Death on the Nile

David Tresilian , Tuesday 13 Oct 2020

Grand dame of crime fiction Agatha Christie may have written the world’s most famous book about a trip up the Nile, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt


English crime writer Agatha Christie was an occasional and always appreciative visitor to Egypt. Her first visit took place before the First World War when as the daughter of a wealthy upper-middle class family she spent three months attending balls and polo matches from a base at Cairo’s Gezirah Palace Hotel, now the Cairo Marriott.  

However, it was her second visit, in 1933, that left its mark on posterity. Christie, accompanied by her second husband the archaeologist Max Mallowan, took a river cruise up the Nile, and it was recollections of this, particularly some of the passengers and the lay-out of the river steamer, that informed her 1936 novel Death on the Nile.

One of Christie’s most famous books and made even more so by its adaptation into a successful film with a remake announced for later this year, the novel is vintage Christie in its exploration of the murderous passions that can arise in a claustrophobic set of circumstances, in this case among the passengers on a river boat as it cruises up the Nile. Fortunately, detective Hercule Poirot, also a passenger, is on hand, his virtuoso sleuthing unpicking a tangle of deliberately engineered dead ends and false clues in order finally to unmask the murderers.

“You were too clever for us, M. Poirot,” one of them says, using words that would not be out of place on the lips of many of Christie’s characters. Money and marriage, as so often in Christie’s plots, turn out to have been at the bottom of things, with these giving rise to a convoluted series of events deliberately designed to mislead and mystify. As one of the murderers confesses to Poirot, “it seemed to me that the basis of the idea ought to be a kind of two-handed alibi. You know – if [we] could somehow or other give evidence against each other – but actually if that evidence would clear us of everything.”

Even Poirot is temporarily confused, but only for as long as he forgets certain elementary rules of human nature. One clue is that “that boyish type of criminal is usually intensely vain. Once prick the bubble of their self-esteem, and it is finished.” Another is the lengths some women will go to when they care for the wrong man. “It is what I said when I saw her first. She cares too much, that little one.”

Christie only wrote one novel set in modern Egypt, though there is also another, Death comes as an End, unusually set in the ancient period. But this was by no means her only foray into the wider region. Following an unsuccessful first marriage to Archie Christie, whose name the former Agatha Miller kept even after her divorce and subsequent remarriage, Christie became interested in the ancient civilisations and particularly the archaeology of the Middle East through her second husband, for periods even helping out on archaeological digs in Syria and Iraq.

Some of that experience fed into other books with Middle Eastern settings, perhaps pre-eminently Murder on the Orient Express, another book first published in the 1930s that has enjoyed an extensive afterlife in film. The setting of this novel is on a train rather than a cruise ship, with Poirot beginning his journey in Aleppo in northern Syria, travelling on to Istanbul, and then from Istanbul to Europe. A murder takes place on the train while it is stranded in a snowstorm in the Balkans, with the murderers once again engineering a convoluted series of false clues and dead ends designed to mislead Christie’s detective.

Then there is Murder in Mesopotamia, also from the 1930s, in which the wife of an archaeologist working on an archaeological dig in Iraq is murdered, and Appointment with Death, set in Palestine and Jordan and from the end of the same decade, in which a woman is mysteriously found dead at the Petra archaeological site.

There is also They Came to Baghdad, unusually for Christie a spy novel rather than a detective story, in which a young woman discovers a dying British secret agent in her hotel room at the same time as a summit meeting of the international powers is to be held in Baghdad.

This latter novel, published in 1951 some years after the heyday of the pre-War Middle Eastern novels when Christie had lived with her husband in Syria, perhaps marks an attempt to update her books to take in more contemporary political developments. But Christie seems to have decided that this was not a path on which she could succeed, preferring her more comfortable sepia-tinted world in which people lived more domestic but not necessarily always safer lives.

AMONG THE ARABS: However, even if Christie stopped writing novels set in the Middle East after the Second World War, she did not abandon her interest in the region.

Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine no longer much resembled the countries she had first visited or lived in the 1930s, with rapid social change and political revolution sweeping across the region during a tumultuous post-War decade. As Christie’s English novels became more Ruritanian, with her cast of retired colonels and spinster ladies being rolled out even as late as the 1970s, her writings on the Middle East also became more nostalgic, though this time for the experiences she had shared with Mallowan in his work in the region.

Her memoir Come Tell Me How You Live, for example, written while Christie was in London during the Second World War, looks back to her life in Syria in the 1930s when Mallowan was working on archaeological digs at the northern Syrian sites of Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak. In her foreword to the book she writes that “this is not a profound book… there will be no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.” She is as good as her word. While there are details about Christie’s domestic arrangements in Syria, there is nothing on the changing political situation that eventually made it necessary for Mallowan and his wife to leave the country.

Christie has little to say about the local population in her book, her lack of Arabic presumably not helping conversation. However, Come Tell Me How You Live does contain memorable episodes, including a visit to the Yezidi shrine at Lalish near Mosul in neighbouring Iraq that in more recent years was targeted by Islamic State (IS) group terrorists. “There can be, I think, no spot in the world so beautiful or so peaceful,” Christie writes. “You wind up far into the hills, through oak trees and pomegranates, following a mountain stream. The air is fresh and clear… Then, suddenly, you come to the white spires of the shrine. All is calm, gentle and peaceful there. There are trees, a courtyard, running water. Gentle-faced custodians bring you refreshments and you sit in perfect peace, sipping tea.”

A later full-length Autobiography published posthumously in 1977 gives further details of Christie’s life in the region, and it contains some famous pages on Christie’s first visit to Iraq after a difficult divorce and her first meeting with Mallowan. “I went out to dinner with friends in London,” she writes, and was seated next to a naval officer who had just returned from Baghdad. “They talked about it, and I became more and more enthusiastic… I was bitten. [The] commander wrote down for me places I must go and see in Baghdad. ‘You must go to Mosul – Basra you must visit – and you certainly must visit Ur.’”

Christie had been reading in the newspapers about the finds being made at the ancient Sumerian site of Ur in southern Iraq by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. The “next morning I rushed round to [travel agent Thomas] Cook’s… and got tickets for a journey on the Simplon-Orient Express to Stamboul; from Stamboul to Damascus; and from Damascus to Baghdad across the desert. I was wildly excited,” she writes. While in Ur, she met Mallowan, a “dark young man, and very quiet – he seldom spoke, but was perceptive to everything that was required of him” and later began a second career as a part-time Middle Eastern archaeologist as well as a writer of detective fiction.

Christie’s Middle Eastern life now began to follow an annual pattern. Following Mallowan’s appointment as a professor of archaeology in London, he and Christie set out for Iraq where he was excavating the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud in northern Iraq, first excavated by the British archaeologist Henry Layard in the mid-19th century.

According to British writer Janet Morgan, Christie’s authorised biographer, in the decade that followed there was “the creation of at least one annual detective story, sometimes accompanied by a novel, a play, a collection of short stories, and a yearly expedition to Iraq. The Mallowans would leave England in December or January, going first to Baghdad and on to Nimrud, returning in March after a season’s digging.”

Mallowan describes the work at Nimrud in his Nimrud and its Remains, and Christie used her stay in Iraq to learn more about Middle Eastern archaeology and to write more of her novels, including such successful ones as A Murder is Announced, They Do It with Mirrors, and A Pocket Full of Rye. It would be wrong to criticise Christie for continuing in the well-worn grooves of her pre-War novels in the changed circumstances of the 1950s, Morgan says. “Agatha knew what she did well and stuck to it. Writing was also not the most important aspect of her life; she drafted her books, as she had always done, in interludes between other activities,” including helping out at Nimrud.

However, it couldn’t last. “In 1958, there was a revolution in Iraq,” Morgan writes. “Young King Feisal, his uncle, and the prime minister were murdered. The Mallowans were deeply upset, not simply because... they feared the international consequences of these events, but also because they had known and liked many of those who now suffered at the hands of the revolutionaries. They were not harassed by the revolutionaries, but it was time to leave.”

“I shall never have a professional attitude or remember the exact dates of the Assyrian kings, but I do take an enormous interest in the personal aspects of what archaeology reveals,” Christie writes in her Autobiography. “I like to find a little dog buried under the threshold, inscribed on which are the words, ‘don’t stop to think, bite him.’”

“How enormously [Baghdad] has grown since I first saw it. Most of the modern architecture is very ugly, wholly unsuitable for the climate… You no longer go down into a cool sirdab [basement] in the heat of the day; the windows are not small windows in the top of the walls, keeping you cool from the sunlight. Possibly their plumbing is better now – it could hardly be worse – but I doubt it.”

“How much I have loved that part of the world. I love it still and always shall,” she concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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