Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Appointment With DeathFollowing his fateful trip down the Nile, Poirot is dining in Jerusalem when he overhears a snatch of conversation – “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” The “she” in question is Mrs Boynton, a horrible woman who delights in the psychological torture of her family. They are completely under her thumb, but as they head for Petra, a young doctor, Sarah King, is determined to break her hold, in particularly the hold over her stepson Raymond (who, in true Golden Age style, Sarah has instantly fallen in love with.)

In Petra, Mrs Boynton retires to a cave as the family are given a chance to explore the locale. You’ll never guess what happens when someone checks up on Mrs Boynton later on? Yup, dead as a doornail. A few days later, Poirot is asked to take a look at the case – was it natural causes or murder? And with no evidence and no access to the location of the murder, can even Poirot find a murderer just by talking to the people involved?

The impression I get is that this is an overlooked Poirot – certainly it rarely gets a mention, either as one of the best or one of the worst. Certainly when I was on my first trawl through the Poirot canon, it took me ages to even realise this one existed – never saw a copy of it, either in bookshops or libraries. Maybe it’s the forgettable title. Still, it’s rather odd, considering there’s a stage play version of it (with a different killer) and it was the final of the somewhat-variable Peter Ustinov films. And it’s even odder as, in my humble opinion, one of her best.

It’s an incredibly complex plot for what is in fact a very short novel – in fact, it reminds me much more of an early Ellery Queen story than a Poirot – with a small cast with their own motivations and, unlike many Christie novels, no obvious least likely suspect to be the most likely murderer. And everything is fairly clued, but, as with those Queen novels, it would take a better mind than mine to straighten out all of the clues to figure out who did what and piece everything together. Admittedly, Poirot has to guess one aspect of the solution, but it is the least important part and there is enough info there to guess it.

And given that the second part of the book is just Poirot talking to people, it’s to Christie’s credit that the tension that she has built up so masterfully in the pre-murder section is maintained. At no point did my attention waver – which, due to the length of the book, was rather unfortunate as I plowed through the book very quickly indeed.

Obviously, this is Highly Recommended – one of her most complex puzzlers coupled with one of her most monstrous characters – in fact, this will turn up when I redo the Poirot Top Five. An absolute cracker.

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13 comments

  1. You have reminded me I read this novel many years ago when I was almost a child. However I have not forgotten the suggestive images that were formed in my memory of the places where the action is set. Definitely on my list of Christie’s books to read. Thank you very much.

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  2. Yes, this a brilliant novel, a must reading for mystery fans. I agree with your review.
    Here again, there is the usual stuff about the British being reticent about sex and the French being forward in such matters !

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  3. There is a logical contradiction regarding the year of occurrence of the events in this book.
    The year of occurrence is not mentioned in this book but there is a reference to the ABC murders (chapter 14 of part 2) which took place from June to October 1935.
    Hence the events of this book took place after October 1935. Now in the epilogue there is mention of events 5 years later. These events of the epilogue could take place only after October !940.
    But this book was published in 1938 !

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  4. I’m slightly less enthusiastic about this one, especially since the chronology invites comparison to Death on the Nile. It’s good, and Mrs Boynton is Christie’s best and most plausible monster, but I think it’s needlessly complicated and reliant on coincidence, whereas Nile SEEMS like it’s needlessly complicated and full of coincidence, but the solution dispels (most of) that.

    Did you work out the killer here? I did, but only by vaguely thinking “I bet its them because this is an Agatha Christie mystery” rather than bothering to sift through all the plot strands and coincidences. I’m not sure the ability to short-circuit the mystery so easily is a plus point.

    Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, there’s a clever irony driving the multi-layered solution, but I’m not sure Christie quite has the writing chops to tie it all together thematically. She kind of needs Poirot to just blurt out the theme at the end. And the identity of the killer, by necessity, doesn’t really shed much light on things or add much thematic depth, whereas in Nile working out the killer turns the rest of the plot on its head AND builds on the theme.

    Perhaps its unfair to quibble about whether a top tier mystery is brilliant or merely great. It’s certainly a cleverly constructed puzzle, and Christie does a FAR better job of making something so complicated and mechanical feel organic than Ellery Queen ever did, but I think Nile is a strong puzzle AND a strong novel, even if you completely ignore the mystery, which isn’t quite the case here.

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  5. I think one reason why I don’t talk about it when favorite Poirots/Christies come up is that I mix it up with Towards Zero or one of those other spyish stand-alones. That’s what the title always makes me think of–and I’m less a fan of her stand-alones than her series stories.

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  6. I just reread this one, and while I thought the characterization of the victim was interesting, her hold over her family was not quite believable. Also, the solution wasn’t convincing. I did enjoy the humor in the book–despite its rather dark and depressing theme–which I think Christie doesn’t get enough credit for. I would rate it as a second-tier Christie.

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