Mysterious murder on an archaeological site

Mystery Queen Agatha Christie and her brain-child Hercule Poirot, the middle-aged Belgian detective are my favourites whenever I have to read a suspense story. Hercule Poirot has been the second most popular detective hero in the world of mystery based fiction, next only to Sherlock Holmes. Madam Christie has shown this hero who keeps a low profile but possesses a razor-sharp mind, as solving mysteries in different parts of the world. Today I am reviewing a novel in which he resolves a murder mystery on an archaeological site in the sandy region of Mesopotamia (Iraq). This novel is Murder in Mesopotamia.Murder in Mesopotamia starts with the receipt of an employment offer to a trained nurse, Amy Leatheran who is working in Iraq. The job is to take care of Mrs. Louise Leidner, the wife of an archaeologist, Dr. Erich Leidner who is situated on an archaeological site in Mesopotamia near Hassanieh (Iraq). And all the subsequent events of the novel are narrated by the nurse – Ms. Leatheran only who while giving company to Mrs. Leidner, comes to know of a lot about her personality which fascinates the males on one hand and leads the females to dislike her on the other. And shortly, it’s no secret for Ms. Leatheran that Mrs. Leidner is deeply scared of something (or someone). What’s that (or who’s that) – wonders Ms. Leatheran, the narrator for us. She comes to know of the fear of Mrs. Leidner when she confides her past with Ms. Leatheran. She had had a marriage with some Frederick Bosner long back, in the days of the first World War which did not last long because Bosner under charge of spying for Germany, was caught by the US authorities, tried and sentenced to death only to escape but die in an accident. However his threatening letters coming regularly to Louise (now Mrs. Leidner) warning her against marrying someone else, evidenced that he had actually not died in that accident. Due to his threats, Louise did not marry for years and could marry Dr. Leidner only when such letters stopped coming for a while. However now she has again started receiving threatening letters in the handwriting of Bosner only. Besides, she has also happened to see a ghostly face  appearing just outside the window of her room. The combination of these two things has lead Louise, i.e., Mrs. Leidner into a state of dread.

And then she is found murdered in her room through a stroke on her head by some blunt object. When her murder took place, the door of her room was constantly under watch of one or the other and nobody visited her during that particular time period. Then how could she be murdered ? Belgian detective Hercule Poirot comes into picture, being called to investigate the murder and he is also troubled by the same thought of howdunit more than whodunit. The time of the murder gets pinpointed by the hearing of a scream by Ms. Johnson who is a member of this archaeological group. However the puzzle remains the same because at that time, Mrs. Leidner was alone in her room and it is confirmed that nobody visited her during the period which covers the time of the scream. Poirot feels that the nurse – Amy Leatheran is not very safe because murder becomes a habit and if she knows (or supposed to know by the murderer) something important, then there can be an attempt on her life. However, it’s Ms. Johnson who becomes the next murder victim. After scrutinizing and analyzing the personalities and activities of the various members of the group on the site, Poirot succeeds in unravelling the mystery behind these two murders and unmask the murderer.

Murder in Mesopotamia is a signature novel of Madam Christie, containing all the ingredients of a spellbinding mystery that we expect in her work. The final revelation comes as a jolt for the reader and then it is found that sometimes the answers to intricate puzzles are very simple but since they are just below our nose, we are not able to see them. Once the main screw gets loosened, all the smaller screws open up easily and the seemingly very tightly sealed case becomes wide open before the eyes of any intelligent sleuth (like Poirot).Like her other works, in Murder in Mesopotamia too, Madam Christie has relied on human psychology for explaining crimes. She has vividly portrayed all her characters including the victims and the suspects and that’s why when the suspense alongwith the identity of the murderer is revealed, it does not appear to be a bolt from the blue and the reader is convinced properly for the motive behind the murder. And he is also convinced perfectly for the methodology of the murder because everything logically falls into place once Hercule Poirot is finished with his final demystifying talk.

Alongside human psyche, Madam Christie has dealt with human relationships also in detail while doing the ground work for the happening of the murder as well as while examining the suspects. When the people involved are human-beings, they may like, they may dislike; they may love, they may hate. Both these opposite feelings are two ends of the same continuum or two sides of the same coin, that’s an eternal truth and Madam Christie has reaffirmed it time and again in her stories. Murder in Mesopotamia falls into the same league.

On the flip side, I found the length of the novel as on the higher side. It could have been shorter and crispier. Besides, the character of Father Lavigny and the things related to him, appeared to me as simply adding to the bulk of the novel and not any value to the main story. The suspects are too many but all of them could not be painted as potential murderers. Further, a couple of significant points in the final revelation appeared as too far-fetched to me. However the climax is certainly mindblowing and the revelation of the mystery speaks volumes of the quality of work of the legendary authoress.

The language used appears to be the narration of a novice but that’s the art of Madam Christie that allows the reader to see the things from the viewpoint of a particular character, i.e., Amy Leatheran in this novel. Madam Christie has established in some of her novels that nobody is above suspicion and whosoever has a presence in the story for whatsoever reasons can turn out to be the real culprit. Hence presenting the things in the simple words of Amy Leatheran is a smart move by the authoress which keeps the reader guessing till the climax.First published in 1936, this novel had got praise from the critics but it was considered a cut below the best of Agatha Christie. She had set so lofty standards for herself that every work of hers had to be evaluated against them only and when not found as meeting them, this fact was underscored despite acknowledging the otherwise high quality of the work. As a  female Tennis player – Mary Joe Fernandez had once asserted – ‘When you are accustomed to excellence, just being good never satisfies.’

No prizes for guessing my final verdict for this novel. It’s a treat for not only the fans of Agatha Christie but also all the mystery lovers. Just slip through the cover of this novel to enjoy a more than 350 pages long mysterious ride in the sandy region of Mesopotamia more than 8 decades back.

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About Jitendra Mathur

A Chartered Accountant with literary passion and a fondness for fine arts
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