Next in “Original Sins” – an exploration of murder mysteries set in the Ancient World – we come to the original “Original Sin”. Written in 1945, and set in 2000 BC, Egypt, Death Comes As The End is Dame Agatha Christie’s only foray into the historical mystery genre.
You can make a good case for this being the first historical mystery novel – certainly for the first book written as a mystery novel in an historical setting. The Bride of Newgate from John Dickson Carr is still five years away, and The Daughter of Time from Josephine Tey comes after that – and probably doesn’t count anyway.
In this story, Imhotep, the leader of a family returns home with his new concubine, Nofret, who promptly starts annoying anyone and everyone who takes her fancy. When Imhotep leaves on business for a while, it isn’t long before Nofret apparently throws herself off a cliff. And then her ghost shows up to start killing people. And by golly, it gets through a lot of them before the end of the book…
I’m a bit conflicted on this one. As someone warned me recently, it is a bit slow to get going, but when it does, the bodies really pile up thick and fast. But also the setting takes a while to get going. The first part of the book could really be set anywhere and at any time. It’s only when people start taking the possibility that Nofret’s ghost could be the killer seriously, and the best way to deal with her is to invoke Imhotep’s dead wife to sort her out, that the differences between cultures become apparent. The set dressing is convincing throughout, but Christie takes a while before you feel that these could be people from the past.
As for the mystery, it’s well done and, unlike most of the “Original Sins” so far, it’s a proper mystery with clues and theories and surprises and suchlike. Unfortunately, Christie undermines it all by signposting the killer with a very clumsy bit of misdirection that wouldn’t fool anyone. Which is a shame, as it’s a well-layered plot and if that trick hadn’t convinced me of the killer’s identity, the rest of it might well have fooled me.
But it’s a good read, on the level of a good Marple, rather than the best Poirot, and it’s nice to see another author (apart from Paul Doherty) writing an out-and-out mystery set in the Ancient World.
ADDENDUM: Just thought I’d point out that the dating of 2000 BC is rather arbitrary as there is no reference to any events to tie it to that date. Basically, it’s generic “Ancient Egypt”.