Only a week or so ago, I admittedly got a little gossipy insinuating how Agatha Christie’s first marriage to Captain Archie Christie may have informed her work. (Read it here.) Just think: if Christie had honored her previous engagement to Reggie Lucy and married that faithful old duffer, perhaps her output would have contained fewer adulterous cads and more lady golfers. Thankfully, we will never know. One thing’s for sure: if Agatha hadn’t had her heart broken by Archie, she would never have met and married Max Mallowan, the noted archeologist, helped him with his work, and found inspiration for some of her most popular titles. Since this month’s topic of the Tuesday Night Bloggers is “Foreign Mysteries” – and since I’m willing to write about Christie at the drop of a fez – let’s get our passport stamped and set sail, shall we?
Christie’s love for travel sprang from girlhood, when her family was forced by financial straits to spend their summers in the south of France. (What a life when this is a sign of financial straits!) While married to Archie, she embarked on an around the world tour to promote the 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition. (They left their daughter with grandma for months and months. Christie’s relationship with Rosalind will surely merit a future post on the portrayal of mothers and daughters in her work.) They spent part of that tour in South Africa, which served as the primary location of Christie’s novel and first “woman abroad in jeopardy” thriller, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). For the next ten years, her books stayed firmly rooted in England (with an odd little side trip through The Big Four), during which time she divorced Archie and traveled to get her mind off her troubles. (She left Rosalind alone then, too.) While on an archeological trip to the famed site of Ur in 1930, she met Max, married him before the year was out, and, for the rest of their lives together, frequently accompanied or joined him at his work (without Rosalind!), which was centered primarily in Iraq and Syria. Christie soaked up the scenery and made use of what she saw over and over again in her writing, beginning with a series of short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne on a Middle Eastern tour. These stories were published in magazines in 1933 and gathered together in 1934 and include locations Christie had visited throughout the region from Damascus to Baghdad. What the stories lack – indeed, what all her foreign travel tales are missing – is a real exploration of the people which reveals a true sense of Christie as a British colonial on her travels. The characters she depicts are almost to a one European and the citizens of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the like are literally reduced to local color.
One of Christie’s favorite methods of travel back and forth to the Middle East was aboard the fabled Orient Express, the luxurious passenger train run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits. In December 1931, on her way home from visiting Max at Nineveh, her train was stuck on the tracks for twenty-four hours due to bad weather. The author passed the time observing her fellow passengers, including a brash American lady named Mrs. Hilton, and she began to put together the first glimmerings of a mystery plot.
The following year, an international incident provided Christie with the stimulus she needed: the tragic kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindburgh’s baby and the havoc it wreaked on the family and servants set the train plot full steam ahead, and one of Christie’s classics, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was born. Most of the story takes place aboard the stalled train, and after the murder, one could just as easily be in the library of a British mansion or an interview room at Scotland Yard. But the opening chapters take us from a train platform in Aleppo, Syria to the Tokatlian Hotel in Istanbul and give us a grand taste of the travel itinerary of the rich and famous of the time. In many ways, it’s the most satisfying part of both the novel and the 1974 film. The middle section gets bogged down in too many interviews with too many suspects, as well as an assessment of too many clues – all necessary to the plot – until the ending, which breaks all the rules and even makes us shed a tear or two and pause to think about the true nature of justice.
Two years later, Christie published Murder in Mesopotamia, the novel most steeped in the working life she shared with Max. In a rather public display of naughtiness, the author based the central victim, Louise Leidner, on Katharine Woolley, the wife of noted archaologist, Sir Leonard Woolley, who had been Max’ boss at the tell at Ur when Christie and Max first met. One has to wonder if Mrs. Woolley recognized herself in the neurotic, tempestuous Louise, and how it made her feel. The novel benefits from one of providing one of Christie’s most reliable and intelligent Watsons, Nurse Amy Leatheran, who on the first page is plucked from the lobby of the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad by Dr. Eric Leidner and offered a position to care for his wife at the dig at Tell Yarimjah near Hassanieh. Again, the early chapters are the best, as Amy takes in the massive amount of work that goes into digging up and processing the treasures of the ancient world and the quiet excitement that accompanies each find. Mrs. Leidner presents a fascinating contrast to this intellectual pursuit, as her boredom provides the locus for much of the strain felt by the members of the archaeological party.
Yet there are way too many party members to keep track of here: nearly a dozen, most of whom turn out to be fairly anemic red herrings once the murder occurs. The murder itself is one of Christie’s rare forays into the impossible crime, and the solution is interesting, although I know from personal experience that if you glom onto the truth early on it pretty much eliminates all the suspects but one. There is a second murder, and it’s one of Christie’s best in that you don’t get the sense that it has been put there just to drive things along. The victim is well chosen, and that person’s death has deep emotional resonance.
This is also one of those Christie titles where a potential revenge plot for past crimes figures into the plot, and here is where the novel seriously falls down as the killer’s identity is nearly impossible to swallow. Still, as a chronicle of what it means to work on a dig and for its female characters, it is well worth a read. (The ITV adaptation saw fit to shove Captain Hastings into the picture, which was really not a good idea as it made Nurse Leatheran’s presence all but unnecessary.)
1937 saw the publication of Death on the Nile, and unlike Orient Express, Christie spends a great deal of time building up to the central murder of another unlikable character. This allows her to steep her readers in some of the great sites of Egypt, a country she knew well from her travels. Significant moments occur in Cairo and then, as the story settles aboard the riverboat S.S. Karnak, in Aswan and Luxor. Once the murder occurs, Nile becomes yet another closed circle mystery of (mostly) British citizens on board the Karnak; the people of Egypt are ignored.
If you want to get critical about Death on the Nile, I expect you could complain about the huge cast of characters – fully fifteen suspects are found on the ship, and there is no explanation of how so many people who might have reason to kill Linnet Doyle could randomly find themselves on the same cruise. You could also, if you want to, complain that the murder plot is so representative of the extremes of Golden Age plotting that it does not bear close examination. Who in their right minds would commit murder this way? You could carp about how the second and third murders feel rushed, maybe unnecessary, as do some of the secondary plots that exist to provide motives for some of the red herring suspects. And while you do that, I will have my fingers pressed to my ears as I cry, “la la la la la la la!” I happen to think Death on the Nile is Christie at her most brilliant and Golden age mystery at its best. So there! Plus, you have the added benefit of a virtually painless travelogue as you accompany Poirot on this adventure. The 1978 film beautifully takes advantage of the setting and is one of the best adaptations of a Christie novel ever produced. The ITV adaptation with David Suchet makes a number of interesting choices to mark it as different from the older film, but ultimately the smaller budget renders it a less effective evocation of the setting, and the whittling down of the plot sacrifices a lot of what makes this title so representative of the complex whodunits that marked the Golden Age.
The final Poirot title in Christie’s foreign travel series followed immediately after Nile. Appointment With Death (1938) lacks the cleverness of Nile, the sense of archaeological verisimilitude of Mesopotamia, or the originality and topicality of Orient Express. It’s a good old-fashioned English family country home mystery, except the family is American, and the “country home” is a holiday camp in Petra. The victim, Mrs. Boynton, is suitably loathsome, and most of the other female characters are well delineated. Unfortunately, the case devolves into a matter of alibis and interviews before it rights itself again with an interesting solution. I know of three adaptations to this novel, and they deserve some mention. The 1988 film is the most faithful to its source, but it falls flat from the start. It’s the third cinematic effort featuring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and he seems to be going through the motions by this time. The direction is lackluster, and the contrast in the way this film uses its foreign settings in comparison to the film of Death on the Nile is marked. Never has world travel seemed so dull! The film version from ITV must rank as one of the biggest desecrations ever of a Poirot novel! Honestly, I’d give anything to be able to tie the writers to a chair and force a confession about their motives in destroying the novel’s plot this way.
Before either film was made, Christie herself adapted the book for the stage and completely altered the solution. It is arguably an interesting idea, but psychologically it feels forced. Then again, some might argue the same is true for the novel itself. I want to direct you to a great write-up here of this one by Moira at Clothes in Books that she put together for the TNB December topic.
In 1945, Christie published her most unusual tour de force, Death Comes As the End. The Mallowans were good friends with noted Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, who had inspired Christie to try her hand at a play about the Pharaoh Akhnaton and his successor, who would become King Tut. That play was (perhaps thankfully) never performed professionally, due to the great expense of mounting it, but it eventually prompted Glanville to suggest that Christie try her hand at setting a mystery in ancient Egypt. It is arguably the first time ever that an author combined a historical novel with a traditional murder mystery, and it was much more successful than Akhnaton. . Admittedly, it reads like one of her typical family tales, as the tyrannical patriarch brings a hot-looking concubine to his family home, where she creates havoc and initiates a series of so many deaths that only And Then There Were None surpasses this one in terms of the body count. The situation is actually based on a series of letters from the era, and the strong sense of period is a tribute to the lengthy research Christie did, assisted by Glanville throughout the process.
Finally, I should mention two other titles: 1951’s They Came to Baghdad and 1954’s Destination Unknown (U.S. title, So Many Steps to Death) because they are also set largely in the Middle East. They are both spy thrillers, and, like The Man in the Brown Suit, both novels center around a damsel in distress. In Baghdad, light-hearted and man-hungry Victoria Jones follows a gorgeous fellow on a pure whim to Baghdad, where she uncovers a Fascist plot to place the world under the tyrannical thumb of a mysterious figure named Lucifer. In Destination Unknown, Hilary Craven is interrupted during her suicide attempt in a Morocco hotel by a Secret Service agent who asks her to impersonate the dead wife of a vanished scientist in order to uncover the mysterious force (is it the Russians?) that has caused the disappearance of many scientists from around the world.
Both novels are ridiculous. No, really, in terms of their politics and plotting, they are seriously dumb. That’s not to say they don’t have their charms. If writing these books gave Christie as much pleasure as she claims, they I say, “Why not?” You can’t have Poirot continue to travel to the Middle East, and it would be odd to send Miss Marple over there (although in researching this article, I learned that Christie originally pegged Marple to be the sleuth aboard the Karnak in Nile!) Baghdad tends to bog down pretty badly in the middle, but the setting adds flavor. Destination moves more quickly and has an interesting twist at the end that reminds us Christie would do well to stick to traditional mysteries. All in all, both these titles are minor additions to the canon, but they offer the final summative evidence of how much Christie’s travel experiences served as inspiration for her writing.