Murder in Mesopotamia (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK, Collins, July 1936; USA, Dodd Mead, 1936

My review

2000

This highly ingenious crime passionnel is, if my memory serves me correctly (and it probably doesn’t), the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read; I had discovered the short story collection, Poirot Investigates, a week or so before.

The archaeological Expedition House at Tell Yarimjah is based on Christie’s own experiences in Iraq and Syria, and it is clear that, for example, the narrator Nurse Leatheran is Christie herself, that David Emmott is her husband Max Mallowan, and that the American archaeologist Dr. Leidner and his enigmatic Belle Dame Sans Merci wife Louise, bludgeoned to death in her room in what would have been impossible circumstances had it not been for the work routine of a certain character, are modelled on Leonard Woolley and his domineering wife. It is Mrs. Leidner who is responsible for the “queer tension”, the atmosphere of sorrow and strained nerves. Having received anonymous letters from the husband she believed executed as a German spy, she fears for her life; Dr. Leidner calls in Nurse Leatheran, who serves as Hercule Poirot’s assistant once Mrs. Leidner has been murdered. Poirot’s ingenious solution to the crime is purely psychological, but we can see all his reasoning, and it is fair-play.

2017 addendum: The ending rings artistically true.  SPOILER The situation has elements of Greek tragedy or Jacobean drama: a woman marries the same man twice, and is killed by him.  Dr. Leidner is both a gentle, kind man AND a ruthless murderer.  He is broken by his wife’s death; his emotions are sincere, not assumed.  We, too, are moved to pity and fear.


Blurb (UK)

Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot – “the best combination in modern detective literature” – bring all their wit and wits to bear on the solution of another remarkable case.

This time the murder takes place among the members of an expedition which has gone to Mesopotamia to excavate the ruins of an ancient city.  As to the murderer, he was so diabolically clever that he would certainly have gone undetected if Poirot had not providentially been passing through on his way to Bagdad.  And never, perhaps, has that keen brain been put to a greater test.  The story is told by a hospital nurse attached to the expedition, and to have kept the whole tale in character as it would appear to her commonsense mind and professional eye is not the least of Mrs. Christie’s achievements.

The unusual setting is not only vividly but authentically described, for Agatha Christie is the wife of an eminent archaeologist and she actually wrote this story while accompanying him in one of his expeditions to Mesopotamia.

Blurb (US)

Amy Leatheran thought it was queer when Doctor Leidner engaged her, a trained nurse, as a companion for his wife.  But, largely out of curiosity, she went with him to Tell Yarimjah, north of Baghdad, where his archaeological expedition was excavating an ancient city.  She found there an intangible atmosphere of unrest and foreboding, and before long she discovered that a fear amounting to terror was the cause of poor Louise Leidner’s harassed nerves.

What lay behind this uncanny dread that was not to cease even after the brutal murder of the lovely Mrs. Leidner was Hercule Poirot’s greatest problem.  Fortunately for the authorities, the renowned little Belgian was, at the time, passing through Baghdad.  Several aspects of the case were sufficiently peculiar to attract him at once.  It is not long before he realises that he is pitted against a resourceful criminal, and that upon his ability depends the prevention of further crimes.

Murder in Mesopotamia will attract the reader as it attracted Poirot—a case with a compelling and terrifying fascination.


Contemporary reviews

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 4th July 1936): THAT BLESSED WORD

Mrs. Christie has married an archæologist and been digging with him in the Near East, with very satisfactory results, at least as far as she is concerned—I cannot speak of her husband’s finds—for among the ruins of Babylon or the debris of Nineveh she has collected the materials for one of her three-move chess problems.  Murder in Mesopotamia is strictly comparable to Death in the Clouds, because in each case the crime is completely abstracted from the outer world, the desert and the sky being equally good substances for insulation.  Take a party of archæologists and dump them in the wilderness in a caravanserai.  Kill the fascinating femme fatale of the party during the mid-day siesta.  Provide practically every member of the expedition not only with a possible motive for the murder but a plausible alibi; and you have the plot.  Introduce Poirot (this time without Hastings) and you get the solution—without him you would get nowhere, as I will explain in a moment.

The disposition of the pieces in these problems is Mrs. Christie’s speciality.  She always arranges her characters in perfect alignment; each one is distinct, well-labelled, yet not emphasised or elaborated.  The focus she prefers is that of an onlooker; and on this occasion a hospital nurse, called from Baghdad to attend the femme fatale for nervous fears, describes the progress of events with the detachment and precision that Poirot requires in anyone who is to be his assistant.  But it is her impartial distribution of suspicion that shows what a secure grip Mrs. Christie has of her thorny art.  We have had bluffs and double bluffs until we are sick of them—the look of guilt proving innocence, and then again proving guilt, and the same thing vice versa.  But the ultimate result of all this jugglery has been that readers have become so sharp that, unless the author fakes, they spot the criminal zone by the very passes the conjurer makes over it.  There are plenty of examples of this give-away in the other books on my list.  Mrs. Christie, like a skilful butler, goes round filling up each character’s cup of suspicion to exactly the same level; and it is left to Poirot and the reader to add that last conclusive drop which makes the cup run over.

Is there anything then to complain of in Murder in Mesopotamia?  Yes, there is.  When Poirot added that last drop which I was quite unable to find, the liquid left an after-taste in the mouth, and there were dregs in the culprit’s glass that require analysis.  Many people have accused Mrs. Christie of setting her problems in an atmosphere of melodrama, and complain that her neat plots are ruined for them by the liberties she takes with human nature.  I realise that she often sails near the wind, but generally I am so captivated that I give her the benefit of the doubt.  However, I warn readers that in this book Mrs. Christie is more akin to Mrs. Henry Wood than to Jane Austen.  But the objection can be surmounted if the mind is prepared.  Mrs. Christie makes one crucial psychological presumption that you will find hard to stomach.  I must not give it away, but the authoress tries to atone in some measure for her audacity by dropping a clue: Poirot slips in a remark at one point showing that he admits the possibility of such behaviour in real life.

The Times (10th July 1936): Before now Agatha Christie has allowed her Hercule Poirot to travel, in order that he might play his part in an episode on the Orient Express.  That adventure, however, seems to have been actually subsequent to his activities in Mesopotamia with which this present volume is concerned.  The little man is on his way to Baghdad after some business in Syria when he is asked to turn aside to investigate the murder of the wife of an archaeologist at the headquarters of the Expedition of which the scientist is in charge.  The poor woman is found in her room dead from a blow on the head inflicted some time before the discovery; the various characters are so fenced about with alibis and the room is so inaccessible to outsiders that the average reader may well wonder how the murder could have been accomplished.

Poirot has a difficult task in extracting the truth from the surviving characters as nearly all of them economise it either purposely or instructively, and his own training leads him to suspect that there is something wrong about the French monk who is attached to the Expedition as epigraphist.  The author has taken pains in drawing her very diverse characters and conceals the authorship of the crime with skill.  Nevertheless, Poirot is so hot upon the trail that the criminal has to perpetrate another, and very horrible, murder in the vain hope of putting him off the scent and in a dramatic scene the little detective brings home the crimes to the culprit.

It may be argued that the first murder depends too much on hazard to have commended itself to so clever a schemer as its perpetrator; and many will wonder whether it would have been possible for the preliminary deception, which is essential to the story, to have been practised over so long a period upon the archaeologist’s wife, who, as drawn, is by no means either foolish or unobservant.

Observer (Torquemada, 12th July 1936): POIROT PERPLEXES

Agatha Christie tells a humorous, well-observed story amongst the ruins of Tell Yarimjah, and her latest method of murder, which got me guessing and guessing fruitlessly, has, as usual, more the simplicity of a miracle than the complication of a conjuring trick.  Poirot as a man is quite as delightful as ever, and Poirot as a detective not only perplexes the pleasant and not too intelligent hospital nurse, whose duty it is to tell the story, but, again as usual, the intelligent reader as well.  The trouble is that he also perplexes the unprejudiced in a way most unusual to him: I for one cannot understand why he has allowed Agatha Christie to make him party to a crime whose integrity stands or falls by a central situation which, though most ingenious, is next door to impossible.  The point at issue, which it would be grossly unfair to specify, between Mrs. Christie and the reader is one which would provide a really interesting silly season correspondence.  Of course, the queen of detective story writers is, as a married woman, entitled to her own opinion; but even a pseudonymous and therefore sexless reviewer need not subscribe to the theory that the queen can do no wrong.  Usually Poirot is to be toasted in anything handy, and no heel-taps; this time I drink to him a rather sorrowful glass of Lachryma Christie.

Times Literary Supplement (Harry Pirie-Gordon, 18th July 1936): Archaeologists are supposed to be peaceful folk who, if they quarrel, do so at long range and with some dignity in the printed pages of learned periodicals published at unhurried intervals.  Thus it must have come with as much of a shock to those engaged in excavating an Assyrian site at Tell Yasimjah, in Iraq, as to the world outside when the wife of the Director of the Expedition was found to have been murdered in broad daylight and in such circumstances as to indicate that it must have been an “inside job”.  The author takes great pains to describe Mrs. Leidner, the murdered woman, who was as tiresome as she was beautiful, and had so delighted in setting people by the ears, and in teasing and bullying, that the whole expedition had been on edge: the frank-spoken young daughter of the local British medical officer does not hesitate to tell the detective in charge of the case that “if ever a woman deserved to be murdered Mrs. Leidner was that woman”.  That detective is Hercule Poirot, who happens to be paying an official visit to Iraq in connexion with another matter; and when he arrives the reader feels certain that, puzzling as it all is amid an array of alibis which have every appearance of being watertight, the criminal will be found.

As the story proceeds fresh difficulties appear.  There is something mysterious about the behaviour of the epigraphist of the expedition, a French monk, and it is discovered that the chemist, to whom Mrs. Leidner had made overtures, is addicted to drugs, and that his jealous and excitable wife knows about the overtures.  Other characters, all carefully drawn, yield suspicious secrets under Poirot’s polite but merciless cross-examination, and in the middle of it all there is another, and particularly horrible, murder.  Poirot’s dictum before that event was that “murder is a habit”, and he proves its truth by showing that the same person is responsible for both crimes, to the immense surprise of all concerned.  The plot is ingenious and the first murder very cleverly contrived; but some will doubt whether Mrs. Leidner, as described, could have been so forgetful and unobservant as to render the principal preliminary condition of the story possible.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 7th August 1936): Murder in Mesopotamia is not one of Mrs. Christie’s very best books—it would be impossible to produce a second A.B.C. Murders in the course of one year.  Moreover, for once I tumbled to the villain, though admittedly by psychic rather than logical methods.  Her tale centres round a burial mound in Mesopotamia; it is told by Nurse Leatheran, who has been sent for to look after Mrs. Leidner, the wife of the chief archaeologist.  Mrs. Leidner has received anonymous letters threatening her life; but the handwriting of these letters bears a curious resemblance to her own, and no one knows whether she is in real danger or suffering from hallucinations.  In due course a murder is committed, and the problem is—how could anyone get into the house from outside without being seen by people in the courtyard?  Mrs. Christie writes with her usual humour and economy, and Poirot is in good form.  I feel, however, that too many of the discoveries are left to the end; and what does the author mean by “She wore a tweed coat and skirt made rather like a man’s?”

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 20th September 1936, 290w): This latest Christie opus is a smooth, highly original and completely absorbing tale.

Sat R of Lit (17th October 1936, 40w): No Poirot story can be dull, but this one has the most improbable plot and the weakest characterisation of all.

News-Chronicle: One could scarcely illustrate more clearly the magnitude of the gulf that separates the creator of Hercule Poirot from almost every other writer of detective stories.

Evening News: We very much doubt if she has ever given us a better story.  Poirot is magnificent.

Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy): Here is Poirot and here are Mrs. Christie’s sense of fun and character and a simple puzzle which few will solve, and all in a setting.  Interesting in itself and, I think, unprecedented in detective fiction.

Daily Mail: As good as anything Mrs. Christie has yet given us, and by that I intend very high praise.

Bystander: Mrs. Christie at the top of her form.  As neat a story of crime and detection as you are likely to come across East or West of Suez.