Appointment with Death (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, May 1938; USA: Dodd Mead, 1938

My review

It gives me little pleasure to criticise a 1930s Christie – particularly an Hercule Poirot, which I generally consider the antelope’s elbow – but this is, after Dumb Witness, her weakest book of the 1930s.

It starts off splendidly in Jerusalem, where two psychologists – one French and one English – are intrigued by a large American family terrorised by their obese mental sadist of a stepmother, Mrs Boynton, whose tyranny has turned them all into neurotics of one sort or another. Mrs Boynton is murdered (apparently heart failure but one of the psychiatrists misses a syringe and a bottle of digitoxin) in the “rose-red city of Petra”, and Poirot – so lacking in his usual mannerisms that one wonders whether the summer sun and desert air have made him lifeless and wilted – is called in. This is where the story falls apart, for, characterisation aside, the murder is particularly uninspired.

The book suffers from Devil’s Elbow syndrome: an entertaining early part, full of character and atmosphere, is followed by a dull murder and even duller detection. As Robert Barnard has pointed out, Poirot’s detection consists largely of serial interviewing: he sits in an office talking to people in an attempt to draw up a timetable of the murder. This approach worked well in Murder on the Orient Express and Evil under the Sun – so why should it be so monotonous here? In the first place, very few of the conversations actually contribute anything – because most of the suspects belong to one family, they are anxious to avoid incriminating others, so the spread of suspicion is gone. In other Christies, Poirot’s interviews are preceded by his introduction to the characters and followed by his clearing up smaller mysteries. Here, the synthesis of characterisation, detection and story is missing, due to the jarring change in mood between the two halves of the novel. The interest of detection is also gone as Poirot (who seems to solve the crime almost immediately while talking to two of the characters) singularly fails to clear anything up until the end – to do so would, no doubt, be to give the game away.

The solution is as disappointing as the detection. Normally when one finishes a Christie, one thinks “Of course! That’s what the bath and the bottle (or the window or the wax flowers) meant!” or “They all did it! It’s obvious when one thinks of it!” and one applauds the author for leading the reader so neatly astray. Here, however, the murderer’s identity is more likely to make the reader feel cheated, for the solution is quite arbitrary in its choice of least likely person. While Christie normally foreshadows the murderer’s identity from the start (which is why they’re so rewarding to reread), there are only two clues in the whole first half and not many more in the second. When one takes into consideration the number of people who found the body and are shielding somebody else and the arbitrary murderer, one can only feel disappointed.

Blurb (UK)

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s go to be killed?”  Strange words to float in through a hotel window.  Stranger still that Hercule Poirot is the man who overhears them.  Later Poirot identifies the voice and his attention is drawn to the Boynton family.  Even then he appreciates the psychological forces at work and the terrible emotional strain the Boyntons are undergoing.

We go with them on their journey – from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and onward into the desert.  And there, in the rose red city of Petra, the appointment is kept – with Death…

A perfectly natural death, so it would seem, but Colonel Carbury is worried.  He appeals to Poirot who promises him the truth within twenty-four hours.  Poirot keeps his word.

Blurb (US)

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”  The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there for a moment, and then drifted away down into the darkness towards the Dead Sea.  Curious words for Hercule Poirot to hear on his first night in Jerusalem!  “Decidedly,” he murmured to himself, “wherever I go, there is something to remind me of crime!”

Later, he met the Boynton family and noticed the curious, nervous manner in which they all clung to the ugly old woman with the small, black eyes, eyes that seemed to suggest an almost hypnotic power of evil malignancy.  Then Poirot was struck by the uncomfortable premonition that perhaps he was to encounter more than a mere reminder of crime.

Set in the century-laden atmosphere of the Holy Land, rich in the tradition of Jerusalem, Jericho, Petra, the Dead Sea, Agatha Christie writes a sophisticated, dazzlingly swift story of a crime so cleverly conceived that only the agile mind of the famous Hercule Poirot is able to ferret out the astonishing solution.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 1st May 1938): VARIOUS VIOLENCE
I have to confess that I have just been beaten again by Agatha Christie.  There was no excuse, I was feeling in particularly good form; and the worst of it is that she handicapped herself in the latest game with what in anyone else would be insolent severity.  Murder on the Nile was entirely brilliant; Appointment with Death, while lacking the single stroke of murderer’s genius which provided the alibi in the former story, must be counted mathematically nearly twice as brilliant, since the number of suspects is reduced by nearly half.  Indeed, though we begin our story in Jerusalem and meet our murder in Petra, the Rose Red City, we might as well be in a snowbound vicarage as far as the limitation of suspicion is concerned.  And it is in this respect that Agatha Christie repeats her Cards on the Table triumph and, as it were, plays and beats Steinitz with a single row of pawns.  The obscene matriarch, laying waste the lives of her children and of all whom she is strong enough to influence, is becoming quite a popular murder victim; but even the burping old monstrosity whose taking off P.D. Quint had to investigate last year was a creature of sweetness and light compared with the terrifying Mrs. Boynton whose death Poirot promises to explain in twenty-four hours.  The possible motives to which he guides us are not the conventional ones; these, in their turn, guided me to a not very obvious truth with which I was well pleased: what had happened a few thousands of years ago in Gaza might very well have happened to-day in Petra.  It was the wrong truth; I had never been out of misleading strings after all.

Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 7th May 1938): The early chapters build up, mostly through the eyes of two at first disinterested psychologists, a very clever picture of an American family, ruled over by a monstrous matriarch, travelling in Palestine.  Her daughter, daughter-in-law and step-children are mentally as well as financially at her mercy, and are seen to have reason enough to wish her dead.  After her death in a remote camp (convincingly isolating a party of suspects has long been one of Mrs. Christie’s strong points), Poirot (coincidence is almost too often one of his) is called in.

Poirot, if the mellowing influence of time has softened many of his mannerisms, has lost none of his skill.  His examination of the family, the psychologists and the few others in the party, his sifting of truth from half-truth and contradiction, his playing off one suspect against another and gradual elimination of each in turn are in Mrs. Christie’s most brilliant style.  Only the solution appears a trifle tame and disappointing.

The Times (10th May 1938): CLUES AND COINCIDENCE

“When you’ve been in police work as long as me,” remarks a character in one of the novels reviewed in this column, “you’ll know as well as I do that coincidences happen oftener than you’d think.”  No doubt the statement is true.  We are always coming up against coincidence in real life.  Where police work in fiction is concerned, however, conscientious authors are right in mistrusting such an easy way of escape out of the difficult intricacies of a murder plot.  Coincidence in the detective story is like a strong flavouring in cooking: a little of it spices the dish admirably, too much destroys the desired effect and offends the palate.

It is coincidence, for example, that makes Poirot overhear a conversation of sinister import in his hotel in Jerusalem at the opening of Miss Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death; but this is the only coincidence in a tale that falls little short of this author’s high standard.  Among Poirot’s fellow-tourists in the Near East is an odd family from the U.S.A.  The Boyntons consist of a number of neurotic and downtrodden young people in the grip of a horrible old matriarch with a pathological lust for power.  It is hardly surprising therefore to find Mrs. Boynton a corpse before long, and at first sight it would appear as if any of her relations might have made her removal their good deed for the day.  By some brilliant deductions from very scanty evidence, however, Poirot unmasks an unexpected criminal, and an epilogue shows the Boynton family “happy ever after”.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th June 1938): The convention by which the detective assembles all his suspects in the last chapter, and tells them how and who, is not only an interesting example of the artificiality of the detective novel but also the acid test of the writer’s technical skill.  Let the plot be never so complex, provided it has a simple core, is closely knit and logically developed, the dénouement can spring its surprise and tidy up loose ends n a small compass.  It is a criticism of Appointment with Death, though a tribute to Mrs. Christie’s usual mastery of technique (she is surely the neatest plotter we have), that for once Poirot takes far too long—forty pages, to be exact—in his summing-up.  Apart from this, and a superfluity of italics, this story of the murder of an abominable old American matriarch, set in the rose-red city of Petra, gets very fair marks.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 27th May 1938, 380w): For ingenuity of plot and construction, unexpectedness of dénouement, subtlety of characterisation, and picturesqueness of background Appointment with Death may take rank among the best of Mrs. Christie’s tales.

Sat R of Lit (10th September 1938, 40w): Starts well and progresses beautifully against rich background and interesting characters—but then the durned thing blows up in your face.  Disappointing.

Books (Will Cuppy, 11th September 1938, 300w): When in doubt, read Agatha Christie.  You’ll find Appointment with Death one of this author’s slickest…  This seems to be the season for whopping tail solutions; at any rate, Mrs. Christie springs a fiend you aren’t likely to guess.  Which is all right with us.  We like to be surprised.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 11th September 1938, 120w): Even a lesser Agatha Christie story holds its readers’ attention with its skilful management of suspense.  Appointment with Death is decidedly of the lesser ranks; indeed, it comes close to being the least solid and satisfactory of all the Poirot mystery tales…  And yet, when the evil-hearted old tyrant has been murdered at last and Poirot considers the suspects, one follows with genuine interest the unravelling of even unexciting clues.

Yorkshire Post: The superhuman ingenuity of this author.

Daily Telegraph (D.S. Meldrum): A brilliantly described group of people.