In which an American family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch and it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Hercule Poirot, still continuing his travels in the Middle East (as we saw in Christie’s previous book, Death on the Nile), promises the local military chief in charge of police, Colonel Carbury, that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells. It’s a big ask, but if anyone can do it, Poirot can. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To Richard and Myra Mallock to remind them of their journey to Petra”. Christie makes no mention of the Mallocks in her autobiography, but a little sleuthing has uncovered that a Richard Mallock married a Myra Tiarks at the Brompton Oratory in 1936. So maybe they went to Petra for their honeymoon? Someone by the name of Richard Mallock (maybe his father, or grandfather) was also the MP for Torquay from 1886 to 1895, so this could be how Christie knew the family, with all her Devon connections. Appointment with Death was first serialised in the US in Colllier’s Weekly from August to October 1937, and in the UK in twenty-eight parts in a very slightly abridged version in the Daily Mail in January and February 1938, under the title A Date with Death. The full book was first published in the UK on 2nd May 1938 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later the same year.
Out of curiosity, I note that it’s one of Christie’s shortest books – coming in at just 155 pages of paperback-sized text, about the same length as The Big Four. As another aside, it’s a bit of a lame title, I feel. It doesn’t really mean anything; to an extent, any death could be referred to as an appointment with death. It’s not as though the story is littered with medics, or recruitment consultants, with whom you might make a risky appointment which results in your death! I thought I’d check out its title in some other languages; most of them translate literally as “Appointment with Death” but three are a little more expressive: “Der Tod Wartet” (Death Waits) in German; “La Domatrice” (The Tamer) in Italian, and my favourite, “Hänet täytyy tappaa” (She Must be Killed) in Finnish.
I’ve always enjoyed this book, for perhaps a rather alarming reason – there were some similarities between the grotesque Mrs Boynton and my own dear late mother! I certainly didn’t identify them when I first read this as a teenager, but as I grew up, got married and went my own way, I did see some Boyntonesque tendencies in her attempts to control what I did. So did my wife! Don’t get me wrong – my mother was not a cruel harridan. But I bet I’m not the only person who has read this book and has felt some personal twang of sympathy with the plight of the wider Boynton family. However, whilst the situation and atmosphere are memorable, I’ve always found it difficult to recall the details of the story. It wasn’t until I read a vital clue a good two-thirds into the book that I suddenly remembered whodunit. Of course, I wished that I hadn’t remembered, but that’s the problem of re-reading detective fiction!
There’s not a lot of action in this book – in fact, all the Boynton family seem to do is to sit around and obey the mother – and I think that gives the book a sense of claustrophobia. There’s a whole world of Middle Eastern excitement out there, and all Mrs Boynton does is sit in a cave, whilst her family stay inside tents reading. All the activity in the book takes place in the mind; truly Christie is delivering us a psychological thriller just as much as a whodunit. Poirot takes us through the characteristics and thought processes of all the suspects just as much as their actual movements, and, come the denouement, it’s by eliminating people because of their psychological profiles that he narrows the field to determine the guilty party. There’s also a sense of isolation in the book, caused by having characters from America, England, France and Belgium all in Jordan, but with little back-knowledge of their origins. It’s like they’ve been transplanted there, everyone far from home, with no particular reason. The only character (apart from Poirot) who has any kind of backstory is Lady Westholme, because we know she has recently been an MP. But we have no home-towns, previous colleagues, college backgrounds, etc, to look into and consider. It’s all very much in the here and now.
As psychology is to the fore, Poirot is absolutely in his element. His promise to Carbury that he will solve the crime before “tomorrow night” speaks to his supreme self-confidence and Christie’s continued exposure of his vanity. Jinny asks him if he is a well-known detective, and he simply replies “the best detective in the world” without a hint of embarrassment. “I know that M. Poirot has great powers” says Dr Gerard at one point. Poirot’s immodest reply? “I am gifted – yes.” When Sarah King queries Poirot’s priorities for solving the case, he has no time for her suggestion. “”Poirot waved a grandiloquent hand. “This is the method of Hercule Poirot”, he announced.” Grandiloquent is a perfect adjective for Poirot. Even Carbury remarks, as Poirot is preparing for his denouement, “funny feller aren’t you Poirot? […] like to dramatise things.”
There are no other great insights into Poirot’s character in this book, but Christie concentrates on making certain conversations, confrontations and descriptions come alive to make up for the lack of physical action. There’s a really strong scene between Poirot and Nadine Boynton where it’s so clear that she’s hiding something but she refuses to tell him, pleading with him instead to let well alone. But Poirot is never prepared to turn a blind eye to a murder; no matter how beneficial it is to society as a whole, he will never participate in suppressing the truth. Once the truth is out there, it is up to the authorities to act on it in the best way they see fit; that is not Poirot’s concern. Mrs Boynton is a universally disliked character, her family are mere cruelty fodder with the heart beaten out of them; and the world is a better place for her departure. But Poirot will not look the other way.
Just as in Death on the Nile, Christie litters the book with real-life Middle Eastern locations to increase a sense of the exotic. The opening scene takes place in the Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem, still a landmark hotel of the city. The characters’ Jerusalem travels take them to Solomon’s Stables, an underground vaulted space, converted in 1996 to a Muslim prayer hall; the Mosque of Omar, situated opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Haram esh-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount in the Old City; and the Wailing Wall, still today probably the most visited sight in Jerusalem. The story moves on to the rose city of Petra, via Ma’an and Ain Musa, traditionally the site of Moses’ water spring, from where the Nabateans built channels to irrigate Petra. In 1929, a four-person team, consisting of British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, Palestinian physician and folklore expert Dr Tawfiq Canaan and Dr Ditlef Nielsen, a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra, which would surely have been of immense fascination to Christie, and may well have determined her to set a book here.
Some other references of interest: the book starts with Poirot reflecting over a story concerning the novelist Anthony Trollope, where he takes the advice of overheard criticism. Is this a true story? Apparently so! It relates to the character of Mrs Proudie in The Last Chronicles of Barset, a character of with whom Trollope was actually very pleased; but he overheard a conversation by people criticising her, and wishing she would be killed off. In Trollope’s own words: “It was impossible for me not to hear their words, and almost impossible to hear them and be quiet. I got up, and standing between them, I acknowledged myself to be the culprit. “As to Mrs. Proudie,’ I said, `I will go home and kill her before the week is over.” And so I did. The two gentlemen were utterly confounded, and one of them begged me not to forget his frivolous observations.” By all accounts, Trollope regretted the action immediately.
In another literary allusion, when Jefferson Cope is talking to Dr Gerard about his affection for Nadine, and says that if she wants to leave her husband for a better life, he would be there waiting for her, Dr Gerard calls him “the parfait gentil knight”. This refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the description of the Knight as “a verray parfit, gentil knyght” – the epitome of courtly love.
In the world of politics, Christie writes of Lady Westholme’s current standing, “it was highly possible that she would be given an under-secretaryship when her party returned to power. At the moment a Liberal Government (owing to a split in the National Government between Labour and Conservatives) was somewhat unexpectedly in power.” In real life, there was a National Government between 1937 – 1939, formed by Neville Chamberlain, with MPs from the Conservative, National Labour and National Liberal parties. And we think our politics are complex today! Looking at how the votes had fallen in the most recent election, a Liberal Government would have been a huge surprise. Lady Westholme also entraps Sarah in a conversation about the Litvania boundary dispute, which doubtless would have referred to the constantly changing boundaries of what is today Lithuania, with the USSR and Poland involved in eating into the territory. Today there is no dispute over Lithuania’s boundaries.
Sarah King asks Poirot if his investigation into the death is “a case of Roman Holiday”. The famous Audrey Hepburn film hadn’t been made yet, but the phrase comes from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and relates to the fate of a gladiator in ancient Rome, who expected to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday” while the audience would take pleasure from watching his suffering. So it’s the equivalent to modern day Schadenfreude.
As is often the case, there are a few references to Christie’s other books – or rather, Poirot’s previous cases. Colonel Carbury presents himself to Poirot with a letter of introduction from Colonel Race, whom we first met in The Man in the Brown Suit, then in Cards on the Table and most recently in Death on the Nile. We will also meet him one more time in Sparkling Cyanide. Race describes Poirot’s solution to the Shaitana case as “as neat a bit of psychological deduction as you’ll ever find” – referring to the murder in Cards on the Table. Elsewhere, Nadine refers Poirot to the Murder on the Orient Express when asking him to drop the case, and Miss Pierce remembers all about the ABC Murders as she was living near Doncaster at the time – that’s where Murder D was to be committed.
This may be a peculiarly anti-fiscal book, but there are no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so I can’t do my usual trick of converting them into present-day values. Maybe that’s a sign of the psychological element of this book – it’s not a question of who inherits what or who stole which necklace for a change!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Appointment with Death:
Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in July 1975, price 50p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the grim figure of Mrs Boynton sitting in the front of a cave with the red rocks of Petra all around her; and in the foreground, a lethal looking syringe. Absolutely in keeping with the story.
How many pages until the first death: 63. Christie allows an appropriate length to depicting the Boynton family at large before removing the main character from the scene. Given that it’s a short book, it’s 40% of the way in before the crime, and 60% for the solution.
Funny lines out of context: These seem to be getting fewer and fewer as we slowly progress through the 20th century. The only mildly amusing line (out of context) that I could find was Carol asking Raymond “shan’t we always be queer and different?”
Mrs Boynton stands out, as the arch-bully. In the first scenes we see her controlling her daughter Jinny, telling her that she will be ill, and telling her what she wants to do (even though she wants to do the opposite). Jinny buckles to her mother’s satisfaction. Mrs Boynton manipulates her son Raymond so that he refuses to speak to Sarah, even though he desperately wants to. She does the same to her daughter Carol. A side aspect of Mrs Boynton’s monstrous personality is that Christie slightly under-portrays the rest of the family; it’s almost as though they don’t matter by comparison.
There are also the strong and determined Lady Westholme, who Christie says “entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock” and her timid and suggestible friend Miss Pierce. One feels the characters of Sarah King and Dr Gerard ought to stand out, but I’m not certain they do. Sarah King, indeed, ought to follow the fine tradition of jolly, upstanding, go-getting Christie girls like Bundle, Tuppence or Katherine Grey; maybe it’s because she comes into some conflict with Poirot that she doesn’t quite sit at the heart of this book as you might expect her to. And Dr Gerard is, frankly, a boring pontificator. I found it very hard not to skip some of his speeches.
Christie the Poison expert:
Digitoxin is missing from the doctor’s medicine case; and Christie goes into some detail to describe the difference between it and the three other active principles of the foxglove: digitalin, digitonin and digitalein. There’s no question she knows her foxglove poisons! Mention is also made of phenacetin, a very common painkiller up until 1983 when it was largely discontinued worldwide due to its carcinogenic and kidney-damaging effects. It’s now mainly used in research and as a cutting agent in the preparation of cocaine.
Class/social issues of the time:
Distrust of foreigners as usual tops the charts as far as themes of the day are concerned, but there are also exchanges on the role of women in society to consider – if you remember, Mrs Christie is no feminist. After her first meeting with Raymond, Sarah King assumes that he is like all Americans: “merely a rude, stuck up, boorish young American!” Sarah also has little time for the French – thinking of Dr Gerard and his psychological theories, she reflects “Frenchmen were all alike […] obsessed by sex”. Lady Westholme, too, has little time for foreigners; of Mrs Boynton she says “her manner had been fairly normal – for an American of that type”.
Miss Pierce says of the “native servants”, “all these Arabs look alike to me”. But Miss Pierce isn’t the most balanced of characters, believing that political agitators are everywhere: “I suppose Mr Mah Mood – I cannot remember his name – but the dragoman, I mean – I suppose he could not be a Bolshevik agent? Or even, perhaps, Miss King? I believe many quite well-brought-up girls of good family belong to these dreadful Communists!” Miss Pierce is a Reds under the Bed kinda woman.
Perhaps a more meaningful exchange is that between Dr Gerard and Jefferson Cope when discussing how Elmer Boynton arranged it so that his wife had absolute control over the family finances. ““In my country” says Gerard, “it is impossible by law to do such a thing”. Mr Cope rose. “In America”, he said, “we’re great believers in absolute freedoms.” Dr Gerard rose also. He was unimpressed by the remark. He had heard it made before by people of many different nationalities. The illusion that freedom is the prerogative of one’s own particular race is fairly widespread. Dr Gerard was wiser. He knew that no race, no country and no individual could be described as free. But he also knew that there were different degrees of bondage.””
These fascinating few lines not only show Dr Gerard’s possibly anti-American bias, but also look further ahead, maybe to the political tensions that would bring about Second World War the year after publication. As Dr Gerard is critical of Mrs Boynton holding all the purse strings, this also reflects Christie’s own personal form of misogyny that she has shown in previous books. Another telling phrase from Gerard, that supports Christie’s view of women, comes in his first conversation with Sarah: “”To have too much power is bad for women,” Gerard agreed with sudden gravity. He shook his head. “It is difficult for a woman not to abuse power.””
Classic denouement: The denouement (and accompanying epilogue) go on for a good 27 pages, and contain surprise after surprise after surprise. You keep thinking that Poirot has identified the killer and then he goes on to explain why they didn’t do it! So it’s a very exciting read. It’s not quite a classic because you don’t have that amazing moment when Poirot points accusingly at a suspect and they wither in front of him. There’s also a twist, not dissimilar from that in Death on the Nile, which means you may not get the sense of justice being seen to be done. However, psychologically speaking, I’m sure Poirot and Gerard would agree that it’s an entirely appropriate ending.
Happy ending? Without question. In fact, the happy ending starts the moment that Mrs Boynton dies! One marriage that was on the rocks is now back on course, and there are three new marriages to appreciate as well as the birth of a glitteringly unexpected career. It’s almost like a Shakespearean comedy.
Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes, absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I found that I could really relate to the family setup, and that sense of control from the matriarchal character that meant the rest of the family had to struggle to survive. However, I’ve never believed that Lennox would have the strength and ability to break free of Mrs Boynton’s reins sufficiently to marry Nadine, given the pressure that his mother must have put on him. Apart from that, the manner of the crime and the detection all seem perfectly feasible to me.
Overall satisfaction rating: Despite its being an old favourite, I think the lack of activity might make this not quite Classic Christie, so I’m awarding it an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Appointment with Death 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 is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; a story of which I remember very little, except that it features an exotic character called Pilar and spans one week over a very fateful Christmas. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
4 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – Appointment with Death (1938)”
Perhaps the title ‘Appointment With Death’ has something to do with the Babylonian story about a merchant seeing Death in Baghdad, fleeing to Samarra, and Death telling his servant that she was surprised to see him in Baghdad, because she had an appointment with him that night in Samarra– this was a relatively popular story at the time– Maugham had retold it in 1933, and a rather popular book ‘Appointment at Samarra’ had come out the following year.
That would make sense. I didn’t know that story!
As to Lennox having the guts to marry Nadine – I think, Christie explained that rather convincingly: He DIDN’T break away, but rather was allowed to marry her. Mrs. Boynton realized her son’s sex drive was likely to endanger her grip on him, so she sort of served him an outlet by taking Nadine into her house, hoping he’d go for her instead of for some girls outside her own sphere of control. And that worked – once the edge was taken off by marriage, Lennox didn’t use the rebellious drive that comes with sexual awakening but just collapsed.
You make a good point! And that would be in keeping with Mrs B’s calculating and self-serving nature. Thanks for the comment!