Sunday, June 14, 2009

Death on the Nile

In between organizing case files and preparing Mr. Poirot's tisanes, just so, Miss Lemon happened upon a most enlightening essay by her fellow countryman, W. H. Auden. In it he makes the delightful, if not sheepish, confession that he is addicted to reading detective stories.

Bravo, Mr. Auden! Miss Lemon suffers from just the same affliction.

In "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948), the learned poet makes several astute observations about the mystery genre. He smartly sums up the form thus: "A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies."

According to Mr. Auden, a really good detective story requires the following elements:
  1. A closed society that by its nature excludes the possibility of an outside murderer. An English manor house will do nicely; likewise a vicarage or a railway car. All in this society must bear some relation to the others and all must be considered suspect.
  2. The characters in the story must be aesthetically interesting -- i.e., eccentric -- and inherently good. They are living in a state of grace. Evil must be expunged.
  3. The innocent in a detective story must at some point appear guilty, and likewise the guilty must seem innocent.
  4. The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace to the closed society and reconcile its aesthetic appeal with ethical virtue. Furthermore, the detective should be an exceptional individual and living in his or her own state of grace.
Death on the Nile, the 1938 novel by Agatha Christie, has all the elements set forth in Mr. Auden's essay and is a hypnotizing whodunit to boot. The closed society in this case is the Nile vessel called the Karnak, and on its ill-fated voyage are the newlywed Simon and Linnet Doyle; Simon's just-jilted fiancee, Jacqueline de Bellefort; the oh-so-eccentric mother and daughter duo, Mrs. and Rosalie Otterbourne; the cantankerous communist, Mr. Ferguson; Signor Richetti, an archeologist; the cultured Mrs. Allerton and her layabout son, Tim; Andrew Pennington, Mrs. Doyle's American trustee; the imperious American heiress, Miss Van Schuyler, and her unfortunate nice, Cornelia; a German physician, Dr. Bessner, various maids, stewards and other holiday assitants....

And of course, Hercule Poirot. Colonel Race also makes a coincidental appearance, and provides scarcely-needed assistance to the great Poirot.

Indeed, Miss Lemon thinks that perhaps this one could be retitled "Poirot's Finest Hour." There is no shortage of pride (dare one say arrogance?) on Mr. Poirot's part.

As the reader has surely noticed: the field for the innocent who must all in turn appear guilty is vast and wide. The characters have no shortage of quirks. Mrs. Otterbourne is an obnoxious novelist, obsessed with sex (between the pages) and her own declining book sales. Like the real-life Agatha Christie, Mrs. Otterbourne doesn't touch alcohol. She's also written a novel called Snow Upon the Desert's Face. (Mrs. Christie's first novel -- written as a child -- was titled Snow Upon the Desert.) Also represented among the passengers of the Karnak are jewel thieves, kleptomaniacs, hypochondriacs, gamblers, jealous lovers and spies.

Miss Lemon didn't leave out murderers ... did she?

But through all this confusion -- and the spectacular backdrop of the Nile and Egypt's ancient and foreboding ruins -- Mr. Poirot sees clear. When he readies to reveal an embarrassing secret about one of the travelers, she asks, "But then, how do you know?"

"Because I am Hercule Poirot! I do not need to be told."

And there, Mr. Auden, is your exceptional detective, returning the passengers (who remain alive) on the Karnak to a state of grace.

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