Review: Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

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.

Review: Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

I revisited this standalone as part of an Agatha Christie challenge (reading lesser known assorted Christies) with the Reading the Detectives group on Goodreads. This one is certainly quite different from Christie’s usual, and though not my favourite I enjoyed it very much.

Our story opens with Dr Arthur Calgary, a scientist (we don’t know exactly what he does) who we learn has returned from an expedition to the pole, and been essentially out of touch with events back in England over the past couple of years. We go on to discover that around the time before he left the country, he had given a lift to a young hitchhiker who made an impression on him. But soon after Dr Calgary met with a minor accident and suffered a concussion which wiped out these memories from his mind. That young hitchhiker was Jack ‘Jacko’ Argyle convicted for the murder of his adoptive mother. Not only that, Jacko died six months into his life sentence, of pneumonia. Calgary feels guilty over this, and though he realises that this was not his fault, he still makes his way to the Argyle home and reveals all. He expects bitterness, even gratitude but not the reaction he actually gets. For in the family’s view, he should have let sleeping dogs lie.

Rachel Argyle a wealthy but childless woman had adopted five children, most unwanted by their own families and with no prospects in their own homes (most of these were war evacuees). She lavished everything on them from education to material needs but her controlling nature meant that she never left the children to themselves leaving them resentful rather than grateful. Among the five Mary, Micky, Hester, Tina, and Jacko, Jacko was the bad egg, the one always in trouble, and needing to be rescued. So seeing him as the one who murdered his mother, at a time when he needed money to get him out of another of his scrapes was easy for everyone. But with Jacko’s alibi strongly established, what Dr Calgary hasn’t realised is that this means everyone else is under suspicion—Leo Argyle, Rachel’s intelligent but ignored husband now set to marry his secretary Gwenda, the remaining children Mary, Micky, Tina, and Hester, most of whom resented her and even the nurse/governess Kirsten Lindstrom. But was their resentment sufficient motive? When Calgary realises what his revelation has done to the family, he also decides that the responsibility to set things at rest is his as well.

This was as I said quite different from Christie’s usual mysteries, even the standalones. As even though we have Dr Calgary who is looking into matters, speaking to the various people involved, we are not only looking at our characters and suspects from his eye, but are also given a chance to look at their thoughts, their fears. And Christie gives us just enough of a glimpse to give an idea of them and yet realise that they all have fears and perhaps, secrets which are hidden from us. The tension of the situation where everyone suspects the other (or at least one other) and no one is in the clear also comes through clearly and one does feel sorry for all of them for it is only one that has done it. I enjoyed this different approach.

As far as the mystery is concerned, as always Christie gives us quite a few clues peppered throughout the book but while one realises their relevance in retrospect, I didn’t feel these were strong enough to come to a definite finding like in some of her others. Nonetheless, as always (and despite this being a revisit) I didn’t remember or guess who it was until well near the denouement (we do have a typical denouement scene at the end, with Dr Calgary taking on a Poirot-like role). So from this angle too, it was enjoyable for me.

The different approach and a mystery I couldn’t guess the answer to made this one a rather interesting read for me. Enjoyed this revisit.

Have you read this one? How do you like it? Which is your favourite standalone Agatha Christie book? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Cover image as always from Goodreads.

#Review: #The Mysterious Affair at Styles #AgathaChristie #Poirot #Mystery #Centenary

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, which also introduced us to one of her most famous characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot first appeared in October 1920, and thus turned 100 this year. I revisited the book in celebration earlier in October (though I only got down to writing my thoughts/review now).

 Agatha Christie began writing this one during the First World War when she was part of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), and working in a dispensary; her sister Madge had challenged her to write a detective story earlier. When she began thinking about and planning it, it was the setting she was in then that influenced quite a bit. Working in the dispensary at that point, ‘it was natural that death by poison should be the method’ (Christie, An Autobiography, p. 261 (Harper Collins, 1993 ed)). Not only that, one of the characters we meet, Cynthia Murdoch is just as Christie was then, working in a dispensary and surrounded by poisons. In deciding who the characters were to be, she also took inspiration from people she observed or chanced upon. ‘[W]hen I was sitting in a tram, I saw just what I wanted, a man with a black beard…’ (Christie, An Autobiography, p. 261 (Harper Collins, 1993 ed)). This bearded man went on to become Alfred Inglethorp in the book.

The book is set during the war (though published after it), and is like the Sherlock Holmes books Christie was fond of, being narrated by Captain Hastings, who is pretty much Poirot’s Watson (Christie herself describes him as such though Hastings doesn’t appear in all the Poirot stories, nor are they all told in his voice). Hastings is back home from the war front invalided when he runs into an old friend John Cavendish who invites him to stay at his family home, Styles Court, where Hastings has stayed before as a boy. Once there he meets John’s wife, Mary, sullen younger brother Lawrence, and young Cynthia Murdoch who is a VAD and staying at Styles as her mother was John’s mother’s friend. John’s mother he learns has remarried, and a much younger man, Alfred Inglethorp. None of the family seem to like him very much and Mrs Inglethorp’s companion, Evelyn Howard is most vocal in her disapproval. But Emily Inglethorp controls the purse strings and all her family is dependent on her for pretty much everything, though John as the eldest son will come into the house after her. One night Mrs Inglethorp who seems upset with her husband retires after dinner and later that night, dies—poisoned. Before these events, on a walk in the village Hastings had run into an interesting man he’d known before—a retired policeman, now there as a refugee from Belgium, Hercule Poirot; the refugees have incidentally been helped by Mrs Inglethorp. As soon as Mrs Inglethorp dies, Hastings calls in Poirot, just the man needed in such a situation. Meanwhile the case itself is entrusted to Inspector Japp (also a recurring character, and described by Christie in her autobio as a ‘Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective (p. 290)). Working alongside Poirot or following him as he investigates, Hastings is puzzled by some of his actions and finds himself doubting Poirot, wondering if he’s lost his touch. Like Holmes, Poirot tells Hastings all he knows (or almost all) and all he has before him, and challenges him to reach his own conclusions, which Hastings does—but all the wrong ones.  In the end, it is Poirot alone who manages to solve it and reveal all (in a characteristic denouement scene as we see in many of the books—in fact John Lane, her publisher had got her to change the scene she had originally written (An Autobiography, p. 284 )), while the police seem to have caught onto the wrong thread.

This book, even though it is Christie’s first book, brings us an excellent puzzle with plenty of twists and turns that have one wondering who could possibly have done it. While the characters are more or less likeable (even though most of the family is more or less living on the old lady), many of them seemed to have a possible motive for killing Mrs Inglethorp, but whose motive was strong enough for them to have done it? Christie keeps us guessing right till the end. Of course having read this one quite a few times, I did remember whodunit, but as I have written in other reviews of Christie’s books, she has so many subplots and threads that one can’t really remember them all. In this one, there is an entire trial that takes place which I didn’t remember at all. That’s what I love about Christie, there’s always something ‘new’ even when you’ve read a book many times. And as always there are plenty of secrets, red herrings, and a touch of romance, which makes this a cosy but also interesting read.

Do you enjoy the Poirot books? Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: my own.