Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)

DeathComesAsTheEndThe phrase “historical mystery” instantly brings to mind John Dickson Carr.  The author shifted his focus from contemporary Golden Age mysteries starting with The Bride of Newgate (1950) and contributed heavily to the sub-genre up until his final novel – The Hungry Goblin.  His historical works cover ground between the seventeenth century (The Devil in Velvet) up until the time of his own birth (The Witch of the Low Tide) and I’ve seen several comments claiming that he basically created the historical mystery.

Or does Agatha Christie hold that title?  Death Comes as the End, published in 1945, came out five years before The Bride of Newgate.  Set in ancient Egypt, the tale of death stalking a high priest’s family certainly checks the boxes for historical and mystery.  It’s worth mentioning though that Carr had two prior historical works – the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) and Devil Kinsmere (1934), although I haven’t read the later and I’m not certain that it qualifies as a mystery.

So who holds the title?  I don’t really care.  Death Comes as the End is jaw dropping, and from a shear mystery point of view probably beats out any of Carr’s historical novels.  Carr’s historical books are fun romps and the ones I’ve read so far have all been satisfying page turners.  Christie’s sole entry though is one to stick with you.  Similar to Murder in Retrospect, this is a book that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I put it down.

Death Comes at the End is waaaay historical – as in ancient Egypt, 2000 BC.  The story follows a torrent of tragedy that befalls four generations of family living in a luxurious estate along the Nile.  The patriarch of the family, an arrogant priest, returns from a lengthy voyage with a concubine in tow.  The new member of the family quickly stirs up trouble and triggers a fear in the various offspring that they may lose out on their inheritance.  It’s no surprise when the concubine is found lifeless at the base of a cliff.

If you turned the clock forward 3930 years, then this probably sounds quite a bit like Christie’s typical country house murder plot.  The author herself states in the forward, “Both places and time are incidental to the story.  Any other place at any other time would have served as well.”  The setting is a true shift though, and the characters are fleshed out in such a way that this feels like a very different type of novel.

The concubine’s death kicks off a series of subsequent murders.  I won’t go into details in terms of how the remaining story unfolds because it’s a fun surprise throughout the rest of the book to see who gets it next.  The body count doesn’t stack quite as high as And Then There Were None, but it is an apt comparison to make in terms of the decimation of the cast.

It’s not the body count that makes Death Comes as the End memorable though.  That honor goes to several factors, the most notable being a burning question that haunts you for much of the book – what did a character see over her husband’s shoulder that caused her to scream out in terror, mere moments before falling to her death?  Christie plants the seed of this simple question and then teases the reader with it until it takes on a legend of its own.  I simply had to know the answer.

The story is also bolstered by a cast of memorable characters.  It would be fair to label them as archetypes, but that dismisses the vibrancy that Christie gives to their lives.  Of course, this amplifies the impact as the cast is picked off one by one.  One particular murder, occurring late in the book, stands out as particularly memorable and may qualify as my favorite GAD death scene to date.

Christie does herself somewhat of a disservice in claiming that “time and place are incidental to the story.”  One interesting aspect of the setting is that there isn’t really any investigative consequence to the deaths.  There’s no detective or police to show up and hunt for clues.  Instead, the family just kind of deals with the tragedy of it all.  There are two characters – a plucky grandmother and a solemn scribe – who do some sleuthing of their own, but there aren’t really any indications of a justice system of any kind.

The story plays out over the course of the year, following a slightly confusing calendar that had me repeatedly flipping back to the list of chapters (which are all titled based on the date).  Despite the gulf of months that take place between many chapters, the story feels as if it careens out of control with a furious pace.  It was a white-knuckled read from the time of the second murder through to the final page.

I was able to successfully identify the killer in this one.  There was a point after a dual poisoning occurred that a number of factors clicked into place and I was fairly certain that the clues and circumstances led to one likely conclusion.  I didn’t have every detail figured out of course, but this was quite fairly clued.  Despite solving the crime, my enjoyment of the book wasn’t spoiled.  Christie left enough wiggle room to where I was nearly thrown off by a late fake.

Death Comes as the End takes a seat alongside Murder in Retrospect as my favorite Christie book to date.  That’s not much of a claim, as I still have most of her library to go.  Still, this is a book that packs a visceral punch, and for that reason I rank it higher than more well known titles like Crooked House or Death on the Nile.


A time-traveling note to my thirteen year old self – do not read this book for the naked woman on the cover!  There is nothing even remotely in the neighborhood of this image in the book, unless Christie neglected to mention that all of the characters were walking around without clothes on.  I always get a kick out of the voluptuous vixen that appears completely out of context on the GAD novel cover, but this is taking things to a whole new level.

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8 thoughts on “Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)”

  1. I have referenced Satipy’s look over the shoulder several times as one of my favorite moments in Christie. On the one hand, Christie uses this technique many times in her canon and always differently. When you get to them, compare this usage to Major Palgrave looking over Miss Marple’s shoulder in A Caribbean Mystery (very clever clue) or to Marina Gregg looking over Heather Badcock’s shoulder in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (gut-wrenching).

    I’m really glad you liked this one, Ben. I think one of the reasons I do too is that at that moment when Satipy turns around and freezes, I knew what she had seen . . . and that led me to figuring out who the killer was. I was very proud of myself, particularly since there really aren’t any super clues to get you there in this one.

    And I can’t swear that Christie invented the historical mystery, but I think she beat out Carr – and this just might be the first one.

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    1. I nearly made this my third Christie read, and it may have been on the back of one of your comments. Just that question of what was seen over the shoulder is intriguing enough to want to read the book.

      With that said – really?!? You really figured it out?!? Even though I clued into the culprit due to later deaths, I still couldn’t grasp what occurred at that moment. If so, my hat’s off to you – although, of course, my condolences as well.

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      1. Yes, like you, I prefer to be flummoxed! But I DID guess it . . . and I think that if you think about it, you will understand how.

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      2. I think the achievement of what Christie did is is outstanding, but I’m with you and Brad in having worked it out — the behaviour of one character at a certain point would only have happened like that because ahemcoughsplutter was the killer.

        As to whether this bests Carr — hey, c’mon, you need some counter-argument in your thesis — I dunno. Christie does a great job of making a setting that is astoundingly unusual feel both sensible and familiar, but to a certain extent I think the unfamiliarity with the setting is what works in her favour. Carrs historicals utilised an era where there is much great scope to research, to feel familiar (due to movies and TV), and so to find fault, and he sketches his historical details in with an effortlessness that would make most authors blanch. Christie’s setting here feels very much like a series of (slightly wobbly) TV sets in my mind, whereas, say, Fire, Burn! and (especially) The Devil in Velvet feel like they take place in a full functioning universe and we’re deliberately only shown parts of it.

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      3. Thank you so much for raising this counter-point. While I was reading the book I had planned to do much more of a comparison between Carr’s historicals and Christie’s, but then that sort of slipped through the cracks when I was bowled over by Christie’s ending. So, here goes…

        Carr’s historicals were never really that deep on mystery (at least of those that I’ve read). The Witch of the Low Tide is the one exception, delivering a conventional Carr impossible crime that just as easily could have starred Fell or Merrivale if it was set 30 years later. Fire, Burn has a decent mystery, but it’s practically smothered by the history, adventure, romance, and brawls that became the staples of Carr’s historical fair. Fear is the Same and The Demoniacs? You almost question why there had to be a mystery in the first place.

        But, oh, the history! I feel like I know what it would have been like to live in Regency London. Of course, I don’t really, but Carr made me feel like I did for a few hours.

        Christie on the other hand went full mystery with Death Comes as the End. As you point out, the history was more of a set piece, and the reader is really left to fill in most of the blanks. I really have no clue what any of the characters were wearing, what any of the buildings looked like, etc. In fact, a few days after I read the story I coincidentally came across some pictures of Egyptian artifacts and thought “oh, I didn’t really think about stuff looking like that.”

        That isn’t to say that one is better than the other. Death Comes as the End was a white knuckled thriller, most likely because it wasn’t weighed down by excessive detail. On the other hand, I have Carr to thank for transporting me to a time and place that I otherwise would have had no interest in.

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      4. Yeah, I see your point — I haven’t read enough Carr historicals to account for them all as mysteries (but then I really liked the mystery in Fire, Burn…). Equally, I suppose Christie didn’t write enough historicals to really compare the two of them side-by-side on both counts. but if she could have produced another five of this standard then, yeah, I’d have to agree that she’d’ve been doing a wonderful job.

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  2. I’ve read every Christie mystery except this one. I know, I know, what on earth is wrong with me. 🙂 Now, after reading your enthusiastic review, I have no choice but to get my hands on a copy of DEATH COMES AS THE END. I suppose it’s a very good thing to still have one Christie book I’m not overly familiar with.

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