Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie (1936)


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mesopotamiaMurder In Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

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‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ is the 12th of Christie’s Poirot novels, though, in this instance, Poirot is a relatively minor character who only enters the case to provide the solution to a puzzle that is narrated by Nurse Amy Leatheran. Though it is never made entirely clear, the novel is apparently set at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, a site Christie visited, where she first met Sir Leonard Woolley and his team, a meeting which later led to her introduction to his second in command, and her second husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. Christie’s relatively new fascination with all things archeological is quite evident in this novel, and it even seems that her victim may have been drawn from real life. Louise Leidner is likely based on Katharine Woolley, Woolley’s wife, who was present at Christie’s first experience of an archeological dig. Christie later noted that Mrs Woolley “was a charming, creative, but imperious woman who ruled with an iron hand her husband and all his archeological associates.” (Agatha Christie: The Woman and her Mysteries, Gillian Giles, p123) Later, though she remained on good terms with the couple, as Mallowan was second in charge and good form was required, Christie may have expressed her true feelings in her own inimitable style, by killing off this apparent irritant to the archeological adventure.

The protagonist, Amy Leatheran, enters the story when she is recommended to Dr. Eric Liedner, a famous Swedish archaeologist, by Dr Reilly, a British medic living in the area. Her initial interview with Leidner goes well, and Amy soon finds herself temporarily living at an archaeological dig near Hassanieh, Iraq, entrusted with the task of caring for Leidner’s nerve wracked wife. It must be remembered that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Iraq temporarily became a British protectorate, which accounts for the presence of the British legal system and colonial bureaucracy.

Amy’s patient, Louise Leidner, is a beautiful and quite fascinating woman with an extremely difficult past. She had been briefly married during the war, to a German-American by the name of Frederick Bosner, who had worked for the US State Department, though he was eventually revealed as a spy for Germany and sentenced to death. However, before the sentence could be carried out, he was involved in a horrible train crash, and though an unrecognizable body bearing his identification was found in the wreckage, over the years Louise has received several communications from a man who claims to be her first husband, a situation which has significantly contributed to her current condition.

Only a week after Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site, Mrs Leidner is found dead in her room by her husband. She had been violently struck in the head, by the proverbial ‘blunt object’, though no weapon is actually found within the room. Even worse, it is clearly an inside job, several witnesses attest that only members of the expedition entered the compound that afternoon, and even more to the point, the windows of the room were all barred and the only door, which fronted a central courtyard, had been directly in view of of one of the houseboys cleaning some ‘pots’ during the relevant time, with the exception of only a few minutes when he was called away. This short space of time allows some doubt, but the murder still seems all but impossible. It would have been extremely difficult for anyone to have entered and committed this crime during this brief window of opportunity, and all the members of the team are accounted for at this time. One member of the team believes she may have heard a cry, but the time does not match this opportunity and we soon learn that she could not have heard any sound from Mrs Leidner’s room if the windows had been closed – as they were when the body was discovered. There has also been a mysterious attempt to rob valuable antiquities from the dig, items carefully stored in a protected room, and it seems all too likely that these events are somehow connected to the murder. Though Christie allows for the barest possibility that someone might have slipped in and killed this complex woman, all the potential candidates are accounted for during those critical minutes, which turns this into a quite effective locked room mystery.

Fortunately, Poirot is currently visiting Iraq and is a close friend of Dr Reilly. The events in this story are actually set three years before the date of publication, meaning that immediately following this case, Poirot left Mesopotamia to return to Europe on that infamous journey aboard the Orient Express. Poirot only arrives in this mystery well after the murder, as the excavation team finally return to work and Dr Leidner begins to arrange for his wife’s funeral. Poirot questions all the team, but is forced to admit that their alibis are sound. All were within sight of other team members at the only time when the murderer could have slipped into the room unnoticed. Later, during a lunch at Dr Reilly’s house, Poirot is told the story of Mrs Leidner’s life, and made aware of the existence of a younger brother-in-law, that the victim had not seen in at least fifteen years. Poirot clearly suspects that one of the team is either Frederick Bosner, resurrected from a false grave, or this younger brother, set on avenging his brother’s death. Poirot is also convinced that this is a crime of passion and that any solution must involve a clear understanding of the personality of Mrs Leidner. Amy is no longer required at the dig and Poirot warns her that she may still be in danger, but the nurse feels obliged to return for her patient’s funeral, before making plans to return to England. It is when she returns to the site that one of the team confess that they may have solved the puzzle, but this information arrives too late. The potential witness is poisoned in the middle of the night, and her dying words create only more confusion!

This is clearly one of Christie’s best efforts, and one of the most ingenious locked room puzzles of the Golden Age, which is no small feat. Despite the lack of Dr. Fell’s hermetically sealed crime scene, there are few locked room mysteries with such an elegant and innovative solution. Purely as a locked room mystery it clearly deserves a full five stars! It is also a pretty good ‘Whodunnit’ – few will arrive at the solution before Poirot finally gathers the entire list of suspects at the house to reveal the results of his investigation, shortly after sending a flurry of cables all over the world.

Reviews at the time this book was first released were generally positive, though many found the central premise of the plot to be rather incredible – and not without good reason! This is a point that every reader must carefully consider after reading this fascinating mystery, though it is not a subject we can even broach in this review, without issuing a total spoiler alert. I will therefore leave this point to the reader’s own good judgement. Most critics further agreed that the use of Amy Leatheran as the narrator is highly effective, and that the setting is both intriguing and technically well presented, clearly one of the best sets in any Christie novel. Unfortunately, this is not one of the better Poirot TV episodes. In this version, the intrusion of Hastings and the resulting reduction in the role of Amy Leatheran, was clearly an error that badly alters the all important narrative role, a device which is always central to any Christie story. in this case, Christie is again playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, as she did with such stunning results in ‘Roger Ackroyd’, ‘Lord Edgware Dies’, and several other early novels. Nurse Leatheran quite clearly considers herself to be extremely observant and an excellent judge of character, both being essential parts of her professional training. Poirot realizes that her ability to observe may actually put her in danger, but casts some doubt on her claim to be able to make credible assessments of the other characters involved in this story – and the solution eventually puts the entire meaning of her observations in quite a different light, a point which the TV episode entirely ignores.

How many stars overall? This is, once again, an extremely difficult novel to rate. It is clearly one of Christie’s best, yet it still entirely rests on that one premise that is very difficult to credit. Without this one problem, it would be a true five star good mystery – but this issue cannot be so easily ignored – it is simply far too improbable! I therefore reluctantly give it a high four star plus rating, even though it still remains one of my all time favourite Agatha Christie novels!

****


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