Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my obsession with all things Agatha Christie. As a general rule I wouldn’t normally bother reviewing one of her books, as I’m sure most people are pretty familiar with her work, if not from the novels themselves, then from the many stage and TV adaptions.
Death Comes as the End is not like Agatha Christie’s other works. One of only a handful of her novels not set in Europe, it is the only one which does not feature a single European character. Oh…and it’s also set 4000 years in the past!
In Death Comes as the End, Christie draws on her experience as the wife of archaeologist Max Mallowan (with encouragement and assistance from Professor Stephen Glanville) to tell the story of a wealthy Egyptian family in turmoil. Imhotep, a mortuary priest, returns from a visit to his northern estates with a new concubine (Nofret). To the disgust of his four adult children (from his two previous marriages) and the wives of his two older sons, he treats Nofret as a queen while practically ignoring the needs of his children and grandchildren. A short time later, Imhotep is called back north, and leaves Nofret with his irate family, who begin a campaign of malicious acts against her, until eventually she is found dead at the base of a cliff near the family home.
At first the family are content to publicly call the death an accident, although privately they are all concerned that almost every one of them had good reason to push her. The long process of mummification is set in motion and soon after the burial, another member of the household falls to her death at exactly the same spot. Now the family begins to fear that they are being targeted by a vengeful spirit, a fear which increases with the body count.
It is not merely the setting and characters that make Death Comes as the End different from Christie’s other works. Unlike the other novels, there is no ‘detective’ to solve the case. Instead we follow Imhotep’s widowed daughter Renisenb as she navigates ever-changing family dynamics, sharing her fears and suspicions with her Grandmother Esa and her father’s scribe Hori. Esa and Hori eventually discover the truth, but refuse to let Renisenb in on the secret to prevent her from becoming the next victim.
The story is reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy, with a final body count to rival Macbeth or Hamlet. At first I found it difficult to keep the characters straight, as the ancient Egyptian names were difficult to follow. As I became more familiar with the family relationships (and as the character list dramatically decreased) it became easier to distinguish who was doing what. One issue I had with the novel was that aside from the character names, occasional references to the landscape, and infrequent references to ancient Egyptian deities and religious rites, the novel could almost have been set in any place or time. The dialogue was particularly jarring, as it was almost identical in style to that used in Christie’s other novels. I found it difficult to get lost in the narrative when the dialogue was so clearly 20th century, although I’m prepared to concede that to write it any other way would have been nearly impossible.
Sadly, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its uniqueness, this is not one of Christie’s best works. I would certainly not recommend it as a first introduction to Christie. (If you haven’t read any of her work, try Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd first.)