Death Comes as the End is the only historical mystery by the Queen of Crime, and in one of my very favourite settings–ancient Egypt. This was a reread for me but after a long time so I had forgotten much of the story including whodunit.
Miss Marple, Christie’s elderly lady detective, often uses her knowledge of human nature to solve mysteries, for that she believes remains the same irrespective of where one is. And that is what seems to be the case in this story as well for it may well be 2000 BC but people remain just the same—their nature, motivations, desires. The idea of the setting was suggested to (actually pretty much forced on) Christie by Prof Stephen Glanville (to whom the book is also dedicated), who gave her plenty of possible source material, from which she settled on some letters by a fussy father, annoyed with his sons and instructing them on what to do (Autobiography, p. 514). Based on these, she created the family in the book.
In our story, we are introduced to Renisenb, the recently widowed daughter of a Ka-priest (a mortuary priest), Imhotep. She has returned home with her daughter Teti, and thinks she finds things just as they were when she had married and left. At home is her old grandmother Esa, her brothers Yahmose and Sobek, their wives Satipy and Kait, and also a step brother Ipy. Also always on the scene is her deceased’s mother’s unlikeable poor relation, Henet, always snooping, and creating trouble with her tongue. And there is also Hori, her father’s scribe and assistant. While things may seem as usual, there are dissatisfactions beneath the surface for both Yahmose and Sobek want more active roles in their father’s business (agriculture and timber) as does Ipy (still treated as a child, which he is), while Imothep is controlling and seems to want to keep his family under his thumb. Satipy and Kait, but especially the former harangue their respective husbands, and bicker among themselves. But the last straw is when Imothep, who has been travelling, returns with a new concubine, Nofret, who at nineteen is younger than even Renisehb.
Nofret seems determined to create trouble for each of the family, especially rifts between Imothep and his sons, and leaves no opportunity to stir up trouble (mostly with her poisonous tongue). When Imothep has to travel again and leaves Nofret behind contrary to his mother’s advice, matters get worse as Nofret pushes each of the others (with the exception perhaps of Renisenb) to the edge, and then manipulates things to cause Imothep to disinherit his sons. Henet who has a similar nature readily assists her while Kameni, the scribe who had come to summon Imothep and remains here is forced to, on Imothep’s instructions. But Nofret has taken one step too far and before long is found dead. Hers is not the only death for as time passes, more deaths occur as those remaining are left wondering whether this is indeed the curse of Nofret or the work of a human hand.
Though narrated in third person, we witness most events through Renisenb’s eyes. Though Renisenb at first believes that everything is as it was, she finds she is seeing the people in her house differently—her father who seemed to inspire awe in her is pompous and a little foolish, her sisters-in-law always bicker (and she can see that at least until Nofret comes on the scene, this is just friendly fighting, no real hurt intended), and she also realises what Henet is really up to. In a reflection, perhaps of the more modern day in which the book was written, she also questions whether as her sisters-in-law see it, the only life for women is around their children and the inner courts of the home. She is a likeable character with a different way of seeing things; and none of the others really wish her any ill.
But while Renisenb has a different outlook and does try to determine (even if not consciously) who is responsible for all that is happening, two others are closer to the answer. Another character I really liked in the book, Renisenb’s grandmother Esa is one of these. Esa cannot see much because of her age, yet she sees much more than anyone else. She is able to see the true nature of people and situations, warns the person concerned well in time, including her son Imothep, but many don’t pay enough heed and must face the consequences. Her great interest in life though is her meals and one can see the relish with which she enjoys them.
Other than Esa, the scribe Hori too, it is clear, sees a lot though he chooses not to speak. He tries to get Renisenb to see things more clearly as well. He seems far more sensible than any of Renisenb’s brothers and Esa seems to rely on him as well. But he can well be one of the suspects. As can Khameni, perhaps, besides the rest of the family.
As in most Christie stories, there is a thread of romance here as well. Khameni falls for Renisenb almost at first sight and she seems to like him too. Does she find a second chance at happiness amongst all that is happening?
The mystery itself I found to be an interesting one, and as (almost) always, Christie had me thinking along a completely wrong track. This one has more than one death, in fact many more and as things go on, one really begins to wonder. But despite having read this before (it was long ago) I had entirely forgotten the solution, and was glad Christie was able to surprise me again. [Her autobiography mentions that there was a point about the denouement that she had agreed to change (and a moot point at that), but regretted later, and since she doesn’t specify what, one is really left wondering.]
The setting was of course also something I really enjoyed as well. There is the Nile in the background with boats going along, the fields that belong to Imothep, the various rituals that take place like appeasing a deceased family member to avert the evil that has befallen the family, and some food too, that especially Esa enjoys. I wondered at there being few details about the structure of the house itself but found in Christie’s autobio that this was something that was difficult to find information on, though she constantly pestered Stephen Glanville for information on various points that she needed. Still I felt overall one does get the ‘feel’ of being in Egypt, and that made it all the more enjoyable for me.
An interesting and different (although still familiar) read.
I read this with a Goodreads group reading less well-known Christie’s, one each month of the year. This was the book for May.