Murder in Mesopotamia – Agatha Christie (1936)

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.

My Edition

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.

28 thoughts on “Murder in Mesopotamia – Agatha Christie (1936)”

  1. You are not alone in being disappointed with this one. I found the book really hard to get into, in part because I really didn’t like the narrator. I would agree too with your verdict about many of the characters. I will have to rewatch the Suchet adaptation at some point soon as I have little memory of this one!

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    1. I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t just me. I was questioning whether I was in a reading slump, although I enjoyed the hell out of my next read, despite seeing through the solution immediately (more on that next post).

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  2. This was the second (?) Christie novel I read – after, of all things, Elephants Can Remember – and I’d read it half a dozen times before I was twelve, so I can’t give an objective opinion of it; it’s hardwired into my brain, and my young imagination might have invested more richness into it. I loved the archaeological dig, the enigmatic Louise Leidner, the avenger from the past, and the atmosphere of dread – both very Conan Doyle! – this was a *creepy* one.

    While there were plenty of glowing reviews, Mesopotamia disappointed a few “adult” critics in 1936. Torquemada (Observer): “Usually Poirot is to be toasted in anything handy, and no heel-taps; this time I drink to him a rather sorrowful glass of Lachryma Christie.” Saturday Review of Literature: “No Poirot story can be dull, but this one has the most improbable plot and the weakest characterisation of all.”

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    1. I think this would have gone over a lot better if I hadn’t already read quite a few Christies and had an expectation for what I want out of the stories. Change the authors name and I might have done a better review. As such, I can imagine how this would have worked out well as your second Christie.

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  3. My memory of this is the opposite of your experience — I felt like it was perhaps the first time I’d gotten a handle on the various tropes Christie employed (it was an early one for me, which makes it an early title in my GAD reading), which is undoubtedly a contributing factor. I do distinctly remember picking up on a detail early on that was dismissed as irrelevant in the closing stages and thinking “Oh, now I get it — you’re supposed to think the wrong thing!”, which was an odd revelation for someone as clever as I thought myself to be. I promise my enthusiasm for it wasn’t even based on the impossible crime, because I had no idea back then that such things existed…oh, the ignorance of youth!

    I’m intrigued to reread it in light of your less-than-brilliant experience, and I might have to do this on my own time because Brad hates one of the key reveals.

    That Dell edition is lovely, but what else can we expect from your GAD collection?!

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      1. It’s been so long, I cannot remember how this element struck me at the time. In a more realist novel — something by Simenon, say — I’d have more of a problem with it, but in the pantheon of Ridiculous Notions to Power GAD Plots I’d be amazed if this even made the top half.

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  4. I just want to sit in your house and touch your books. Does that sound . . . creepy?

    We are supposed to accept a certain amount of artifice in classic detection, but the final twist regarding a certain person’s identity is so laughable that I find it galling. That’s the part that JJ mentioned I hate. I also agree with you in part about character: there are all too many “nice young men” around, which works as far as an archaeological team but doesn’t cut much mustard in this large cast of so-so suspects. Compared with the masterpieces of the 30’s that surround it, this one is rather slow going.

    That said, I find a lot more to like here than you. I do think the locked room aspect is more clever than you give it credit for. As for characters, Louise Leidner is based on the fascinating Katharine Woolley, wife of Max Mallowan’s boss when he met Agatha and a good friend to the couple. (Nice way to treat a friend, writing this neurotic shrew of a character!) If Louise’s sex life had been more overtly like Katharine’s, I might have bought the ending. Suffice it to say, I like Louise – in fact, I like all the women here, including Nurse Leatheran and poor Sheila Reilly, who’s a spitfire and should have had more to do in this book. The second murder is horrifying. One of these days, I hope JJ, Moira and I will cover it and then I will check to see if the setting feels as vague as you mention. I seem to recall it as more vibrant, but that might come from the Suchet adaptation, which looks good.

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    1. Some of these books actually are especially nice to touch. There’s something about the way that the paper used for the covers ages over time, and I have a few books that almost feel like a well worn baseball mitt.

      You have an interesting point about the male cast working as part of an archaeological team from the era, but of course that’s squandered by the fact that so little archeology made it into the narrative. Just a small bit of window dressing could have made this a lot richer. Which is kind of funny though, as I’m not really that interested in actually having the author educate us on all of their archeology research, but the fact that it was missing just felt so strange.

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  5. It happens sometime,I didn’t like lord of misrule by Paul halter which I read in December,but it’s not a bad book,maybe because one solution dissapointed and the second one I guessed immediately,maybe I will return to eat after years and feel completely different.

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    1. I actually just had a really enjoyable read where I saw all of the solutions come from a mile away (three different impossible crimes). It’s interesting how some books can disappoint because of the solutions, whereas other books you enjoy despite the solutions.

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  6. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe this as anymore than mediocre, middle of the road Christie. So much, that I can’t even remember much about it. Which in a way, is worse than say, The Big Four (always my go to worst Christie), which is memorably bad, whereas this is just forgettable.

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    1. I guess I just assumed that everything that Christie put out between 1935 and 1950 would be really solid (a silly assumption I know). What else in that run of books would you classify as mediocre?

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      1. Inevitably all Christie fans will answer this differently. For me though Three Act Tragedy (1935), Dumb Witness (1937), and One Two Buckle My Shoe (1940) are mediocre.

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        1. Yes, Dumb Witness is quite unforgivably dull, though I thoroughly enjoyed the other two you list here. My own betes noires from that era would be

          Cards on the Table (1936)
          Dumb Witness (1937)
          Death on the Nile (1937)
          Appointment with Death (1938)
          Sad Cypress (1940)
          Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

          There are some points of interest — the psychology of Appointment, the solution of Cypress — but the other books around these are so, so much stronger. And, yes, I know everyone loves Death on the Nile — I can’t help it, I simply do not see why that book is so damn popular!

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          1. Well no doubt you will get a metaphorical slap from Brad over Cards on the Table, but I have to agree with you. Sparkling Cyanide doesn’t impress because I can’t believe that that those at the murder scene wouldn’t have noticed the mistake that was made. Sad Cypress started well and should have finished strongly instead of in whimper in a court room recap.

            Death on the Nile is favourite so won’t concur with that one. That’s okay as it wouldn’t be any fun though if we all in the GAD blogosphere agreed on everything. Differing views keep it interesting.

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            1. Brad’s well aware of my feelings for CotT — it was a previous spoiler-heavy discussion on my podcast. And yet we soldier on, to please the fans… 😄

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            2. I completely agree about the mistake business in Sparkling Cyanide, and yet I still love the book; I can’t say why. I guess I really liked the story and the characters. I even really like the mediocre 80s movie with Anthony Andrews. I also really like Appointment with Death because of the characters and the psychological aspects, although I actually like the play version better (which eliminated Poirot and changed the solution to the improvement of the story, in my opinion).

              On my list of, er, less than brilliant Christie for 1935-1950 would be

              Dumb WItness
              One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
              N or M and
              Taken at the Flood (aka There Is A Tide)
              N or M, I’m just not a Tommy & Tuppence fan, and I always find Christie’s attempts at espionage tales cringe inducingly bad. The other three are ones that are just blank or near blank in my memory-I know I’ve read them because I’ve almost finished the canon, and yet I have only the vaguest recollection what they were about.

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          2. I enjoyed the motive to the first murder in Three Act Tragedy, although I’ll note that Christie wasn’t the first to do it (unfortunately I can’t say where I’ve seen it before). I do agree that Cards on the Table disappointed, but that was more it not living up to a hyped reputation. I get Sad Cypress being on the list, but it still had the Christie magic that is missing from Murder in Mesopotamia.

            As for Death on the Nile, it was my first Christie, and perhaps blinders were on. I really loved the story and scenery, even if I saw through the trick as it was being played.

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  7. I agree with your review and most of the comments. This should be magnificent – Poirot in an exotic location; archeological backdrop; a strong narrator in Amy; a seemingly impossible first murder; a dying clue from the 2nd victim, Miss Johnson, in what was a memorable and horrendous death; etc. It is inconceivable that the first murder would have worked or at best the culprit was lucky to the point of disbelief.

    The Suchet adaptation is reasonably okay, but it has been years since I have read this one. Better than The Clocks or Elephants can Remember but not worth my time to re-read.

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    1. Ha, the way that you summarize it does indeed make it sound like it would be a classic. Which, by the way, is why I try not to do the equivalent of a back of the cover sales pitch when I introduce a book. So many mediocre reads get presented in a way that makes the book sound exciting, rather than how it actually reads.

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  8. A bit late here , but I’ve just listened to the 1985 BBC Radio version , almost 2 and a half hours, with John Moffat as Poirot and to my mind it’s better than the ITV Poirot series with Suchet as Poirot, closer to Christie’s book.

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