Monday, 5 December 2011
A Perfect Read for a Perfect Moment
I suppose it’s not a terribly good idea to read a crime thriller when one already knows the outcome. Half the fun, after all, is in the surprise, or in discovering that one is as sensitive to the clues as the sleuth! I came to Death on the Nile for the first time in no need of clues because I already knew whodunit from watching an old movie with Peter Ustinov in the role of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s ace French, sorry, Belgian detective.
I’m not a huge fan of traditional crime fiction. The only other novel by Christie that I’ve read is The Murder at the Vicarage, which was a little too twee for my taste. It’s odd, though, because I’ve hugely enjoyed the film and television adaptations of her work, engaging and escapist.
So, I knew that the book would be no mystery; I read it because I, too, was in Egypt, in the Cataract Hotel and sailing down the Nile. I read it, in other words, for the location and for the romance, if that’s the right word for a novel centring on a murder! The whole experience, the country and the novel, the country in the novel, the novel in the country, was hugely enjoyable.
This is not literature; it’s simple, uncomplicated stuff. The style is limpid if a little old-fashioned at points (the younger women are horribly patronised!) The characters are reasonably well-drawn, much better, I thought, than the shallow figures that populated The Murder at the Vicarage, and the plot very well constructed. I suppose that’s the thing about crime fiction, it’s much more about plot than people. I really can’t imagine Christie’s people having much in the way of an interior life, even Poirot for all his talk of ‘little grey cells.’
Death on the Nile carried me very nicely along the Nile. It was interesting to note the variations between the film and the novel. For instance, the scene in which a large stone almost kills Linnet Ridgeway, the chosen victim, comes at the temple of Abu Simbel and not at Karnak. It’s also interesting that the party were able to visit the temple straight from their cruise ship, no longer possible since the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Incidentally for those who have seen the movie and not yet read the book the latter is far more plausible. The movie is enjoyable enough, with some wonderful costume designs, but there are simply far too many suspects, just about every other passenger on the cruise ship apart from Poirot and Colonel Race, his friend. It’s less necessary to suspend disbelief, especially over the rather risible scene when everyone gathers together in one room while the detective eliminates them one by one prior to identifying the real culprit. Poor Poirot; he never, ever gets a break. Why on earth do people always insist on committing crimes in his presence, especially when they have previously identified him as the ‘famous detective’?!
I shouldn’t give too much away in spoilers, especially if you, dear reader, have neither come to the book nor seen the movie. Let me just say that the crime is truly monstrous, a young woman, rich and beautiful, a woman with everything to live for, is butchered not for love but for money, not for high passion but for low greed, killed by a man (he does not act alone in the conspiracy to murder) for whom love is not enough. The criminal, a shallow dilettante, is a kind of version of Sir Percival Glyde from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, less monstrous and more monstrous at one and the same time, if you understand my meaning.
The other interesting thing for me is that some things in Egypt have hardly changed at all. Death on the Nile was first published in 1937. There is a scene in Aswan where Poriot is walking down the streets, perstered all the way by touts. His companion tells him that it’s best to pretend to be deaf and blind. If you ever go to Egypt I urge you to follow this advice!
This isn’t really a review, more an appreciation of a book, of a time and of a country, a personal assessment in which the experience of reading and the experience of seeing came together in perfect harmony. Death on the Nile is far from being a great book, but I give it five stars, that judgement notwithstanding, simply because it now has an abiding personal meaning for me. I’m unlikely ever to read it again because it’s been absorbed into one of life’s perfect moments…and perfect moments should never be revisited.
Posted by Anastasia F-B at 15:37
Labels: Book Reviews
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But did you get to see any crocodiles in their natural habitat?ReplyDelete
Five stars!? What happened to the hard marker!? Actually, it's good to see that you've brought the quality of mercy from Egypt . . .ReplyDelete
Your final comment is Nakobovian: he returned to Cambridge for a visit and observed that it was a dreadful mistake, as the memories of one mediocre visit had completely obliterated all his lovely memories as an undergraduate . . . Caveat lector! (All I suppose he was probably just posing, as usual . . . )
Anthony, sadly all of the crocodiles in Egypt have long since been turned into handbags and belts. I would have to go further south into the Sudan to see them in their natural habitat.ReplyDelete
Chris, cometh the moment cometh the book. :-)ReplyDelete
I don't know if your interest in history extends to archaeology, Ana, but Christie was married to an excavator and participated in many digs in Mesopotamia . . . digging up skeletons of the past while fantasizing homicides in the present.ReplyDelete
Her writing is certainly not literature, but in the days of long train journeys, the books were just the right length to be enjoyed while traveling, as opposed to those modern tombstone-sized blockbusters publishers favour today.
I was going to ask about crocodiles, too; it would be a real plus for tourism if the Egyptians reintroduced large animals such as crocs and hippos to the lower Nile, but I don't think they have much interest in wildlife.
What a pity, I have always been fascinated by crocodilians, I had a small one as a pet years ago. In the US We have alligators in most of the southern states and Alligators and caimans in south Texas and there are some crocodiles in southern Florida. Alligators can withstand somewhat colder climates than crocodiles.ReplyDelete
a very relaxing piece! i watched the movie long time ago in china and highly enjoyed it!ReplyDelete
i agree agatha christie doesn't belong to those greatest literature names that people like to remember, but for me, she was one of those geniuses - she possessed a natural talent (not at all "twee" to me. lol). she was all about entertaining, and in a ingenious way.
you last line made me wonder...
Calvin yes, very much. I knew about her husband and Murder in Mesopotamia is next on my Christie list. There is just one thing: I'm not going to Iraq to read it!ReplyDelete
Anthony, it's a terrible pity. I was really hoping to see a croc, one of the first things I asked about, only to be told this depressing truth. :-(ReplyDelete
Yun Yi, you are quite right, she did possess a natural talent, a complete mistress of her chosen field. Her prose style is superb. There is little in the way of depth, that's all, though I don't think such a comment would have displeased her. Have you read The Murder at the Vicarage? I suppose it captures a certain view of English life, the olde tea shoppe and Tudor beams perspective that for so many seem to freeze this country in aspic!ReplyDelete
Greetings from Belgium and Hercule Poirot! I saw Death on the Nile many years ago; I've totally forgotten the plot. Who cares if it's not literature, a vacation book should be pure pleasure, I'm sure we agree on that.ReplyDelete
ana, i did read "the murder at the vicarage", and forgot most of it, just like i forgot many other her other stories. "10 little indians" might be the one i was impressed the most, and still remember many details. the reason i admire this lady so much is because she wrote stories completely for fun. and it just happened that she also was also successful. i quoted her in my blog about a forgotten chinese woman artist:ReplyDelete
i know you are busy. read it whenever you have time:-)
Katerine, we surely do. :-)ReplyDelete
Yun Yi, I'll pop along as soon as I've updated here.ReplyDelete
Yun Yi, that was a superb article.ReplyDelete
thanks ana! highly appreciate your compliments!ReplyDelete
thanks ana for visiting and complimenting:-)ReplyDelete
You are welcome. :-)ReplyDelete