Murder in Mesopotamia, by Agatha Christie

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Mrs. Kelsey was settling into her house at Alwiyah, and I was glad to be able to take a few things off her shoulders.

This came up in conversation a couple of weeks ago, and I realised that I have it in my vast store of unread Agatha Christies, and pulled it out to see for myself. It was not one of the Christies that I had consumed as a teenager. It’s mainly remembered for the story behind the story; the first murder victim is based strongly on the real-life Lady Katherine Woolley, wife of Sir Leonard Woolley who led the 1930s excavation at Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan.

Massive spoilers: The various European and American characters in the book are vividly drawn. But the murder part of the plot is frankly ridiculous. It requires the first victim to have forgotten crucial details of her own previous marriage, and also requires that she remains strangely silent at the crucial moment of being murdered. The second murder is very poorly planned and could easily have failed. The murderer is very lucky that they actually off their victims. They are unlucky that Poirot is there to catch them out.

Despite my frustrations with the narrative, I found the context really fascinating. It’s a thoroughly racist book – Iraq was basically under British military occupation at the time, and the Arabs get barely a mention – and certainly not a positive one – in the narrative.

It was the workmen that made me laugh. You never saw such a lot of scarecrows – all in long petticoats and rags, and their heads tied up as though they had toothache. And every now and then, as they went to and fro carrying away baskets of earth, they began to sing – at least I suppose it was meant to be singing – a queer sort of monotonous chant that went on and on over and over again. I noticed that most of their eyes were terrible – all covered with discharge, and one or two looked half blind. I was just thinking what a miserable lot they were when Dr. Leidner said, “Rather a fine-looking lot of men, aren’t they?”

I was struck by a couple of other points too. The narrator’s name is Amy Leatheran; that surname simply doesn’t exist in real life. (She pops up again in the 1970 Agatha Christie novel Passenger to Frankfurt, nursing the narrator’s great-aunt, but does not appear to have aged 35 years in the meantime.) I’m wondering what significance the name has. If you swap “leather” for “mallow”, you get A. Mallowan, which was Agatha Christie’s married name, but maybe that’s stretching a bit.

I love lists of books, and here Poirot looks at the victim’s bookshelves and draws some drastic conclusions:

“In her bedroom I noticed the following books on a shelf: Who Were the Greeks? Introduction to Relativity, Life of Lady Hester Stanhope, Back to Methuselah, Linda Condon, Crewe Train.
“She had, to begin with, an interest in culture and in modern science – that is, a distinct intellectual side. Of the novels Linda Condon, and in a lesser degree Crewe Train, seemed to show that [the victim] had a sympathy and interest in the independent woman – unencumbered or entrapped by man. She was also obviously interested by the personality of Lady Hester Stanhope. Linda Condon is an exquisite study of the worship of her own beauty by a woman. Crewe Train is a study of a passionate individualist. Back to Methuselah is in sympathy with the intellectual rather than the emotional attitude to life. I felt that I was beginning to understand the dead woman.”

I thought it worth seeing which of these books, familiar to a fictional 1930s Belgian detective, has stood the test of time, and apply my usual test of Goodreads and LibraryThing users. It turns out to be about half and half. (I’m assuming that Max Born’s book on relativity is meant, rather than any other.)

TitleAuthorGR ratersLT owners
Back to MethuselahGeorge Bernard Shaw291352
Crewe TrainRose Macaulay323216
Einstein’s Theory of RelativityMax Born157308
Linda CondonJoseph Hergesheimer716
Who Were the Greeks?Sir John Linton Myres23
Life and Letters of Lady Hester StanhopeThe Duchess of Cleveland11

Anyway, it’s a book of its time and you can get it here.

Bechdel pass – the narrator is a woman and has been hired to look after a woman, and their first conversation is mainly about the latter’s health (the husband is mentioned a couple of times but he is not the main subject).