It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up an Agatha Christie novel. I was in a used bookstore recently and needed a good airplane book. I don’t know if Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s best, but it was a perfect plane read and reminded me why I love her books (and classic mystery novels in general).
Most mysteries start with the murder, Law & Order style: dead body found, clues gathered, etc. With this book, Christie takes the time to introduce all her characters first, so you get to know the victim. You know the murder’s coming, but you don’t know when. Actually, the back of the book gave me a little too much information – the victim, the suspects, the cause of death. I wondered if reading the book would have been different on my Kindle, without the “back of the book” summary.
Linnet Doyle is an American heiress who buys an estate in England. She’s 18 years old, fabulously wealthy, and the envy of all who see her. In the first chapter of the book she’s described by an onlooker as:
It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much! If a girl’s as rich as that she’s no right to be a good-looker as well. And she is a good looker … Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair…
Linnet is no dumb blonde, either. She’s practical, has a good head for business and is generous with the people around her. At the same time, she’s fairly thoughtless when it comes to understanding how the “commoners” live.
Linnet is thinking about marrying Lord Windlesham, who she clearly doesn’t love, when her “oldest friend” Jacqueline comes to her with a favor. Jacqueline is in love and desperate to be married, but her fiancé needs a job first. Simon is described by Jacqueline as “big and square and incredibly simple and boyish and utterly adorable.” Linnet agrees to hire him as property manager, but when she meets him, she becomes envious of Jackie’s love for him. Linnet is already worrying about marrying Windlesham:
She, Linnet Ridgeway, wouldn’t exist any longer. She would be Countess of Windlesham, bringing a fine dowry to Charltonbury and its master. She would be queen consort, not queen any longer.
What does she do? She marries Simon Doyle instead.
The rest of the book takes place on their honeymoon, a river cruise on the Nile (ironically, the same honeymoon that Simon and Jacqueline were planning). Jacqueline follows Simon and Linnet to Egypt. And she’s not the only one…
The opening chapters of the book give you so many details, I found myself going back and rereading them again and again. The fun thing about mysteries, at least well-written ones, is they may be “light reads” but they force you to think. Christie introduces many different characters, each one with some kind of motive to commit murder. She lets us into the minds of each of these characters, but only for a brief instant, just a tease of information, leaving the reader wanting more.
Enter French detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot has clearly been a character many times already, as he is well-known to most of the travelers as a successful detective. Hercule is on vacation and may be the only person on board who is unconnected to Linnet – though not for long.
This book was written in 1937, and at first I found the language a little dated. Christie uses some expressions I’m unfamiliar with, like “Something in his tone flicked the other man on the raw.” One character complains of Linnet’s “snaffling other people’s husbands.” But if at first the language feels dated, once the story starts moving, the richness of Christie’s writing really adds to the story. When I go back and reread the first few chapters, I’m amazed at how much detail and character she’s able to convey in just a few pages.
Another thing that made this read so much fun is that nearly every character is involved in a mystery of some kind. Most mystery writers try to connect every detail to the main plot, but in this book Christie introduces all kinds of clues that end up having nothing to do with the murder. Poirot has to figure out the secrets of every passenger before he can figure out who did it. And even though he’s brilliant, he struggles with a lot of red herrings before he solves the crime.
I really enjoyed the setting of the book. I’ve been on a small cruise like the one in the book, but I’ve never been to Egypt but would love to go. Christie provides a good amount of description of the sights and culture of Egypt as it appears to the travelers. But at the same time, these travelers are much more concerned with each other and their various social dramas than with the amazing sites they’ve traveled so far to see. Reminds me of some travelers I know.
Death on the Nile was a fun read, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Christie’s books. Any suggestions?