So if you’re a famous detective like Hercule Poirot, you’re probably steeped in murder. It’s just murder, murder, murder, all day, every day. What’s a Belgian to do? Go on vacation, of course! Tour the Nile, they said. It’ll be relaxing, they said. No one will kill anyone on your boat, they said.
In case the title doesn’t give it away, Death on the Nile is a punishment of sorts for Hercule Poirot. Poor bastard doesn’t get a moment’s peace and quiet. I guess it’s payback for being so insufferably arrogant.
Poirot is a badass, with one badass moustache, and this book proves that pretty definitively. Borrowing a page, anachronistically, from a television crime procedural, Christie ramps up the stakes with not one but two additional murders. The guests aboard the S.S. Karnak are all suitably aghast. It’s up to Poirot and the able, but not as sharp, Colonel Race to discover the culprit. Who killed the heiress, her maid, and the novelist? It’s like Clue, set on a boat in Egypt.
The characterization here is brilliant. As with And Then There Were None, Christie spends about a chapter introducing each character in sequence. This has the potential to make one dizzy—I find this technique is far more effective in movies, because of all the different visual cues one has at one’s disposal. Soon enough, though, we are off on the cruise. We get to watch as Lynette and her husband Simon attempt to elude their stalker, Joanna. Tim Allerton and his mother just want some peace and quiet. Rosalie Otterbourne is stuck tending to her mother—I love how Christie pokes fun at her own profession here, creating a somewhat melodramatic woman novelist, albeit of a more … um … delicate type of novel than the murder mystery. There’s also Dr. Bessner and the archaeologist Signor Richetti. And Cornelia Robson accompanies her cousin, Madame Van Schulyer. Into this vast cast Christie thrusts Poirot, who wastes no time getting mixed up in all the business.
It would be very easy to see Poirot as nothing more than insufferable. He spends a lot of time talking about how clever he is. But at the end of the day, he’s right. He’s not talking himself up: he’s just being accurate. Modesty on his part would necessarily be false modesty. Countless characters label Poirot a mounteback, a rogue, or a loonie, and underestimate him and think they can hide things. He always ferrets it out. (I seldom do. I am not Hercule Poirot.)
In Death on the Nile, Poirot insists on playing matchmaker before revealing the identity of the murderer to Colonel Race. This is brilliant. It reminds us that in spite of his emphasis on order, organization, and cleanliness, at his heart Poirot is a romantic. He believes that the young deserve happiness; I think, in part, his obsession with the criminal element and solving mysteries is an obsession with what makes people happy. So often we are stirred to crimes, passionate or coldblooded, because we are not happy, and we think that removing someone or gaining something will make us happier. Alas, it seldom works out that way.
Egypt itself does not feature so much in this book. In that respect, the Nile portion of the title indicates setting only barely—this could just as easily have been a cruise down the River Thames, though I doubt there would have been any takers if that were the case! This is a straightforward murder-on-a-boat kind of mystery, very similar in tenor and tone to The Murder on the Orient Express, which Poirot references here. However, two things elevate this and explain its presence in my omnibus of Masterpieces of Murder alongside The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None.
Firstly, the motives. Revenge. Lust. Love. Betrayal. So primal, much impressive. And there is plenty of motive to go around. You might or might not deduce the identity of the killer, but there are plenty of red herrings. Not only does everyone have something to hide, but everyone has something to be upset about. Christie is a master at pulling the curtain back and exposing the torrid emotions that beat beneath our breasts.
Secondly, the construction of the mystery. Christie uses a combination of timing and subsequent murders to set up a twist at the very end, just as Poirot reveals the killer. As usual, trying to find the murderer is a process of elimination—but it also involves making assumptions on imperfect information. Poirot reminds us that if one isn’t willing to discard an assumption and create new theories to fit the facts, then one won’t get very far at all.
Death on the Nile is certainly an enjoyable Poirot mystery. It showcases all the best about Christie’s writing, and the Belgian detective of the little grey cells is in his prime here. Part of me feels so sad that these people have to die to bring me joy. (And is it terrible that part of me doesn’t care? I mean, they are fictional….)