In which Hercule Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it! As you would expect, Hercule Poirot gets to the bottom of this case fairly quickly. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
Christie dedicated the book to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”. The story takes place in the wilds of ancient Babylonia and Assyria, where Christie had visited with her husband Max Mallowan; and it is largely accepted that the character of Louise Leidner is based on Katharine Woolley, stalwart of many archaeological digs, and the person to whom Christie had previously dedicated (along with her husband) The Thirteen Problems. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during November and December 1935; in the UK, an abridged version was published in eight instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine under the title No Other Love. This version provided some of the characters with different names: Dr and Mrs Leidner were originally Dr and Mrs Trevor, and Amy Leatheran was Amy Seymour. The full book of Murder in Mesopotamia was first published in the UK in July 1936, and in the US shortly after.
In this book, Christie returned to the first-person narrator style, the narrator in question being Nurse Amy Leatheran – Captain Hastings, presumably, still occupied in The Argentine. It’s a style that works very well because you get to know the intimate thoughts of another person directly involved in the case, and not just the amazing workings of the Poirot brain. The frontispiece and first chapter being written by Dr Reilly makes the opening structure to the book a little clunky, but by the time the story gets going you completely forget about how it is that Amy gets to write the story in the first place. She warns us that she’s not much of a writer and isn’t very learned in matters of grammar; but this only goes to make us warm to the character even more. In the best Hastings tradition, Amy appends a plan of the dig house so that we can see for ourselves how tight-knit a community it is, and how unlikely it is that the crime could be committed without anyone else knowing. When a second character makes it clear that they have made a great discovery about how the crime was committed, you just know that this character is also going to be murdered within a matter of hours. It’s an off-shoot of the slightly melodramatic style.
There were two particular aspects of this book which struck me as I was reading it. One is that it is just a short space of time from the moment Poirot arrives on the scene to when he delivers his denouement speech – approximately four days by my reckoning. The second is that, for once, for me, Poirot’s long interrogations of all the suspects got a little dull. It felt somewhat repetitive; even though the structure is not that different from Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot and his team take the suspects one by one, but there you can see it is part of a rigid structure; in Murder in Mesopotamia there is no real sense of structure, it just feels rather ambling.
There are a few splendid moments of pure Poirotism, however, and the relationship between Amy and him is a fascinating one; usually it’s the typical Poirot-style respect for others, but occasionally he flies off the handle. When Amy believes she is in the firing line during the denouement, she stands up for herself – and Poirot doesn’t like it: “for the moment will you silence yourself. Impossible to proceed while you conduct this argument.” Amy sometimes implies that Poirot has a strong feminine side; on one occasion she says he shows kindness that even a woman couldn’t; on another she notes his interest in gossip: “”I like all the information there is,” was Poirot’s reply. And really, that described his methods very well. I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” She could also predict that Poirot would make a grand denouement scene – as his readers know he certainly will. He commences the denouement with what Christie calls “a most theatrical bow”. And when Captain Maitland is impatient for his conclusions, Amy notes “but that wasn’t the way Hercule Poirot did things. I saw perfectly well that he meant to make a song and dance of it.”
Amy herself is rather prim and proper, disapproving of some of the ancient pottery: “after that she showed me some queer little terra-cotta figurines – but most of them were just rude. Nasty minds those old people had, I say.” She is slightly amused and slightly repelled by Poirot’s overall foreignness: “Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” She describes Mrs Mercado as “though she might have what my mother used to call “a touch of the tar brush””, which today comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant example of racism.
But it is Poirot who comes out with the most startling piece of sexism, in his advice to the thwarted Carl Reiter, who allowed Mrs Leidner to treat him like a doormat: “Mon ami, let this be a lesson to you. You are a man. Behave then, like a man! It is against Nature for a man to grovel. Women and Nature have almost exactly the same reactions! Remember it is better to take the largest plate within reach and fling it at a woman’s head than it is to wriggle like a worm whenever she looks at you!” I don’t know about you, but I had to read that twice. That’s an extraordinary thing for Poirot to have said. One can only assume that sometimes Christie liked a bit of rough. Later in the denouement, Poirot propounds: “there is no hatred so great as that of a man who has been made to love a woman against his will.” I can envisage the entire female sex rolling their combined eyeballs at that one.
The book is absolutely crammed with references – especially place names – that might benefit from a little exploration. It’s the University of Pittstown that organises the expedition to Iraq; there’s no such university, of course, although there are Pittstowns in both New York state and New Jersey. It’s much more likely that Christie wants us to think of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we first meet Amy Leatheran she is writing a letter from the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad. This was a very fashionable hotel in the middle of the 20th century. She trained at St. Christopher’s Hospital; there is one such hospital in the UK, in Fareham; there’s also a St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia – take your choice.
Then there are all the exotic, Iraqi locations for the dig. The main site in the story is at Tell Yarimjah, a tell being an artificial hill created by many generations of people living and rebuilding on the same spot, a short distance from Kirkuk, in north-eastern Iraq. The area is rich in history and archaeological possibilities, although today, sadly, it is at the centre of the ISIS zone. Hassanieh is said to be a day and a half from Baghdad – there is a small village by that name in Syria, and I would guess that time-distance would be about correct. Mrs Kelsey, with whom Amy travels to Iraq, has a house at Alwiyah, which is a suburb of Baghdad – it’s also the name of a famous club that was frequented by ex-pats and locals as recently as the 1980s. Neighbouring frontier posts of Tell Kotchek and Abu Kemal are mentioned, together with Deir ez Zor; Tell Kotchek is on the border between Iraq and Syria, currently under the control of Kurdish forces, Abu Kemal is another border town, part of the Deir ez Zor region of south eastern Syria, currently under the control of ISIS.
We also have some books to research. Amy is reading Death in a Nursing Home which sounds like an alternative version of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, which had been published just one year earlier, in 1935. Mrs Leidner’s bookshelves include Linda Condon, a novel by the American Joseph Hergesheimer, first published in 1919, and Crewe Train, a 1926 novel by Rose Macaulay, both of which feature independent women at their core – hence Poirot’s assumptions about Mrs Leidner’s character. Another literary work that is mentioned in connection with Mrs Leidner is La Belle Dame Sans Merci; this is a romantic ballad by John Keats, dated 1819, featuring what the Wikipedia page calls a “destructively beautiful lady”. I need say no more.
One other cheeky reference is to a certain Mr Van Aldin; Dr Leidner tells Captain Maitland that he has heard of Hercule Poirot through a mutual acquaintance by name of Van Aldin. Could this be the same Van Aldin whose daughter is murdered in The Mystery of the Blue Train? I think so.
There are a few interesting turns of phrase that I’d also quickly like to look at: Amy says that Mrs Mercado’s attitude to Mrs Leidner’s first husband is “one way of calling a goose a swan”. It’s a phrase I hadn’t heard before and I think it’s rather amusing. Geese feature quite heavily in Amy’s vernacular as she also refers to “a goose walking over my grave”, which I also hadn’t heard before I came across it in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Similarly, Bill Coleman refers to cash as “oof”, which was also new to me until I read Partners in Crime. One last new word for me – electrotype. Some articles are described as electrotypes at the end of the book – this was a chemical method for forming metal parts that exactly reproduce a model, invented in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi in Russia. It’s a useful way of reproducing an original, say for a museum or gallery, so that the art style can be observed without the original needing to be there – for security purposes.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder in Mesopotamia:
Publication Details: 1936. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in 1967, price erased but maybe 3/6. Tom Adams’ cover illustration shows us some of the main clues in the story – the scary mask, the bloody rope, a valuable goblet, and one of the notes received by Mrs Leidner, that reads “you have got to die”. It’s an unsettling image, for sure.
How many pages until the first death: 53. There’s a lot of build-up which allows us to get a really good understanding of the character of Mrs Leidner. Poirot doesn’t have that benefit, and has to find out everything in retrospect.
Funny lines out of context: Just one or two, brought about by that funny old word that nowadays has a much more precise meaning than it did in 1936.
““Oh dear, dear”, I ejaculated.”
“Captain Maitland uttered an occasional ejaculation.”
Memorable characters: Christie goes to great lengths to paint as full a picture as possible of Louise Leidner, with many descriptions and many detailed conversations, but, even so, I’m not entirely sure that you could call her a “memorable” character. I think Amy Leatheran is much more memorable, through her role as the narrator; a well-meaning nurse but lacking in some finesse. Many of the men working on the dig aren’t particularly well drawn – it’s easy to mix up your Coleman with your Emmott, for example.
Christie the Poison expert:
There’s no poison element to the first death but the second is caused by drinking hydrochloric acid, one of Christie’s favourite poisons. She even describes its physical effect on the lips of the person who drinks it. Nasty!
Class/social issues of the time:
Because the action of this book doesn’t take place in England, it seems that the day to day issues of England don’t impact so much on this story as they do in others; even though it’s a largely English cast of characters.
As you might expect, there is talk of “dagos” and “coloured people” (which, of course, was extremely polite for 1936). But it’s still a world where it is acceptable to shout at Arabs: ”Arabs don’t understand anything said in an ordinary “English” voice”; and where it is acceptable to refer to someone as “only an Iraqi” – not as important as a white Caucasian person.
As in Death in the Clouds, Christie still doesn’t have much respect – in print at least – for archaeologists. Whereas in that book the Duponts could argue until teatime without noticing anything going on around them, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Mrs Leidner goes in for the killer observation: “Archaeologists only look at what lies beneath their feet. The sky and the heavens don’t exist for them […] oh, they’re very queer people”.
Classic denouement: Yes, and extremely lengthy! You could almost say that the denouement procedure starts within minutes of the second death, which means that it covers approximately 44 pages. Poirot engineers the classic situation of everyone being present whilst he laboriously goes through all the possibilities. Definitely the strongest part of the book, in my humble opinion.
Happy ending? In a sense, yes, but it’s not emphasised. There is a wedding – but it’s between two relatively minor characters so it doesn’t mean that much to the reader. Amy’s narrative ends on something of a low note.
Did the story ring true? Not entirely. There are two facts that the reader is asked to believe – including the method of the murder – that are fairly far-fetched.
Overall satisfaction rating: Whilst it’s interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment this isn’t an overly successful book in my eyes. I’m going to be generous and give it a 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Murder in Mesopotamia and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge will be Cards on the Table. This is the book where Christie tells us up front that there are just four suspects and one of them is the murderer – so don’t go considering the butler or someone’s second cousin once removed, because they definitely didn’t do it! I’m not sure if she lets Poirot into that secret mind you, I’ll have to re-read it first. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!