Agatha Christie is not called the "Queen of Crime" for nothing! I am always amazed that a mystery written in the 1930s can surprise me. I thought I had the murderer pegged and an ingenious twist all figured out. And then she does something unexpected and the murderer turns out to be someone I had pretty much not given even a thought to. And it isn't as though she doesn't give the reader all the facts in plain sight. In her 1937 novel Appointment with Death it's all there. All the suspects, all their actions, their characters and motives. Someday I am going to create a flow chart as I read with all the potential suspects and their movements and all the little inaccuracies and red herrings and piece them all together as with a puzzle. Even if I just read and enjoy, that is what I like most about her novels. They are wonderful puzzles to try and work out, or simply sit back and watch as M. Poirot or Miss Marple calmly reveals all.
I wanted a book with a Jerusalem setting and I came across this Hercule Poirot mystery, so it seemed a perfect choice combing era with setting and my favorite genre. And you can never go wrong with an Agatha Christie book. The story does begin in Jerusalem, though it eventually moves to Petra, Jordan where the actual murder takes place . . . some 100+ pages into the story! M. Poirot overhears a conversation at the very start of the book, but then he does not reappear until much later. As is so often the case with him and Miss Marple, they are simply quiet observers. They sit back and watch as the events play out and those around him show their hidden selves, as much as they try and hide away their actions. And Appointment with Death is chock full of possible murderers and motives and loads of red herrings. I was starting to question who was even going to be killed until it finally happened.
The murder concerns a very tight-knit American family on holiday in the Middle East. There are two sons and two daughters and a wife, some whole siblings and others just half. The matron of the family, or should I call her a matriarch is quite something. She takes great relish in controlling her family and manipulating them into doing what she wants. And what she wants is usually to see them all squirm and be unhappy. Unsurprisingly, in her former career she was a prison matron. Is her sadism a result of her work, or did she seek out the work to fuel her sadism? Though all are more or less grown, they have become so inured to her personality it does not really occur to them they can simply leave. Their father is dead and she controls the purse strings, so they none of them believe they can make a go of it on their own.
However, and Poirot overhears a curious conversation--two siblings are at the end of their tether and discuss the idea of killing her. "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Poirot assumes that surely the pair are simply talking out the plot of a story they are working on, and it is more or less forgotten until much later when indeed she turns up dead. Along with the family there are a smattering of other guests making up the various parties staying in Jerusalem and then traveling on to Petra. There is a French psychologist, a young woman newly trained doctor, a grovelly family friend of the Boynton family, a very dignified English lady of the aristocracy and a poor nursery governess. Why does it seem there is also always a Colonel who ultimately takes control and tries to solve the crime, or asks Poirot to look into the matter? There is one of those, too!
So in Petra, the weather is terribly hot, the terrain difficult to hike, the accommodations somewhat primitive. Not really the best destination for someone like Mrs. Boynton who is mostly very sedentary and in need of help when getting up to her room or taken down to dinner. On top of it all she has a heart condition. She seems to sit in front of her "cave" (yes, that is what their hotel accommodations are called) all day and watch over her flock. You can tell there are rumblings among the guests who have had a chance to intermingle with the Boyntons and among the family themselves. In small groups and pairs they go off to see the famous architecture cut into the stone, but Mrs. Boynton remains behind. And as the guests slowly filter back . . . what do you think they find has happened in their camp?
Enter M. Poirot at the request of his friend Col. Carbury? It seems that Appointment with Death got only tepid reviews at the time, but I'd say even a tepid Christie novel is still quite entertaining and I found it so. I didn't solve the crime but I very much enjoyed trying to suss it out nonetheless. I have requested the David Suchet adaptation from the library and will be watching it in the coming week (so I can see how they interpret those 'cave' rooms) and I will certainly enjoy a more visual journey to Jerusalem and Petra. I have a small stack of Agatha Christie novels at the ready and might be starting another one very soon. It's always a happy thing when a writer has such a lengthy oeuvre.