Death on the Nile (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, November 1937; USA: Dodd Mead, 1938

My review

What can one say about perfection itself? Let me begin by stating that this is my favourite detective story of them all – the only one I enjoy as much is Gladys Mitchell’s Come Away, Death (also 1937 – obviously a vintage year, with Allingham, Bailey, Berkeley and Innes all producing some of their best work). Nile has all of Christie’s strengths: a tight problem, a confined setting (a boat going down the Nile), excellent detection on the part of the magnificent little Belgian, plenty of amusing characters and a staggering solution.

The wealthy Anglo-American heiress Linnet Doyle, who has stolen her erstwhile best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort’s fiancé Simon, is murdered aboard the SS Karnak, whose passenger list includes, as well as the jealous Jacqueline (who has been following the honeymoon couple wherever they go), several grotesques, nearly all with guilty secrets and motives for murder: an embezzling solicitor, a jewel thief, a possible enemy from the past, a Communist and an agitator travelling incognito. In many ways, this is an ensemble piece in the way The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express and Death in the Clouds were not. Although we spend most of the story hovering just behind Poirot’s right ear (although not, of course, in his mind), all the characters from the Doyles to walk-on parts such as James Fanthorp and Ferguson get plenty to do, with many subplots and evolving relationships that are irrelevant to the murder but round out the characters. The book also has three of Christie’s best grande dames: the American kleptomaniac Miss van Schuyler; the English Mrs Allerton; and the alcoholic romantic novelist Salome Otterbourne (brought marvellously to life by Angela Lansbury in a tour de force performance).

The problem itself is entirely brilliant and more credible (satisfying?) than Orient Express, The ABC Murders or And Then There Were None, brilliant though those were. Poirot is at his very best as he works through the cast list and several obscure clues (two bottles of nail polish and a brilliant one of a velvet stole, which would tell the reader everything if he would only use his “little grey cells”) to reach a brilliantly simple solution which should be obvious but isn’t. The alibi used here has all the simplicity of Chesterton at his best, achieving the maximum of misdirection with the minimum of effort rather than the elaborate mummery of Crofts, and will go down in the history of the genre as the very best alibi of them all. The two subsequent murders are not only memorable and inevitable in themselves, but also very clever clues to the murderer, each one spelling out (if properly read) the name of the guilty party.

This is the best detective story of them all. As Cole Porter wrote in his hymn to the genre: “You’re the top! You’re the Nile!”

Blurb (UK)

Mrs. Christie in her new long novel takes us for a journey down the Nile and adds one more to the mysteries of Egypt.  She has never collected together a more variegated and interesting group of characters than for this journey during which murder is committed, and with her own knowledge of the Near East she creates the atmosphere so perfectly that one cannot believe, on finishing the book, that one has not made that very self-same journey.

Coming events cast their shadows before them.  We feel the death on the Nile long before it occurs.  The victim, a girl who has everything – beauty, wealth, love – moves onward to death.  We see danger slowly converging upon her from different quarters of the world.  Hercule Poirot has been a spectator of the drama from an early moment.  He foresees the inevitable end, but is powerless – his advice is disregarded.  The murderer is among a little group of people isolated on a steamer far from civilization.  The facts seem to point overwhelmingly to one person – but Poirot is doubtful.  He studies the psychology of the crime – bold, audacious and brilliant – and is thereby led to the surprising truth.

Blurb (US)

It was very peaceful on the river.  The smooth, slippery black rocks of the Nile lay half out of the water like vast prehistoric monsters, as the luxury river steamer Karnak pushed silently upstream.  Inside the spacious lounge, Tim Allerton and his mother were playing bridge with the Otterbournes.  Colonel Race had just ordered his third whiskey.  Mr. Fanthorp was dozing, and Linnet Doyle was very much in love with her brand new husband.

Hercule Poirot was worried.  He had a vague, uneasy feeling that this boat was taking them all on a dangerous journey, a journey heading perhaps for unknown currents of disaster.  “Tiens,” he thought, “I am without doubt imagining.”  It was not until the stillness of the Egyptian night had lulled even Poirot himself into a sense of security that a sharp retort from a revolver, the sound of running feet along the promenade deck, and a muffled splash, proved his premonitions correct.

In this absorbing mystery novel the author has departed so far from the usual and created such a fascinating background and such an arresting solution that the effect will startle the most blasé reader.  This is the one combination that is impossible to top – Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot at their best!

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 14th November 1937): MAJOR MURDERS
Autumn proceeds so well with its thrillers that it looks as if the conscientious reviewer were committed to almost a monotone of praise.  First this week comes Agatha Christie.  She scored, I contend, two outers in her last three shots; but she is back on the very centre of the bull with Death on the Nile.  She is always at her best in some means of conveyance, and has proved it twice with a train and once with a plane.  In this case she makes use of the steamer Karnak, journeying from Shallal to Wadi Halfa.  In this she gathers Linnet Doyle, exquisite bride and richest girl in England, and many persons who have more concern with her than meets the eye.  Terrible things happen and, without the formality of breaking off her narrative to issue a challenge, the author allows Poirot to summarise his clues in one compressed paragraph sixty pages from the end.  It is after that, until the retired but by no means retiring little Belgian chooses to tell us the truth, that we are very angry with ourselves indeed.  When he does so, anger is swallowed up in admiration.  The appearance of course after corse in the feast of death is entirely logical, and the main alibi, unshakable save for Poirot, is of the first brilliance.  It is no less likely than the run of such things in fiction, and is built not with many preliminary falsifications but almost in a single carefully premeditated flash of movement.  A .22 pistol with a short barrel, by the way, makes rather more noise, whether it be a revolver or an automatic, than it is credited with in this tale.  Though less than secondary, the descriptive work is adequate and hits, as it were, the Nile on the head.

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 20th November 1937): The scene is a Nile steamer between Assouan and Abu Simbel.  The victim is Mrs. Doyle, rich, beautiful and twenty.  The first suspect is Doyle’s previous fiancée, but nearly every one named on the cabin plan on page 133 is possible, including one disguised agitator, one society jewel thief, one kleptomaniac old woman, one woman novelist who drinks, one American lawyer (Mrs. Doyle’s trustee), and one aristocratic Communist “investigating conditions” and apparently concluding that two Nile tourists in every three would be no loss.  Hercule Poirot, as usual, digs out a truth so unforeseen that it would be unfair for a reviewer to hint at it.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 10th December 1937, 320w): M. Poirot’s little grey cells had been obliged to work at full pressure to unravel a mystery which includes one of those carefully worked out alibis that seem alike to fascinate Mrs. Christie and to provide her with the best opportunities for displaying her own skill. A fault-finding critic may, however, wonder whether M. Poirot is not growing just a little too fond of keeping to himself such important facts as the bullet-hole in the table. If he is to enjoy all, a reader should also know all.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th December 1937): Linnet Doyle, a beautiful heiress, goes for her honeymoon in Egypt.  By a somewhat liberal use of coincidence, Mrs. Christie gets Linnet and her husband on to a river steamer in company with a number of people who wish her no good at all.  First and foremost is Jacqueline, the girl who was engaged to Simon Doyle until Linnet stole him away: she has been following the less and less happy pair around since their wedding, a moving monument to their perfidy; Mrs. Christie makes good play with this unnerving but not illegal form of persecution.  When Linnet is shot, Jacqueline inevitably becomes first suspect: but on this boat, as Poirot and Colonel Race soon discover, you cannot throw a deck-quoit without hitting someone who cherishes a guilty secret.  Death on the Nile is not up to its author’s best level; there’s too much coincidence; also, I doubt if one could really work the red-ink business with any certainty of success.  However, there’s a very hot alibi; and Mrs. Christie’s dénouement, as usual, plays us all for suckers.

Books (Will Cuppy, 6th February 1938, 450w): Trust Agatha Christie to turn out the brightest and generally slickest mystery currently at hand.  Once more she makes most of her rivals look a bit silly with her skill in every department of the puzzler’s art—or is it a science?

Sat R of Lit (19th February 1938, 30w): Slightly transparent plot, plethora of action, but all is handled with customary Christie expertness.  Very good.

Canadian Forum (Gilbert Norwood, April 1938, 350w): Death on the Nile is excellent, but by no means at the level of her best.

Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy): A peach of a case for Poirot.  I take off my hat to the author for as ingenious an alibi as can well be imagined.

Evening News: She has excelled herself…must call for unqualified praise.