In which Renisenb, a young widow from an ancient Egyptian family of 4,000 years ago, returns to her home, having buried her young husband, and hoping everything will be as it once was. However, she finds herself at the heart of a family torn apart by bitter jealousy, rivalry, tyranny, and, eventually, murder. 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 Professor S. R. K. Glanville. Dear Stephen, it was you who originally suggested to me the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, and but for your active help and encouragement, this book would never have been written. I want to say here how much I have enjoyed all the interesting literature you have lent me and to thank you once more for the patience with which you have answered my questions and for the time and trouble you have expended. The pleasure and interest which the writing of the book has brought to me you already know. Your affectionate and grateful friend, Agatha Christie.” Stephen Glanville was Professor of Egyptology at University College London, and Christie had already dedicated one book to him – Five Little Pigs, in 1943. In her autobiography, Christie relates how she wanted to describe the minutiae of daily living in Ancient Egypt with as much accuracy as possible, so she would pester Stephen Glanville with endless questions of domestic practices, seemingly much to his irritation; but they survived the experience, and were still friends at the end. Death Comes as the End was first published in the US in October 1944 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in March the following year.
This book is a one-off. It’s the only book by Agatha Christie not to take place in the 20th century; it contains no European characters; and has the second highest death count after And Then There Were None. Distanced from her usual trappings of the British class system, genteel old ladies with parlourmaids, wartime fallout, and without access to Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or any of her repertoire of familiar characters, Christie had to fall back on characterisation to make this book come alive. And, boy, does she succeed! This is Christie at her best; psychology, suspense, romance, humour, and a completely unguessable but totally reasonable solution to the crime.
I remember the first time I read it, I struggled with it at first, because there are so many unrecognisable elements. The strange-sounding first names of the characters. The chapter structure, which follows the Egyptian agricultural calendar. The ancient Egyptian gods, religious practices and superstitions, which mean nothing to the modern reader. The notion of how a concubine should be treated within a household, which is completely alien to our culture today. But once you get past these little difficulties, what you’re left with is a riveting domestic drama of jealousy, love, hate, and ambition which is bound to tickle our emotional responses.
In her explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Christie introduces the reader to the agricultural calendar: “the dates here used as Chapter headings are stated in terms of the agricultural year of the time, i. e. Indundation – late July to late November; Winter – late November to late March; and Summer – late March to late July.” It’s true that, when reading the book, you don’t get a sense of the passage of time. In fact, the twenty-three chapters cover what we would recognise as a period of nine months, starting on roughly 6th September. Much of the early part of the book covers the time up till when Nofret, the concubine, dies, which is around 31st December. After that, there are no more deaths until about 1st April, after which they come thick and fast, over a period of five to six weeks, the story ending on approximately 8th May. It’s interesting to note that, despite the very different times in which the two novels are set, Christie largely followed the same dating structure that she did in her previous novel Towards Zero, where we see a virtual countdown over the months from the early planning stages of a crime to its conclusion.
Returning to Christie’s introduction, she tells us that “the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived from two or three Egyptian letters of the XI Dynasty, found about 20 years ago by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a rock tomb opposite Luxor, and translated by Professor (then Mr.) Battiscombe Gunn in the Museum’s bulletin.” These letters were written by one Heqanakhte to his family, complaining about their behaviour and treatment of his concubine. Although the societal norms may change over the centuries, human emotions don’t.
It’s a traditional third person narrative; however, we very much see the story unfold through Renisenb’s eyes. She is a beautifully crafted character; even though I wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce her name, I feel I know her very well. She’s a quiet, reflective soul; very traditional, dependant on kindness from her family and friends; she’s also popular, because she doesn’t make a fuss and life has been cruel to her, despite her happiness in the past with her late husband Khay – who frequently re-enters her imagination – and her devotion to her child Teti. As time goes by, she starts to long for married happiness again, but will it be with the reliable, older scribe Hori, who guided her as a child, or the dazzling, exotic Kameni, with whom life could be very exciting. Renisenb’s personal journey, from mourning widow, resenting change, to someone who wants another bright future, is the thread that runs through the book, and I think she’s one of Christie’s great creations. More on the other characters later in this blog post!
The story takes place in Thebes, in 2000 BC; a location of which Christie had a good understanding following her archaeological digs with her husband Max Mallowan. The ruins of Thebes are found within modern day Luxor. So Death Comes as the End benefits from a sophisticated, wealthy setting; this is a place where slaves taste your food before you do, so that if it’s poisoned, they die first. Here, it’s vital to impress other people with your wealth when it comes to financing extremely grand funerals; only the finest, brand new sheets are used for the bodies; and more than once we hear complaints about the high prices charged by the embalmers Ipi and Montu.
The local people have a high opinion of their illustrious home and a distrust of people from elsewhere. Henet, the old family retainer, blames all the problems on the family on the arrival of the antagonistic Nofret, Imhotep’s concubine: “this house is bewitched. The work of a she-devil who came to us from the North. No good ever came from out of the North.” Nofret’s family is from Memphis, situated 20 kilometres south of Giza. She describes it as “gay and amusing […] there is music and singing and dancing.” No wonder she doesn’t like Thebes’ more stately and sedate atmosphere.
Following Nofret’s burial, Christie describes the conversations between the powerful local people: “Thebes was rapidly becoming a very powerful city […] Montu spoke with reverence and approval of the King Neb Hepet-Re. A first-class soldier and a man of piety also. The corrupt and cowardly North could hardly stand against him. A unified Egypt, that was what was needed. And it would mean, undoubtedly, great things for Thebes.” King Neb Hepet-Re, of whom Montu was such a fan, is known more easily today as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. He was a Pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty who reigned for 51 years from c. 2061 BC – 2010 BC. Around his 39th year on the throne he reunited Egypt, thus ending the First Intermediate Period. Consequently, he is considered the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.
There’s only one other place (I think) that is mentioned in the book: when Hori reads the letter sent from Imhotep whilst he is away on business, Christie describes it thus: “the letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.” That city, named (obviously) after Heracles, was located 15 kilometres west of the modern city of Beni Suef.
The book is positively littered with other references. Esa quotes: “men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians […] a trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end.” It appears that Esa is remembering a quotation from an earlier work of some sort, but if you try to search that phrase online all you come up with is this Agatha Christie book. Does anyone know if it really is a quote from an earlier work?
In conversation with Hori, Renisenb argues a point about Satipy changing her behaviour; impressed with her skills, he replies “you should argue in the Nomarch’s courts.” Who or what was a Nomarch? They were Ancient Egyptian administration officials responsible for the provinces, or nomes, which are also mentioned in the book. Nofret tempts Imhotep with the prospect of fruit and Keda beer. Keda beer? Not quite sure what that is. I can’t see that keda is any kind of plant from which you can make beer, so maybe it’s beer that was imported from Keda; there’s a Keda in Afghanistan, and one in Georgia. I’ve no idea if either of the are famous for beer! Again, can you help, gentle reader?
Imhotep swears “by Hathor” how noisy his grandchildren are. Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated, who was considered the primeval goddess from whom all others were derived. She is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, ears of a cow, or simply in cow form. Hathor also came to be regarded as the mother of the sun god Ra and held a prominent place in his barge as it sailed across the night sky, into the underworld, and rose again at dawn. Montu, who conducts the funeral services for the family, is a Divine Father of the Temple of Hathor. He sweeps the floor of the burial chamber with a broom of heden grass, before it is sealed up forever; this seemed to be a common practice, but I’ve been unable to discover exactly what heden grass is.
Henet, also, swears; her cry is to “the Nine Gods of the Ennead”. I didn’t know what this referred to; but the Ennead was a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis: the sun god Atum; his children Shu and Tefnut; their children Geb and Nut; and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. On another occasion, when Esa is trying to fathom out a motive for the murders, she says “we have here either enmity against the family as a whole, or else there lies behind all these things that covetousness against which the Maxims of Ptahotep warn us.” The Maxims of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences, a text that was discovered in Thebes in 1847. One of the quotes from the work is: “Think of living in peace with what you possess, and whatever the Gods choose to give will come of its own accord.” Maybe that’s what Esa was remembering.
“Then the Tomb was sealed, and all that remained of the embalmers’ work, pots full of natron, salt and rags that had been in contact with the body, were placed in a little chamber nearby”. Natron? I’d never heard of it. Wikipedia tells me (so it must be right) that Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and around 17% sodium bicarbonate along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. It was harvested directly as a salt mixture from dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and has been used for thousands of years as a cleaning product for both the home and body. So it must have been used to clean the dead bodies.
Renisenb challenges Nofret with an accusation of evil, adding “when you come to deny the forty-two sins at the hour of judgment you will not be able to say “I have done no evil”.” Part of their ancient beliefs was that man was subject to forty-two sins, each of which was examined by forty-two heavenly assessors, who were waiting on the edge of the lake that the dead had to cross. And another of their beliefs: Esa reminds Renisenb that her late husband Khay “sails his boat now in the Field of Offerings”. This was one of the names given to their equivalent of heaven, a place that mirror-images earth, where the dead lived happily and contented, providing they had passed the examinations to get there.
What really does come across in this book is how the characters all have absolute religious adherence to their beliefs; there isn’t one non-believer, nor someone who simply toes the religion line for social convenience. They all believe in it absolutely, and it is interwoven with their day to day lives to an inextricable degree. There’s a very thin line between belief and superstition.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death Comes as the End:
Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in April 1972, price 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, simply shows a dead, embalmed Egyptian lady – quite attractive, so presumably Nofret – surrounded by hieroglyphics, torn sheeting, and a watchful ornamental figure. It certainly covers one aspect of the book.
How many pages until the first death: 64. Given that eight people die in all, you can see how the deaths are concentrated into the second half of the book!
Funny lines out of context:
“Yahmose flushed quickly with pleasure. He drew himself a little more erect.”
One of the outstanding aspects of this book. I’ve already talked about how real and believable Renisenb is, but so many of them are. Consider the brash Sobek versus the introverted Yahmose, and the shrewish Satipy versus the distant Kait. Then you have Kameni, who woos Renisenb with his song, the vicious, catty Nofret, the lofty and pompous Imhotep, the vain braggart Ipy, and the cackling busybodies Esa and Henet. Each of them is really easy to imagine in the reader’s mind’s eye, because they are such colourful and lively characters.
Christie the Poison expert:
With so many deaths, unsurprisingly some of them are through poison! However, as this is not the 20th century, and there’s no detective to send samples off to a laboratory, we don’t have an insight into which poisons are used. The only clue given is that one of the victims is said to have drunk “the poppy juice”.
Class/social issues of the time:
I wouldn’t like to assume that Christie has taken a couple of her own usual social themes and deposited them in Ancient Thebes, or whether these two subjects were of particular interest to the Ancient Egyptians – but race and the social position of women do crop again, as usual.
It’s interesting that the slaves are frequently referred to by their colour. Satipy moans about “that hippopotamus of a black slave”; Esa possesses “two little black slave girls”, whom she scolds “in a characteristic, friendly fashion.” Esa is actually very fond of her slaves, a relationship which today feels quite unlikely. Later in the book, Christie describes one of Esa’s slaves as a “little maid”, whom she sends off on an errand. However, when she returns, Christie again describes her simply as “the black girl”. The only other use of the word “black” when describing one of the characters, is when Sobek is furious at the influence that Nofret has acquired over Imhotep: “she has bewitched him – that black, jeering serpent has put a spell on him!” Don’t know about you but this feels more than borderline racist to me.
However, there are many more references to women in this book. We’ve seen before how Christie has an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of feminism. You sense she feels that it’s generally a good idea but awfully unbecoming of a nice young lady. Yahmose’s vituperative wife Satipy is constantly complaining at his attitude. “You drive me mad, Yahmose […] you have no spirit. You’re as meek as a woman!” Touch of the Lady Macbeth’s there, maybe? The narration talks of the sequence of accidents and mishaps that befall Nofret, as a deliberate act of vengeance against her. Christie, in the form of the narrator, tells us “it was a quiet, relentless, petty persecution – nothing overt, nothing to lay hold of – it was essentially a woman’s campaign.” That doesn’t really equate women to Being Able To Do Great Things, does it?
Esa’s got worse up her sleeve. When she complains to Renisenb about Satipy’s bullying behaviour, she actually advocates violence against her. “I hoped Yahmose had come to his senses at last and given his wife a good beating. It’s what she needs – and she’s the kind of woman who would probably enjoy it.” That really makes the modern reader cringe. Even kind-hearted and level-headed Hori shows traces of misogyny; his description of Satipy is phrased: “like most bullying women, she was a coward.” If he’d said “like most bullies, she was a coward” I don’t think there’d be any objection. But this phrasing doesn’t feel quite equable. It implies that bullying men aren’t cowards (which is not true.)
Let’s give the final words on the subject to Kait, Sobek’s quiet and remote wife. Kait advises Renisenb to remarry because “you are strong and young, Renisenb, and you can have many more children.” “Is that all a woman’s life, Kait?” asks Renisenb, to which Kait replies, “it is all that matters to a woman.” And later, when Renisenb is talking to Kait about Sobek, she replies, “what are men anyway? They are necessary to breed children, that is all. But the strength of the race is in the women. It is we, Renisenb, who hand down to our children all that is ours, As for men, let them breed and die early…” So despite having what sounds to us a very backward attitude to the relevance of women in their society, Kait is adamant that their own special brand of feminism is the power of the nation. It perfectly sums up Christie’s ambivalence on the subject!
Classic denouement: Although it’s an exciting denouement, it’s not exactly classic, with only three people present – the murderer, the next intended victim, and the victim’s saviour. All the details are then back-filled afterwards. It’s interesting that Stephen Glanville persuaded Christie to change the ending, much to her annoyance with herself for letting him do so. She avowed thereafter never to let anyone interfere with her plotting ever again! Tantalisingly, we don’t know what ending she had originally proposed.
Happy ending? Yes; although there aren’t many people left to get on with their own lives, a future wedding is on the horizon.
Did the story ring true? With its foreign, distant setting, in another culture at a point much earlier in history, it’s hard to gauge exactly how realistic or credible the story is. In many respects, this is the closest Christie got to writing a pantomime, in that it’s full of vibrant characters and a somewhat over-the-top death count suggests a murderer who is much larger than life.
Overall satisfaction rating: For me it’s unhesitatingly a 10/10, because I’ve always found it riveting – and on re-reading I found I could almost verbatim remember many of the conversations; that’s how much it gets under your skin.
Thanks for reading my blog of Death Comes as the End 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 Sparkling Cyanide, and our final meeting with Colonel Race; I can’t remember anything else about it though, so I shall look forward to re-reading it! As usual, 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!