Petra in Jordan is one of my top bucket list destinations in the world. So while I can’t go there in real life, it was pretty exciting to discover it as the backdrop to one of Dame Agatha’s murder mysteries.
You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?
This dramatic opening line is a bit of conversation overheard by Hercule Poirot during his hotel stay in Jerusalem. He doesn’t take it too seriously, but remarks to himself that he would recognise this voice again. The book then goes and reveals the identity of the speaker, a young man named Raymond Boynton, who together with his sister Carol discusses their stepmother and the issue of why she must shuffle off this mortal coil. Reader’s first thought: well he’s obviously not the killer then. Reader’s second thought: hmm is this some sort of devious double bluff?
After teasing Poirot in the opening chapter, Appointment with Death doesn’t return to our favourite Belgian until about 100 pages after, which might not please everybody. Instead it switches to the perspective of Miss Sarah King, a young woman on a holiday who’s staying at the same hotel and meets a most peculiar American family, the Boyntons.
Mrs Boynton belongs to the tradition of Christie murder victims whose death, in the eyes of most people, makes the world a better place. She’s a former prison warden and a loathsome mental sadist who keeps her daughter and stepchildren in perfect submission to her will and whims, through manipulation, isolation and brain-washing. Though most of them are now grown-ups and one of her stepsons is married, they’re too paralysed and socially inept to break free. This sight infuriates Sarah, who develops a romantic interest in Raymond Boynton, though of course she’s unaware of his stepmatricidal intentions.
This novel takes its sweet time to arrive at the murder, but it’s worth the wait and the long build-up as Boyntons, Sarah and a few other secondary characters travel to the camp at the red cliffs of Petra. There, Mrs Boynton is found dead one evening. At first it looks like a heart attack, but some suspicious details warrant the involvement of Poirot, who happens to be passing through Amman. He only has twenty-four hours to solve the murder, but Poirot never suffered from false modesty.
Monstrous and vile Mrs Boynton is one of Christie’s most memorable creations and Petra is an evocative setting that makes her feel even more grotesque and larger-than-life. Though Poirot doesn’t fully appear on the scene until halfway, when he does he’s as brilliant and perceptive as ever. This book has the lengthiest denouement of any Christie book I’ve read so far, as Poirot carefully takes the captive audience through his deduction process before the startling final explanation.
For a while I was thinking that I’d have another chance to figure out the murderer in a rare Christie novel I never read before. But alas, a crucial line of dialogue triggered the distant memory of watching the 1988 film with Peter Ustinov many years ago, including the identity of the culprit.
P.S. While David Suchet is One True Poirot, I had to turn off the overstuffed abomination that is the recent TV adaptation of the book midway. I’m no purist by any means, but you can re-invent the story without hopelessly butchering it. What a waste of good cinematography and quality actors.
P.P.S. Appointment with Death surely breaks the record for the amount of references to the other Poirot novels: Cards on the Table, Murder on the Orient Express and The ABC Murders.
P.P.P.S. Dame Agatha always displayed a romantic streak, but the epilogue here is positively super-sappy. Not necessarily a criticism, mind you, it’s just that usually she’s more reserved than this.