6 November 2010

Review: MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA, Agatha Christie

Published in 1936, having first been serialised both in the US and the UK.
The edition I read was published by Hamlyn London in an Agatha Christie Crime Collection, from my own library.
175 pages
The cover image on the right comes from the original UK dust-jacket.

Nurse Amy Leatheran is at the Tigris Palace Hotel, about to return to London, when she is recommended by friend Dr Reilly to Dr Leidner who is heading an archaeological dig in Iraq. Leidner's wife is in need of a companion/nurse although the archaeologist is a bit reticent in his interview with Nurse Leatheran about what is actually wrong with his wife. Nurse Leatheran joins the party at the dig and learns that Mrs Leidner has been receiving threatening letters. Nurse Leatheran finds the whole atmosphere at the dig is quite uncomfortable and then, rather predictably, Mrs Leidner is murdered. It becomes obvious that the murderer has to be one of the party, but who? There are plenty of suspects.
The investigating officer Captain Maitland learns that the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot will be travelling through Baghdad from Syria. Poirot is persuaded to assist in the investigation. He treats Nurse Leatheran as his confidante, and she becomes his "Hastings". It is her account of the investigation that we read.

I really read this too close to watching the latest TV production with David Suchet as Poirot. (see the Youtube video embedded below)
If you watched that television production, you will remember that Poirot visits the dig quite early in the story because his friend Captain Arthur Hastings is there. There is a "memorable" scene at dinner where Hastings makes an absolute mess of explaining the meaning of the word Mesopotamia.
Well, it may not surprise you to find that Hastings is not actually in the original book.

In actual fact in the book Poirot does not arrive until well over half way through the story. Mrs Leidner is already dead.

I think that in MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA Agatha Christie toyed with the concept of the unreliable narrator. You will remember that she had already done this previously in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD.
Nurse Leatheran prides herself as being an excellent judge of character, she says nurses generally are, and so there are times when we need to take her conclusions with a pinch of salt. In fact Poirot does come to recognise that because Nurse Leatheran is so observant she may also be in real danger from the murderer.

Several aspects of the way that Poirot works are highlighted for us: the way he encourages people to "gossip" with him; the way he whittles down the list of suspects; his romantic streak; his liking for young women.

After I learnt that the novel had originally been published in serial form, I looked for signs of fragmentation, perhaps discontinuity from one part to another, but I didn't find any.
It is quite a detailed novel, showing how much Christie undestands about life on an archaeological dig, and a number of side stories run simultaneously with the main murder mystery.

My rating: 4.4

I've just recently read and reviewed THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN by P.D. James and the plot similarities struck me. In the James novel Clarissa Lyle's husband employs Cordelia Gray as a companion/secretary to his wife because she is receiving death threats through poison pen letters. If you think of the archeological dig in MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA as a sort of cultural island, then in both novels the field of suspects is a confined one. In addition we are given cause to question Cordelia Gray's reliability as a narrator. In both cases the companion does not manage to prevent murder.
But perhaps there the similarities end. No Hercule Poirot appears on the scene in THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN and Cordelia Gray eventually solves the mystery in a way that Nurse Leatheran would never have been able to.


Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

Interesting comparisons, Kerrie.

That original dust-jacket is fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for this excellent review :-). It is interesting, isn't it, how we're lead for quite a while to believe that Amy Leatheran is an accurate, reliable narrator...until we learn better. Well-taken point! And I have to say, I wasn't overly thrilled with the TV version of this one. I think I'm too much of a purist...

Martin Edwards said...

I agree with Margot on this. And by and large, I don't think Agatha was at her best with her books set in the Middle East - other than Death on the Nile.

Yvette said...

I've liked this book a lot more than it probably deserves, mainly because I love the setting and I LOVE the title - yes, I can be swayed by that. ;)

I've tried to imagine NOT recognizing my own husband after twenty years and sometimes I think it's possible and other times I think it's not. (Turns out I haven't seen my own ex for twenty years. But I had been married to him for 24 before the divorce, so that's a big difference right there.) Still, I suspend my disbelief. I disliked the tv version because it turned Poirot into some kind of chump running after a woman. NEVER.

Plus I thought the casting of the murder victim was odd. She was supposed to be a beauty. The actress was attractive but no raving beauty.

Terrific review, Kerrie. I like seeing the books I'm so familiar with and love so much, through other eyes.


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