This was supposed to commence in April!
JJ, my fine, deluded friend from The Invisible Event, broached the subject several months ago of having a friendly competition, to wit: we would allow our friends to select the Number One titles by Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, and then analyze them to death for the purposes of proving which of the top two mystery writers of all time was Numero Uno and which was Avis (“We Try Harder”) Rent-a-Car. The titles were selected: Death on the Nile by Christie and He Who Whispers by Carr, and I was instructed to re-read both books in preparation for a literary throwdown.
Now I don’t particularly care if anyone agrees that these titles are Christie’s and Carr’s best. (My own list of favorites changes nearly daily.) Both books beautifully represent their authors’ range of power, showing off their respective bags of tricks and even accomplishing something more within the constraints of the genre: a genuine emotional punch. Thus, I figured that in April JJ and I would trade some humorous barbs and then call it a draw.
But then . . . do you know what that man did this morning?!? He published an article condemning the first chapter of Nile. He created the twofold criteria of depth and discovery, and then he had this to say about Chapter One:
“I’d say that the first chapter of Death on the Nile has virtually no depth to it at all. In fact, there’s so little depth, I’d argue that you could start at the beginning of chapter 2 and be no worse off (not only that, it also detracts from the discovery, which we’ll get into shortly). Christie is indulging in the classical GAD trope of introducing the characters we’ll be spending the next 200-odd pages with, but in fact we simply get a potted history of some engagements and marriages and the loose association of some characters to others, all of which is then covered again once we’re in Egypt in chapter 2 onwards. In itself this is a fairly standard approach, but given that the first chapter is around 10% of an already not underlong book — 25 out of my 251 pages — it’s curiously lacking in necessary content.”
Do you understand what JJ means by “depth and discovery? You really should read his entire article here.
Go ahead, I’ll wait . . . . . . . . . . . .
If you’re waiting here with me, let me give you the gist of it: Depth is the planting of ideas early in a mystery that will take on added significance as we move toward the solution. (Something to do with JJ going swimming . . . ) Discovery is the way an author parses out information. In essence, when you’re reading a good mystery, you want to be constantly re-informed and, hopefully, surprised and/or satisfied along the way. An author like Christie or Carr is so good at this that they can casually inform you of things whose significance only becomes obvious at a strategic moment near the end. Carr could weave a series of bizarre facts into a brilliant solution – until you realized there are still a hundred pages to go. Then he does it again – and even a third time! Christie could hammer home repeatedly that a character had a glass eye yet be confident that her readers would not grasp the true significance of this fact. Think of these statements in other Christie novels, all of them so revealing, yet carefully placed to diminish their impact:
- “He threw back his head and laughed.”
- “I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.”
- “You are worried, aren’t you, Lotty?”
Now here is JJ – in March, mind you – asserting that Christie provides no depth in Chapter One of Nile and that these pages basically spoil the discovery. I consider this an ambush, me lad! My knickers are officially in a twist. Naturally, I feel it necessary to respond in a treatise that I herewith title: A Monogram in Defense of Chapter One.
As JJ points out, the opening of Nile is an example of a classic GAD opening trope, that of “setting the scene” of suspects, setting, and situation in what amounts to a literary version of the cinematic montage. Modern cozy authors tend to depend on this trope: look at virtually any novel written by Carolyn Hart or Jane Haddam, and you find an opening chapter filled with “mini-scenes” that serve the same purpose as a play’s dramatis personae. It is not a favored starter for John Dickson Carr, so I think it fair to acknowledge that some of JJ’s griping stems from personal preference. He reads a lot of crime fiction from the 1920’s – 40’s, and he’s tired of this form of introduction, especially when he compares it to It Walks by Night, where Chapter One ends with a beheading, and the telltale clue to the killer’s identity has already been slid before our unsuspecting eyes; or Brand’s Fog of Doubt (aka London Particular), where the authorial prestidigitation begins with the title (both titles work this way!); or The A.B.C. Murders by Christie herself, where we read our first letter from a serial killer long before Chapter One is over.
Death on the Nile was published during the middle of an extraordinary run for Hercule Poirot. In the ten-year period between 1932 and 1942, Christie produced fifteen Poirot titles (as well as six other novels, including, arguably, her best, And Then There Were None). This list of fifteen includes all of Poirot’s best cases. (You can argue for 1926’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but that is remembered chiefly for the ending and not for the case that leads up to it; and I would include 1953’s After the Funeral as a personal favorite, but I wouldn’t arm wrestle you over it).
As befitting the character of a private detective, most of these cases begin with Poirot. Now, this has to happen through 1936 whenever Christie employs Captain Hastings as the narrator. He is Poirot’s companion, and, like Dr. Watson, his paying a visit to his old friend always seems to happen as a new case is about to ensue. Even at leisure – on holiday at St. Loo or attending a theatre performance – Poirot is present from the start to observe the first events, often before they become significant to the case. In titles without Hastings, like Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy, and most significantly, Cards on the Table, Poirot is actually present when death rears its ugly head. If anything, one could complain about this particular trope of the detective always happening upon the scene of a crime! Why would anyone invite Mrs. Bradley to a house party? Why would you buy a house in Midsomer Worthy or St. Mary Mead? In the four titles I mention above, one could argue that one murderer was simply unaware of Poirot’s presence, and two were so egotistical that they wanted Poirot to be there. (One of these, egoists is, ironically, the murder victim.) In the fourth title, I will always wonder why the murder plot wasn’t halted immediately when Poirot, by total happenstance, was not only present but slept in the compartment next to the murder victim. This will be fodder for a future article, I can tell.
An author has a right to mix things up, and Christie did just that. Dumb Witness could have begun with the late arrival of Miss Arundell’s letter to Hercule Poirot, but Christie decides to create a lengthy prologue from the victim’s point of view. (It’s one of the best parts of the novel.) Murder in Mesopotamia goes one better by creating a new, female, Watson-figure, Nurse Amy Leatheran, through whose observant eyes we meet the characters at the tell at Hassanieh and witness the events that lead to Louise Leidner’s murder. (The biggest mistake that the Suchet adaptation made was to force the detective and Hastings on us from the start and to minimize the nurse’s presence.) Nurse Leatheran is a much more interesting foil for Poirot, smart enough to make sharp observations about the people and their relationships that will help Poirot in his investigation, even as the sleuth overturns certain traps laid out for us by the murderer (and the author.) In giving us Amy, Christie signals a new direction for herself, one focused more on character than before. Not everyone comes to perfect life in Mesopotamia, but the women – the victim, the nurse, Mrs. Mercado, Miss Johnson, and Sheila Reilly – are distinct figures, sharply drawn, and the murderer is ultimately a fascinating and pathetic figure.
The move toward deeper characterization continues in the next novel, Cards on the Table. But again, we start with Poirot because the nature of this book really focuses on what it means to be a detective, a victim, and a murderer. We learn more and more about the four suspects after Mr. Shaitana’s fatal dinner party, and we learn also about the detectives.
Death on the Nile is the third title in a quartet of 30’s novels featuring Poirot in foreign climes. It shares a certain sensibility with 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express, just as one could pair off the other two titles, Murder in Mesopotamia and 1938’s Appointment with Death. The latter two novels are essentially country house mysteries in an exotic setting. In fact, nearly every character in Appointment has a parallel character in the other title published that year, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
Orient Express and Nile are different. First, they are linked by being set primarily on a mode of transit. (Death in the Clouds begins on an airplane but soon abandons those cramped quarters for various parts of England and France.) Next, both novels play on the idea of a group of disparate, eccentric people thrown together when murder occurs to shatter the social niceties in which strangers engage while on vacation. And with their large casts and exotic, luxurious settings, both novels have an epic feel to them. (Orient Express has thirteen suspects because it has to; Nile has sixteen, which is probably too many, yet it gives the steamer Karnac a nice crowded feel and most of the characters fit nicely into the mechanism of the case.)
Now, I don’t want to give away the show – at least, not until April, right, JJ? So let me tread carefully here. Orient Express begins with Poirot because it is essential that we meet the train passengers through his eyes. His impressions, formed in consultation with his friend M. Bouc, set the stage for all the misdirection that will follow; plus, Christie would be hard pressed to give us any other character’s point of view without spoiling matters. And so, we get a brief first chapter, which establishes that Poirot is world famous enough to have been brought in to solve an international crisis (“You have saved the honor of the French Army – you have averted much bloodshed!”). Along the way, he witnesses a curious conversation between a man and a woman that is intensely intimate, belying the fact that when he next meets them, Poirot is told that they are strangers to each other. We also learn that it is very, very cold!!
Here is the discovery – Poirot’s presence, the weather, Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot’s mysterious relationship – all of which will figure into the case that follows. And we have depth, I suppose, in the last item: what are we to make of Mary’s comment to the Colonel? It sure makes them sound guilty – but of what?
The similarities to Death on the Nile are superficial compared to the differences. Yes, we have a victim found in a small luxurious travel compartment, with clues strewn about to help and hinder the investigation. Yet the cases before Poirot couldn’t be more different, largely due to the different nature of the respective victims. Mr. Ratchet is a cipher until his identity is cleared up; he has accumulated his foes due to one horrific act. But Linnet Doyle needs to be a more vital figure than Mr. Ratchett, and she draws enemies to her in an entirely different way. And so Christie opens Nile in a different way, and while Poirot is present in Chapter One, his appearance is brief, yet deeply significant. (Yes, we’re talking depth and discovery here!)
Chapter One consists of twelve scenes – like French scenes in plays – that introduce twelve of the eighteen main characters of the story. There are also two significant figures who will not be journeying down the Nile – Linnet’s friend (and Tim Allerton’s cousin), Joanna Southwood, and Lord Windlesham, who expects Linnet to marry him. The primary purpose of the chapter is to establish the central triangle of Linnet, her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, and Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle. This relationship is explored with more depth than we will get in the rest of the novel, and that distinction is purposeful. More on that later.
Most of all, we are given a good sense of who Linnet Doyle is: a complex figure that neither Lois Chiles nor Emily Blunt did justice to in the film adaptations of the novel. Here is our first glimpse of her in Chapter One, Scene 1:
“A girl jumped out, a girl without a hat and wearing a frock that looked (but only looked) simple. A girl with golden hair and straight autorcratic features – a girl with a lovely shape – a girl such as was seldom seen in Marlton-under-Wode.”
Two workmen observe Linnet jump out of her Rolls Royce and head into the post office, and we learn that she is new to the neighborhood, that she is very rich, and that she got her money from her American mother’s side. More important is the reaction by the men. They are “envious and grudging”:
“It all seems wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much! If a girl’s as rich as that she’s no right to be a good-looker as well. And she is a good-looker . . . got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair . . . “
This man doesn’t appear again, but his sentiments will hang in the air and haunt us, especially when we meet Rosalie Otterbourne and Mr. Ferguson.
Scene 2 is a brief extract from a newspaper establishing more information about Linnet and her social status, including the columnist’s expectation that she will marry that eligible catch, Lord Windlesham.
Scene 3 is comprised of a conversation between Linnet and Joanna Southwood. What happens here that will be of importance later? 1) Joanna admires Linnet’s pearls, which will form the basis of a significant plot thread; 2) Jackie calls and begs Linnet to see her; 3) we learn a lot about Jackie, about her background and her temperament (“Jackie always did get frightfully worked up over things. She once stuck a penknife into someone.”) This is setting the stage for some wonderful misdirection, as the really significant fact follows that Jackie stabbed a boy who was teasing a dog. 4) We learn that Linnet’s maid Marie wanted to marry a man who has a job in Egypt – as well as a wife and three children. Hey, folks! The book’s called Death on the Nile, so any savvy reader’s ears will prick of at an early mention of Egypt. (Hello, Mr. Fleetwood!) This last fact is most significant in its illustration of Linnet’s character: even in situations where she feels she is “helping” someone, she tends to flaunt her power. She does the same thing with tenants on her estate later on, by throwing them out of their “unsanitary cottages,” which also happen to overlook the site of her new swimming pool. Joanne says, “What a lot of enemies you must make, Linnet . . . You’re so devastatingly efficient. And you’re so frightfully good at doing the right thing.”
Scene 4 gives us a brief insight into the mind of Lord Windlesham. Why bother, since his prospects with Linnet are doomed? Well, he cuts a pretty awful figure, like one of those priggish aristocrats found in Dickens and Austen, and, like Joanna, he pushes the reader into a more sympathetic view of Linnet.
In two and a half pages, Scene 5 establishes a deep, fond friendship between Linnet and Jackie, something that both film adaptations carefully eliminated. Oh, we see Jackie and Linnet meet, and Jackie asks Linnet for the Big Favor of hiring her penniless fiancé to manage Wode Hall. Yet, both cinematic Linnets greet their “old friend” with arched eyebrows. Lois Chiles shoves her wealth in Jackie’s face and barely listens to her, while Emily Blunt receives all the information with a snarl. In the book, though, these girls are truly friends, and it seems that here Linnet can actually do some good for someone else that won’t benefit herself as well. It’s a powerful scene that sets us up for the great betrayal that seems to be the instigation of the mystery to follow.
Scene 6 is the only part of the chapter in which Hercule Poirot appears. One could argue that the whole event of Poirot observing Jackie and Simon happy together is way too coincidental. Why put Poirot here at all? My response is that there is no character in a Christie novel who we can trust as much as Poirot. Seeing something from his point of view gives credence to information we receive. Therefore, we can be assured through his powers of observation that 1) Jackie and Simon are about to meet Linnet for purely innocent reasons (this is important!) and 2) Jackie loves Simon more than Simon loves Jackie. This point also sets us up for a crucial moment. In typical Christie fashion, it’s just not the moment we think it is!
Scene 7 gives us a strong portrait of Linnet. She knows the advantages to marrying Lord Windlesham. Heck, anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice will understand her predicament. She would attain a prestigious position in society and live in one of the great houses of England. Yet, to Linnet’s credit, she like what she has made of her own “little” mansion. She likes being “queen” rather than “queen consort,” as she would be at Charltonbury. Even more importantly, she envies Jackie’s passion for Simon:
“So positive, so earnest. Did she, Linnet, feel like that about Windlesham? Assuredly she didn’t. Perhaps she could never feel like that about anyone. It must be – rather wonderful – to feel like that . . . “
In both films, when Linnet meets Simon, it plays out like a giant boa constrictor swallowing a cute mouse. The meeting in the book is so much richer: Simon enters Linnet’s life just as she is questioning the future that seems to be mapped out for her. This Linnet is vulnerable to the possibilities of true love. That doesn’t excuse the decision she makes, but it sets us up nicely for the extended conversation she will have with Poirot in Egypt where she tries, without complete success, to justify her actions to the detective and to herself.
Scene 8 through 12 introduce us, in order, to Tim Allerton and his mother, Mrs. Van Schyler, her nurse, Miss Bowers, and her poor relation, Cornelia Robson, Linnet’s rival lawyers, Andrew Pennington and Jim Fanthorp, and Mrs. Salome Otterbourne and her daughter, Rosalie. All of them will end up on the Karnac with Mr. and Mrs. Simon Doyle. One could argue, as JJ does, that there is no need for these scenes, that we will glean all this information when we get to the Middle East.
So what do these scenes accomplish? At the very least, they tease us with prospective motive and/or connection to Linnet while beginning to open up the story past the strong central triangle, which the novel must do! We learn of the connection between Tim Allerton and Joanna Southwood, but we also get to hang out with Mrs. Allerton, who is a delightful character. We get a hint of something off with Mrs. Van Schuyler, which is a definite tease. What trouble could that old lady get into, and why does it worry Cornelia’s mother? Is it a motive for murder, or is it all a red herring? (Do you really want me to answer that question?) We are similarly teased in the scene with the Otterbournes, where Rosalie reads about Linnet’s marriage and honeymoon plans. We get more information about this, and a straightforward motive for Pennington, and we establish Fanthorp as a hero. Except . . . we’ve met several “heroic” young men in earlier Christies who turned out to be killers. Store that in our file for later.
I do consider Death on the Nile to be, in many ways, Agatha Christie’s epic. It is easily one of her longest books, a novel both big and intimate. It features her largest cast and a romantic, exotic locale. At the same time, it is a love story of tragic proportions, of two women determined to not let the dictates of society limit their search for happiness. Eliminating Chapter One would not doubt go far toward creating a more compact mystery. We could also eliminate several characters, as the movies have done, and still have a wealth of potential suspects to choose from.
I insist that Christie’s approach from the beginning to the end results in a hybrid between a fiendishly cunning puzzle mystery and a novel rich in character and setting, both of which Christie has often been accused of shortchanging. I will admit that the “montage” effect of Chapter One is a trope I enjoy a great deal, one that Christie is a true mistress of. (Witness the chapter following the funeral in After the Funeral, which deepens the characters and gives us a walloping good laugh once the solution is revealed at the end.) Even more important, Chapter One of Death on the Nile gives us a victim who is not your typical scoundrel and sets us up for an ending that affects us emotionally like few mysteries do. Without this opening, the novel would no doubt work, but it would become something less than the classic it turned out to be.
There you go, JJ – this throwdown is ON!