In Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, yet another of Poirot’s holidays is disrupted by murder, mystery, intrigue, jealousy and romance. This classic murder mystery detective story is set aboard a the Karnak steamer, exploring the darkness and beauty of the River Nile.
Ahhhh. Unlike The Big Four – which was, bluntly, trash – Death on the Nile is a jewel in Agatha Christie’s turban. Hercule Poirot is on holiday in Egypt, on a Nile River cruise. Among the other passengers is Linnet Ridgeway, a rich, beautiful heiress, honeymooning with her husband Simon Doyle. Doyle was engaged to Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, before he met Linnet, and broke it off. Heartbroken and wanting revenge on her former friend for stealing her fiancé, Jacqueline started following them everywhere they go. When Linnet gets killed, Jacqueline is the obvious suspect. But is that really the case?
Love You Sun, Moon, Stars
“She cares too much, that little one… it is not safe.” – p18
Early in the book, it starts with Jacqueline de Bellefort, jilted lover, politely yet relentlessly stalking her ex fiancé and the former friend who stole him. In book and adaptation, Linnet tries to recruit Poirot; in both he rejects her, but gently tries to persuade Jacqueline to cease and move on.
Linnet in the book is much more sympathetic than the version in the adaptation. She’s less villainous and more just… young, rich and thoughtless. Yes, she steals her friend’s fiancé and it’s implied to be calculated and deliberate. But also… she’s twenty years old.
In contemporary times this would likely have been a five minute drama. One that in all likelihood both girls would have laughed off in a few years. It’s not like Simon Doyle is actually any great shakes. The other men on the steamer laugh about how stupid he is. Even the two women who love him describe him as ‘uncomplicated’ and ‘simple’.
In modern times, you wonder whether either woman would have bored of his stupidity and fecklessness in a few years. Marriage would never have been considered.
“How true is the saying that man was forced to invent work in order to escape the strain of having to think.”
In the book, Mr. Ferguson is genuinely amusing. He and Cornelia have more interactions and you get a clearer view on his personality. He’s basically that upper middle class guy at university who rants about capitalism and plays poverty, but also spends every holiday abroad and quietly takes a job at his uncle’s hedge fund six months after graduation. The key joke in the book is that his outer wear is ragged, but his underwear is top quality.
Miss Van Schuyler is a ridiculous, snobbish caricature who sneers at Mr. Ferguson until she finds out he’s an aristocrat; her snobbery is wholly misplaced given her social isolation and kleptomania. She also looks down on her poor relation, cousin Cornelia. Who, despite being described as socially awkward and not conventionally attractive, is kind, intelligent, and adept enough to secure proposals from a titled Lord and a famous and fashionable doctor – in the space of one steamer journey.
Mrs. Otterbourne, ably portrayed in the adaptation by Frances de la Tour, is a flamboyant, salacious, abusive alcoholic grand dame who is ruining her daughter’s life, one day at a time. What blew my mind was that she was loosely based on a real person. Apparently one Elinor Glyn, who actually popularised the concept of the IT girl, one Linnet Doyle arguably embodies. Known by the rhyming couplet “would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn”, the writer was rumoured to have influenced the careers of Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. It’s questionable how much this portrayal was based in fact.
The ITV adaption of Death on the Nile, featuring David Suchet, was sublime. Emma Griffiths Malin as Jacqueline, and Daisy Donovan as Cornelia Robson, were perfectly cast. The adaptation eliminated Fanthorp and Ms. Bowers, who I agree were largely superfluous.
I did enjoy Poirot’s sharp and blistering rebuttal of Linnet Doyle, in which he politely but forcefully criticises her for her actions, points out her feelings of guilt, and concludes with:
“I’m sure we could come to some arrangement -”
“Mais non, Madame. I am sure we could not.“
Although I’m not sure I agree with the re-characterisation of Tim Allerton. The adaptation incorporates the moment where Rosalie declares her affections. But his response doubly implies both that he might be gay, or that he’s actually in a very creepy relationship with his mother / mother figure.
Whereas in the book it actually makes sense for them to get together. Rosalie is a strong, but brittle woman (who could really do with a good mother figure in Mrs. Allerton) and Tim is a rather weak man who could do with a bit of backbone. They complement each other nicely. In the adaptation, Rosalie is also somewhat queer coded; the character wears masculine garb, flirts with Jacqueline and has a look that screams Marlene Dietrich.
Adaptation Ferguson also seems to have a far more sincere affection for Cornelia, and appears genuinely charmed when she describes making pottery and looking after her aging mother.
In the End
“Goodnight Mr. Poirot. You are surprised to find me here?”
“I am more sorry, than surprised.”
There’s a trope in Christie novels of the sympathetic suicide. Murderers, especially if they were female or sympathetic in some way, were typically allowed to take the easier way out. Poirot was sympathetic to the murderer from the start; he remains sympathetic after discovery, probably not least due to their intelligence and grace.
In the adaptation, you wonder why Doyle didn’t just do his best as a land agent and live a modest but respectable lifestyle. In the book it is clarified that he is greedy to the point of childishness, and that he developed a fixation on the idea of great wealth. It is also stated that he was fired from his city job due to shady dealings, not just redundancy.
I also like, that, for once, all the criminals on board recognise that it might not be great that a world renowned detective is aboard the steamer they’ve picked to commit their crimes. Far too often, villains think they can outwit the great Hercule Poirot. It’s rather refreshing to see one react with consternation and another react by sensibly drugging the great man on the night of their planned crime.
I heartily recommend this book. It’s funnier than the adaptation and absolutely excellent.