Book: Death Comes at the End by Agatha Christie
A GUEST POST by Dr. Benedict Davies
As the regulars at A Traveler’s Library know, I love historical travel. Dr. Davies, who shares his love of Egypt here, has a great new company that provides audio guides to historic sites. See an announcement from Iconic Guides at the end of the article. Now here is Ben Davies:
My first taste of ancient Egypt, the ‘Land of the Pharaohs’, came on a ten-day, whistle-stop tour of the country as a callow 13-year old. Until then, my knowledge of this great civilization was almost non-existent. In fact, I was more absorbed with the Classical World – with the heroic tales of derring-do from the Trojan War or the hapless, yet enthralling, peregrinations of Odysseus.
Upon returning from Egypt, I found myself overwhelmed with an insatiable appetite to read and absorb anything that I could find pertaining to Egypt. In those carefree days of the 1970s, the prospect of the Internet – a world teeming with instant-access information – seemed about as likely as man finding life on Mars.
My only route back into the glorious past of the Egyptians were rare television documentaries or the odd generic textbook on Tutankhamun or the Pyramids. When I discovered that Agatha Christie, one of my favourite authors, had written Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot), a murder mystery set on a cruise boat, I was overcome with joy. This soon turned to unbridled exhilaration when it turned out that the venerable writer had based another of her novels, Death Comes As the End in ancient Egypt.
It was the eminent Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, a family friend, who first encouraged Agatha to write a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. As well as serving as a sounding board for the hugely inquisitive author, Professor Glanville also suggested using the so-called Hekanakht letters as the basis for the central plot-line. This was an ancient archive of personal correspondence written by Hekanakht to members of his family during his business travels. Despite the austere times in which he lived, these unique and fascinating documents portray Hekanakht as a shrewd and calculating businessman, with a keen eye for a good deal.
The central action of Death Comes at the End takes place in Thebes in 2000 BC and revolves around the widowed Renisenb, the only daughter of the aging mortuary-priest and landowner Imhotep – our ‘Hekanakht’. Renisenb’s arrival back on the family estate coincides with her father taking up with Nofret, a beautiful new concubine from the north. The introduction of this haughty and unfriendly ‘outsider’ into the household instantly sets Imhotep’s grown children at odds with one another.
Their resentment towards Nofret is palpable and quickly uncovers festering rivalries and jealousies. Soon enough the petty in-fighting has lasting repercussions for the entire household and deadly consequences for the despised Nofret, as she is pushed from a cliff-top path to her ignominious death. With the much maligned concubine now out of the picture, fear and recrimination become rife and no-one escapes the spectre of suspicion. In the fall-out, the body counts rapidly mount as the murderer seeks to cover his/her tracks.
The setting for Nofret’s murder was seemingly inspired by the dramatic sweep of cliffs at Deir el-Bahari. It was here that the female-pharaoh Hatshepsut built her mortuary temple on the west bank at Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in c. 1460 BC. This spectacular temple had been one of the highlights of that first trip to Egypt and is a place I always visit whenever I return to Luxor. Today local villagers still refer to the mountain pathway that starts just south of the temple as ‘Agatha Christie’s Path’, on account of its central role in that fateful scene.
For its time, Death Comes as the End is a fine period drama. Its expertly crafted characterisations give a deeply sympathetic voice to the key human relationships developed in the book. Yet for me, it is the powerful evocation of life in ancient Egypt four thousand years ago that makes it such a pleasure to read.
Dr Benedict Davies is an Egyptologist and the founder of “Iconic Guides”, a series of MP-3 audio tours of ancient Egypt, Greece and Japan (www.iconicguides.com). He is a leading expert on the community of royal workmen at Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Kings. A seasoned traveller, Benedict is particularly interested in the culture and art of the ancient Near East and the Far East.
An audio guide to the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari is now on sale at: www.iconicguides.com
Thanks so much to Dr. Davies for sharing this book and his Egypt with us, through words and pictures. I highly recommend Iconic Gudes for travelers. I’m sure Agathie Christie would agree. (Please do not copy pictures without permission. They belong to Dr. Benedict Davies.)