• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Celebrating Agatha Christie: Appointment with Death

ByFreddy Lowe

May 2, 2023
Agatha Christie cover

As Agatha Christie becomes the latest in a line of authors whose works are being rewritten, censorship (even well-intentioned censorship) sees no sign of dissipating.  I believe that rewriting classics not only unintentionally implies that we cannot cope with books of their time, but also produces airbrushed versions of texts that entirely miss the point of literature.  Literature tells us where we’ve come from, be it good, bad, or ugly.

Therefore, there is no time like the present to celebrate the legacy of the Queen of Crime.  Despite the censors, Dame Agatha’s literature will live on, and as a lifelong fan, any opportunity to sing her praises from the rooftops is one I will gladly take.

Dame Agatha, born in 1890, had anything but an uneventful life.  As well as her infamous eleven-day disappearance, she served as a nurse in World War One, travelled widely (hence the exotic locations of many of her novels), and casually became the world’s bestselling author after Shakespeare. She’s written some of the most widely beloved crime novels of all time: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, The Body in the Library – the list goes on.  Equally brilliant lesser-known classics include Endless Night, a deliciously creepy du-Maurier-esque standalone; The Hollow, an ethically murky character study; and N or M?, a WWII thriller starring husband-and-wife detective team Tommy and Tuppence. 

One of her most underrated works is 1938’s Appointment with Death: a short, sharp, and atmospheric tale set on the high red cliffs of Petra. When Mrs Boynton, a cruel and sadistic matriarch, is found murdered, it is generally decided that the world is better off without her. This does not prevent Hercule Poirot (“the greatest detective in the world”) from swooping in to solve the case. As he says, in the novel’s most famous quotation:

The victim may be one of the good God’s saints – or, on the contrary, a monster of infamy.  It moves me not.  The fact is the same.  A life taken!  I say it always – I do not approve of murder.

The book is characteristic of Christie’s entire oeuvre in its writing style. Critics may disparage her for being too ‘plain’, but in my view, this is what gives her writing her power.  Just examine this extract from the novel’s opening:

Hercule Poirot paused a minute with his hand on the window catch.  Frowning, he shut it decisively, thereby excluding any injurious night air!  Hercule Poirot had been brought up to believe that all outside air was best left outside, and that night air was especially dangerous to the health.

Simply expressed? Perhaps. And yet, in those few simple words, Christie achieves the Dickensian trait of creating an instantly recognisable, but still loveable, character in three sentences. The novel’s first line also has an undeniable power:

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’

The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness towards the Dead Sea.

There is no beating about the bush: Christie gives us an instant plunge into a vivid, gripping, and haunting image of murderous intentions blending with the eerie darkness of the sea. In 1950, the Rt. Hon. C.R. Attlee, then Prime Minister, praised “her ability clearly and simply to write the English language.” I agree. Especially given the amount of obscurity or ‘waffle’ in some pieces, Christie’s crisp clarity is endlessly refreshing.

As always with Christie, the psychology of Appointment with Death is fascinating. The crux of the book is the Boynton family: a very dysfunctional set of grown-ups dominated by the matriarchal Mrs Boynton. The family live miserably in the shadow of this incredibly domineering woman who delights in cruelty and guarantees that the emancipation of adulthood will never touch her children.  Nevertheless, Poirot is quick to burst this bubble. The ending leaves you with no doubt that this tyrant was fundamentally pathetic – and aware of it. Going on holiday made her painfully aware of her insignificance: she was one petty tyrant of a small domestic family, no more. Without spoilers, Mrs Boynton’s search for further cruel dominance is what ultimately causes her downfall.

Speaking of her downfall, the solution to Mrs Boynton’s murder is ingenious and a quintessential Christie solution. It is one of those rare mysteries which reveal, upon rereads, that the clues were in front of us all along. Christie does not cheat us. The final chapters in which Poirot adopts his usual moment of theatre – the suspects all sitting around him in the same room as he announces the killer’s identity – are particularly delightful in this book. The killer’s fate is shockingly brutal, and, again, the description of it wastes no words.

After the Roald Dahl censorship was announced, sales of his original books skyrocketed. If the same happens with Christie (and I have no complaints if it does!), make this novel one of your purchases.  Especially as summer approaches, a gritty crime in the towering red cliffs makes for fascinating and psychologically profound reading.

Image “appointment with death” by cdrummbks is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival