Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie (1937)

DeathOnTheNile2Is 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.

DeathOnTheNileTo 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…

20 thoughts on “Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie (1937)”

  1. Well, you may have had it all figured out, but I still think that your first Christie was great Christie. (My first were – you guessed it – And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express!) I was probably 15 when I first read Nile, and I was happily fooled. I think JJ’s point that perhaps the other passengers aren’t as well woven into the central mystery or explored hard enough is well taken, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking this book is a classic.

    I’ll be interesting in hearing which book will be Christie #2. Meanwhile, I’m having the hell of a time getting through The Punch and Judy Murders!! Heeeeeelllllppp!

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    1. I saw you say that you were struggling through a Carter Dickson title and I was worried that it might be The White Priory Murders. I haven’t read Punch and Judy yet, although I know that JJ vouches for some aspects of it.

      As for Christie #2 – you won’t have to wait too long…

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      1. I vouch for the whole damn thing of The Punch and Judy Murders — it’s one of the few “told on the run” detective novels that actually works, and a novel that I’m beffled to find as overlooked as it it, especially as it doesn’t require any of the usual considerations of the impossible crime nove. It should be regarded as among the best things Carr ever put on paper, but it lingers unloved…but then we’ll get into Carr’s unavailability again and I think we all know how I feel about this.

        As for DotN…yeah, it’s fine. The Carr it reminds me of in terms of strucutre is Peacocj Feather Murders, largely because they both have individually interesting threads that are never woven together to form a cohesive and entertaining whole. Why,n for instance, is there a spy on the boat in Nile? Makes no sense, adds nothing to the story, doesn’t even offer up an event we think is linked to the main mystery only for it to be a clever reversal of expectations. All that happens is someone opens a letter about potatoes, mentions it later, and someone else goes “Wow, potatoes? That’s a spy code!” and then it’s done. There’s waaaaaay too much of that sort of thing here for my liking.

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    2. I’m kind of glad that Christie didn’t explore the other passengers to the depths that she could have. For example, with Salome Otterborne and her daughter Rosalie, we don’t get too much of a backstory as to how the mother became an alcoholic (to my memory of the book we don’t get an answer) or a detailed look in their relationship but I don’t think that’s needed. While modern mystery writers might stray from the mystery and devote pages to the mother and daughter’s relationship and delve into Salome’s alcoholic stupor, it’s not necessary. Christie sketches enough details to make us, the readers, wonder about their relationship. Everything doesn’t have to be explored and told to us. I much rather take the spy subplot instead, and I know JJ, that you felt it was unnecessary but it helped muddied the waters a bit, though I do agree that maybe it could have lasted a tad longer. Maybe that’s why it was excised from the two film adaptations.

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  2. I last read this a few years ago and knew the solution – in fact I had the faces of the actors from the 1978 adaptation in mind as I read – but I found that didn’t matter a bit. I was as interested by the book overall as the puzzle on its own, and I actually enjoyed piecing together the clues as I came across them, and discarding the red herrings, and seeing the pattern emerge as I knew it had to.

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    1. I too am a fan of The Punch and Judy Murders. I might not rank it among Carr’s best, but it’s one of my personal favorites. Unlike The Blind Barber, which is intended to be a farcical romp but which I found deadly (maybe that’s how Brad feels about P&J), I found Punch & Judy an entertaining page-turner with amusing running gags, and some clues I missed completely.

      Solving a detective novel right away is frustrating, but a good author like Carr or Christie makes the book worth reading—and re-reading—even when you know whodunit and how and why. And once in a while you get crossed up. I remember “solving” an Anthony Berkeley novel early on, and waiting patiently until the final chapter, when Roger Sheringham revealed my solution… which then turned out to be completely wrong. I found it exhilarating.

      As for unavailability: There are copies of The Punch & Judy Murders available fairly cheap at bookfinder.com, or if you prefer free, it’s available (as are nearly all out-of-print detective stories) on interlibrary loan from your local library; in fact I donated my extra copy to the library where I work in LaGrange, Georgia (see http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=no%3A49566720 ).

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      1. I have two copies of Punch and Judy, but it’s about 10 books down the Carr pile. I’ve imagined it would be similar to the first half of The Unicorn Murders – although that is a book where I much prefer the second half.

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  3. I think when you read myriads and myriads of GAD books it becomes easier to solve when you come across the same devices and solutions, and in the case of DOtN, that’s probably why you solved it so easily and saw Christie’s hand so soon.

    But I’m glad that you enjoyed DOtN and I’m excited that you’ll be reading your second Agatha Christie. And I hope that you like her enough to read through her complete oeuvre. . . . and that you’ll come across a mystery that you won’t be able to solve so easily. Whether someone solved the mystery right from the start, or didn’t, or whether they have re-read the book for the umpteenth time and know the story and solution by heart, I agree with you, thegreencapsule, DOtN is a good story. The fact that you were drawn into the story from the start and continued until the end, though you saw beneath the deception, speaks volumes of the story itself. DOtN explores the depths of relationships and the human heart but it’s just a taste of the greater depths that you’ll see in some of Christie’s later books from the 40’s.

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