THE BOOK Fontana, 1972 pp 160
Tom Adams’ second cover, which I think shows a spider crawling out of Ginevra Boynton’s head, is more striking than his first, which shows the ‘monstrous, swollen female Buddha’ of Mrs Boynton amid the red caves of Petra and the cause of her death. But I read the first.
The Observer quote on the back is not quite what Torquemada wrote in 1938:
‘Death on the Nile was entirely brilliant; Appointment with Death, while lacking the single stroke of murderer’s genius which provided the alibi in the former story, must be counted mathematically nearly twice as brilliant, since the number of suspects is reduced by nearly half‘ … but it’s a great line.
The book, one of Agatha Christie’s shortest, is in two parts. In the first, the Boyntons, an Americam family totally dominated by a tyrannical sadistic matriarch, are on a holiday in the Middle East. Himself on holiday in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears one member of the family telling another that Mrs Boynton has to be killed. The Boyntons move on to Jordan, and Mrs Boynton duly dies during a visit to Petra.
In the second half, Poirot is visiting a local British official, Colonel Carbury. Carbury is not convinced that Mrs Boynton’s was a natural death and asks Poirot to investigate. He gives him 24 hours to report back, and the rest of the book consists of Poirot’s interrogations of members of the touring party.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
In the character of the sadistic Mrs Boynton, Agatha Christie has created a wholly believable monster, and the total control that she exercises over her three step-children and her own daughter is utterly convincing. The supporting cast also convince: the hopeless Lennox Boynton, the evanescent Ginevra Boynton, the newly-qualified, emergent Dr Sarah King and the suggestible Miss Pierce. The story could have been written a hundred years ago or 100 days ago; it is truly timeless.
What an opening line:
“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”
Agatha Christie’s gentle mockery of Anglo-Saxon attitudes (evident throughout her golden period) continues:
“Heard of a Frenchman called Gerard? Theodore Gerard?”
“Certainly, a very distinguished man in his own line.”
“Loony bins”, confirmed Colonel Carbury. “Passion for a charwoman at the age of four makes you insist you’re the Archbishop of Canterbury when you’re thirty-eight. Can’t see why and never have, but these chaps explain it all very convincingly.”
Gerard’s thoughts here echo those of Poirot in Dumb Witness to the effect that those who believe that England is a free country are deluding themselves:
Mr Cope rose. “In America,” he said, “we’re great believers in absolute freedom.”
Dr Gerard rose also. He was unimpressed by the remark. He had heard it made before by people of many different nationalities. The illusion that freedom is the prerogative of one’s own particular race is fairly widespread. Dr Gerard was wiser. He knew that no race, no country and no individual could be described as free. But he also knew that there were different types of bondage. He went to bed thoughtful and interested.
The most interesting quotations in the book are both taken from Shakespeare. Here Ginevra sings Ophelia’s lament for her murdered father:
How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and scarf
And his sandal shoon.
He is dead and gone, lady
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf;
At his heels a stone
At the end, Ginevra also sings a lament (from Cymbeline) for her murdered mother
Fear no more the heat o’s the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldy task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages…
These two quotes are beautifully placed in the book. Ginevra’s mother had been mentally abusive of her all her life, and her step-siblings worried for her mental health. This show of pity for her mother indicates that she has finally broken free of her, and now stands a chance.1
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
This is a very interesting and enjoyable book to read. It always helps when the author has expert knowledge of a setting. The characters are convincing, too, and the first half of the book is as good as anything Agatha Christie wrote, in my opinion; the second half at least eschews the temptation to add another murder to string it out a bit (which is why it is about 30 pages shorter than the usual 192 pages of these editions).
The solution is a surprise, but really anyone could have done it; it feels like the author got three-quarters of the way through, stopped, picked out the least likely suspect and took it from there, so it’s not quite top-drawer.
But what a great read for an eleven-year-old.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Poirot’s various trips to the Middle East, following Orient Express, Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia, come to an end, and he is despatched back to Blighty for good.
Agatha Christie adapted this story for the stage in her ‘theatrical decade’ of the 1950s. As with all her plays, the character of Hercule Poirot does not appear, and as with many of them, the identity of the murderer is changed.
A dire version of the story was filmed in 1988 with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. It dispenses with the psychological hold that their mother has over the children, and if I say that it was directed by Michael Winner and was a Golum-Globus production, I need say little else.
ITV pulled off the rare feat of sinking even lower into the mire of mediocrity with their 2008 version, which dispenses with the brilliance of Agatha Christie’s’s plot altogether and substitutes one involving white slave-trading nuns and the head of John the Baptist. By some way this was the worst of the Suchet Poirots.
1 These quotes have stuck with me ever since I first read them. I had always thought that the coffin was buried with the head at the stone; apparently in Shakespeare’s time it was not.