Over at The Invisible Event, JJ has compiled a list, voted on by an erudite assortment of fans, consisting of twelve titles that purportedly demonstrate the best qualities of a “fair play” mystery. It’s a list that does what these sorts of lists are supposed to do: it provides a jumping off point for arguments and conversations over what constitutes fair play, why this or that title made it on the list, and why the heck– insert your favorite here – wasn’t included!
Agatha Christie provided fully one third of the titles on the list, and JJ has already gotten some flak over this and over why only six authors are represented when so many others claimed to play fair – and no doubt succeeded in doing so. I invite those naysayers to come up with another list! Come up with as many lists as you’d like! The era when authors focused on fair play puzzles lasted thirty or so years and included thousands of titles. We have a lot to talk about, and the more the merrier, I say.
One minor controversy that interested me concerns the inclusion on the list of both Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. Some wondered if this was appropriate, since on the surface these two titles seem cut out of the same cloth. This has prompted me to sink my chops into a comparative analysis of these titles. Warning: this will include a discussion of the solutions, so I feel the need to warn off anyone who has not read either or both novels.
First, some history:
Five years and six titles separate the writing of Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun. Christie produced two damn fine serial killer novels in 1939 – Murder Is Easy and the classic And Then There Were None – and, count them, four other Hercule Poirot titles. Like the two books under discussion here, 1938’s Appointment with Death finds Poirot on vacation in exotic climes. (It is the final novel in a trilogy that covers the detective’s travels through the Middle East.) But then we have three titles featuring the Belgian that could not be more different. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) is the country house mystery to end all country house mysteries. Sad Cypress (1940) is a pensive character study of a woman on trial for a murder she may or may not have committed, with Poirot playing the sort of relatively minor role he would be delegated in the latter part of Christie’s career. The other 1940 title, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, is very much an extravaganza in the manner of The A.B.C. Murders, where what starts out seemingly as a domestic crime pits Poirot against something bigger and much darker.
So it may be that even the most astute fans did not pay much heed to the similarities between Nile and Sun. In retrospect, the plots share many elements, most notably in the nature of their solutions. Some could not care less about this: Christie, like so many authors, often repeated certain tropes with variations. These people enjoy both books with equal gusto. Others see Sun as something approaching “Nile-lite,” a slightly frivolous repetition of ideas more seriously – and better – depicted in Nile. There is something to be said for going first, but I think that, if the plot in Sun reaches the same destination as that of Nile, it diverges in original ways as to the course it takes to get there. Finally, there are those who think Nile takes itself altogether too seriously and gets too much credit, while Sun is better plotted, better clued, and altogether more enjoyable. I’m not here to prove or disprove the rightness of any of these opinions. I enjoy any occasion to dissect Christie and let the body parts fall where they may. Let’s examine these works in light of character, setting, and plot, and see where that leaves us.
Both novels revolve around a romantic triangle that includes a marriage, with a woman at the center of each triangle. Now, think about that idea – “a woman at the center” – because it plays out differently in each book, and this variance creates a different sense of tension.
The three characters in Nile are Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, her husband, Simon Doyle, and Simon’s ex-fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort. One might expect that Simon is at the apex of the triangle, with both women fighting over him. Yet, throughout the first half of this novel, we are presented not just with a thwarted romance (with both Linnet and Simon at fault) but with a long-time friendship between women thwarted (all on Linnet’s shoulders). We are given to understand that Jackie has lost Simon irrevocably. She doesn’t talk about “winning him back” from Linnet; she speaks only of revenge, and in the most violent of terms. And since Simon himself is presented as pretty much a lovable but callow stick, who equates his transference of love from Jackie to Linnet with the sun coming out and overshadowing the moon, we’re not as focused on the guy as on the connection of anger, guilt, and suffering between the two women.
The triangle at the center of Sun is more conventional. At its center is Arlena Marshall, a self-involved actress with a history of bad marriages and a whiff of infidelity. How she and Captain Kenneth Marshall ever got together is anybody’s guess at the start of this novel, but it is assumed that she is the femme fatale who swept a good man off his feet. What we are not made aware of at first is the deep streak of insecurity within Arlena; otherwise we would immediately understand her being drawn to such a stalwart fellow as Marshall. But from the start, the marriage is in crisis, largely because Arlena is dallying with a gorgeous hunk named Patrick Redfern. In fact, they are carrying on quite blatantly, enough to attract the attention of everyone in their sphere.
Lacking the depth of the Doyle/de Bellefort conflict, Christie has chosen to imbue this triangle with more external complications. Patrick is given a wife, the pathetically shy Christine, and Kenneth is reconnected to his old girlfriend, the practically-perfect-in-every-way Rosamund Darnley. In addition, there is the matter of Marshall’s daughter, Linda, a troubled 16-year-old with a passionate hatred for her stepmother.
Measured in terms of character alone, Christie’s task is much easier in Sun. Her setting is filled with people connected at first hand with the victim, with a distinct lack of “extraneous” characters to be dispensed with once the investigation proceeds. In fact, the author has provided potential motives for the few “outsiders” hanging about. We have Steven Lane, the fanatical reverend who picks on Arlena as a source of evil, Horace C. Blatt, the florid yachtsman with ulterior motives, and Odell C. Gardener, the henpecked husband, who may or may not harbor a secret passion for the lady.
The character list in Nile presents more challenges. Aside from the bride, groom and jilted fiancée, the only characters directly linked to Linnet are her maid and her American trustee, Andrew Pennington, whose hanky-panky with his ward’s finances provides a strong motive. But what of the dozen or so other passengers who populate this story? There’s the guy who wanted to marry Linnet’s maid, despite the presence of another wife and children. Oddly, this character fades into the woodwork almost immediately. Who else? Well, there’s the Communist, Mr. Ferguson, who hates all spoiled rich girls, but it’s hard to take his motive seriously. It’s equally difficult to imagine that Rosalie Otterbourne is so jealous of Linnet’s happiness that she would shoot the bride in the head. Yet these are the personal motives we are presented with.
That leaves Christie with another option: the creation of an “unknown” assailant whose motive is either gain or self-protection. Much attention is thus given to Linnet’s pearls, which are coveted throughout the first part of the story and then go missing after her death. This contrivance provides nearly every passenger with a potential motive; ultimately, the author gets a lot of mileage out of the pearls. Much less successful is the intimation that Linnet has accidentally stumbled upon a terrorist plot. The ramifications of this storyline add little to the novel and could easily have been stricken (although it does provide an excuse for Colonel Race to be present.)
One can conclude from this comparison that Christie’s character list serves the structure of her mystery plot better in Sun. But what Nile has that Sun lacks is depth. The central characters of Linnet and Jackie come to life in ways that affect our perception of all that follows and stick with us after we’ve laid the book aside. Many of the other passengers are also vital characters, especially Tim, his mother, and Rosalie Otterbourne. The characters in Sun, though charming, function primarily as pieces that Christie moves across her game board. (Only Linda Marshall stands out as a depiction of adolescent angst.) I acknowledge the argument that this is precisely what characters in a mystery should do. Furthermore, the sheer length of Nile, as well as the size of its cast, prompts Christie to provide two additional murders to further muddy the waters, while Sun is content with one central killing. Thus, the pace moves quicker in Sun; yet the power of the characters in Nile gives us a different experience, one whose lasting power cannot be denied.
In Death on the Nile, Christie takes advantage of her extensive travels throughout the Middle East to provide a strong background for the goings on, particularly before the passengers embark on their ill-fated voyage on the Karnac. The steamer provides the requisite closed circle in which our suspects abide. Yet, in one sense, for all the purpose it serves, the Karnac could be a train in Yugoslavia or an airplane crossing the English channel. As a location, Egypt is not exactly integral to the plot, and the basic situation could happen almost anywhere. There are no native characters to deal with, no key to the mystery hidden in the nearby temples or pyramids. The setting provides atmosphere and little more. Mind you, the plot works here, from the way Jackie’s harassment plays out on the various stages of the Doyle’s honeymoon to the arrangement of the cabins at port and starboard sides. But this murder plan could theoretically play out anywhere, with only minor variations.
Contrast this with the Jolly Roger Hotel and its environs on the coast of Devon, the setting for Evil Under the Sun. The details of the setting spring from the author’s imagination, and the elements all form a vital key to the murder plot. We need the cliffs with the stairs, the cave at Pixy Cove, the topography that requires Miss Brewster and Patrick to travel the way they do toward the discovery of a body or Christine to leave Linda behind and return to the hotel in time to join the others for tennis. Many, if not most, of the key clues found here connect to the terrain and the characters’ navigation over, under and around it. (I wonder if any edition of the novel included a map of the area – a sure sign that setting matters!) Yes, the setting contributes to the working of the murder plot like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps too well-oiled, however; the killers in Sun are extraordinarily lucky to have a topography that works as well as it does for them, as if a higher agency had planned things out for them, while the terrain in Egypt, from the attempted murder of Linnet and Simon to the removal of the weapon from the scene of the crime, alternately works for the killers and helps bring about their downfall.
Plot (outright SPOILERS here)
Both plots hinge on classic Christie misdirection, both as to the time and execution of the murder and the true nature of the central romantic relationships. For the latter, here I think Nile exceeds expectations, creating something at once simple yet clever and ultimately moving. While it appears that Simon and Jackie foster strong feelings toward Linnet – love and hate, respectively – the truth is that the victim, for them, is a means toward an end. Both of them come from good aristocratic family stock and are now rendered penniless. Linnet’s money will set them up for life. However, we cannot dismiss them outright as simply a pair of fortune hunters because of Jackie. First, it is clear that she could live happily with Simon under the most exigent of circumstances. Secondly, as she explains to Poirot at the end, she entered into this plot basically to save Simon from making a mess of it and getting himself hanged.
This leads to one of the first major clues in the novel, the scene at the restaurant where Poirot witnesses a conversation between Jackie and Simon. The words they say are totally true: in all innocence, they look to Linnet to help them out by giving Simon a job. Poirot’s intuition (which we tend to trust) reveals that Simon may not be as deeply in love with Jackie as she is with him. This sets the reader up to buy into Simon turning his back on one woman for the other. But that’s the wrong interpretation. Poirot rightly senses a moral ambiguity in Simon and an intensity of desire in Jackie that would lead her to do anything for her love, but it leads him, at least at first, to accept the situation on the Karnac at face value. Consequently, while Poirot himself acknowledges that Jackie could and would kill, he misinterprets her reasons for murder until the weight of the evidence turns him around to face the truth.
The misdirection in the central relationship in Sun – that Patrick and Christine are not on the outs over Arlena, that they are, in fact, con artists who have systematically siphoned off money from their mark and must now kill her to ensure her silence – is similar in shape to that of Nile but cannot match the emotional heft of the earlier novel. Their partnership is unmasked as cold-blooded; in fact, it is not even clear if they are married or even lovers so much as partners in crime. Once again, Poirot overhears a conversation between the killers early in the proceedings. Christie relates this cleverly: it is one of a series of scenes that briefly remove us from Poirot’s point of view, and we watch the scene in its entirety before the author tosses in, at the very end, the fact that this is one scene the detective did overhear (as he was meant to.)
We can intellectually applaud the pattern of murder woven in both cases, but in Sun we do not find a matching appeal to the emotions. We’ve intimated here that neither Arlena nor Christine can match Jackie and Linnet for complexity of character. And while Patrick outwardly resembles Simon, both in physique and in the artifice of his display of affection, we tend to root for Simon until the end: he is, for one thing, a husband, while Patrick takes on the role of the lover and rival to a truly admirable man, Captain Marshall. Once Simon is given an alibi, we root for him and Jackie, his first, better match, to find their way back to each other once the case is solved. After Arlena’s murder in Sun, Patrick loses the charm he flashed throughout the first half of the novel; furthermore, we rarely see Patrick and Christine together, nor do we root for them to resolve their differences.
In terms of the misdirection over the timing of the murder and the alibis this hoodwinking provides, I think both plans are extremely clever: the killers in both bamboozling their audience through sheer dramatics and effective utilization of innocent witnesses. I do think the plan in Nile is sleeker, accomplishing more with fewer moving parts. The timetable that Patrick and Christine must follow is complicated in the extreme and can go wrong at any time. I also prefer that the Nile plan is undone by simple bad luck: Louise Bourget observes Simon entering and leaving his wife’s cabin when he simply cannot have done so. The clues that basically undo the Sun plot revolve around silly mistakes made by Christine: her odd choice in sun wear, her careless disposal of the suntan oil bottle, and her inconsistent display of vertigo. In Nile, most of the clueing revolves around this bad run of luck that anyone who tries such a crazy scheme would no doubt suffer from. The recovery of the stole from the river, with the bullet hole in it, is very clever since we are focused on the gun around which the stole is wrapped.
There is no doubt that, in both novels, Christie as clue-meister is operating in top form. From the earliest moments of Sun, when Poirot and his fellow tourists discuss the appearance of suntanned bodies on the beach, Christie plants the seed for Christine’s impersonation of Arlena on Pixy Cove. The early clueing in Nile, as suggested above, is subtler, which is arguably not a good thing for lovers of fair play. Most people like the trail of evidence to be basically cut and dried, and clues regarding personality require more inference from the detective and the reader than some might like. Once we get to the respective murders, however, the clues become more substantial.
The major difference in the plots reveals something about Christie’s maturation as a writer. Nile definitely has its antecedents in 1930’s Murder at the Vicarage, another mystery featuring a romantic triangle, where the two most likely suspects are struck off the list almost immediately through their establishment of alibis. This leaves a wide-open field for everyone else present on or near the scene, and the bulk of the investigation involves trying through conversations to establish some incriminating connection between any of the passengers and Linnet. The murderers’ plan in Sun does the opposite by providing an alibi for nearly every member of this entourage, leaving Poirot with a different problem altogether. In a sense, the problem in Sun becomes more cohesive and more aesthetically pleasing. The investigation slowly whittles away at one alibi after another until the only really solid alibi belongs to the actual killer and his innocent witness.
And here we come to the one really solid weakness of Evil Under the Sun that shakes its fair play foundation, at least in my estimation, and it concerns the question of motive. In Nile, we have the wool pulled over our eyes, but we are constantly reminded of how rich Linnet was and how Simon will inherit her fortune. This is cleverly underlined in a conversation with Pennington, where Simon says that if he had control of the Ridgeway fortune, he couldn’t be bothered with reading contracts. This puts the focus onto Pennington, who needs a dupe like Simon to hide his financial crimes, but actually Christie is practically screaming here, “The husband benefits! Always look to the husband first!!”
But there is no earthly reason presented as to why Patrick would kill Arlena. There is no evidence that she rejected him for someone else, nor is there anything to tie Patrick into another identity, such as the wife murderer he turns out to be. In fact, the 1981 film adaptation sought to “solve” this problem by expanding the story of Patrick’s alter ego and to strengthen the romantic relationship between Patrick and Christine, even glamorizing her at the end to explain how a stud like Patrick could “deserve” her.
But then, don’t get me started on how both adaptations of these novels ignore Christie’s feminist leanings and establish both victims through the traditonal “male gaze” of the camera lens. Lois Chiles’ depiction of Linnet is devoid of all the complexity of the novel. She feels no guilt for what she did to Jackie; rather, she is presented as a consummate monster: new motives are created for every passenger, as if Linnet spent her life and wealth making others miserable. Diana Rigg’s depiction of Arlena is more in keeping with the shallower character found in the novel, although the playing up of the humor in that film, while immensely enjoyable, robs the viewer of developing any real sympathy for Arlena at the end.
In summation, both novels are master classes in the correlation of character, setting and plot to produce a marvelous whodunit. Evil Under the Sun has an easier job of proving itself a fair play mystery, where all the parts of the plot machine operate at a similar level to produce a highly pleasing effect. Yet while some sharp cookies – like my buddy JJ himself – may argue that the sum total of Death on the Nile may be greater than its parts, largely due to a strange disconnect between the leading players and many of the passengers who orbit around them, ultimately the emotional satisfaction one derives at the end of Nile, combined with the cleverness of the murder plan, earns it the title of one of Christie’s masterpieces.
Over the next nine years, Poirot will crop up again in three more novels, a serious slowing down for the detective, who in the nine years between 1932 and 1941 had appeared in fifteen novels! In all three titles, the sleuth will again come up against the eternal romantic triangle. Christie will come up with completely unrecognizable variations for all three; two of them will work brilliantly. But more and more, the elements of fair play will matter less and less, with complex clueing giving way to increasingly complex characterizations and relationships. In fact, we won’t return to a carefully clued fair play mystery again until 1953’s fabulous After the Funeral. And yet, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow are both wonderful mysteries precisely because of their attention to character. Nile combines the old and the new in a way that Sun does not, and for that reason it deserves classic status.
Hey, I don’t make this stuff up!