The time is the late 1930s. Jacqueline de Bellefort is taking her fiancee, Simon Doyle, to meet her best friend, the very rich, and very beautiful, Linnet Ridgeway. Linnet herself is about to be married to the rather dull Lord Windlesham.
When Linnet meets her friend's husband to be, she is impressed with her choice. Tall and broad shouldered, dark blue eyes, a boyish appealing smile... she feels a sudden pang. "Lucky Jackie..."
Time passes and it's months later. Linnet Ridgeway and her new husband Simon Doyle are on honeymoon travelling around Europe.
At Venice they bump into Jacqueline de Bellefort in a restaurant. Then later, they meet her at Brindisi. And then at Mena House. And again. And again...
The Doyles continue on to Egypt and the steamer S. S. Karnak, which is taking tourists on a cruise down the Nile. Jackie follows, and it soon becomes clear that she isn't the only person on board with a reason to dislike Linnet.
And then, one morning, Linnet is found dead, shot through the head... Jacqueline de Bellefort is immediately suspected - but can it be that simple? Only fellow passenger Hercule Poirot can find out.
Death on the Nile was originally published in 1936. It was Agatha Christie's 31st book (she eventually went on to write about 90) and the 16th to feature Hercule Poirot.
This book is regarded as one of her most brilliant, probably amongst her ten best works, but not as popular as her masterpieces The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) or Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Personally I disagree with that view. It is without doubt one of my favourite Christie novels.
Christie's peak came during the 1930s. She wrote many of her best novels during that decade. The books that preceded this one (including Death in the Clouds (1935), The ABC Murders (1936) and Murder in Mesoptamia (1936)) had been well received and it seemed impossible to better them, but better them she did with Death on the Nile.
Using one of her favourite basic plots - Poirot investigates a murder while on holiday in an exotic location - Christie draws us in by weaving together a brilliant plot with a denouement that keeps you guessing right to the very end. There are many little mysteries to puzzle over; Where is the velvet stole? Who took the pearls? Why has the gun gone missing? How many of the passengers had a grudge against the victim? The suspects include an elderly American lady, her limp companion and her niece; an aristocratic Englishwoman and her son; an American lawyer; a famous novellist and her daughter; an elusive Italian archaeologist; an English solicitor; and a young man with extreme political views. Could any of them be a dangerous killer?
This is essentially a love story between three characters, Jacqueline, Linnet, and Simon. Of all the characters (aside from Poirot), these three come across as the most 'real' and believable, and it is this thread that Christie triumphs with above all the others, even the murder. Jackie in particular is well drawn, full of malice, directed towards the woman who stole her fiancee.
Hercule Poirot is as sharp as ever and at the peak of his mental powers. There are many suspects with something to hide, and to cap it all, Poirot not only has to deal with the murder, but a greedy lawyer and a jewel robbery. Not to mention the passenger who is in fact a government agitator. As usual his 'little grey cells' come to the fore and he has to find solutions to the crimes using order and method. Often after reading his explanation of events, I've thought to myself, "Why didn't I spot that?" and flicked back through the book to see what I didn't pick up when I first read it. But the clues are there staring you in the face!
Most of the action takes place aboard the S.S. Karnak. Setting the novel in one claustrophobic location is a common trait in Agatha Christie's books (for example, the excavation camp in Murder In Mesopotamia, and more famously a small remote island in And Then There Were None). I find these situations much more gripping. Indeed, you may not be able to put the book down.
All the passengers stay on the boat following the murder, so you know the guilty party has to be amongst them. And when more murders occur (let's face it, that's much more exciting than one) some passengers don't take too kindly to being accused! Of course, Christie tosses in the usual number of red herrings to mislead us into thinking we know how the murder was committed. And as usual we are wrong!
The murder take place halfway through the book, which is quite a departure from Christie's earlier works. Usually the murders occur near the beginning of the story. There is quite a long build up but this is necessary to set up the relationships between the characters, particualrly why Jacqueline de Bellefort is such an easy target for a frame-up.
I'm not usually a patient reader; I like plot driven novels rather than those that have pages and pages of what is going on in a character's head. Christie's novels fall into the former category: when I started to read the book, I was in no way impatient for the murder to be committed because there was always something else happening to keep me interested, a testament to Christie's writing.
Captain Hastings, Poirot's usual sidekick, is absent from this novel and instead the role is taken up by Colonel Race. Race, a British Secret Service agent (nothing like James Bond) had previously appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) and Cards on the Table (another Poirot novel, published a year earlier in 1936).
While the denouement is truly brilliant, there is one little niggle. With this type of book, I've gotten used to Poirot gathering all the suspects together, explaining his solution and accusing the murderer, followed by a suitably exciting confrontation between detective and killer. But in this case it doesn't happen. Poirot explains the solution in his cabin to only three of the many passengers, and the confrontation with the murderer happens 'off camera' as it were. This was rectified in the film adaptation, which is certainly much more thrilling at the end. But as the solution is so unexpected, I didn't mind as much when reading the book!
Advantages: Claustrophobic setting, fantastic solution
Disadvantages: Murderer not present at denouement