Death on the Nile

THE BOOK Fontana, 1968  pp222   

Tom Adams’ cover depicts (exactly) the pearl-handled revolver featured in the story and shrieks “Egypt!” It would have would shrieked it even more loudly when the phenomenal Tutankhamun exhibition came to London four years later, which may explain why he only did one cover for this book (in many other cases, his 1960s covers were superseded in the 1970s editions).

The other cover was another drawn by Robin Macartney, the Mallowans’ dig architect, for the first edition; he performed a similar service for the other swigathas set in the middle-east. 

THE STORY

Simon and Linnet Doyle arrive in Egypt on their honeymoon tour. Their tour had thus far been frequently disturbed by appearances on the scene of Jacqueline de Bellefort, Simon’s ex-fiancée. Hercule Poirot joins the three of them, plus a colourful group of passengers, on a trip up the Nile. Jacqueline confides to Poirot that she would like to shoot Linnet in the temple with her pearl-handled pistol, and soon enough Linnet is found shot in the head by a pearl-handled pistol …

CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES 

There is a great variety of characters on board the SS Karnak: Salome Otterbourne, a dipsomaniac writer of lurid sex fiction; Mrs van Schuyler, a kleptomaniac New York millionaire; Ferguson, an aristocrat dedicated to ridding the world of the aristocracy; a German physician, an Italian archaeologist-cum-terrorist, a young man (Tim Allerton) a bit too much in admiration of his mother… and so on.

The most interesting character is the tragic Jacqueline de Bellefort, bright and intelligent and full of life when the book begins and suicidal at the end. When Poirot first meets her, he takes an instant liking to her and feels a great sympathy for her situation, whilst at the sae time worrying where it might lead her. Time and again he tries to persuade her to turn bavk, but she cannot: she realises that, without her intelligence and planning, the moronic brute Simon, for whom she is willing to sacrifice everything, would go ahead without her and make a total hash of things.

Poirot’s compassion for her allows Jackie to take the easy way out: suicide, rather than trial, conviction and the hangman’s rope or life in prison. Agatha Christie deemed incarceration for the rest of one’s life to be a worse fate than immediate death.  Poirot shows no compassion towards Miss de Bellefort’s three victims.

QUOTES  

More than in any other of these stories, Poirot thinks aloud, but in French – there is a full analysis of the impact of this in this article from the Swigatha blog https://swigatha.blog/2017/04/10/poirots-use-of-french-in-death-on-the-nile/

Here are some examples of the humour of Swigatha’s narrative style, with the odd brilliant phrase (‘as though in supreme enquiry’):

“There’s no reason why women shouldn’t behave like rational human beings”, Simon asserted stolidly.
Poirot said dryly: “Quite frequently they do. That is even more upsetting!”

“Mrs Doyle!” exclaimed Ferguson with deep contempt. “She’s the sort of woman who should be shot as an example”.
Cornelia looked at him anxiously.
“I believe it’s your digestion”, she said kindly.

“What a poisonous woman! Whew! Why didn’t someone murder her!”
“It may yet happen”, Poirot consoled him.

And it does … Poirot and Race have just had a visit from Salome Otterbourne. On her next visit:

Bang! The noise of the explosion filled the cabin. There was an acrid sour smell of smoke. Mrs Otterbourne turned slowly sideways, as though in supreme enquiry, then her body slumped forward and she fell to the ground with a crash.

SWIGATHA RATING  9/10  

This is one of the best of her books: terrific story, well-written, great setting (and one, like the Orient Express, that she knew very well), interesting characters and twists that surprise. Unusually, we are given more than the usual number of indications of what Poirot is thinking, and, even more unusually, feeling. He warns Jackie again and again not to do it, to turn back before it is too late, so it should come as no surprise to learn that she is the brains behind the crime … yet it does!

To realise the identity of her partner-in-crime you need to study Poirot’s French phrases carefully …

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT 

After Mesopotamia and the Nile, Poirot’s middle-eastern odyssey next takes him to Jordan for an Appointment with Death. He goes to visit the British authorities in Amman, armed with a letter of introduction from Colonel Race. After that case, Agatha Christie packed him off back to England for good …

ADAPTATIONS 

Kenneth Branagh’s production of Death on the Nile is due to be released in cinemas in February 2022 after 17 months delay, caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by allegations of sexual assault against Arnie Hammer, who had the part of Simon Doyle. Hammer has been airbrushed out of most of the publicity for the film, but not the film itself – unsurprisingly, since it is a pivotal role. There will be a Swigatha review of this film in due course.

A British film was made in 1978, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and a firmament of stars, including Angela Lansbury in brilliant form as Mrs Otterbourne, David Niven as the definitive Colonel Race and Bette Davis as Mrs van Schuyler.  Mia Farrow gives a fine performance as Jacqueline de Bellefort, and Simon McCorkindale is suitably wooden as her lover.

Mia Farrow as Jacqueline (1981)
Emma Malin as Jacqueline (2004)

The characters of the Allertons, Cornelia Robson and Fanthorp have been ditched, and an awful Indian stereotype boat-manager inserted, but otherwise it is quite faithful to the original.It is an enjoyable film, if rather too full of Poirot going around to each character and saying “YOU could have done it, by….” If nothing else, that is a dead give-away, as the only people he does not accuse in this way are, of course, the ones who did do it.

ITV’s adaptation for its Poirot series plays it fairly straight, apart from making Tim Allerton gay. It is one of the better full-length films in the series, and is unusually faithful to the original dialogue.

Agatha Christie herself adapted the book for the stage: Murder on the Nile. She had a horror of stage representations of Poirot so he does not appear in it.