1944’s Death Comes as the End was Agatha Christie’s sole foray into historical mystery. In it, she abandoned her familiar 20 th century England for Egypt at the very end of the First Intermediate Period. I seem to have a weakness? superpower? for discovering authors through their most atypical work, so it should come as no surprise that this was the very first Agatha Christie I ever read.
Recently widowed, young Renisenb returns to her family home in Thebes. Although she has been gone for eight years, little of significance seems to have changed. Her mortuary-priest father Imhotep still micromanages the household (through letters if he is away on business); her older brothers Yamose and Sobek still squabble with each other, and the youngest brother Ipy is still spoiled. The older brothers are married, but their wives have little influence over the household.
Imhotep’s scribe Hori could tell her this stability is an illusion. All it takes to destroy it is an old man’s foolish infatuation with a beautiful young girl.
The first the household hears of Nofret is when Imhotep presents her as his new concubine, the woman he intends to be the ornament of his declining years. Nofret wastes no time extending her sway over his household. Having never seen fit to share authority with his sons, Imhotep has always had the final say. Because she controls Imhotep, Nofret controls the household.
Business calls Imhotep away. He leaves Nofret behind. For reasons unexplained, she displays seemingly boundless contempt and loathing for Imhotep’s family. Allied with Henet, a malicious, gossipy servant, Nofret spreads dissension and discord, seemingly indifferent to the reprisals this invites. Her machinations pay off when Sobek’s wife Kait is foolish enough to lash out at Nofret. On hearing what has happened, Imhotep sends an angry letter threatening to disenfranchise his children and their families.
Nofret’s sudden death, the result of a long fall off a narrow cliff-face path, could not be better timed from the perspective of the other members of the household. Even naïve Renisenb (the returning widow) notes that the timing is so convenient as to be suspicious. If Nofret was pushed, the most likely suspect is Yamose’s wife Satipy, who was seen near the cliff just before the body was found. And yet … suspicion is not proof.
With Nofret gone, the household returns to its old routine. For a time. Then the deaths begin.
Satipy falls to her death on the very same cliff that claimed Nofret’s life. Her last word is “Nofret.” The deaths do not end there. With each new fatality, evidence mounts that the killer is none other than Nofret herself. Even the most powerful priestly magic may prove ineffectual against a vengeful ghost.
Young people may think that cover is boring but to readers of a certain age and background, the green-white-green cover is extremely evocative.
When I say “the deaths do not end there,” I mean this is an unusually lethal book even by Christie’s standards. There are, I think, twelve major characters in the book. By the end of the novel seven of them are dead. A minor character is murdered almost as soon as they are introduced; the deaths from natural causes of Renisenb’s mother and husband (in unrelated incidents years apart) shape the plot as well. Soldiers at the Somme were four times more likely to survive that deadly battle than the characters in this book were to survive the novel.
As in most serial-killer tales, repeated deaths pile up the clues. It does not take a genius to connect the dots … and to do so without being murdered by the killer i. By the time they expose the killer, the list of possible suspects has become very short. Lesson: do not engage in spree killing in a small, closed community. (Christie imagined just such a spree killer in 1939’s And Then There Were None , but the solutions to the two mysteries are far from isomorphic.)
The killer racks up the high body count because Renisenb, her family, and their servants are smugly convinced of their own personal invulnerability. Two of the victims die because they make it clear to the killer that they know who dunnit. Others die because they make a habit of needling others, which is not wise when there is a killer on the loose.
During the course of the novel, Renisenb has to choose between two potential suitors: the handsome, young, shallow Kameni and the much older, far more reliable Hori. Reading the novel, I wondered if there parallels with Christie’s two husbands, Archie Christie and Sir Max Mallowan. On further investigation, I was forced to abandon this beautiful hypothesis. While Mallowan might have been more reliable than philanderer Archie, he wasn’t a father figure to Agatha Christie. In fact, he was fourteen years younger than his wife. I also learned (thanks Google) that Christie appears to have preferred a different ending, but was pressured by a friend to end the book the way she does.
Christie drew on the work of her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan for her setting. She was also inspired by the Heqanakhte papyri, which outline a situation much like the one in the novel (well, save for the cavalcade of murders that follow). Some historical mysteries can be vague about the details of the setting. In the case of this novel, it’s possible to narrow the date down to a specific part of Mentuhotep II’s reign.
There’s a temptation to fiddle with settings to make them more palatable to modern eyes, or to at least make the protagonist spout implausibly modern views. Christie makes an honest effort to avoid that. Renisenb thinks nothing of owning slaves; her objection to her father’s concubine is simply that the woman is so spiteful. Most of the characters take their religion at face value. Acceptance of spousal consanguinity that would raise eyebrows any time NOT ancient Egypt or pre-contact Hawai‘i are implied by the fact that the terms for husband and wife, and brother and sister, are the same. While their culture is unfamiliar, the characters’ motivations are not: the killer does what they do for reasons that would make as much sense today as they did four thousand years ago.
i A number of people work out who the culprit is, but make the mistake of letting the killer know it. The person who eventually reveals the murderer makes a point of tackling the killer in such a way that the killer has absolutely no chance to resist. This may not be sporting, but it is very, very sensible.