Monday, 14 September 2009

Death on the Nile (1937)

PLOT: An heiress is slaughtered on a Nile Cruise.

Death on the Nile an obvious place to start a detour onto International Christie, a world of luxurious hotels and outrageous travelling companions.

It's as though Christie has suddenly realised the marvellous variety of people you can meet on holiday (indeed, she even admits so in the preface to the Penguin edition), and that foreign travel allows an easy jamming together of murderers, terrorists and jewel thieves in a way that would seem improbable in St Mary Mead but is somehow excusable on the Nile.

This isn't the first time Christie has tried this, but it's a great place to start as it's just so confident.

We start with a dazzling first chapter that reads like a film script as we leap from scene to vivid scene - hopping across characters and continents, setting everything up like a complicated jigsaw.

When we reach Egypt a sharp reversal has taken place. The loveable heiress has become a man-eater, her bumbling best friend a spiteful stalker. Shcok reversal! What looked to be the story of how Linnet marries the wrong man and covets her best friend's husband has instead become the fallout from Linnet stealing her best friend's man.

This clearly places Linnet as The Victim. She's nice, she's generous, she's clever and witty, but she's made a fatal error in stealing Simon. Curiously, Poirot gives her a chance to confess her sin to him, but she refuses, and so is marked for death.

The first half of the book is full of scenes like this, where Poirot almost begs people not to commit crimes. Whilst priding himself on his deductive brain, he shows himself as keen a student of human nature as Miss Marple. If only they would listen to Poirot then nothing would happen, and this would be the dullest Christie, rather than one of the greatest.

Immense machinery is being wheeled into place that only Poirot can sense. Everyone else is looking at the historical wonders of Egypt, but Poirot is looking at every one of his fellow passengers and thinking Very Carefully about them. Thank god he never flew by RyanAir.

A secretive novelist, a shady lawyer, a communist, a financier, a society boy, a wise traveller... the list of characters rolls out and out, and must eventually be reeled back in at the end of the book in a way that is slightly maddening but also immensely satisfying. This is a book where almost anyone and everyone could have done it... which is an idea for later.

Once the murder actually happens (and it takes forever) a whole whirl of seemingly unconnected events are unleashed, and the buildup pays off greatly. There's an enormous sense of "well, since X and Y can't have done it, then that means..." which is quite thrilling.

An early review demands you read it twice ("Once for enjoyment and once to see how the wheels go round" The Times), and this is as rewarding a read if you know who did it. The first time is about Agatha Christie's intelligence, the second reading flatters the reader's intelligence. The sheer impossibility of the crime plays off against the "no, now hang on, so the maid's actually... ah....".

That said, there is a moment where Poirot is wrong. He claims to have misattributed overhearing the phrase "We've got to go through with it now", but, if you check he hasn't (It's in Chapter 7, and Poirot's recollection is in Chapter 29).

The "funny little man" is seen through the eyes of other characters, as for once, Captain Hastings isn't here. The poor fellow would muddle things too much, and his chances of managing to solve a murder and a terrorist conspiracy are doubtful. But dear old Colonel Race is allowed to show off his intellect, so long as he constantly defers to the cleverness of Poirot, who, in his own quiet way, must defer to the cleverness of Miss Christie.

NEXT: The wheels come off The Adventure Of The Blue Train...

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