Murder in Mesopotamia
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
This round of my Crime and Mystery Book Discussion group at my library (in its continuing efforts to spend this year doing a genre study) focused on the Golden Age Puzzle Novel.
The novel I selected for our benchmark golden age puzzler was Murder in Mesopotamia, the fourteenth Hercule Poirot novel written by Agatha Christie. Christie’s second marriage was to Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, and it was her travels with him that inspired the foreign settings for the retired Belgian police officer Poirot who more normally lived in England and operated like a cross between a Great Thinking Detective and a Private Detective.
Poirot has many unusual characteristics which is not uncommon among our great thinkers in the genre. His egg shaped head, his foreign bearing and accent, his wax mustache and his enormous ego all add flavor to the Poirot soup. One of the things this group discovered was that he does not really evolve so this is one series where diving in randomly into the series did not appear to spoil the enjoyment of the character.
The issue of who is the narrator is solved in this Christie by selecting an visiting nurse, Amy Leatheran, who is at loose ends in 1935 Iraq and can take a job as nurse to a woman named Louise Leidner. Louise is having “fancies” which have spoiled the atmosphere of this year’s dig at Tell Yarimjah and put everyone on edge. When she is killed, the archaeology team calls upon Captain Maitland in the city Hassanieh.
Why Captain Maitland and not the local Iraqi police force? While there are two casual mentions of the local officers, it is painfully obvious to a contemporary reader that Iraq is under British occupation, an interesting foreshadowing of the current situation in the same country. It is Maitland who suggests that the he and the group take advantage of the fact that Poirot is visiting the country and able to step in as a consultant.
One of the reasons why this book is able to be discussed by a contemporary audience is statements by Amy like her dismissal of the local literature as “queer heathenish-looking marks” or her description of the local workmen with the statement, “You never saw such a lot of scarecrows–all in long petticoats and rags, and their heads tied up as though they had a toothache.” While Amy proclaims that there will be “no local colour in this story,” the opposite proves true if you study the few comments that Christie placed in the manuscript. Ultimately, our group decided that this novel could have been set at Stonehenge and it would not have changed much because local color is minimal in the narrative.
The majority of the book is taken up with the dominant traits of a golden age puzzle: a death with mysterious circumstances, a closed set, a limited number of suspects, a gathering of those same people with the revelation of the truth by the detective. One of our reactions to this book as a group was its “timelessness” which we translated into the fact that will some things are learned over an eighty-five year period by reading this book, it is not dated in its writing style or in the development of the all important cast of suspects.
Some may want to take advantage of the fact that there is an excellent version of this novel starring David Suchet in a filmed version released on DVD.
This book proved to be more discussable than I thought and did easily fill the first half of our discussion. It also proved to be an excellent warm up for the second title on the bill for this evening: Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris. More on that title next time.