1938 - An appointment with death

I find it surprising that in the six years I've been producing Bookhound, not once have I blogged on Agatha Christie's classic Appointment with Death, which is one of my favourite Christies. Now, it's not her best novel, although there is much to admire in it, but I happen to love it principally because it's mainly set in Petra in Jordan. One of my very favourite holiday destinations.

Petra is an absolute delight. There is nowhere else anything like it. And it's one of those places that completely lives up to its billing. Eerie, majestic, unusual, colourful. An extraordinary place. Christie knew Trans-Jordania (as it was then known) very well. Her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, was principally involved in digs in Iraq and Syria, but the Near East including Jordan, Israel and Egypt were to become familiar ground to Christie.

Appointment with death opens with a conversation overheard in Jerusalem: "Don't you agree that she's got to be killed?" Famous detective, Hercule Poirot, hears the conversation, but isn't unduly worried. Surely this must be a discussion about a book?

Later though, things take a sinister turn, when Poirot arrives in Amman, and is asked to undertake an investigation into a mysterious death, the death could be accidental or might even be natural causes, but the authorities are worried and need some advice. And when Poirot realises that the son of the dead woman is the same person who opened the Jerusalem conversation, he knows that he must become involved in the case.

Where Appointment with death shines, is that it's not only a decent detective story, but it also sets the reader a moral dilemna. No-one is saddened by the death of Mrs. Boynton, the sadistic victim, who is probably one of the nastiest characters in Agatha Christie's oeuvre, but as Poirot points out that doesn't justify murder. The ending is also remarkably unsettling - although the murderer may not have got away with murder, everyone is much happier because of the murder. Without openly asking the question, Christie asks us if murder is ever justified, perhaps she's gently asking us, the crime-reading public, why we have such an appetite at least for its fictional form?

The New York Times observed that "Its presentation of a family harried and tortured by a sadistic matriarch is shot full of psychological conversation and almost entirely deficient in plot. And yet when the evil-hearted old tyrant has been murdered at last and Poirot considers the suspects, one follows with genuine interest the unravelling of even unexciting clues."

The Treasury at Petra
What it lacks in plot though is more than made up for by a colourful background, the slightly sinister feel of Petra is well to the fore. If the characters are not altogether well developed, some of them are brilliant, not least evil Mrs. Boynton, her frustrated, psychologically cowed children, and well-meaning but naive Jackson Cope.

Rather than being a straight crime story, Christie touches on some of the important issues of the day too, not least the growing independence of women. Sinister, and rather more than your average "puzzle detective" story, Appointment with Death is an enjoyable if slightly unsettling read.

Incidentally I discovered as I was nearing the end of this review, that although Appointment with Death was published in full in 1938, it was first serialised in an American magazine, Collier's Weekly, in 1937, followed by a serialisation in the Daily Mail. I hadn't realised before that Christie's works were serialised before publication. So, if this is not exactly part of the 1938 club, it comes fairly close.


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