THE BOOK Fontana,1971 pp 190
Another cover by Tom Adams, featuring elements from the plot: death mask, threatening letter, fake goblet and the first of his ‘ropes’ (see also his painting for Towards Zero). Contrast the 1971 book with that produced by Fontana in 1978, and I hope you can see why the older edition holds so much more appeal.
This was the first of Agatha Christie’s’s novels to be set in the Middle East. She had married archaeologist Max Mallowan 6 years previously and hugely enjoyed accompanying him on his expeditions. The book is dedicated to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”. The original cover for the first UK edition (on the right) was designed by Robin Macartney, who was often the expeditions’ architect.
Dr Leidner is accompanied by his wife on an archaeological expedition to Iraq. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, and he hires Nurse Amy Leatheran to help care for her. Mrs Leidner confides to the nurse that she is in fear for her life, and indeed that fear proves to be justified. The local (British) authorities ask Hercule Poirot, who happened to be visiting Baghdad, to investigate her murder.
A couple of years later, Nurse Leatheran is persuaded to write her account of the affair.
Agatha Christie usually claimed that she was unable to base fictional characters on people from her own personal circle, but one or two in this book reflect, at least in part, people that she came across on expedition. She had come to know her subject and was thus able to describe with accuracy the roles and responsibilities of the people involved at the dig.
Thus, Mrs Leidner is based upon the character of Katherine Woolley, whom the author met on her trips to Baghdad and Ur (where she met her own second husband Max Mallowan), and who became a firm friend. Other characters from those trips re-appear in this book – the character of Carl Reiter seems to be based on that of the architect Whitburn, and the calm David Emmott could be Max Mallowan himself.1
Mrs Leidner is portrayed as a fascinating woman, a prima donna type whom you could be repulsed by and yet devoted to simultaneously. The fact that she does not recognise that her second husband is the same person as her first can only be explained by her total self-absorption …
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
The most interesting character is Nurse Leatheran, the narrator, who tells everything as she saw it at the time, rather than with the benefit of hindsight. This gives a very refreshing feel to her narrative style, and allows her to make some very amusing asides. She is yet another single, thirty-something young woman teaming up with Poirot on a murder enquiry, but the first to let us know what she thought of him. Here she explains her diary-like approach to narration.
Looking back as I do from my present standpoint of knowledge I can see a good many little signs and indications that I was quite blind to at the time. To tell the story properly, however, I think I ought to try to capture the point of view that I actually held – puzzled, uneasy and increasingly conscious of something wrong.
And here she describes working with Poirot:
I’d got the feeling, you see, by this time, that M. Poirot and I were the doctor and nurse in charge of a case. At least, it was more like an operation and he was the surgeon. Perhaps I oughtn’t to say so, but in a queer way I was beginning to enjoy myself.
And here Sheila Reilly describes Louise Leidner – or is it Katherine Woolley? Whatever – it is a brilliant description:
She’s the kind of woman who’s never had a row with anyone in her life – but rows always happen where she is! She makes them happen. She’s a kind of female Iago.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
The narration, characterisations and descriptions flow well, and it is clear that Agatha Christie put a lot of herself into them. The revelations at the end, however, strain the reader’s credulity to the utmost.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
After Mesopotamia, Poirot travels to Syria to work for the French delegation there, and on his way home takes a ride on the Orient Express (the events described by Nurse Leatheran’s narration had taken place a few years before).Agatha Christie was spending more time in the Middle East and so was Poirot: in 1937 she placed him in Egypt (Death on the Nile) and the following year in Petra (Appointment with Death).
The production by ITV ’embellishes’ the original by introducing Hastings as the uncle of one of the people on the expedition and reducing Nurse Leatheran to a walk-on part. It also adds a sub-plot involving Countess Rossakoff of The Big Four fame and a drug-related murder and suicide. It does, however, contrive to make the Leidner marriage slightly more credible.
1Agatha Christie, An Autobiography: pages 403-405 and elsewhere (Fontana 1977 edition)