much so that it was warping her soul.

“They know too much, you see, of the possibilities that may arise. When one is motoring one might easily say to oneself: ‘If a car came out from that crossroad—or if that lorry backed suddenly—or if the wheel came off the car that is approaching—or if a dog jumped off the hedge on to my driving arm—eh bien, I should probably be killed!’ But one assumes, and usually rightly, that none of these things will happen, and that one will get to one’s journey’s end. But if, of course, one has been in an accident, or seen one or more accidents, then one is inclined to take the opposite point of view.”

~ Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile

Hercule Poirot, as always, loomed above the narrative. His reputation precedes him. He has a persona that easily daunts those around him. However, in Death on the Nile, we see a different portrait of the enigmatic Belgian sleuth. Many a time he found himself in the role of a counselor, particularly to the young women aboard the steamboat, including both Linnet and Jackie. Apart from observing, he listened and openly gave his thoughts. It was a side of Poirot rarely seen. These conversations also provided the story’s philosophical intersections, which covered love, death, friendships, and betrayals. The murders made the characters reflect on their mortality and the uncertainties of life. The most profound realization, however, unfolded towards the end of the novel, when the case was finally solved. It dealt with our inhumane side that, at times, results in senseless deaths.

Death on the Nile is, in many aspects, the quintessence of an Agatha Christie novel. It had all the elements that have come to characterize her prose, the most prominent of which was Hercule Poirot, the insufferable but equally enigmatic sleuth who has a keen sense of observing. He has dominated many an Agatha Christie novel and fittingly so. Death on the Nile showed a different side of him, one that went way beyond his reclusive nature. But it was not only Poirot who showed a different side of him. The author herself pushed the boundaries of her writing by challenging several conventions of mystery fiction. In a prolific career that produced over eighty books, it is a challenge singling out a book that stood out. However, Death on the Nile is certainly among the company of the best of Christie’s works.

Rating

95%

Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 
28%
Writing (25%) – 
23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
14%

Agatha Christie is without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite readers. It is a literary love affair that stretched over a decade, back when I started reading The Murder on the Orient Express. I was curious about what Christie had to offer but I was also finding a way to rekindle my interest in suspense and mystery fiction. Sure enough, The Murder on the Orient Express had me invested from the onset until the end. Over a decade later, I read my 30th book written by the prolific writer, Death on the Nile. Honestly, I only rushed to buy and read the book after I learned it has been adapted into a film released earlier this year. It was still a fun (if I can call it that) experience, as always with Christie’s works. Death on the Nile had everything that was exemplary about her works: Poirot and the tangled web that shrouded the mystery. I really thought I had the case solved but then again, this is Christie. She wouldn’t let you solve a case that easily. Her works require a certain level of suspension of the logical. But when it finally unfolded, everything added up. I guess the best way to enjoy her works is to just let yourself be lost in them, and let the story take its natural course.

Book Specs

Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 333
Genre: Suspense, Mystery

Synopsis

The tranquility of a 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 in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

About the Author

To learn more about Agatha Christie, click here.