I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read. It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.
Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently. Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.
Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent). If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.
But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.
Let’s see what happened.
The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt. I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did. It would make the critics sit up and take notice.
Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way. Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.
The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household. Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them. The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order. While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading. I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.
Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book. Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.
Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.
The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters. England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know. We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape. So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all. The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster. They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent. Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.
But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt? Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert. I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.
In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.
In that, as in much else, this one fails.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.