Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

I am a bit late in putting this up, but today’s review is for the final book I read in August, a re-read in fact.  This review does contain spoilers so should only be read if you have read the book already.

Original dust jacket for Murder in Mesopotamia by Collins Crime Club.

Synopsis

‘An archaeologist’s wife is murdered on the shores of the River Tigris in Iraq… It was clear to Amy Leatheran that something sinister was going on at the Hassanieh dig in Iraq; something associated with the presence of ‘Lovely Louise’, wife of celebrated archaeologist Dr Leidner. In a few days’ time Hercule Poirot was due to drop in at the excavation site. But with Louise suffering from terrifying hallucinations, and tension within the group becoming almost unbearable, Poirot might just be too late…’

Overall Thoughts

The narrator of Murder in Mesopotamia is Amy Leatheran, who visits the Hassanieh dig to act as nurse companion to the victim, Dr Leidner’s wife, Louise. We are told in a foreword written by Dr Reilly that she is ‘obviously the person to do it. She has a professional character of the highest, she is not biased by having any previous connections with the University of Pittstown Expedition to Iraq and she was an observant and intellectual eye-witness.’ Nurses proved to be a popular choice of protagonist in vintage crime fiction novels, found in the works of authors such as Mary Roberts Rinehart, M. G. Eberhart, Anthony Gilbert and Constance and Gwenyth little (a.k.a. Conyth Little). Such characters have the advantage of being outsiders to the social context they are working in, yet due to their position can access insider knowledge.

After the foreword Dr Reilly says before Nurse Leatheran begins her narrative, he will include a fragment from one of her letters to establish her situation before the case. However, re-reading this book I am not sure how well Dr Reilly’s opening worked as a framing device. To me his manner of introducing the story and its narrator, came across as forced. I can see why Christie might have used it; it is a means of providing information about the nurse which does not come from herself, but I wonder if the nurse’s letter could have stood on its own as an opening to the book, for readers to infer from. The doctor’s foreword reminded me of Victorian and Edwardian mysteries which often began with a narrator giving a reason for them telling a story, giving their forthcoming narration justification. One question this left me with was how necessary is this to the reader? Do we need our narrators to justify their role?

Scene in the desert. Man standing by car. Other men carrying archaeological artefacts.

Returning to the letter, I was taken aback by my surprise, my surprise at how poor a light it puts the nurse in. I wouldn’t say it is a character assassination, but I don’t think it shows her best side either:

‘I must say it’s been nice to see a bit of a world – though England for me every time, thank you. The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself if just awful – and no proper shops at all. Major Kelsey took me through the bazaars, and of course there’s no denying they’re quaint – but just a lot of rubbish and hammering away at copper pans till they make your head ache…’

Are we supposed to find her disinclination for the Middle East funny, as presumably this is not a voice Christie identifies with herself, having spent lots of time out there? Is she a character readers are supposed to recognise, reminding them of people they know in real life? I also wonder if Nurse Leatheran’s insular attitude is something modern day readers might notice more than a contemporary reader would have? Nevertheless, the letter fragment is a curious way of further introducing us to the nurse, in the way it offsets the praise Dr Reilly has sung previously. I couldn’t remember how much this side of her character comes through in the rest of the mystery, in her speech, thoughts and actions, but on looking back at I think it only comes through to a small extent. These traits are not excessive, so I don’t think readers will feel repelled by the nurse. One example we get later in the book made me smile:

‘Jolting! I wonder the whole contraption didn’t fall to pieces! And nothing like a road – just a sort of track all ruts and holes. Glorious East indeed! When I thought of our splendid arterial roads in England it made me quite homesick.’

This is a very personal moment of humour, as my first thought was that Nurse Leatheran clearly hadn’t been driven on the more rural roads of Northumberland…

That said I did find one early interaction between Dr Reilly and Nurse Leatheran gave me food for thought, when she is voicing her concerns about writing up her account of Louise Leidner’s murder:

“You know, doctor, I’m afraid I might tend to be – well, a little personal sometimes.”

“God bless my soul, woman, the more personal you are the better! This is a story of human beings – not dummies! Be personal – be prejudiced – be catty – be anything you please! Write the thing your own way. we can always prune out the bits that are libellous afterwards!”

I found this passage interesting in more than one way. Firstly, Nurse Leatheran seems aware of her judgemental manner of describing people and places, and this seemed unusual to me as normally such character is oblivious that their comments are so critical and that this in and of itself might be a problem. Secondly, when characters are given support at the start of a mystery, to advocate why they should take on this job, they usually emphasise their impartiality or their accuracy in details. So the above passage diverges from this somewhat as Dr Reilly is keen Nurse Leatheran expresses her criticisms, irrespective of their accuracy. I wonder if this keys into how this is a mystery which focuses hard on character psychology, especially the victim’s.

Fontana paperback of Murder in Mesopotamia. Woman in bed in nightdress, distressed. Face of man in the background looking sinister.
A cover with more gothic hues

Before we meet the victim in person, we are almost bombarded with many other people’s impressions of her, from those who know her well, to those who have a more passing acquaintance with her. To begin with Dr Reilly tells us that Louise is scared and has “fancies”. He clearly does not give her anxieties much credence, and he tells Nurse Leatheran that she is probably ‘a champion liar.’ I think in these early pages we are getting an example of gaslighting, and the nurse goes on to wonder if Louise Leidner has a drug or drink problem. A military man and friend of Amy Leatheran’s former employer, shares Mrs Leidner’s nickname, ‘Lovely Louise’ and strongly gives the impression of an older woman who enjoys male attention. In addition, Mrs Kelsey puts a manipulative slant on Louise:

“She causes quarrels! […] Why? Why? Because she’s bored. She’s not an archaeologist, only the wife of one. She’s bored shut away from any excitements and so she provides her own drama. She amuses herself by setting other people by the ears.”

Combined with Mr Coleman’s comments on the amount of luggage Louise brought to the dig and it would be easy to think we have a spoilt diva on our hands. Mr Coleman also says Louise is ‘rather like those fairy women who come out of marshes with lights and lure you away,’ a side of Louise’s character which Father Lavigny sums up as ‘dangerous,’ ‘ruthless’ and ‘so hard, like stone, like marble.’ Through these characters we see several strategies which mar Louise’s reputation or discredit her honesty. The fact it is via characters who do not have an invested or personal interest, makes the impression of Louise appear more valid, or at least it does to Nurse Leatheran. Yet it remains to be seen how accurate this impression is…

Alongside this picture of Louise, we get a contrasting image painted of her husband. A husband consulting a doctor on his wife’s behalf is always a suspicious character, in mystery fiction at least, as this consultation invariably aims to discredit the wife. Yet it is all masked by concern, which put me in mind of Nedra Tyre’s Death of an Intruder (1953). In the case of this book the reader’s suspicion is correct, Dr Leidner is the killer of his wife, but Christie tries in several ways to make this seem like less of a possibility. He is seemingly given the best alibi of the group and when he first enters the novel, Nurse Leatheran says that:

‘He was a middle-aged man with a rather nervous, hesitating manner. There was something gentle and kindly and rather helpless about him […] He sounded very devoted to his wife, but he was very vague about what was the matter with her.’

I think it was clever of him to not be too specific about Louise’s problems, since his hesitation and ellipsis, make him more believable, as it implies that he is holding something back, out of love of his wife. His helplessness is effective in disarming the nurse.  

Christie puts a lot of work in to having a damning impression made of Louise, so it is surprising when the Nurse Leatheran turns 180 degrees in her view of her at the start of chapter 5:

‘I don’t mind admitting that my first impression on seeing Mrs Leidner was one of downright surprise. One gets into the way of imaging a person when one hears them talked about. I’d got it firmly into my head that Mrs Leidner was a dark, discontented kind of woman. The nervy kind, all on edge. And then, too, I’d expected her to be – well, to put it frankly – a bit vulgar […] She wasn’t a bit like I imagined her! […] I felt, too, that she was a lady through and through. And that means something – even nowadays.’

You could say the nurse goes overboard in her enthusiasm for Louise and either the reader will be taken in by it, or it may cause the reader to pause, to consider what Nurse Leatheran might be missing from the situation, due to her personal biases. This is very much what Poirot does when he enters the scene and what people have missed about Louise or misunderstood about her, are two key anchor points of Poirot’s final solution.

Skeleton arm coming out of sand with a necklace in its fingers. Red sun in sky and desert city in the background.

The solution to the crimes is psychology driven, yet I don’t think the psychology of the characters is that vibrant. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review writes that ‘No Poirot story can be dull, but this one has the most improbable plot and weakest characterisation of all’ – which is strong stuff! Although Poirot goes to speak with all of the suspects, I don’t think we get to know many of the expeditions characters well, and those that we do there is some heavy-handed cluing. For example, we have Dr Leidner’s old friend, Richard Carey who Nurse Leatheran describes as ‘handsome and at the same time […] like a death’s head.’ This is followed up by her impression that he is a man ‘at the end of his tether’ and that ‘very soon something will snap.’ This might initially make you think he might break out into violence, possibly even murder, but then the nurse thinks to herself that ‘he looked like a knight of old who was going into battle and knew he was going to be killed.’ Yet die he does not, so why is he so sad? Closely following the heels of this comment is a dream the nurse has, in which she recalls lines from John Keats’ poem ‘Le Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad’ (1819), a poem which features a female fairy who saps the life out of a knight she seduces. Now you don’t need to be Poirot to figure out why Richard Carey is so sad and who the female giving him the blues might be in his life. To a modern audience this literary allusion might be more obscure, but I wonder if its significance would have been more obvious to a contemporary reader. Arguably, Christie complicates this allusion by having Louise catch herself in her own trap, but this only really comes out in the long explanation of the solution at the end, so is less intriguing. I am not sure how happy I am with this clue as it could tell a reader too much, but also the nature of how the clue is given i.e., a dream the nurse happens to have, feels forced or more artificial.

This is not the only clue which felt forced, in my opinion, as I found the delivery of the sequence of Miss Johnson refusing to speak out on the roof top, followed by her inevitable death, and dying message of ‘the window,’ to be quite awkward and clunky. The construction of this puzzle starts off well, but I think further into the plot Christie seems to struggle to find ways of bringing out into the open the information/clues the reader needs to solve the case. The difficulty is trying to reveal them without it being too obvious, or if it is, to not do it too early. This might be one of the reasons why Poirot spends less page time figuring out the how of the crime and focuses more on interviews with the suspects asking them what they thought of Louise. Personally, I found the story quite interview heavy and Poirot does end up doing other sleuthing tasks off the page, including sending telegrams. Telegrams are useful clues and can contain helpful information, but they are only really satisfying for the reader if they can read the contents before the solution. I don’t think we get to do this here. Interview heavy mysteries are not automatically poorer mysteries, as I enjoyed much more Murder on the Orient Express (1934). The difference there was that I felt the reader gained a larger amount of information from the interviews Poirot conducts and that they lead to or explain tangible physical clues.

Dell cover of Murder in Mesopotamia. Broken pot in background with a knife and skeleton arm peering out of it.

With some mysteries I wonder if the writer has created too perfect a crime or too hard a situation for their detective to solve and Murder in Mesopotamia is one of those mysteries. I can’t be the only one who is not encouraged to read Poirot say this in his summing up:

‘And I may say that thought I have now arrived at what I believe to be the true solution of the case, I have no material proof of it. I know it is so, because it must be so, because in no other way can every single fact fit into its ordered and recognised place.’

Perhaps due to the theorising nature of the solution, it felt longer than usual, and it requires the dissatisfying trope of the killer confession. Only their devotion to the woman they murdered, compels them to admit their guilt, as otherwise they would probably have avoided arrest, due to lack of evidence. I also felt it rather unfeeling of Poirot to say during the denouement: ‘I like to think that I should have reached the correct solution anyway by pure reasoning, but it is certain that Miss Johnson’s murder helped me to it much quicker.’ This comes across as arrogant in an unpleasant way, to me, and not in the vein of Poirot’s usual comical healthy self-esteem.

So all in all I think this book had an interesting setup, but that it got bogged down in interviews which did not offer up much in the way of clues. I would have liked the clues pertaining to the murder method to have come out in a different way.

Rating: 3.5/5

See also: Jen, the Puzzle Doctor, She Reads Novels, Margaret, Nick, Ben, and John have also reviewed this title.

8 comments

  1. I love this book, and it’s very well read by Anne Rosenfeld.

    The letter is written as soon as Nurse Leatheran arrives in Baghdad – she has plenty of time to revise her first impressions and her last look at the Middle East is quite moving. But she is meant to be an ordinary woman – a good nurse, but otherwise not well-educated. She is not romantic, she is down-to-earth. Who is it who says “They all passed each other the marmalade too politely”? Also, of course, she’s an unreliable narrator. And she’s not a Mary Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

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