Thursday, May 31, 2018

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie (1936)

I thought this was another Agatha Christie novel, but it ended up being one I had never read before.

One of the joys of reading Dame Agatha is her playing around with form, particularly using different narrators to tell the story.  In Murder in Mesopotamia, the conceit is the doctor who was involved in the investigation of the murder asks Nurse Amy Leatheran to write a narrative about the murder; she was originally hired to look after the woman who ends up being murdered on an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia (which I assume is modern Iraq).  She is a droll, often humorous narrator who injects herself into the story on multiple occasions, often with little asides that have nothing to do with the murder or investigation itself. For example - “Dr. Reilly handed me a plate of hot scones - “to fortify yourself,” he said. They were very good scones.”  (where, in the middle of the wilds of Mesopotamia, did they get good hot scones? Did they bring along an English cook? Did someone teach an Iraqi how to bake scones?) Her descriptions of her interactions with Hercule Poirot are particularly funny; she’s almost a Hastings to him, not quite trusting of his methods (or his foreignness) but amazed by him all the same.  I don’t believe she ever shows up on a Christie novel again, which is too bad: she’s a terrific narrator, who isn’t given the best of books to narrate.

Christie’s husband was a famous archaeologist, and I assume the location and people she describes were from her own experiences on digs with her husband.  I’m not sure this always worked though; the characters - other than Nurse Leatheran - seemed undeveloped. Perhaps because Christie knew them so well (or at least their types) she thought we the reader would know them too.  The book suffers from this abundance of flat characters; it also never quite feels like an archaeological dig. Most of the local color is stripped out, and occasionally it feels as if the setting is, in the end, irrelevant to the story. Referring colonially to grown Iraqi men as “boys” is also problematic.  I also thought the investigation seemed force. If you take Murder on the Orient Express, for example, Poirot must investigate because he is asked by his friend who works for the line, M. Bouc - and they are stranded in the snow, forced to stay put and not flee or have a formal investigation from the authorities step in and take over.  Mesopotamia was still, at the time, a British colony (protectorate) and I assume there were colonial authorities who would immediately step in and take over the crime scene. Christie wasn’t very thorough in how to do away with the police in order to have Poirot investigate the crime. That bothered me a lot; I thought it was an error at the least, and lazy writing at the most.  Other than the choice of narrator, I thought this was one of Christie’s lesser efforts.


Murder in MesopotamiaMurder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dame Agatha is always so very good at playing around with the genre, and I will give her high marks for doing so again in this book. It is especially narrators in which she exhibits her most genius, and Murder in Mesopotamia has a unique narrator in Nurse Leatheran. Using a conceit in which a doctor involved in the investigation of the titular crime encourages a nurse also involved to write a narrative of what really happened, Christie has created a funny, droll, sharp narrator who partners as perfectly with Hercule Poirot as any of his other sidekicks. It's too bad Nurse Leatheran has so little in which to work with here; as murder mysteries go this one was pretty lame. The whodunnit is good, but to get there was pretty convoluted. Christie’s husband was a famous archaeologist, and I assume the location and people she describes here were from her own experiences on digs with her husband. I’m not sure this always worked though; the characters - other than Nurse Leatheran - seemed undeveloped. Perhaps because Christie knew them so well (or at least their types) She thought we the reader would know them too. The book suffers from this abundance of flat characters; it also never quite feels like an archaeological dig. Most of the local color is stripped out, and occasionally it feels as if the setting is, in the end, irrelevant to the story. Referring colonially to grown Iraqi men as “boys” is also problematic. I also thought the investigation seemed force. If you take Murder on the Orient Express, for example, Poirot must investigate because first he is asked to by his friend who works for the line, M. Bouc - and then also because they are stranded in the snow, forced to stay put and not flee or have a formal investigation from the authorities step in and take over. Mesopotamia was still, at the time, a British colony (protectorate) and I assume there were colonial authorities who would immediately step in and take over the crime scene. Christie wasn’t very thorough in how to do away with the police in order to have Poirot be the prime investigator. That bothered me a lot; I thought it was an error at the least, and lazy writing at the most. Other than the choice of narrator, I thought this was one of Christie’s lesser efforts.

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