Appointment with Death (by Agatha Christie)

I try to vary the genres of books when I’m reading, and currently am cycling through around ten fiction authors, one of whom is Agatha Christie. We have an extensive collection of her books - over forty of them - some of which belong to one of my sons. I am trying to work my way through the ones I haven’t yet read, and yesterday picked up ‘Appointment with Death’.

The novel is set entirely in the Middle East, featuring a group of holiday-makers. The main character is Sarah King, who has recently qualified as a doctor. However the most significant - and interesting - people are a family of adults, the Boyntons. Mrs Boynton is overweight, clearly not in the best of health, and extremely controlling. It’s never made quite clear what she does to ensure compliance from her daughter and step-family, but they all seem to live entirely under her thumb.

Lennox Boynton, who must be around thirty, is married to Nadine but seems to have lost the will to live - certainly he has no energy to defy his mother, or to move out of the family home. Raymond is next; in his mid-twenties, he makes an unfortunate remark at the start of the book, which comes back to haunt him. He’s quite close to his sister Carol, who is also extremely stressed. Essentially they are captives to their mother’s every whim; she has an almost hypnotic control over them.

Then there’s Ginevra - Jinny - who is in her late teens, and seems to be quite unstable, continually wringing her hands or tearing things to pieces. She is Mrs Boynton’s daughter, but is treated just as badly as her step-siblings.

Agatha Christie was better at plotting than characterisation, but in this, which is a psychological thriller as much as a mystery, she has created some intriguing personalities. There are others involved - a doctor, a society lady, a friend of the Boynton family, and a few more, none of whom stand out particularly. But in the really horrible character of Mrs Boynton, she created someone unpleasantly memorable. It was inevitable, of course, that this vile person would meet her end - it’s even mentioned on the back of the book.

So the first part of the book is a build-up to Mrs Boynton’s demise, where the author cleverly lays a whole host of clues, making it entirely possible that any - or all - of the characters could have committed the deed. The famous detective Hercule Poirot just happens to be nearby and is called in to advise; he interviews each of the important members of the group, and draws up notes. He even produces a list of significant points that might otherwise be overlooked.

Naturally, Poirot solves the crime, with a complex explanation that begins by eliminating everyone else. In most of Agatha Christie’s books, I feel like kicking myself if I haven’t worked out ‘whodunit’ by the last chapter or two. But in this one, I’m not sure I could have worked it out, although I can see that there are hints along the way. I had already worked out some of the solution - which parts of the stories told in the interviews were lies, for instance - but not the perpetrator.

The story is easy enough to read, and there’s no gore or overt violence; Christie was good at having her bodies off-stage, and in this book the method is not one to cause stomachs to churn anyway. But it’s quite a tense story; the control exercised by Mrs Boynton, and the psychological explanations (by an expert) quite chilling at times.

Inevitably there are descriptions or comments that could be constituted racist by today’s understanding, but that kind of thing has to be accepted when reading this era of fiction. I don’t know how accurate the descriptions of places are, but they felt realistic enough to me. Overall I liked the book, and it could make a good starting point for anyone who isn’t familiar with Agatha Christie, or the mid-20th century light crime genre which she popularised.

'Appointment with Death', as with others by this author, is regularly re-printed, and can also be found fairly easily second-hand.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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