This title has been on my re-read list for a while, but it was two posts by Brad and Ben, which finally prompted me to pick up the book again. Though adding to their own erudite thoughts will be a tricky business.
Today’s read was somewhat of a departure for Christie in that she set it in Egypt, near the Nile, in 2000BC. Similar to other tales penned by her, Christie focuses her story on one particular, well to do, household. The family patriarch, Imhotep, is away at the start of the book, though his absence does not make him an any less demanding father. All of his three sons are vying for supremacy over one another, as well as with their father, who they all agree does not give away any control. Most of this is filtered through the experiences of Imhotep’s daughter, Renisenb. At the beginning of the novel she has returned after eight years, having been recently widowed. An emotional atmosphere which may remind Christie fans of Destination Unknown, which contains its’ own sense of strong personal loss. She is keen to eradicate memories of her marriage and seeks to go back to the way things used to be. But alas this does not seem to be on the cards… There is something positively Shakespearean in the way Imhotep’s sons and their wives, manoeuvre around each other and their father, all after the main chance. Yet Imhotep throws everyone off balance when he brings home a young concubine, named Nofret, who is even more keen to have all of Imhotep’s favour for herself only. She is not above poisoning his mind against his family members, nor making relatives turn upon each other. Eventually her in laws lash out whilst Imhotep is away once more. This seemingly helps Nofret to get what she wants, but when they get a letter disinheriting them all, and with Nofret to share in Imhotep’s property, her days are unsurprisingly numbered… Yet her death is only the beginning of devastating chain of events.
I think this book feels all the more incongruous because of the time it was written. WW2 hadn’t quite finished, yet instead Christie transports us far into the past. What seems even more baffling perhaps, is that she attaches no special importance to doing so writing that ‘both place and time are incidental to the story. Any other place at any other time would have served as well.’ Is this just a case of writer’s modesty or self-denigration? It’s certainly not the type of comment a modern writer of historical mysteries would make. Whilst the type of crime and its motive does have a timeless quality, I still feel some aspects of the plot are time specific. The lack of an established police force does have its affect and the nature of the unfolding of mystery is also moulded by its environment. It is designed to have a slower pace, with events taking place over a year, though strangely it does not feel like it takes so long.
As like today, there were a range of responses to the book at the time and its unusual setting. Some felt that the time period element was captured well on the page, with the likes of Maurice Richardson writing in The Observer that:
‘With her special archaeological equipment, Mrs Christie makes you feel just as much as home on the Nile in 1945 BC as if she were bombarding you with false clues in a chintz-covered drawing room in Leamington Spa. But she has not merely changed scenes; her reconstruction is vivid and she works really hard at her characters.’
Conversely those such as Robert Barnard have found the story to be somewhat more ‘skeletal,’ with the setting being a little too sparse in comparison to her other contemporary set works. To an extent I would have to agree with Barnard, there is a relative emptiness to the piece, though I don’t think it irked me as it did him. Perhaps it is felt due to the reader being less able to fill in the gaps.
However, despite the change of scene, there are still a number of universal factors which Christie brings to the fore. For instance, Renisenb perceives her family home as a ‘safe, constant, unchanging’ space, and initially she finds all her relatives to be ‘all the same.’ Yet I feel such notions are always ones Christie likes to reveal as actually erroneous, with titles such as Ordeal by Innocence springing to mind. That sense of darkness and evil just lurking beneath the respectable surface. I think she voices this idea well through Hori, who says to Renisenb that, ‘there is an evil [… a] kind of rottenness that breeds from within – that shows no outward sign. It grows slowly, day by day, till at last the whole fruit is rotten – eaten away by disease.’ The full cast of characters, in their own ways, embody qualities and traits which I think Christie saw as timeless and there is a feeling in this book of at least some things never changing.
Another thing I picked up on, during my re-read, was the claustrophobic depiction of the family home, in particular ‘the back of the house,’ where all of the women spent most of their time, with each other. This is something which gets to Renisenb who is said to feel ‘stifled’ and ‘encircled by this persistent and clamorous femininity.’ In particular this irritation is expressed through a dislike of the noisiness of such people: ‘A houseful of women – never quiet, never peaceful – always talking, exclaiming, saying things – not doing them!’ Despite Renisenb being the protagonist and the female character who seems to feel some discomfort with the way things are, it was actually two other women who grabbed more of my attention. The first was Satipy, who is Yahmose’s wife and this pair strongly reminded me of the dynamic between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, with much of Satipy’s speech echoing sentiments articulated by Macbeth’s wife. She is keen that the old order is overturned, i.e. that Imhotep does not hold all of the authority and that her husband take a more prominent role. Like Lady Macbeth she openly acknowledges that she has ambition and she is equally despairing of her husband, who is not so dominant. She says things such as ‘You’re as meek as a woman… you are too meek and mild – and there is milk in your veins, not blood!’ and ‘Oh that I were a man! If I were in your place I would know what to do! Sometimes I feel that I am married to a worm.’ Yet like Lady Macbeth, Nofret’s death does not have the consequences she hoped for. Though true to form, Christie does not mirror Shakespeare’s play entirely and instead plays around with the expectations such an allusion would create. The other female character who gained my interest was Esa, Imhotep’s mother and my primary reason for liking her is the way she says it like it is and enjoys puncturing the egos of those around her, especially her son’s.
Only read the next paragraph if you have already read the book/know the solution.
Like my experience of re-reading other books by Christie, I am becoming more aware of the similarities between her works. In terms of motivations, I would say there is a strong link between this story and The Body in the Library, for instance. Whilst in terms of characters facing the dilemma of having to live in a house with a killer with seemingly no way of proving who it is, creates in my mind an affinity between Ordeal by Innocence and Death Comes as the End. Yet I wonder whether this interesting psychological problem was better explored in the former rather than the latter. Although I would say today’s read is a mystery of explaining the change in people’s behaviour, which is reasonable enough given that there is little physical evidence to go on. When it comes to the culprit of the piece, the two texts which sprang to mind were Sad Cypress, in which a killer also doses themselves with poison in order to look innocent; and Towards Zero, as I felt both killers had a similar psychological profile, with their criminality having childhood roots.
When it comes to the mystery/puzzle plot of this piece I think some improvements could have been made. Firstly, there are too many killings, with the inevitable consequences. The killer is uncovered by a process of elimination, rather than by many clues. It is in And Then There Were None, that Christie shows she can pile up the corpses and still surprise us at the end. Moreover, I think for me, Renisenb needed to be a more engaging protagonist. I don’t feel she lives up to the role fully. In particular she is too much of a passive observer of events and those who are more in the know, are far too silent. Consequently, the solution does not sound as convincing as it should.
Safe to resume reading
So, all in all I would say this is an imperfect book. The characters feel like they are drawn differently. There is something that is not quite the same and it is hard to pin down what that difference is. Nevertheless, I think it makes it more difficult for the reader to connect with them. Though I will say it is interesting at the end how Christie aligns most of the key survivors, as those who have a forward thinking and optimistic worldview. There is a sense of the old way being weeded out. Is this something she wished to convey about the times she was living in?
Yet despite its flaws this is a book I have a strange fondness for and I am interested in the forthcoming adaptation. I have dropped out of watching the latest adaptations, but since Death Comes as the End has a different writer adapting it, we can but hope that it is written in a way which wouldn’t send Christie into an anaphylactic shock. Small hope, but you never know…
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