Murder and mayhem in Ancient Egypt! Death Comes as the End, by Agatha Christie, is set in Thebes in around 2000BC. The main characters are all drawn from a single family – in many respects, it is a country house mystery transposed into a very different setting. The main character, Renisenb, has just returned to her father’s house after being widowed very young. Just after her arrival, her father also returns from his travels, bringing with him a very beautiful and malevolent concubine, Nofret. The remainder of the novel explores the fallout of Nofret’s arrival, as the body count rises…
Agatha Christie wrote this novel in response to a challenge from a family friend, Stephen Glanville. Glanville was an Egyptologist, and since Christie was fascinated by Egypt and had been there several times with her archaeologist husband, he suggested that she could write a detective novel set there. In fact, Glanville even provided the primary source material which inspired the attempt – a series of translated letters written by a man called Heqenakht, complaining about the way his family was treating his new concubine.
This is not generally regarded as one of Christie’s better novels, and, on the surface, I can see why. There is very little in the way of her normal puzzle mystery plotting going on here, and – very unusually for me – I guessed the murderer fairly early on and was not led astray by any of the red herrings. Of course, this is set at a time when even the basic forensic evidence that was around at the start of Christie’s career as a writer was inaccessible – when “detective”, amateur or otherwise, was probably not a particularly common role for people to play. I think the novel suffers from being, effectively, the first published historical mystery story – she didn’t quite know how to solve the problem she’d set in a way that felt natural.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it. It helps that I like historical fiction, and that (like so many people) I went through a stage of being absolutely fascinated by ancient Egypt as a child. Egypt in particular is an interesting setting for the novel, since ancient Egyptian society was so focussed on death and the afterlife. This gives Christie’s characters an excuse to discuss their ideas and opinions about these topics, informed by detailed research on Egyptian religion, without it feeling forced. In fact, the setting feels very well-evoked overall. Sometimes, when I read historical fiction, I can see how terribly the author wants me to be impressed by every last detail of their research. In this case, the research was definitely there, but it influenced the story without dominating it – the perfect tone, I would say. The setting and time period, for me, made up for the flaws in the plot.
I also liked Esa, the matriarch of the family, who is unconvinced by the rumours of the supernatural floating around, and sets herself to find out who the human murderer is. I thought she would read more like Miss Marple than anything else, since she is an old woman acting as an amateur sleuth, but in fact she is most like Poirot. She is forced for reasons of frailty to stay mostly indoors, and so her main method of solving the mystery is to eavesdrop on people, say outlandish things, and watch for the effects on the rest of her family – in other words, she relies on the little grey cells; her methods are psychological. Esa is by far the most compelling character in the novel, and she feels least like a stock character.
It wouldn’t be Christie without an unconvincing love triangle shoehorned in at the end of the novel, and I was more interested in the romance in Death Comes as the End than I generally am in those particular subplots. For a lot of the novel, people are talking over Renisenb’s head about who her next husband should be, and it is satisfying to watch her eventually stand up for herself and decide who she actually wants to be with. (Side note: apparently, in ancient Egypt, “brother and sister” were sometimes used to mean “husband and wife”. They are used that way in this novel too, which is profoundly unsettling, but I think it’s meant to be).
In short, although I can certainly tell that this novel is not Christie writing at the height of her talent, I hugely enjoyed it anyway. I’m impressed that she made the attempt, before the genre of historical mysteries was even really in existence. For me, the historical setting and the character of Esa were enough to make up for the rest of the novel. If you are not a big historical fiction fan, though, maybe pick up one of her other novels instead.
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