Sunday, October 26, 2014

Christie's Venture into Historical Fiction

"It's as easy to utter lies as truth."

Agatha Christie
"Death Comes as the End" (1944)

There is more than one reason why I have always liked Agatha Christie's "Death Comes as the End," which was published 70 years ago this month — but I think it really boils down to one thing.

It really was quite a departure for her.

As far as I know, it is the only one of her books that was not set in the 20th century. Nearly all of her books were set in or near the time of the book's publication. Whenever Christie wrote about the past, it was in the context of a character's flashback.

It had no European characters, either, being set near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 2000 B.C.

It wasn't Christie's only book to be set in an exotic locale. She did that lots of times.

But, as far as I can tell, it is the only book she ever wrote that wasn't set in the 20th century — and it didn't have at least one European character. Usually, the European character(s) solved whatever crime had been committed. But there was no Europe in 2000 B.C.

It was similar to a book that Christie published five years earlier, "And Then There Were None," in the sense that there were many deaths. And it was, as far as I can tell, the first book to combine a detective story with historical fiction. I have read many historical novels in my life, and I've enjoyed most of them. I'm an amateur historian, I suppose. It was my minor in both college and graduate school, and it's always been an interest of mine.

Perhaps that is why I have always liked "Death Comes as the End."

The fact that she didn't write more historical fiction doesn't surprise me. Good historical fiction is tougher to write than ordinary fiction. It demands a lot of research to make it plausible — almost as much research as a good term paper or thesis will require.

And, as I say, in this novel, as in "And Then There Were None," there were many deaths. The first was a woman who had married the patriarch of an affluent Egyptian family. The new wife antagonized everyone — and turned up dead just when anyone would be a likely suspect.

But she wasn't the last to die. And when the identity of the murderer was revealed, it was about as surprising as the revelation in "And Then There Were None,"

I've heard it said that Christie was inspired to write "Death Comes as the End" after working with her archeologist husband in the Middle East. Makes sense to me. Christie found inspiration in her life's experiences — as all writers do. Why not an archeological dig?