I’ve always been under the impression that Murder in Mesopotamia is one of Christie’s big novels, although I’m not sure how that thought formed. The title definitely stands out, with the reference to Mesopotamia being a bit more memorable than, say, Easy To Kill or The Secret of Chimneys, and maybe my mind draws a bit of an association with the “exotic travel” titles like Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express. Plus, the book did feature on the Roland Lacourbe list of top impossible crime novels, although I’ve come to learn that isn’t exactly a guarantee that a novel will in fact feature an impossible crime.
Whether Murder in Mesopotamia is actually a staple of Best of Christie lists or not, it didn’t really work for me. This is actually the first Christie novel that I struggled to get into. That’s not to say that it’s a bad book in anyway, it’s just that I didn’t find myself sucked into the characters, location, and story in the way that I’ve come to expect from Christie’s work. The Christie magic was missing.
The story takes place at an archeology dig in Iraq, and the despite the promise of an alluring setting, the promise didn’t feel delivered on. There was little description of really anything, which surprised me, given that Christie’s husband at the time was actually wrapped up in this sort of work. Normally Christie’s settings come to life for me, but here I just had an impression of a mud building surrounded by dirt, with some people engaged in activities vaguely involving archeology, but with nothing actually described.
And the characters… unlike other Christie novels, it was a blur of characters. Let’s see, there was an archeologist and his wife, a snaky woman and her husband, a priest, and… some young woman who wasn’t in much of it. Then there was another woman who wasn’t one of the ones already mentioned… or were there two? Plus, there were three or four other male characters, one being somewhat of a jackass, another having a good looking skull (?), and the others having no memorable traits.
The cast was the same size of other Christie novels, but with those other Christie novels I feel like I’m familiar with everyone by the quarter mark. I don’t quite get why that wasn’t the case with this one. It wasn’t until Poirot showed up a third of the way through that I felt any real connection with what was going on.
As far as what was going on – the aforementioned vague cast is part of a dig at an ancient site. Everyone is acting on edge, but no one ever explains why that is (shades of late-era John Dickson Carr). One of the characters eventually gets clubbed to death in her room, with the only entrance being under near constant observation by various characters. I suppose this is where the impossible crime angle comes into play, which is somewhat of a misnomer, since a bit of wiggle room is left via brief periods of time where someone could have slipped in unseen. It’s a bit unfortunate that Christie played it loose with the setup, as she eventually provides a solution worthy of an impossible crime, and could have made this one a bit more air tight.
The solution really snuck up on me, which is a mixed blessing. With just a few chapters left, it didn’t look like there was much potential for an interesting twist. I’ve encountered that with Christie novels a few times in the past, but I’m typically so wrapped up in the story and setting. In this case I felt like I was more plodding towards an uninteresting ending. The denouement was fine, although there was a bit too much focus on psychology and identity.
I’m kind of surprised that this book didn’t gel with me. I mean, it was published in 1936, and all of Christie’s work that I’ve read around that time period has been really good. This obviously doesn’t put me off Christie, but it’s my least successful read by her to date.
I managed to snag a Dell map back edition of the book. These Dell editions are typically abridged, and I’m curious if my lack of connection with the characters and the setting were due to some color being left on the cutting room floor.
The map on the back isn’t entirely necessary, as it’s really just an embellished version of a floor plan that’s included within the pages of the book. It is a bit more convenient though to quickly glance at the back cover for reference rather than having to continually find the page with the illustration.
The David Suchet adaptation
The film version of Murder in Mesopotamia provided a ton of color that I had missed from the novel. The details were exquisite, and what had read like a bland setting was brought fully to life. My one complaint was that the character of the nurse (who is the narrator of the novel) plays only a minor role, which is especially unfortunate as the actress who played her provided one of the better performances.