Friday, 7 May 2010

Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

Plot: Poirot solves death at the digs.

Hello death! You're everywhere. One can imagine the dinner party where, after the soup a guest leans over and says, "But Mrs Christie, it must be so interesting spending six months of the year on a dig! You really must set one of your murders there, absolutely must."

As we've seen, archaeology and travel to the cradles of civilisation is a frequent theme in Christie, one that hardens once she meets Max Mallowan. It is in this story that it finds its clearest expression, both in the setting and the moment when Poirot finds a murdered body in a grave from thousands of years ago and ponders human existence, society, and the very notion of a murder mystery ("A Mrs Leidner of two thousand years ago").

Murder in Mesopotamia is about people living on a grave. We've all seen Amityville Horror and Pet Cemetery - we know what happens next. Christie plonks the 1930s like the latest layer on a tottering cake of death, putting all of human life into perspective. For Poirot, on his way back from Syria, this is just one more case. For the other players, but one event in their lives. Lives which are long over by the time we read it. Yet, for all that, Christie says it is still important.

Depending on how you look on it, Murder In Mesopotamia is either reliant on a bizarre contrivance or is a palimpsest. I was taught the word at univesity - a piece of parchment that was rubbed out and overwritten, just like several of the characters in Murder In Mesopotamia.

At the centre we have Mrs Leidner, the archaeologist's wife, a woman who 20 years ago married a spy and has almost wilfully forgotten every detail of him beyond his handwriting. We have the spy himself, who may still be alive somewhere in the ruins, unrecognised by his wife.

Crikey, you think. That's unlikely - and, indeed, the TV adaptation goes to some efforts to tidy this up, separating the lovers immediately after their wedding and saying "well, her first marriage was in black in white, there's no way she'd recognise him now". But this very personal history is indeed unearthed, with the added complication that, somewhere on the dig may also lurk that first husband's vengeful brother, who may even, suggests Poirot, be impersonating the female narrator, Nurse Leatheran.

This is, as you may have guessed, a story that layers improbability on improbability. We have letters from the dead husband, we have forged letters from the dead husband, we have art thieves, we have drug addicts shaking among the rubble, we have a jolly hockeysticks gal who keeps on turning up and suggesting tennis (she's wandered in from Murder At Ther Vicarage) ... and yet, at the same time, we have Poirot who cuts sharply through all this absurdity.

For example, there is the ghostly figure at the window, whose very unreality turns out to be both a cruel trick and a deadly lure. We have a squinting foreigner and a sinister monk, who Poirot dispatches with a couple of clues. It's all, in the most literal sense, window dressing. Murder In Mesopotamia is a puzzle box where none of the clues are not what they appear to be. Much time is spent, for example, in establishing movements at the fatal moment across the courtyard. Christie has great fun here recycling charming local colour from her memoir "Come Tell Me How You Live" and bamboozling the reader (there's even a diagram)... and it's all the auther red-herringing loudly "Look at the Courtyard! The Courtyard!".

A similar blind is Mrs Leidner's nature. In the book she is, according to who is speaking, either a charmer, a schemer, a hypocondriac or a siren. Nurse Leatheran decides that she likes her, and for the most part, she seems rather fun. But we are also supposed to think that she is the malign household god who drives the happy expedition to misery. This is easily done in the book, but, again, the TV adaptation struggles with this - on screen it's all too clear that Mrs Leidner is a good enough sort.

Mind you, the TV version does a decent job with poor Miss Johnson, who, before suffering a truly terrible death, must nearly reveal the solution three times. In print the first revelation works rather well. It is quite obvious, he says haughtily, that the second approach to the jump is mere teasing - she quite baldly states that she's worked it out, but just has to think about it. The TV version cleverly throws in a misdirection here, which covers what is in the genre the fine old declaration "I know the answer and so must die". Her third revelation (in very gruesome circumstances) is in a fine tradition of teasing ambiguity (Is there an occasion in Christie where a victim cries "Fred did it"?).

I should stick in a word here about the art thieves. This is an archaeological expedition where, to a greater or lesser extent, most of the expedition are frauds - some aren't who they claim to be, some just don't want to be there, and one's off his tits. It's poetic justice that their finds are all stolen and replaced with copies. No-one notices - which raises a few basic points about their competence, but also touches on the idea of the real value of a find - is it the object itself or simply the discovery?

Finally, a few words about Nurse Leatheran. I like the old bird. She's a Christie archetype - the stong, sympathetic type. We've seen her in Death In The Clouds and on The Blue Train. She's detatched, she's cool, she's reliable - and, such a sharp observer that Poirot fears for her life. The TV adaptation backgrounds her in favour of Hastings, which is understandable, especially as it gives the mystery another suspect. It is noticeable in this book that Poirot doesn't draw up a list of suspects. He'll rattle through them occasionally, but if we had one of his blunt lists we'd realise that they were rather thin on the ground.

This is also one of those Christies where if you play "Who has the least reason and the most solid alibi?" you'll get the correct answer immediately.

NEXT: Death in the Clouds

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