Book Review: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

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Title: Death on the Nile

Author: Agatha Christie

Genre(s): fiction, mystery, historical

Length: 333 pages

Published: November 1, 1937

Rating: ★★★★★

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Overview:

When I was a child, I loved reading mysteries—in fact, apart from my favorite scientific nonfiction books, that’s most of what I read. I never lost my love of them (my WIP is a murder mystery, and most television shows I watch are mysteries in some form) but it’s been many years since I read any. Last year, Murder on the Orient Express was my first venture with Agatha Christie’s books (which was sadly spoiled a bit by already having seen a movie adaptation of it); Death on the Nile was my second. I think I might be hooked again! Of course, both of those novels are considered some of her best, but I picked up Death on the Nile intending to finish it within the week, and instead finished it within the day. The combination of Christie’s direct prose style, large and varied cast, and expert plot execution make for an enthralling novel.

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Style/Voice:

In a few words, Christie’s writing style is brief, direct, and astute—but not, as those adjectives might suggest, too sparse or lacking in tone and interest. Her paragraphs are short and lines of dialogue usually more so, which makes for a very quick and very immersive read (especially in our modern era where brevity is highly prized). But she makes up for the lack of long descriptions by using specific descriptions, making it easy to imagine the characters and locations but still keep up the suspenseful pace. Here’s an example from the novel’s opening:

“Linnet Ridgeway!”

“That’s her!” said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns.

He nudged his companion.

The two men stared with round bucolic eyes and slightly open mouths.

A big scarlet Rolls-Royce had just stopped in front of the local post office.

A girl jumped out, a girl without a hat and wearing a frock that looked (but only looked) simple. A girl with golden hair and straight autocratic features—a girl with a lovely shape—a girl such as was seldom seen in Malton-under-Wode.

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Characters:

There are quite a few players in this mystery apart from Detective Poirot (nineteen, to be exact). As with large casts, the beginning of the book sometimes left me confused as to who was who, but I found I could quickly learn to distinguish them based on their varying names (no near-identical ones) as well as their distinct personalities and relationships with one another. Two of Christie’s strengths with character development are at play here—her ability to quickly “sketch” a character in such a way that makes them seem real without actually taking a lot of time to do so, and her ability to slowly reveal the true motives of each person over the course of the story. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide, which makes for fascinating dialogue exchanges and red herrings nearly everywhere you look—except for Poirot, who gets roped into solving the murder of Linnet Ridgeway while he’s attempting to take a vacation. For the sake of spoilers I won’t go into detail about the cast, but I was thoroughly intrigued by them (even the ones I disliked, like Mr. Ferguson) and found that the plot-heaviness of the novel didn’t leave the characters feeling one-dimensional as a result.

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Plot:

There’s a quote by Peter Robinson on the back of my copy of Death on the Nile: “When it comes to fiendish plotting, there’s nobody to compare with Agatha Christie.” I certainly felt that way by the end of the book. For the sake of avoiding spoilers I also won’t mention specific details about the plot—however, I could hardly put it down to take a break to eat (a testament to its immediate suspense) and, looking back, I was able to see every instance where Christie gave the reader the information necessary to deduce the murderer but did so in a way that is easy to gloss over when caught up in the action unfolding between the pages. I believe good plots and good characters always go together, but to see an example of a truly exquisite, meticulous plot like this one was a delight even apart from the interesting cast of characters traveling down the Nile.

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Setting:

In the Author’s Forward, Christie states that she wrote Death on the Nile after coming back from a trip to Egypt, and her first-hand experience with the landscape shows through in the novel in how tangible the setting feels. The story focuses around the conflict between characters and the mystery around a murder, but all of those events happen on a boat going up the Nile and in between stops at historical sites like Abu Simbel. To use Christie’s own words again: “…if detective stories are ‘escape literature’ (and why shouldn’t they be!) the reader can escape to sunny skies and blue water as well as to crime in the confines of an armchair.”

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Objectionable Content:

Death on the Nile is a murder mystery, so a certain level of violence is expected. Characters are shot, stabbed, etc. (and some are consequently killed); there’s descriptions of the wounds as part of the investigation, but the details are not gruesome for more sensitive readers. Some characters drink; some get drunk. I can’t recall any usage of curse words or vulgar language, although one character writes books with lots of sexual content and sometimes (briefly) speaks about them. Modern readers may not like the old style of describing people and, in particular, those native to Egypt, but those moments are few and, considering the time period, mild if taken within their historical context.

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Conclusion:

I decided to spend the rest of my summer reading “lighter” books (lighter at least than my usual forays into the worst of human history, technical subjects like psychology and philosophy, or very large 19th century tomes), and am very glad I began that venture with Death on the Nile. The book is a quick read without much thematic heaviness but not without intellectual stimulation, both with trying to sort out all of the clues before the big reveal and with contemplating human nature and what drives some people to commit horrible crimes.

There’s always a part of reading classic literature where I wonder if the book or author will live up to their title—just because something has been well-loved by many or historically significant doesn’t mean it will line up with my own tastes. This time, however—and fortunately, like many other times in the past several years—Christie’s books seem to deserve their praise, and the title “The Queen of Mystery” really does seem appropriate. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to spend my reading time.

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