And now for something different from the Queen of Crime – a murder mystery set on the bank of the Nile, in Ancient Egypt circa 2000 BC.
The only historical novel Christie penned, Death Comes As the End also stands out for its unusually high body count, only coming second to And Then There Were None. I have to say that it has impressed me somewhat less on this re-read than back in the day, when it was one of my absolute favourite Christie novels, but it’s still an entertaining family mystery with an intriguing and unusual setting.
The book follows Renisenb, a young mother who returns to the home of her father Imhotep after the death of her husband. She is relieved and reassured to discover that nothing has changed at home in the eight years she was away. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy are still engaged in rivalry trying to gain favour with their father, a rather pompous Ka-priest responsible for the maintenance of a tomb of a deceased testator. Her sisters-in-law, Satipi and Kait, still bicker and fight on a daily basis, and their whining and unlikeable housekeeper Henet is still amusing herself with gossip and tale-telling.
Hori, a serious and thoughtful man who acts as Imhotep’s business advisor, warns Renisenb against her naive belief that things can remain as they always were:
There is an evil that comes from outside, that attacks so that all the world can see, but there is another kind of rottenness that breeds from within – that shows no outward sign. It grows slowly, day by day, till at last the whole fruit is rotten – eaten away by disease.
The usual domestic strife in the household intensifies when Imhotep returns home with a surprise – a beautiful new concubine named Nofret. Renisenb’s brothers and their wives are not thrilled to say the least, while cunning and vindictive Nofret plays her cards smartly, doing everything in her power to stir up hatreds and create a rift between Imhotep and his sons. When one day her lifeless body is discovered lying at the bottom of the cliff, the family agrees to treat it as an unfortunate accident, though many suspect that one of them was responsible. This is however only the first in a streak of mysterious deaths. Has Nofret come back to wreak vengeance from beyond the grave, or is there a more mundane explanation?
If you pick up this book hoping for a story filled with rich historical details about life in Ancient Egypt, you’re in for a disappointment. There are some interesting details, such as Imhotep requesting a solemn Letter to the Dead to be drawn up by his scribes, pleading his long-dead wife Ashayet to interfere and protect her children from Nofret’s evil magic. Another curious detail is the terms brother and sister used interchangeably with husband and wife, which apparently comes straight from the real historical Egyptian texts. On the whole though, the way characters talk and behave is barely distinguishable from Christie’s contemporary novels.
On a re-read, the identity of the murderer seems really easy to guess if you’re familiar with Christie’s misleading tactics from her other books, though of course I’m aware that I say this while already knowing the story. Personally I much prefer the mysteries where culprits put a lot more meticulous planning and cleverness into their crimes, which is a bit lacking here, as is any real detective work. However I appreciated the strong psychological angle to the murders in the final reveal, which does pack a dramatic punch.
I always enjoy Christie’s large dysfunctional families, and though Imhotep and his household are only very broadly drawn, their personalities and dynamics were memorable enough to stick with me all these years. My personal favourite of the lot is Renisenb’s sharp-tongued grandmother Esa, who despite her declined eyesight sees more than most, and perceives people and events clearly for what they are.
I found Renisenb a lot more wishy-washy than I remembered; even though she’s a mother and has suffered a tremendous personal loss, she is almost irritatingly naive a lot of the time. Still, she stands out from the rest of her family for her openness to new ideas, and feeling restless with the small, petty world of the female quarters. I could relate to Renisenb’s desire to spend peaceful hours sitting by the tomb, looking out at the majesty of the Nile. The romantic triangle between Renisenb, Hori and Kameni, the handsome scribe who comes along with Nofret, is handled quite well and is resolved in a way I found satisfying.