THIRTEEN EGYPTIANS SAT DOWN TO DINE: Christie’s Death Comes As the End

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.

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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.”

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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!

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40 thoughts on “THIRTEEN EGYPTIANS SAT DOWN TO DINE: Christie’s Death Comes As the End

    1. I would be so down for that! I think it’s a better “novel with murder” than whodunnit, but it works for me! And the potential for this to be a good film is almost as high as the odds that they’re going to blow it!

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  1. I have to admit, Brad, I agree that the adaptation concerns me. What will they do with this one? Still, I think you’ve hit on the major points that set this one apart. Christie did some fine research to do the novel, and I’ve always thought that (at least for me) the detail wasn’t so much as to take away from the story. She didn’t go on and on endlessly about life at that time.It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a fine story, I think.

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    1. I agree, Margot. We may ding her for some of the parts that ring too modern, but on the other hand, 1944 readers must have been fascinated at the same time they could relate to the characters and situations.

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  2. I haven’t read that many Christies, but for what it’s worth, Death Comes as the End is my second favorite. You could argue that it’s a contemporary mystery set long in the past, but the lack of investigation over such a long period of time lends an interesting aspect to the story.

    I personally thought the killer in this one was easy to spot. My suspicions got triggered about midway through and from then on, the marks were everywhere. Still loved it though!

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    1. My suspicions were aroused when Satipy died because I just knew what she saw over her shoulder! By the way, it’s the only time I ever figured out what anybody saw over their shoulder in a Christie novel! 🤪

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      1. I remember figuring out the killer fairly early on, but I do not remember what was seen over the shoulder. Like you, I remember being struck by how familiar it all was — how very English Middle Class — given how unfamiliar it was meant to be, but it’s a very enjoyable book and it’ll be interesting to see what the Beeb turn it into. Only 8 months to wait…!

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    2. Like I said, it’s the best announcement the BBC could have made! First adaptation, nothing to compare it to, and since we all have to acknowledge the awkwardness of this meld of historical fiction and GAD, we can accept that they have to approach this one THEIR way!!

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  3. I always loved this one – probably because of the ‘English Christie family transported back in time’ feel, the best of both worlds. And I think seeing any adaptation is going to be great, because the settings and so on are going to be terrific. So no strong feelings – but did enjoy your going over of the details.

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  4. I can strongly recommend Paul Doherty’s Amerotke series of mysteries if anyone wants more ancient Egyptian mayhem – full of meticulously researched detail and clever, often impossible, mysteries.

    Also, I haven’t read it – not sure anyone has – but The Julius Caesar Murder Case by Wallace Irwin was published in 1935, ten years previous to this one.

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      1. Yeah, I thought so. But how better to hide a murderer than in the middle of a mass attempted murder? Which, come to think about it, is the basic idea in my next review…

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      2. It is actually a different rendering of the events. According to this book, Shakespeare was wrong ! In fact, Julius Ceaser was walking quite alone, more than 10 feet away from the group of assassins, when suddenly a knife, coming out of nowhere, pierced his back and he fell dead. The conspirators who were going to kill him were shocked and decided to take credit for the murder and used their own daggers on him.
        It can’t be regarded as a historical mystery because of the distortion of historical facts. It is more a comical and satirical mystery. The mystery is solved by a reporter. The solution is quite clever and well-clued.

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    1. I have The Julius Caesar Murder Case! Bought it fairly recently from Ramble House. I shall attempt to bump it up the TBR in light of this timely mention.

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      1. Speaking of Ramble House, they’ve got two new Miles Burton books on their list, Death Paints A Picture (good) and Situation Vacant (probably the most findable second hand and also, not good). What is going on with the rights for the Burton/Rhode titles? Is the estate issuing them one at a time?

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      2. Well, at least these books are starting to trickle out, I suppose. Rhode, some Carrs this year…the future’s bright!

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      3. I’d prefer something that resembled a coherent plan. Let’s face it, It Walks By Night is hardly Carr at his best – I’m curious what other titles were possible choices. Similarly, those are odd choices for Burton, as were the first two they did – picking one that didn’t involved Desmond Merrion, for example… I’m sure DSP would have leapt at the chance to do Rhode – I imagine they tried, but with a few already published by someone who clearly isn’t going to do the whole canon, it makes it very unlikely someone else is going to doo “all but four”…

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      4. Speaking of Ramble .House, previously they used to provide ebook versions (mobi of epub) of all books at 6 dollars each. Unfortunately, they have discontinued this.

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      5. A correction.
        I wrote to Gavin L. O’Keefe of Ramble House and he clarified that ebooks are not available for Harry Stephen Keeler books but these are available for most other books at $6 each.. If one wants an ebook, he should write to Gavin at flyingspiderster@gmail.com mentioning the book. Gavin will advise whether the ebook is available and if so he will give the payment instructions.

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  5. I can’t help feeling it’s just as well ITV isn’t doing the adaptation – otherwise it’s a good bet they woud try to work Miss Marple into the plot!

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    1. Jonathan, I love this comment so much! And I have to tell you – as demeaning and ludicrous as it may be – the idea of Grandmother Esa calling in her fluffy friend Jane Marple to solve the case would be worth everything to me!!!!!

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  6. This is exciting news indeed! Yes they could (and often have in the past) mess this up, but at least they’re giving us a new novel adaptation and who knows it might be marvelous.

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    1. I’m holding out hope, too, Rebecca, because this one is unique in Christie’s canon. The BBC has been less likely to shift toward the traditional stylings of GAD and more toward the often brutal depiction of murder. Here, they have a pretty clear field and, God willing, if they do it right, it could be very exciting to watch.

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  7. Well, let’s just say I enjoy reading your blog almost as much as I enjoy reading the books you discuss. DCATE is a favorite. I almost shudder to think what a television adaptation will do to this story. Hoping for a faithful adaptation. And though I enjoy Phelps, largely, this one could use the sensitive pen of a Philomena McDonagh (After the Funeral – Poirot 10/3.

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  8. Incidentally, The Julius Caesar Murder Case by Wallace Irwin is listed in Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. The impossible crime is stated as: Death by stabbing by invisible agency.

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  9. Death Comes as the End was the book by Christie that Edmund Wilson read and examined in Why Do People Read Detective Stories? He thinks “the book has a flavor of Lloyd C. Douglas” and that Christie “has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the pic­ture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it. In this new novel”

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  10. As you know, Brad, I am a purist, but am tolerant of adaptations that deviate only slightly or, which trim fat (Philomena McDonough’s screenplay of After the Funeral, case in point). I thought the entire Marple series was a disaster. Even a few of the ordinarily meticulous Poirots were awful (M in M for instance).

    I liked DCATE because it, after all was said and done, was a very nifty mystery, borne of good old human motivations. The tension between the characters was good and satisfying. I hope these aspects of this very fun but bittersweet story are preserved.

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