The 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.