Sunday 24 March 2019

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Here is the 14th adventure of Hercule Poirot, following the brilliant The ABC Murders and preceding Cards on the Table.

And as with The ABC Murders, Christie is here increasingly concerned with character. Rather than the detail of how a killing was engineered (though this is indeed fascinating, and I would never have guessed it) it's the emerging, complex characterisation of the victim which is really fascinating.

The setting of this novel is an archaeological dig in Iraq. A British nurse called Amy Leatheran (great name) is hired to look after Louise Leidner, the highly strung American wife of the man running the dig.

Louise is described as an "allumeuse" — a word that sent me scampering to the dictionary. In this case, the Oxford Dictionary, where it's defined as a "A woman who is alluring but sexually elusive; a flirt, coquette (usually with some degree of sophistication implied)."

Not surprisingly, Louise's behaviour is ratcheting up the tension among the party of archaeologists, which includes a somewhat sinister French monk, Father Lavigny; Marie Mercado, the "Nasty slinking little cat" of a wife of Joseph Mercado; and Mercado himself, another one of Christie's drug addicts...

The setting is well researched and authentic — not surprising when you learn that Christie's second husband was an archaeologist and that she attended such digs with him — and I found the detail captivating...

Such as when the characters "cleaned some pottery, pouring a solution of hydrochloric acid over it. One pot went a lovely plum colour and a pattern of bulls' horns came out on another one." 

And for those of you whose murder-mystery Spidey sense starts tingling at the mention of hydrochloric acid... all I can say is, full marks to you.

The story is told from Nurse Leatheran's point of view. And once a murder has taken place — you're not getting any spoilers from me — Poirot appears on the scene. 

In Amy Leatheran he has acquired a new Watson: "I got the feeling... that M. Poirot and I were the doctor and nurse in charge of a case... I was beginning to enjoy  myself."

Although he remains a rather grating caricature, Poirot has by now acquired a certain amount of gravitas and status just through the sheer volume of his adventures. And I loved some of his cynical pronouncements — "I have never found two handwriting experts who agree on any point whatsoever."

More chillingly he observes, "murder is a habit." And sure enough, there is soon another killing, a particularly horrible one. The authorities are summoned once more and return to the dig. "And finally with the dawn, Hercule Poirot." 

Agatha Christie is energised by the exotic location of this story and some of her best descriptive writing is aroused to set the scene. And once more we have her sardonic observations about the female of the species:

"Women are wonderful realists... women can put up with a lot when they've got what they want."

And Louise Leidner, our allemeuse, is particularly well evoked: "she experimented — with people — like other people experiment with chemicals."

I also really liked Sheila Reilly, the daughter of the local doctor, who offers a savage and absolutely devastating critique of the various characters in the archaeological team. In this sequence Christie depicts her cast and their relationships with an impressive ruthless brilliance.

But as you know, the plot is the thing in a murder mystery. And here Christie is on top form.

After reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I now approach every one of her stories with a genuine sense of unease — no one is to be trusted, and no one is safe.

Which is just as well, because I would never have guessed any of the developments in Murder in Mesopotamia. When Poirot announces it's time to "summon the others"and everybody gathers to hear him reveal the truth, I had no idea what was coming...

While this wasn't quite as stunning as The ABC Murders, it's a really accomplished and memorable piece of work and the unusual setting clearly inspires Agatha Christie, and impresses itself vividly on the readers.

Christie is really on roll at this point in her writing career... as is emphatically revealed in a throwaway line at the end of the book: "Poirot went back to Syria and about a week later he went home on the Orient Express and got himself mixed up in another murder."

I will look forward to joining you on the Orient Express.

(Image credits: The Italian Mondadori edition with the woman's face and the scary mask — copied from the Tom Adams Fontana — is from Anobli. All the others are from a rich selection at Good Reads — I particularly admire the Indonesian one with what looks like an avenging Babylonian demon on it.)

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