Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation of Death on the Nile reminds us that Agatha Christie’s work is not solely concerned with English villages. Christie also drew on her travels in the Middle East with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. Although most of her experience was in Iraq and Syria, Christie was particularly fascinated by Egypt.
The movie has been released to little fanfare, after serious allegations arose concerning one of main actors, Armie Hammer. It’s the latest iteration following the 1944 stage play, an all-star movie in 1978 and a television adaptation as part of the series Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 2004.
In 1937, the year she wrote Death on the Nile, Christie also wrote the play Akhnaton, about the pharaoh who attempted to replace Egypt’s religious system of multiple gods with the worship of a single sun deity. Christie’s play was not published until 1973 and she was more fond of Death on the Nile, which she thought: “one of the best of [her] ‘foreign travel’ ones.”
It is difficult to disagree with Christie’s assessment. Death on the Nile plays with the expectations of the reader of detective fiction, performs an audacious trick of perception, and allows Christie to reflect on the nature of celebrity, including hers.
Remaking the whodunit
At first glance, the novel draws on an established Christie structure, familiar from other stories like Murder on the Orient Express. There’s murder in an exotic location with the Karnak cruise liner providing a setting with a closed circle of suspects. Despite this, it does challenge any easy characterisation of Christie as formulaic.
While most whodunits stage their murders in the first few chapters, Christie makes readers wait until almost halfway through the novel for the death of the socialite Linnet Doyle. This allows Christie to develop a triangular romance plot between Linnet, her new husband Simon Doyle, and Simon’s ex-fiancee Jackie de Bellefort. It also raises the tension – readers can guess that Linnet will be the victim, but when?
Likewise, whereas many interwar detective novels ended with the promise of marriage, Death on the Nile begins with an engagement, between Jacqueline and Simon. Then, in the next chapter, we learn that Simon has suddenly married Jacqueline’s friend Linnet instead. The married couple board the Karnac in an attempt to avoid Jacqueline and it is here that a story of romance and spurned love becomes a murder mystery.
And the most ingenious twist (which I won’t reveal here) leads readers to question the most basic sequences of cause and effect: does one action really lead to what seems to be its immediate outcome? Unlike other whodunits whose solutions rely on details of alibis or hidden motives, the brilliance of Christie’s novel is that it makes us question what we have seen ourselves, which lends it especially well to film adaptation. Christie’s twist turns on the same principle as cinema itself: the illusion that a rapid series of static images seem to move seamlessly, without viewers being aware of any gaps.
But the novel emphasises another kind of seeing. The main theme of Death on the Nile, and what makes it so appropriate for such a starry adaptation, is celebrity.
The first page depicts Linnet being recognised in the street by two men. But Linnet’s fame comes solely from her inherited wealth – she is a forerunner of the modern celebrity who is famous for being famous.
The second chapter likewise starts with another scene of celebrity recognition – “That’s Hercule Poirot, the detective”, says another character excitedly. But Poirot’s fame is earned; he is known for his feats of detection, not his inherited fortune.
The novel even parodies literary celebrity. Another passenger on the Karnak is Salome Otterbourne, a writer of romance novels (in Branagh’s film she’s a jazz singer). On meeting Poirot, Otterbourne complains that the outspoken realism of her novels makes them too controversial, and that she has been (in modern usage) “cancelled” by prudish librarians:
Strong meat – that is what my books are – all important. Libraries banned – no matter! I speak the truth. Sex – ah! Monsieur Poirot – why is everyone so afraid of sex? The pivot of the universe! You have read my books?
Of course, Poirot hasn’t, saying he has little time for reading fiction. Presumably, then, Poirot would not be a reader of Christie herself. Throughout the novel he makes comments about a lack of realism in detective fiction.
But this scene is also a riposte to Christie’s critics. The Observer’s review of her 1936 novel Cards on the Table noted, somewhat backhandedly, that it had “qualities of humour, composition and subtlety which we would have thought beyond the reach of the writer of The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. Critics expected plot from Christie, but style and subtlety clearly came as a surprise.
In Death on the Nile, published the following year, Christie pushes her style further. When compared to her earlier novels, Death on the Nile experiments with different tones of voice and styles.
It’s tempting to see Otterbourne as Christie parodying herself. However, Christie implies that Otterbourne’s potboiler romances are not the victim of an interwar “cancel culture”, but simply unpopular with modern readers – unlike Christie’s.
If the central issue of Death on the Nile is the power of unearned celebrity, the novel’s ending emphasises such fame’s fragility. The final paragraph returns to the men who gossiped about Linnet at the beginning, and who have just heard of her murder. But “after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed instead who was going to win the Grand National”.
The isolation of the cruise liner means that the world only hears about Linnet’s death after Poirot has solved the case – it is already old news. The “death” of Death on the Nile refers not only to literal murder, but to the death of celebrity – of no longer being talked about. For Christie, celebrity must be earned through craft, and she secures her own fame through the ingenuity of her plot in this novel.