Monday, 24 May 2010

Death Comes as the End (1945)

Plot: A serial killer in Ancient Egypt.

I owe this book an apology. It's taken me six months to read it and several false starts. It even failed the "curl up in bed with a stiff drink" approach. Finally I succumbed on a lazy Sunday afternoon and, if you can get past the first fifty pages, it's corking.

The problem with Death Comes As The End is the beginning. It's telling that this is one of the easiest Christie books to find second hand, frequently with a pristine spine and a smell of defeat. I wonder how many holidays have had a morning on a sun-lounger slightly ruined by the first few chapters before it gets swapped for something easier.

To be critical and snobbish, Christie is normally devlishly easy reading. This book isn't. Here's a sample few early sentences:
"The total then is two hundred and thirty of spelt and one hundred and twenty of barley."
"Yes, but there is the price of the timber and the crop was paid in oil at Perhaa."

"Guard the produce of my grain, guard everything of mine, for I shall hold you responsible."

As viewers of The Phantom Menace known, trade and taxes are a great way to start, plus we continually hear of young Renisenb who lies around drowsily. When the heroine is more bored than the reader, you're in trouble.

I'm going to argue that Christie is showing off her research and her sourcea. She claims to have based the book on some letters, and seems to reproduce them throughout the book. Which is all very well, but initially really doesn't help. It's all wheat and exhortation.

Get fifty pages in though, and the cast start dropping like flies. Even better, they're all brilliant - there's the vile gossip Henet, the proto Marple Esa, the pompous dad Imhotep, his awful sons, their sour wives, his noble daughter and her fun suitors. From thereon in the book tears along with an incredibly high corpse-per-page count, as though Christie is making up for the false start. "Sorry it's a bit tricky, but look, there goes another one."

You even find yourself flicking back to the start and re-reading it for extra clues. Or to try and remember who these people are and how they were introduced. Occasionally, the narrative swings back to the opening style and we get drowsy mention of afternoon cruises in pleasure boats and so on. But it's far more bearable as, with a turn of the page, there'll be another corpse.

The book's other distraction is the chapter titles which are in a complicated dating system based on tides. Initially I spent much time puzzling over these, but then ignored them and was much happier.

I'm sure there are readers out there who've just dived into the book and loved it, but I don't think I'm the only one who struggled until Christie's natural style asserts itself.

But what of the plot itself? Well, once it gets going, you're in for something a bit like Taken At The Flood, where a new wife throws a family into deadly disarray. These are very Christie people - with concealed passions, submerged pasts, and tortured inner lives. The parallels with Taken At The Flood are several, including the discovery of a raving madman hiding behind a humble farmer's personality. The references to domestic abuse also abound, with one wife being "the kind of woman who would enjoy it".

Where Taken At The Flood offers us the dazed new wife and her vindictive brother/lover, this book gives us the scheming new wife and her dazed former lover, who spends most of his time composing bloody awful songs and talking about sailing on his pleasure boat. This turns out not to be a euphemism.

Both books are fundamentally about how a family engages with a new wife, and her response to the various methods of bribery and bullying. Of course, Nofret is more active. In Taken At The Flood it's the brother who does all the threatening and undermining while the wife flops around as drowsy as Renisenb.

Renisenb is kind of the heroine, but she's as light as a feather. The book's detective-types are old Mrs Esa and the foreman Hori, but they're not necessarily to be trusted. Renisenb floats between the two of them, or sits drowsily around wondering why everyone's in love with her. It's a good question, frankly. Partly it increases the number of suspects, partly there seems to be a tradition for a Christie gal to have two fellas after her, one poetic, one solid.

The book's best character is nasty Henet the whining confidant. We've met her before in Christie, but she's here at her sharpest and nastiest. She's the real villain of the piece, having schemed for decades to bring down a family she doesn't even belong to through devoted service. She lights up every page that she's on.

A similar triumph comes in a remarkable passage where we have a murder from the point of view of a victim, waking up and realising that they've been poisoned. It's a lovely bit of writing from Christie. I'm scratching my head trying to remember a similar passage somewhere else - I think there is one, but this is a brilliant scene as we catch the flickering brilliance of a dying consciousness working out what's happened and why. This isn't a soul that dies screaming but one that uses its last few precious seconds to solve a puzzle and so pass on content.

Overall, if you can sweep aside the opening, the character names and the occasional purple passage, this is a brilliant book - satisfyingly gory, full of great events and cunning misdirection, and with some bang-up characters evoking a distant era with remarkable clarity. By the end, I felt thoroughly ashamed that I'd made such hard work of the beginning.

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