THE BOOK Fontana 1968 pp191
Tom Adams’ cover (left) depicts the embalmed body of Nofret, amongst burial wrappings and the toy lion that Hori repaired for Renisenb when she was a child. The artist’s model bears a strong resemblance to the image on the mural behind her.
The 1960 PAN cover is somewhat less convincing, but it is interesting that it makes the comparison with The ABC Murders rather than, say, one of Agatha Christie’s more recent books.
The dedication is to Stephen Glanville, who had persuaded her during the War years to write a story based in Ancient Egypt.
The story is set in Thebes around 2000BC. The recently-widowed Renisenb returns with her young daughter Teti to her family home, and all seems to her very much unchanged from when she had left it as a girl.
When her father brings home a concubine, Nofret, undercurrents are stimulated that indicate that all was far from well within Renisenb’s extended family. The murder of Nofret follows, and not many of them survive its chaotic aftermath.
Given the setting, and the lack of an investigative force after the murders occur, there are none of the usual interrogations and no physical evidence. Suspicion is based on superstition, until the murderer is lured out into the open by the one character who trusts the evidence of his own eyes.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
All the main characters are based on the contents of letters that Agatha Christie researched from the 11th Dynasty (2134-1991 BC).
Egypt was at the time disunited, and the power lay in the hands of local rulers. This historical background is a key element of the story, evident in the local mistrust of the characters who arrive from the North (Nofret and Kameni) and Hori’s yearning for a re-united Egypt.
Unlike most historical novels, this one does not involve actual characters from the time, which Agatha Christie saw as ‘phoney’: ‘ … but you can place a character of your own creation in those times and as long as you know enough of the local colour and the general feeling of the period it would be all right‘.
So, in from central casting she places the hen-pecked brother always out to please his father (Yahmose), the squandering ne’er-do-well younger brother (Sobek), the shrewd grandmother (Esa), the young woman trying to make her way in the world (Renisenb), with all of them under the roof of a patriarch who keeps all the power to himself (Imhotep) and brings home a concubine much younger than himself (Nofret). 1
Many of these character types have appeared before (in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) and would appear again (in A Pocketful of Rye). The one totally original character is that of Henet, poor relation and self-proclaimed drudge, but with eyes like a snake …
Unsurprisingly, Agatha Christie deals very sympathetically with Renisenb, a woman alone in the world with a six-year-old daughter (she knew what it was like!). By the end, similarly to Lucy Eylesbarrow in 4:50 from Paddington, Renisenb has to make a choice for her future life – either with someone attractive and exciting but unreliable, or someone disconcerting but comforting and seemingly reliable; unlike Lucy, she makes a choice and we find out what it is.
As well as the bones of the descriptions of everyday living, Agatha Christie uses conversation, usually between Renisenb and Hori, to put a bit of meat on her setting.
“You know that in all tombs there is always a false door?”
Renisenb stared. “Yes, of course.”
“Well, people are like that too. They create a false door – to deceive. If they are conscious of weakness, of inefficiency, they make an imposing door of self-assertion, of bluster, of overwhelming authority – and after a time, they get to believe in it themselves. They think, and everyone thinks, that they ARE like that. But behind that door, Renisenb, is bare rock.”
“Fear is only incomplete knowledge,” said Hori.
Hori said with sudden bitterness: “All of Egypt is obsessed by death! And do you know why, Renisenb? Because we have eyes in our bodies, but none in our minds.”
“Look, Renisenb. Look out from here across the valley to the River and beyond. That is Egypt, our land. Broken by war and strife for many long years, divided into petty kingdoms, but now – very soon – to come together and form once more a united land – Upper and Lower Egypt once again welded into one – I hope and believe to recover her former greatness!”
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
It was brave to set a murder mystery 4000 years in the past, and brilliant to use superstition to such effect: everyone thinks they know what is happening, so no-one tries to seriously investigate it until after the first few murders have taken place.
The surprise rating of the ending is not huge, because practically all the suspects are dead by the end! Also, anyone surviving a murder attempt in a swigatha is automatically suspect to an experienced reader of them.
Agatha Christie said 2 that she was persuaded to change her own preferred ending by Stephen Glanville, and regrets it. It would be fascinating to know whom she originally had in mind for the murderer: based on the extracts from her secret notebooks, I would plump for Hori.3
WHERE IT LED
Agatha Christie never again attempted to set a crime story in the distant past, but many other writers have! She was the first. Again.
None so far, although the BBC has announced its intention to produce one. It will be interesting to see who they choose as the murderer …
1 In the Neues Museum in Berlin there are floors dedicated to Ancient Egypt, including the famous bust of Nefertiti – which in German is Nofret-ete. There are also carved figurines with names such as Sobek and Imhotep; Agatha Christie may not have used famous historical figures, but she did use names held by people of some substance.
2 Agatha Christie An Autobiography p 514.
3 Dr John Curran, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks pp 230-236.