Murder in Mesopotamia
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Robin Macartney|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|6 July 1936|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||288 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||The A.B.C. Murders|
|Followed by||Cards on the Table|
Murder in Mesopotamia is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 6 July 1936 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The book features Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The novel is set at an archaeological excavation in Iraq, and descriptive details derive from the author's visit to the Royal Cemetery at Ur where she met her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, and other British archaeologists. It was adapted for television in 2002.
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Amy Leatheran, a nurse, is hired to care for Louise Leidner by her husband Dr Erich Leidner, a Swedish archaeologist, who married Louise two years earlier. They are on a dig near Hassanieh, Iraq, then a British protectorate. Louise was married briefly during the Great War 15 years earlier to a German named Frederick Bosner, who worked for the US State Department but was actually a German spy. Bosner was turned in by Louise, tried for espionage and sentenced to death. He managed to escape while he was being transported but his train crashed; a body bearing his identification was found in the wreckage. Louise has received letters purporting to be from her first husband, which puts her on edge.
A week after the nurse's arrival, Mrs Leidner is found dead by her husband in her room, struck fatally on the head with a large blunt object. Nurse Leatheran observes that the murder weapon is not in the room. Captain Maitland speaks with all in the house, while Dr Reilly inspects the body. They establish the timeline and become certain the crime is an inside job. The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is travelling in Iraq; his old friend Dr Reilly calls Poirot for aid.
It is apparent to all that the murderer of Mrs Leidner must be one of the expedition. The only entry to Mrs Leidner's bedroom is from the house, as the one window is barred, and was shut when her body was discovered. Miss Johnson thought she heard a cry, but disbelieves her own ears when she learns that the window was closed; there was no way for any sound to reach her. The group carry on as Dr Leidner arranges for his wife's funeral and the local police begin their work, along with Poirot. The first round of questions establishes no obvious suspect, as everyone can account for their time and was in the sight of others.
At Dr Reilly's home, Nurse Leatheran tells Poirot the story of Mrs Leidner's first marriage and the young brother-in-law she has not seen in fifteen years. Poirot speculates that one of the members of the dig may be this younger brother William or Frederick himself, as the identity of the body in the train wreck could not be confirmed. They meet Sheila Reilly, who viewed Mrs Leidner as one who must have the attention of every man around her. Dr Reilly adds his own views, calling her "belle dame sans merci". Poirot worries that Nurse Leatheran may not be safe to return to the house. She does return, wanting to attend the funeral.
After the funeral, Miss Johnson and Nurse Leatheran are on the roof. Miss Johnson states she has realized how someone could enter without being seen, but explains nothing. That night, Miss Johnson is poisoned by hydrochloric acid substituted in the glass of water on her nightstand. As Nurse Leatheran attempts to revive her, she manages to choke out the words "The window! The window!" before she dies. Nurse Leatheran first makes it clear this was no suicide, and thinks the words indicate how her water was replaced by the acid – through her window. Poirot now has two murders to solve. He considers it a crime passionnel, in which he must understand the character of Louise Leidner to solve both murders. He solves the crimes, but has no proof.
Poirot presents his results to the group at the house, after a day of sending telegrams all over the world. Mrs Leidner and Miss Johnson were murdered by Dr Leidner, who is actually Frederick Bosner. He survived the train crash, but a young Swedish archaeologist named Erich Leidner did not and was disfigured beyond facial recognition; Bosner stole the dead man's identity. Fifteen years later, established as Leidner, he remarried his wife, who did not recognise him. Bosner sent the letters to discourage Louise from her other relationships. When Bosner remarried her under his new identity, he stopped writing them. However, he saw that Louise was falling in love with Richard Carey, his friend, and his possessive rage led him to murder. He murdered Miss Johnson because she figured out how he had murdered his wife.
Bosner killed his wife from the roof as he sorted pottery. Louise Leidner was in her room. She heard a noise and then saw a mask at her window, dropped by Bosner. She opened the window and stuck her head out through the bars, only to be killed by a heavy stone quern dropped from above. Bosner retrieved the quern with a rope tied through a hole in the stone. Mrs Leidner cried out briefly; it was this cry that Miss Johnson heard. When Bosner climbed down from the roof as usual to see his wife in her room, he moved her body away from the window, and moved the blood-stained rug near the washstand to remove any connection with the window. He shut the window before calling Nurse Leatheran to the room. Bosner diverted suspicion from himself. The nurse was part of his alibi, on the spot to state the time of death. He put hydrochloric acid in Miss Johnson's water glass, to appear as suicide. Poirot points out that drinking hydrochloric acid is an incredibly painful and bizarre way to kill oneself.
Poirot solves another crime at the dig. The man seen looking through the antika room window in that peaceful week was Ali Yusuf, a known associate of Raoul Menier, a skilled thief of antiquities. Menier joined the expedition disguised as epigraphist Father Lavigny, well-reputed but not known personally to any in the team. He had a free hand to steal precious artifacts from the dig and replace them with near-perfect copies made on site. The two were captured boarding a steamer at Beyrouth by the police, who had been warned by Poirot. Not long after, Sheila Reilly marries David Emmott, a suitable match. Nurse Leatheran returns to England.
- Hercule Poirot – one-time Belgian policeman now living in England as a private detective, on a trip to the Middle East.
- Nurse Amy Leatheran – professional nurse, age 32, narrator of the story.
- Dr Giles Reilly – civil doctor in Hassanieh, a longtime friend of Poirot, who suggests the Leidner job to Amy Leatheran while she is in Baghdad finishing another job.
- Sheila Reilly – outspoken daughter of Dr Reilly, about 20 years old, the only girl her age among many young Englishman in Baghdad and environs.
- Louise Leidner – beautiful, intelligent American woman, married two years earlier to Dr Erich Leidner, in her thirties. Widowed from a brief marriage in the Great War, 15 years earlier.
- Eric Leidner – archaeologist of some repute, head of the dig at Tell Yarimjah near Hassanieh, sponsored by the (fictional) University of Pittstown (US) for the last five years.
- Richard Carey – longtime colleague of Dr. Leidner, handsome man near 40, alleged by Sheila Reilly to be having an affair with Mrs. Leidner.
- Miss Anne Johnson – longtime colleague of Dr Leidner, grey haired, near 50, native of Yorkshire.
- Mrs Marie Mercado – young devoted wife, about 25, at times strangely hostile to Mrs. Leidner, Nurse Leatheran and Hercule Poirot.
- Mr Joseph Mercado – colleague at the dig for two years, often fatigued and subject to violent shaking of the hands.
- David Emmott – quiet young American man, second year with dig team, calm and self-possessed.
- Bill Coleman – young man at his first dig with no particular interest in archaeology and a self-professed skill for forgery.
- Carl Reiter – young man of 28 from Chicago, first year at dig as photographer; frequently subjected to ridicule by Mrs. Leidner.
- Captain Maitland – British policeman in charge of the murder investigation.
- Father Lavigny (Raoul Menier) – French cleric, new to the team, specialist in epigraphy, old languages.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of 18 July 1936, summarised in its review by Harry Pirie-Gordon the setup of the plot and concluded, "The plot is ingenious and the first murder very cleverly contrived but some will doubt whether Mrs Leidner, as described, could have been so forgetful and unobservant as to render the principal preliminary conditions of the story possible."
In The New York Times Book Review (20 September 1936), Kay Irvin wrote: "Agatha Christie is a past master, as every one knows, in presenting us with a full assortment of clues which we cannot read. And there are mysteries within mysteries among this quiet yet oddly troubled group of scientific workers, one of whom must have been the murderer; it is part of the author's skill to make us feel that every human character is a little mysterious, and that when crimes are committed among a group of apparently well-bred and cultivated people every one of them may be suspect. Agatha Christie's expertness in building up her detective stories, as such, to astonishing (though sometimes very far-fetched) conclusions has more or less over-shadowed her amazing versatility, not only in background and incident, but in character-drawing and actual style. The story here is told by a trained nurse – as has been done by other eminent mystery novelists. Nurse Leatheran holds her own with them all. This latest Christie opus is a smooth, highly original and completely absorbing tale".
In The Observer 12 July 1936 issue, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) wrote that "Agatha Christie has a humorous, well-observed story amongst the ruins of Tell Yarimjah, and her latest method of murder, which got me guessing fruitlessly, has, as usual, more simplicity of a miracle than the complication of a conjuring trick. Poirot as a man is quite as delightful as ever, and Poirot as a detective not only perplexes the pleasant and not too intelligent hospital nurse, whose duty it is to tell the story, but, again as usual, the intelligent reader as well. The trouble is that he also perplexes the unprejudiced in a way most unusual to him: I for one cannot understand why he has allowed Agatha Christie to make him party to a crime whose integrity stands or falls by a central situation which, though most ingenious, is next door to impossible. The point at issue, which it would be grossly unfair to specify, between Mrs Christie and the reader is one which would provide a really interesting silly season correspondence." He concluded that "usually Poirot is to be toasted in anything handy, and no heel-taps; this time I drink to him a rather sorrowful glass of Lachryma Christie."
The Daily Mirror (9 July 1936) wrote: "Don't start reading this if you've got something to do or want a book just for a quarter of an hour or so. Because you simply won't put it down til you've reached the last sentence." The review finished by saying, "Agatha Christie's grand. In this tale of peculiarly placed murder she's given us another rattling good tale."
Robert Barnard: "Archeological dig provides unusual setting, expertly and entertainingly presented. Wife-victim surely based on Katherine Woolley, and very well done. Narrated by nurse, a temporary Hastings-substitute—soon she found she could do without such a figure altogether. Marred by an ending which goes beyond the improbable to the inconceivable."
References or Allusions
Christie reportedly based the character of Louise Leidner on Katharine Woolley, the wife of archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. Christie's husband Max Mallowan had worked on Woolley's excavation at Ur.
References to other works
- Although this novel was published in 1936, the events described are stated to have taken place three years earlier. It is when he returns from Mesopotamia that Poirot travels on the Orient Express and solves the murder that takes place aboard it.
- In Chapter XII, Dr Leidner recalls hearing a "Mr Van Aldin" speak highly of Poirot. Rufus Van Aldin was a prominent character in Christie's earlier work The Mystery of the Blue Train.
- In one chapter Nurse Leatheran is said to have spent the afternoon reading the detective novel The Nursing Home Murder'," which is the name of a well-known novel by Ngaio Marsh, but the ending of Nurse Leatheran's book differs from the ending of Marsh's.
References in other works
- In Death on the Nile, Poirot credits his experience on the expedition with developing his methods in detection. He muses: "Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition—and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. This is what I have been seeking to do—clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth..."
ITV adapted the novel for TV in 2002, as part of the Agatha Christie's Poirot series with David Suchet. It has been shown on the Biography Channel in the US. The character of Captain Hastings was added to the story, and is made the uncle of one of the characters, William Coleman, thus reducing Amy Leatheran's contribution drastically. Leatheran is demoted from the protagonist and Poirot's assistant to a fairly minor supporting character and another suspect.
As well, as with other adaptations, characters are dropped from the novel such as Dr Giles Reilly (who in the novel is the father of another Sheila Reilly, an acerbic and somewhat unpleasant woman who lives in Baghdad; in this adaptation, she becomes the daughter of Captain Maitland, the local head of police); Mr Reiter and David Emmott, archaeologists at the dig. Another plot twist is added in the TV version: one of the characters, Mr Mercado who in the novel was a drug addict, goes further by killing his supplier and then, in an act of guilt committing suicide.
The story is filmed in part at the Oudhna Archaeological site.
BBC Radio 4 adapted Murder in Mesopotamia for radio, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot.
Murder in Mesopotamia was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 1 July 2008, adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by "Chandre" (ISBN 0-00-727530-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2005 under the title of Meurtre en Mésopotamie.
- 1936, Collins Crime Club (London), 6 July 1936, Hardcover, 288 pp
- 1936, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 298 pp
- 1944, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 145 [mapback]), 223 pp
- 1952, Pan Books, Paperback, (Pan number 200)
- 1955, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 1099), 219 pp
- 1962, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 190 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 367 pp; ISBN 0-85456-667-8
- 2007, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1936 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 5 February 2007, Hardcover; ISBN 0-00-723444-9
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from 9 November (Volume 208, Number 19) to 14 December 1935 (Volume 208, Number 24) with illustrations by F. R. Gruger.
In the UK, the novel was serialised as an abridged version in the weekly Women's Pictorial magazine in eight instalments from 8 February (Volume 31, Number 787) to 28 March 1936 (Volume 31, Number 794) under the title No Other Love. There were no chapter divisions and all of the instalments carried illustrations by Clive Uptton. Several character names were different from the eventual published novel: Amy Leatheran became Amy Seymour while Mr. and Mrs. Leidner were surnamed Trevor.
- The Observer, 5 July 1936 (p. 6)
- John Cooper and B. A. Pyke (1994). Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition. Scholar Press. pp. 82, 86. ISBN 0-85967-991-8.
- "American Tribute to Agatha Christie,". First edition covers. Home.insightbb.com. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon (March 1999). Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition). p. 15.
- Keats, John. "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad by John Keats". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
- The Times Literary Supplement, 18 July 1936 (p. 599)
- The New York Times Book Review, 20 September 1936 (p. 24)
- The Observer, 12 July 1936 (p. 7)
- Daily Mirror, 9 July 1936 (p. 21)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive—an appreciation of Agatha Christie — Revised edition (p. 198). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- "Katharine Elizabeth (Menke) (Keeling) Woolley". UrOnline. The British Museum and Penn Museum. Retrieved 2016-08-26.
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON TB12.