A Thing of the Past

"Outside the window, so close to the pane that it seemed to be pressing against it, was a white face—a chalk-white face, whether man or woman none could tell."
- Annie Haynes (The House in Charlton Crescent, 1926)
In my previous blog-post, I reviewed an archaeologically-themed mystery novel, Arthur Rees' The Shrieking Pit (1919), which left me in the mood for a similar sort of detective story, but there were only two such titles on my shelves that had not been previously discussed on this blog – namely R. Austin Freeman's The Penrose Mystery (1936) and Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Logically, I should've gone with the former, because it has been wasting away on my TBR-pile for ages, but settled for the latter. So, yes, this is the second re-read this month.

Murder in Mesopotamia is fourteenth novel about Christie's most popular and enduring creation, Hercule Poirot, which also happened to be part of a sub-category, called "Poirot Abroad," that includes some of the Belgian detective's most celebrated cases – such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941). The books and short stories from this sub-category take place between the countries of continental Europe (e.g. Murder on the Links, 1923) and the sun-drenched Middle East (e.g. Appointment with Death, 1938).

Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, was a prominent British archaeologist and she spend many years helping her husband with pulling the remnants of past civilizations from the earth of the Middle East. So you can easily see how this region became the backdrop for so many of her stories, but there are only two that used an excavation site as the scene of a crime: an early short story, entitled "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) and Murder in Mesopotamia. A pity, really, because archaeological settings are criminally underutilized in detective stories. Anyhow...

Murder in Mesopotamia takes place during an archaeological dig near Hassanieh, "a day and a half's journey from Baghdad," situated in present-day Iraq and was at the time of the story a young, independent kingdom – having been granted full independence from British rule in 1932. However, the presence of a British policeman, Captain Maitland, suggests the story took place when the region was still a protectorate of the British Empire.

The story at hand is narrated by a nurse, named Amy Leatheran, who has been engaged by a well-known archaeologist, Dr. Erich Leidner, to keep a weary eye on his wife. Louise Leidner is a beautiful, charming and intelligent woman, but Leatheran quickly comes to the conclusion that she's also "the sort of woman who could easily make enemies." Lately, she seems to be genuinely afraid of someone.

Dutch edition (pastel series)
During the Great War of 1914-18, Louise was married to a German, Frederick Bosner, who she discovered to be "a spy in German pay." She had a hand in the arrest and he was to be a shot as a spy, but escaped and was, reportedly, later killed in a train wreck. However, she started to receive threatening signed by her late husband. So did her husband escape death a second time? Or is his younger sibling, who idolized his older brother, plotting revenge? In any case, two days after her marriage to Dr. Leidner she received a death threat ("You have got to die"). Several additional letters arrived, recently they even had an Iraqi stamp, but the most disturbing ones announce "death is coming very soon" and "I have arrived." She even saw "a dead face," grinning against a window pane, which only she saw.

So not everyone takes her completely serious and Leatheran even suspects Louise might have been sending those threatening letters herself, but the situations becomes as serious as the grave when Dr. Leidner stumbles across Louise's body in her bedroom – struck down by "a terrific blow on the front of the head."

Coincidentally, the world-renowned private-detective, Hercule Poirot, is passing through the region after "disentangling some military scandal in Syria" and is basically given full control of the investigation by Captain Maitland. Something for the curious-minded: Poirot's experience in this case is what inspired the famous quote from Death on the Nile that compared detective work with an archaeological dig. Poirot does something like that here: removing all of the dirt and extraneous matter surrounding the problem, and small cast of characters, until the truth clearly emerges from all of the facts, questions and personality of the victim. As one of the characters observed at the end, Poirot has "the gift of recreating the past" and would have made a great archaeologist.

Interestingly, Poirot's explanation reveals that the book, all along, was an impossible crime story.

Scene of the Crime

One of the two reasons for re-reading Murder in Mesopotamia is the archaeological angle, but also for the fact that Robert Adey listed it in Locked Room Murders (1991). However, the claim of the book being a locked room mystery seems shaky at first, because the bedroom was neither locked from the inside nor under constant observation from the outside. It's established that nobody from outside of the large house could have committed the murder, but there was a window of ten minutes when nobody was in the courtyard to observe anyone entering, or leaving, the only door that opened into Louise's bedroom – which would make this a closed circle of suspects situation. There is, however, a very good reason why it would still qualify as an impossible crime novel.

I recently posted a comment on a blog-post on The Reader is Warned, titled "The Case of the Impossible Alibi," in which I gave my (poorly typed) opinion under what strenuous conditions an apparent cast-iron alibi can be considered an impossibility. I think Murder in Mesopotamia meets those qualifications and the explanation as to how the murderer pulled of the killing could've been used to create a full-fledged locked room scenario. So I filed this review under "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes."

However, I would recommend not to read my comment on that blog-post unless you've read the book.

I should point out something that's often overlooked or ignored: a second, gruesome murder occurs towards the end when a colleague of Dr. Leidner, one Anne Johnson, swallows "a quantity of corrosive acid" and burns to dead from the inside, but when she lies dying she gives, what's known as, a dying message – one that gives away a huge clue about the method of the first murder. And that gives a huge hint about the identity of the killer.

So, all in all, Murder in Mesopotamia has all the ingredients for a top-tier Agatha Christie novel, but the plot has one very black mark against it. You can only accept the solution, if you accept that Louise Leidner was a very dense, unobservant and low-conscience person. And there was an attempt to foreshadow the fact that she could have missed the keypoint of the plot. However, it's was confirmed that she was actually an intelligent woman. So this single point makes the solution, as a whole, hard to digest and condemns the book to the rank of mid-tier Christie.

I was actually reminded of Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933), which came inches from being a first-class detective story and a classic title from the early EQ period, but then came the mind-numbing explanation for the vanishing gun – which was impossible to swallow. The American Gun Mystery and Murder in Mesopotamia are actually the same in that regard, because that single point makes the whole explanation a tad-bit implausible.

Regardless, it was still a well written and interesting mystery novel, but simply not in the same league as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.

Well, that ended on a less than enthusiastic note. Anyway, not sure what I'll dig up next, but I'll continue my futile attempt to reduce the mass of my semi-sentient TBR-pile.


  1. Great review, and really nice to read this as this was my first Christie novel, my first detective novel and my first impossible crime novel! I would definitely class this as impossible and I think the method is a great one, and it's a shame she didn't play up on it more, with the door being locked or watched etc.

    But you are right about the main plot point. At the time I accepted it as having not read anything like it before it seemed a clever ploy, but on reflection, having now read a lot more detective fiction, it is pretty ridiculous. And it's one I remember Poirot/Christie having to over explain/ensure to convince the reader (if I'm right?)

    1. Yes, Christie evidently realized her idea was flawed and really tried to make it as convincing as possible. It was even outright stated, early on in the story, that the coming explanation was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I think it might have been more convincing had Christie portrayed Louise Leidner as a less intelligent (or observant) character, but she turned out to be an intelligent woman.

      So the crux of the plot might hinge on a very nifty trick of misdirection, but not one that stands up to close scrutiny. However, the trick behind the murder method was really good and should've been used to create a full-blown locked room mystery.

      By the way, if this was your first mystery-and impossible crime novel, it was also your first detective story with a dying message.

    2. Yes that's true! And it stuck out to me then as being a really interesting idea. Technically my first locked room actually was Jonathan Creek, but it was a series so not counting it in the same way.

  2. This was a very early Christie for me, too, definitely in the first ten, so while I maintain that I loved it those memories are faulty and old.

    The notion of an impossible crime was still something that hadn't realy dawned on me at this stage, so I don't remember the preicse details, but once I twigged to how an impossible crime worked I certainly remember thinking "Oh, like Murder in Mesopotamia...!". But, then, I may not have understood the limits of the subgenre or correctly remembered the events herein, I guess. but, yeah, with all those caveats, I take this as an impossible crime. And I liked it more than Death on the Nile.

    Also, I hate to be "that guy", but technicaly Poirot isn't abroad in Evil Under the Sun: the holiday island is off the coast of Devon which -- though they may like to claim otherwise -- is definitely a part of the UK!

    Aaaah, who'm I kidding, this comment probably won't appear anyway...

    1. My first locked room novel was A.C. Baantjer's Een stop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby), but it was not until several years later that I learned what a locked room was and that it belonged to that sub-genre. And re-reading it as a locked room mystery was quite interesting.

      You're no doubt right about Evil Under the Sun, but I've only read it once, many years ago, and my memories of the book are very colored by the Peter Ustinov adaptation, which used a Spanish island. Or was it Portuguese? Anyway, it definitely wasn't part of the British realm. So that's probably why I always chalk it up alongside the Poirot Abroad novels.

      Why would your comment not appear? Your message don't seem to have any problem getting through. JJ, on the hand, seems to be unable to post on any of the blogspot blogs.

    2. Oh, I just noticed... you're JJ. I assumed you were Dan (At the Reader is Warned), because I did not expect you to be able to post. Wow, I can been really dense at times. Welcome back!

  3. Always good to re-read a Christie, as I've found I often notice new things on the second reading. I agree with you about the absurdity of the solution, not in the how of the murder but in the background of it shall we say. The archaeological setting is a good one. Though I must say this doesn't really come across in the Dutch cover does it?

    1. You're absolutely right, Kate. The Dutch cover suggests a more domestic setting or a shady hotel room with a one-way mirror to spy on the guests. I included it because my first Christie's came from this pastel series and always loved the little cover drawings.

  4. A fine review, though it made me want to read the book again, and yet it may have given me too much information. It's been a very long time since that first reading, but my mind is sieve-like enough these days, things read 20 years ago may as well be brand new.

    1. Given too much information? We did hammer too much on the single weakness of the plot, didn't we? Sorry about that.

      And browsing through my review, I really, really, really should learn, after all these years, to properly proofread my blog-posts for mistakes.

  5. I had thought that about the solution as well, except that there is one detail which might make it plausible. Can't divulge it here of course. :) I often think the murder method a bit stretched too - I mean, there's no guarantee she'll look up. But at the same time, I have reread this particular Christie many times and will probably reread it again. That is Christie's genius, I think.

    1. Well, that she would look up would be a fairly safe bet, when taking the whole situation into consideration, but we're entering spoiler territory here.

      Yes, for an author who's known for surprising readers with the least-likely suspect, Christie stands up surprisingly well to re-reading.