In 1926, Agatha Christie’s husband Archie asked her for a divorce, having fallen in love with another woman. Her subsequent actions could be looked on as both revenge and empowerment: first, the famous “disappearance” which led to suspicions that Colonel Christie might have done away with his wife, and then a series of characterizations throughout her career of ex-military men whose attractiveness and reckless natures made them prime candidates for the role of murderer, including Ronald Marsh in Lord Edgeware Dies (1933), Philip Lombard in And Then There Were None (1939), David Hunter in Taken at the Flood (1948).
Colonel Archie Christie
In 1930, Christie married her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan and lived happily with him until her death in 1976. The legacy of that love found in her writing is a thread of passion for archeology and for the Middle East. Between 1934 and 1938, Christie published ten Hercule Poirot novels, and four of them find Poirot on journeys – for business or pleasure – throughout the Middle Eastern region. (A fifth title, Death in the Clouds, prominently features a pair of archeologists among the suspects.) The plentitude of oil in the 1920’s, which made travel cheaper, and the exciting archeological discoveries made during that decade (King Tut’s tomb!) had increased British presence of both residents and tourists and made the Middle East a natural choice of vacation spot for a worldly man like Poirot, despite his dietary demands and continual sufferance of mal de mer. Plus, the services of a private detective with an international reputation were frequently sought after by officials in Turkey (Murder on the Orient Express), Iraq (Murder in Mesopotamia), Egypt (Death on the Nile) and Jordan (Appointment With Death).
Appointment With Death, whether significantly or not, was the final time Poirot journeyed far afield from Great Britain. From then on, he remained ensconced in his ultra-modern apartment at Whitehaven Mansions in London, and the various inns and guesthouses in which he found himself when work necessitated a trip to this or that village seemed to cause Poirot more distress than the luxury accommodations he enjoyed during his far-off travels.
Most Christie fans would agree that, of the four titles listed above, Orient Express and Nile are considered classics of the canon – their reputation bolstered, no doubt, by the sumptuous, star-studded film adaptations of the 1970’s. In a way, this is too bad, for they are in some ways far more conventional. Mesopotamia and Appointment With Death are richer in detail of setting, and both of them illustrate a newer emphasis by Christie on psychology of character. The victim in Mesopotamia, Louise Leidner, is an interesting study of neurosis; in fact, all the women in this novel are fascinating. In Appointment With Death, Christie explores with some depth the complex psychology of a dysfunctional family. So why are these novels – as well-liked as they both are by many fans – ultimately considered “second-best” to the other two? A lot, I believe, stems from what Christie was best known for – her stunning solutions. Both Orient Express and Nile offer surprises that, if you’re willing to play along, have you sitting bolt upright in your chair as you turn the final pages. And while one of these endings arguably breaks some rules, the thing is – they both work! On the other hand, the solution found in Mesopotamia depends on a point so ludicrous – I’ll try and describe it in the vaguest terms: the victim is unable to see something that nobody in their right mind could fail to see – that it stretches our credulity to the brink. The problem with the solution to Appointment With Death is more complex, and some might not even see it as a problem. One cannot talk about this in detail without some potential spoilers. I will not name the killer, but this discussion may lead readers to conclusions they do not wish to reach before having read the novel.
Much like Orient Express, Poirot is drawn into the case of the Boynton family when he overhears a conversation. Since this occurs here in the first line of the novel, Christie expertly hooks us into the plot from the start:
“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”
Hercule Poirot overhears this statement from the window of his hotel room in Jerusalem, where he is vacationing. Christie’s novels abound with overheard conversations where the words are sometimes misinterpreted or, in some instances, the conversations are faked and the murderer means them to be overheard. But here, Poirot assumes, by the youthfulness and earnestness of the voice, that this sentiment is genuine. Who has spoken this sentence? Who “needs” to be killed? The information he gleans is too sparse to allow Poirot to intercede, but the words will come back to haunt him.
Throughout the story, Christie explores the nature of women in power. Up to this novel, Christie’s women have been cast as wives, lovers, mothers and daughters. Those who wielded control over others did so through beauty, wealth or talent. But here, something different is happening. Much of the early part of the book is viewed from the perspective of Sarah King, a young doctor and one of the author’s most compelling heroines. Only two years earlier, in Murder in Mesopotamia, the character who serves a similar function as Sarah, Amy Leatheran, is “only” a nurse. (No offense meant to my deeply respected friends who are nurses.) But Amy serves as an observer and aide to Poirot, while Sarah functions in a mystery’s higher capacity as observer, medico, romantic interest and prime suspect. Another character, Lady Westholme, has the distinction of being both an American and a member of Parliament.. The other members of the cast view her effectiveness as a politician dubiously, and she is portrayed as so overbearing that she often serves as the novel’s comic relief. One could argue that this is a deliberate choice on Christie’s part in order to divert us from a potential motive on Lady Westholme’s part, her desire to maintain her political power and social standing at any cost.
Finally, there is the novel’s victim, Mrs. Boynton, whose life of power as a prison warden has fed her innate sadism, which she transfers to her family. For Mrs. Boynton, absolute power over all the people in her sphere is the only option. She is travelling with her daughter, her three step-children, and a step-daughter-in-law. Due to her machinations and her control over the children’s money and livelihood, the males have been essentially emasculated and the women thwarted in their romantic pursuits. Carol Boynton is unable to meet and fall in love with the man of her choice, while Nadine, the wife of the oldest son Lennox, who is not tied by a sense of duty or dependence on her mother-in-law and desperately loves her husband, uses the only power left to her – the power of sex – by engaging in an affair with Jefferson Cope, a family friend.
If this were a Cinderella-type story, we might find that Mrs. Boynton’s actions stem from favoring her natural offspring over her step-children, but she has saved her most poisonous treatment for her daughter, Ginevra, pushing that child to the brink of madness with her tyranny. Orbiting this family circle are Cope, Sarah King and a noted psychologist, Dr. Gerard. All three have personal feelings for a different member of the Boynton family, and this gives each of them a powerful motive to eliminate the woman whose sole purpose in life seems to be to deny her children any hope of true independence or happiness, making them, in effect, like the prisoners over whom she exercised control.
As long as the novel centers around Mrs. Boynton, it steams along at a grand pace. At one point, Sarah King faces off against the old lady, and Mrs. Boynton issues a statement that resonates till the end: “I never forget, remember that. Not an action, not a name, not a face.” This sentence leads Poirot on the path to the killer’s door, for it reveals to him the core of her psychology: Mrs. Boynton refuses to acknowledge that a child who grows up under its parents’ rules has earned the right to live an independent life, just as a prisoner who has paid for his crime should be allowed to re-enter society without stigma. She does this because both rights thwart her deep-seated need to subjugate the members of her community to her will. Balancing this against Sarah King’s sense of responsibility to use her abilities to do good, as well as Lady Westholme’s argument that more women should be in roles of political leadership (which is unfortunately treated with the same amusing tone as Ariadne Oliver’s assertion that a woman should run Scotland Yard), Christie presents a fascinating picture of a community where women are rising from their previously held places as wives, mothers and do-gooder spinsters to positions traditionally dominated by men.
Two things happen after the murder to decrease the importance of this novel in terms of its significance to Christie’s career. One of them is basically technical: once Poirot enters the scene, it becomes necessary to examine a lengthy list of suspects and witnesses. This center portion of the novel begins to drag in a Ngaio Marsh sort of fashion with an endless series of interviews and creations of timetables. The information gleaned here is important but, if not dull exactly, then fairly non-dramatic. By the time Poirot gathers the Boynton family together to reveal the truth, the damage has been done.
The other issue for me is more problematical, and that is in Christie’s decision as to where to lay the blame for the crime. No doubt she was trying to surprise us, but what this revelation ends up doing is essentially reducing the main conflict between Mrs. Boynton and her family – and all the inherent psychology around it – to a red herring. This, for me, weakens what is most fascinating about this novel. I would venture to say that Christie saw it too, for when she dramatized the novel in 1945, she made the most radical change to an original source that she would ever make. While And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution were reworked to allow justice to prevail and tacked on a happier ending, Christie provided a completely different solution to the murder of Mrs. Boynton. Again, my hands are a little tied here in my desire not to spoil matters for readers new to this story, but one could argue that the play’s solution brings us back to the main strength of this tale – the psychology of the victim – with surprising force. I do believe that, had Christie used this ending in the novel, Appointment With Death would have taken on greater significance in the canon than it does.
What’s the nun doing here?
When the producers of Agatha Christie’s Poirot tackled this novel in 2008, they also must have acknowledged an inherently unsatisfying aspect to the solution, for they radically reworked the entire novel, adding three new characters, omitting two major ones and providing new motivations and backstories for nearly everyone. The result is an unrecognizable and hideous mess, a travesty of Christie’s original novel that should be avoided by all. But it does illustrate what must have appeared as – what, a flaw? a weakness? – in the original novel. I do think that, as it stands, Appointment With Death is highly entertaining and provides us with a fine sense of place, some fascinating psychology, particularly in the female characters, and an interesting portrait of how women’s growing ascension from subjugation to power might have affected their individual natures, as well as the communities around them. The fact that we still grapple with the inequity between women and men in society sixty-seven years later – and, significantly, that some of the most dramatic conflict occurs in the Middle East – lends Christie’s exploration of the subject even more interest and importance.