I think I am sometimes in danger of forgetting how much I love Agatha Christie. The 1938 club provided me with the perfect excuse to pick one up – one I have certainly read before, long enough ago to have forgotten the crucial details. I love the familiarity of Agatha Christie’s world – old fashioned and a little class conscious it might be – there is nevertheless a wonderfully polite kind of justice within the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery which is oddly comforting. Appointment with Death is a Poirot mystery – and he was always my favourite.
On his first night in Jerusalem Hercule Poirot over-hears part of a rather odd conversation while fiddling with his window at the Solomon Hotel.
“You see, don’t you that she’s got to be killed?”
Poirot doesn’t attach too much importance to the words at first – realising he has heard only a snippet of a conversation – totally out of context. Poirot remembers the words of course, and knows that he will recognise the voice again should he hear it.
Staying in the same hotel is the Boynton family from America. The Boyntons stand out rather – as they make a point of keeping themselves to themselves. Already they have come to the attention of Sarah King a young woman from England who has just completed her medical degree, and a Frenchman; Dr Gerrard a renowned psychologist/psychiatrist – not sure which. The two doctors put their heads together and discuss the peculiar family – Sarah has her romantic eye on one of the sons – despite having only spoken to him once in the corridor of a train.
Mrs Boynton is a truly horrible creation – with obvious malice, she keeps her family in thrall to her peculiarly cruel whims. Almost an invalid – Mrs Boynton’s family run around her, ensuring she has what she needs. Terrified of upsetting her, they won’t allow themselves to get drawn into interacting with fellow travellers. Mrs Boynton is the step-mother to Lennox, Raymond and Carol, Lennox’s wife Nadine probably the least damaged of the group, while Mrs Boynton’s own daughter Ginevra – the youngest appears to be the most nervously affected.
“And then, suddenly, the old woman’s eyes were full on him, and he drew in his breath sharply. Small black smouldering eyes that were, but something came from them, a power, a definite force, a wave of evil malignancy. Dr Gerrard knew something about the power of personality. He realised that this was no spoilt tyrannical invalid indulging petty whims. This old woman was a definite force. In the malignancy of her glare he felt a resemblance to the effect produced by a cobra.”
Sarah tries to engage Raymond in conversation, while Mrs Boynton watches with grim disapproval from nearby. The conversation is not repeated. Later Sarah manages to snatch a late night conversation with his sister Carol – but Mrs Boynton discovers Carol returning to her room, and any future meetings are stopped before they can be arranged. Frustrated Sarah allows her dislike of Mrs Boynton to show, causing a little scene on the steps of the hotel on the day she and Dr Gerrard and two other western tourists leave Jerusalem for a tour of Petra. Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce are Sarah and Gr Gerrard’s companions in the car driven by a local guide.
In Petra there is a camp set up for the tourists, some people staying under canvas some in caves. Already settled into the camp at Petra when Sarah King and her party arrive, are the Boynton family with Jefferson Cope; an old friend of Nadine Boynton’s from before her marriage.
As you might expect, it isn’t long before Mrs Boynton is found dead in her chair in front of her cave. Evidence of a needle prick in her arm, and certain items having gone missing from Dr Gerrard’s tent, point to a suspicious death.
Hercule Poirot is staying in Amman with a letter of introduction to Colonel Carbury, Carbury has already been informed of Mrs Boynton’s death, a death he really isn’t happy about. He consults Poirot and Poirot promises to have the matter satisfactorily explained in twenty-four hours.
“We will make them tell us what it is,” said Poirot.
“Third degree?” said Colonel Carbury.
“No.” Poirot shook his head. “Just ordinary conversation. On the whole, you know, people tell you the truth. Because it is easier! Because it is less strain on the inventive faculties! You can tell one lie – or two lies – or three lies or even four lies – but you cannot lie all the time. And so – the truth becomes plain.”
The comings and goings of everyone in the camp are gone over in minute detail – but I had already more or less worked out who did what and why – though not quite the how. There are various rules to an Agatha Christie mystery which I suppose are well known. Hercule Poirot spends something like fifty pages setting out various theories attached to each person in the camp at the time of the murder, dismissing them one by one until the culprit is revealed.
This is not the best Agatha Christie novel, it’s not quite clever enough for that – but I do think it’s a very enjoyable one, hugely readable and for me comfortingly familiar.