Is there even a point to reviewing an Agatha Christie novel? I mean, there must be books about books about Christie reviews. My comments wouldn’t even by footnotes in a footnote. Still, half the fun of reading for me takes place after the book is finished – the discussions that ensue and the insights shared by my fellow GAD enthusiasts.
In this case, I’ve completed my first Agatha Christie book, which feels like an embarrassing admission to make in this sort of forum. Oh well. I started my journey with John Dickson Carr and locked room mysteries, and if I spread my wings a little late in life, so be it. I don’t mind doing it in the open.
A little research into which Christie book to start with has led me down a somewhat obvious path – Death on the Nile. Yes, I suppose that And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express would have been a bit more obvious – at least in the US, theses are the two titles that anyone on the street would associate with the author. I spoiled the former by watching the recent movie adaptation, and the later seems like the conventional hit that I might save for later. Death on the Nile was the middle ground – it shows up on pretty much everyone’s “best of Christie” list, plus Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery listed it as one of his “five Christies to read before they’re spoiled for you”.
If you’re not familiar with this title, I’ll let you get a plot summary elsewhere. This tale of a trip down the Nile river and the crimes that follow had me oddly drawn in from the beginning. Perhaps it’s just Christie’s writing style. There was no jarring hook to capture me like I’ve come to expect from the books I typically read, but still the story seemed… comfortable. The writing style itself is a bit more straight forward than contemporaries like John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand, yet the comfort lay not in the simplicity but the depth of…the story itself.
Perhaps it’s the way Christie seems to have captured a time and a place. This isn’t just a tale that takes place on a Nile riverboat in the 1930s. It’s a story that feels as if it captures the essence of what it would be like to be there – at least from a romantic gentry-tinted perspective. This is not accomplished with Carr’s florid prose, but instead it’s imbued in Christie’s seemingly more straight forward writing.
Now, make no mistake, I wasn’t exactly swept away by Death on the Nile – if I were to compare it to a Carr title I’d rank it alongside his excellent The Bowstring Murders. A fine book, and if not a smashing classic, I was drawn in from the start and it remained a page turner until the very end.
The mystery though…was dead obvious. I saw what was happening before it happened, while it happened, and after it happened. This wasn’t a mere hunch that I had spotted the killer – the solution sat in plain sight and every relevant clue further confirmed my theory.
To be clear, I’m not bragging. Solving a mystery, much less a “classic” mystery, is the exact opposite of what I want. Yeah, we all think we want to spot the trick and glimpse behind the curtain, but when you do, it can be a real let down. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way with John Dickson Carr’s My Late Wives. Up until that point, Carr had a near perfect track record with me, always wrapping his books up with a bewildering twist that left my jaw hanging.
Of course, I had had a few hunches that turned out to be correct – the killer in The Lost Gallows was a lucky guess on my part although I had no real evidence to back it up. I almost immediately identified the excellent “how” of the impossibility in The Unicorn Murders, but the author still pulled the rug out from under me when the full spectrum of the final solution was revealed.
My Late Wives was different though. For the first time, I saw the clues as they were dropped, and what had started out as one of Carr’s most alluring hooks just sort of…sputtered. Yeah, there was still a fairly thrilling finish, but once I had caught on to the whole trick, the rest of the book just seemed like cardboard filler.
I’ve taken you on this whole John Dickson Carr tangent because it provides an interesting contrast to my experience with Death on the Nile. Yes, I immediately locked into what was happening and had my suspicions further cemented with each successive chapter, but it all remained fun and vibrant. I was, of course, hoping that my intuition was wrong and Christie was luring me into a false solution. Even when that didn’t turn out to be true, it wasn’t disappointing. The book held its own despite the lack of mystery.
Why was it so easy to see through the mystery of Death on the Nile? I’m tempted to say that I got lucky, but really I think that Christie relied on a form of deceit that is fairly common in the types of impossible crimes that I read. I’ll have to tiptoe here to avoid spoilers, which I’m reserving for comments I’ll post to JJ and Brad’s spoiler-riddled dissection over at the Invisible Event. It isn’t that Christie’s killer relied on a specific over-used method to avoid detection. It is instead that Christie cloaked the killer in a manner that fits a certain category of puzzle. I could rattle off a number of Carr books that rely on this technique, but, you know, the analogy could spoil those titles for someone.
I really take no pride in having seen through the puzzle. I want a fair play mystery to tug me along with the promise that I’ve solved the crime and seen through the red herrings, only to knock me to my knees with the final revelation. That I enjoyed Death on the Nile so much despite seeing through it all is possibly a testament to just how good the story is.
I couldn’t leave well enough alone once I’d finished the book, of course. There’s a massive number of Agatha Christie’s Poirot episodes available on Netflix and I’ve been dying for the opportunity to watch one. I won’t repeat the mistake that I made with And Then There Were None by watching a filmed version first, since the books are always so much deeper. Of course, I probably should have watched the well regarded 1978 version of Death on the Nile, but hey…
After persistent badgering, I convinced my poor wife to sit through two hours of “some old crusty mystery” (she doesn’t quite appreciate my fascination with GAD). As I expected, the film version shaved some significant aspects of the story, although I was delighted by how it captured the grandeur of the sprawling estate at the beginning and the marvel of the other settings – details that can sometimes be difficult to fully appreciate while reading.
And…my wife immediately realized what was happening during the key scene. Granted, this version of the film probably deserves an F for subtlety during said scene, but honestly, I felt like the book would have only gotten a C. Fortunately my wife enjoyed the movie enough that I can probably convince her to watch the version of the next Poirot title that I finish.
All things considered, I’m fairly happy with my first true experience with Agatha. This wasn’t one of the musty boring mysteries that my childhood self assumed the author wrote, and Poirot was rather enjoyable compared to the tiresome character I had assumed him to be from glimpses in public television commercials over the years. In fact, these were very similar to the novels by authors like Carr and Christianna Brand that I’ve already fallen in love with. And there are a lot more of them to go…