When we talk about Death Comes as the End, Agatha Christie’s 1944 tour de force set in ancient Egypt, conversation hovers around personal opinion about how well Christie balanced the mass of detail in this, the first ever historical mystery novel, with her trademark GAD plotting. But now that the book is about to receive its first ever film adaptation – the first genuinely exciting announcement to come out of the BBC since it absorbed the rights to adapting Christie’s works – I can’t help wondering what it is we are going to see.
On the one hand, Death Comes as the End is one of a small handful of serial killer mysteries penned by Dame Agatha, containing a body count second only to And Then There Were None. As a detective novel, it is problematic: the clueing is spotty compared to most of her plots: you don’t have much chance to deduce who the killer is; you have to simply wait until the thirteen family members are whittled down to three and then guess.
On the other hand, the novel is jam-packed with intriguing details about life in a lower upper-class Egyptian family, and the set-up is even based on fact: a series of letters, discovered in Thebes in the early 20thcentury, from a ka-priest called Heqanakht to his family, discussing economic and personal matters. The whole affair is related in Christie’s breezy style from the point of view of the family’s only daughter, and much of it resembles nothing more than a Mary Westmacott novel with a bit of woven linen and lots and lots of killings added to it.
In her Autobiography, Christie breaks the infuriating custom of breezing through – or ignoring – her writing process and relates the “coming to be” of Death Comes as the End. she took up the project as a request from a family friend, Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, who pointed her toward the Heqanakht papyri:
“These letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father, fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do what he said; the sons, one obedient but obviously not bright, and the other, sharp-tempered, showy and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons we’re about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief.”
I’ve always had a soft spot for this book, despite the absence of true detection and the odd whiff of women’s magazine story permeated with historical detail. The initial family set-up is compelling: newly widowed Renisenb returns to her family homestead for solace and barely has time to register the fact that you can’t go home again when her elderly father returns from a business trip with a beautiful and arrogant concubine named Nofret, (an Egyptian word for “just asking to be killed.”)
After Nofret dies, her spirit seems to haunt the homestead, picking off family members with increasing speed. You can just imagine the gory detail, the haunting atmosphere, and the twisty, supernatural epilogue . . . if John Dickson Carr had written this one. With Christie, most of the violence happens offstage, but she still manages a few haunting set pieces: one character is essentially mummified alive, while we follow another who has worked so carefully to avoid being killed, only to realize at the moment of death how cleverly the murderer tricked her.
Robert Barnard commented that this book was basically “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, transported to Egypt, ca 2000 B.C.” I get his point. The three sons of Imhotep, the old ka priest, and their wives and servants, are pretty much synonymous with the Lee family. There’s the pious son and the sexy son and the black sheep, the shrewish wife and the dutiful wife and the employees, both loyal and back-stabbing. There are traces of Arlena Marshall from Evil Under the Sun in Nofret, while Renisenb could be traded out for Katherine Grey or Anne Beddingfield or Lynn Marchmont with little notice. Like Lynn, Renisenb begins the novel with her life at loose ends and hones her focus on two potential suitors, one noble and dull, the other sexy and flashy. (In other words, a “Max” and an “Archie,” so there’s no doubt at all to whom she will bestow her hand in the end.)
The cover of my Pocketbooks paperback copy of the book contains the descriptor: “The most unusual story ever told by one of the truly great mystery story writers.” Perhaps the biggest disappointment with Death is that it isn’t all that unusual. The characters are stock Christie suspects, despite the change of scene, and the action unfolds with such speed that we barely have time to register who’s being killed or how we feel about it before the whole thing is wrapped up. That said, it’s immensely readable and enjoyable, and Christie manages to include a few of her tricks, including a lovely use of the over-the-shoulder look that presages death (c.f., Appointment with Death, A Caribbean Mystery, and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side).
In her Autobiography, Christie teases us horribly with a juicy detail related to this book:
“Stephen argued with me a great deal on one point of my dénouement, and I am sorry to say that I gave in to him in the end. I was always annoyed with myself for having done so. He had a kind of hypnotic influence about that sort of thing: he was so positive himself that he was right that you couldn’t help having doubts yourself. Up to then, on the whole, though I have given into people on every subject under the sun, I have never given in to anyone over what I write.
“If I think I have got a certain thing rightin a book – the way it should be – I’m not easily moved from it. In this case, against my better judgment, I didgive in. It was a moot point, but I still think now, when I reread the book, that I would like to rewrite the end of it–which shows that you should stick your guns in the first place, or you will be dissatisfied with yourself. But I was a little hampered by the gratitude I felt to Stephen for all the trouble he had taken, and the fact that it had been hisidea to start with.”
In his first volume about Christie’s “Secret Notebooks,” John Curran noted this same quotation and, while not entirely able to clear up the matter (“- does she mean the identity of the killer or the manner of revelation?”), he at least is able to reveal some of the alternate solutions she had considered. One of them is quite dark and might have been, if not more satisfying then more dramatically rich; elements of this idea can be found a few years later in a post-War Poirot novel.
All of this makes we excited as heck about what the BBC machine will grind out from this one. “BestButcher Christie!” is the outcry of purists when it comes to what they’ve seen so far. And even though Sarah Phelps has taken a pass on this one, what, I wonder, will we see when the sure-to-be-three-parts adaptation unfolds before our eyes? Contrary to what some might believe, I am not a total purist when it comes to Dame Agatha, and I consider it a toss-up over whether the Beebs will improve upon, or ruin, this one-of-a-kind Christie.
Historical tone: If you listen to actress Emilia Fox read the book, you get a sense of a much earlier time than some of the plot and character elements indicate. Christie herself noted that people are pretty much the same throughout the ages, but I wonder, in this age of magnificent, detail-oriented historical series, whether the BBC might take advantage of this and create a truly sumptuous experience. And if so, what effect would this have on the essence of Christie that is so very 1930’s-40’s?
The casting: Jesus wasn’t white and neither was Renisenb. But descriptive language was never Christie’s strength, and the family of Imhotep is rendered in broad strokes that suggest a typical British clan. Satipy: “a tall, energetic, loud-tongued woman, handsome in a hard, commanding kind of way.” Kait: “a broad, plain-faced woman.” Khay: “his laughing face and strong shoulders.” Henet: “unattractive to look at and stupid as well.” When we meet the aristocratic grandmother Esa, “attended by two little black girls,” we could be hanging out with British colonials.
It isn’t until we get to Nofret that we get a taste of “exoticism”: She had very straight black brows and a rich bronze skin, and her eyelashes were so long and thick that one could hardly see her eyes.” But this differentiation has more to do with Nofret’s status as an outsider and a troublemaker – a 2,000-year-old femme fatale– than with her race.
These are the kinds of classic stylings a modern adaptation should improve upon. We could end up with one of the only English-language murder mysteries in my memory with a non-white cast. For that reason alone, I’m excited to see this! And what famous faces might have their first chance to perform Agatha Christie?
The sexuality: Sure, throughout the canon, Christie’s characters have affairs, give birth to illegitimate children, and engage in all sorts of illicit passion. Miss Marple herself likens St. Mary Mead to the scum at the top of a pond. But, of course, it was all presented through a polite gauze. I looked up the word “concubine” and discovered that the figure had different connotations in various societies, ranging from a woman with nearly all the dignity and respect of a wife to a prostitute. In most cases, having a concubine lent a man a greater sense of respect in his community. King Solomon had hundreds of them!
The fact that Nofret is younger than Imhotep’s own daughter isn’t really an eyebrow-raiser. He could very well be a man in his late 40’s (although Christie’s portrait of him makes him seem 70) who wants more children. A young and sexy new companion will make the associates of the ka-priest sit up and take notice. Henet, Imhotep’s fawning servant, says: “She is beautiful! Quite beautiful! What hair, what limbs! She is worthy of you, Imhotep.” But Nofret is no naïve waif. She is the daughter of a merchant who traded her away; she is all about anger and power, and she uses her sexual wiles to wreak havoc with the household.
Except it’s Christie, and all of this is a mere shadow on the page. We see the effectof her actions on the family members, but Nofret has a point: she never receives the respect which, according to custom, is due her as the concubine of the head of household. Yet Christie doesn’t show us more than a glimmer of depth of character in Nofret – when she is talking to Renisenb – and makes her function purely as a catalyst for mass murder.
There is a lot that could be said her about being female – in ancient Egypt and, by extension, today, that goes right in with the BBC’s attempt to make Christie accessible to modern audiences. Renisenb and Nofret both try to figure out how to forge an identity, Renisenb through traditional and acceptable means that would fit right in with 1944 British housewives, Nofret through transgressive means that will resonate with modern audiences. Satipy rages against the household in her thirst for respect, and Kait absorbs herself obsessively in motherhood. The older women, Esa and Henet, are equally fascinating characters. How will this affect the network’s approach to the story?
The murders: There are seven murders in the novel – poisonings, drownings, mummifications and falls off cliffs – all wrapped in the protective linen of Christie’s prose. Will the BBC fulfill the promise of its previous adaptations and get funky with the gore? Will we have to endure being mummified ourselves?
The ending: The one place where I do consider myself an absolute purist regarding Christie concerns her solutions. I’m not so blind as to believe that she hit it out of the ballpark every time. However, she chose her murderers, often after much consideration of alternate endings (see the notebooks!), and her plotting was carefully arranged to lead us to a specific person or persons.
Has any adapter ever come up with details that improve upon Christie’s original story or lend a greater resonance for modern audiences? Of course they have! Has anyone conceived of a better solution to a novel than the original? I would argue that not only has this never happened, most attempts to “improve” upon Christie’s solution have been massive, ugly failures. Defend all you want the random insertions of lesbianism or incest or the unholy mess that was The Sittaford Mystery (with Miss Marple, no less, to guide us . . . where?) Where did it get us?
Here, however, we have a novel that Christie herself acknowledged she would like to rewrite. How will Vanity Fair’s Gwyneth Hughes absorb this fact into her screenplay? This, plus the ancient setting, seems to give Hughes the go-ahead to pull a Phelps-ian extraction of all the GAD “quaintness” one finds in Christie and writers of her ilk. Will the adaptation move even further away from traditional detective tropes, as the author herself did here? I think you can bet on it. Will the end result bring in a wealth of new viewers and tear the heart out of her oldest fans? What do you think?
I can’t wait!