I ended up being deeply frustrated by ‘Murder In Mesopotamia’. I don’t mind so much when a book is bad from the beginning, then I can set it aside like ‘Appointment With Death’ and not waste too much time on it, but a book that is actually quite good until the final couple of chapters vexes me.
When I started the book, I thought I might be about to read something on a par with the excellent ‘The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd’. Christie chose to tell the tell entirely as a report from a very down-to-earth and unfanciful nurse who happens to be in Iraq and accepts an assignment on a remote archaeological dig to look after a highly-strung woman who is convinced that someone is trying to kill her.
The nurse was a woman with strong opinions about people, which she would normally have kept to herself but which, as the chronicler of events, she felt called upon to share. She was ungenerous in her views of all of the women except the one she was supposed to be nursing and even her she tends to treat as paranoid until she actually turns up dead. Her reaction when she first meets the great detective and finds him to be small, old, with an egg-shaped head, imperfect English and an odd manner even for a foreigner was a lot of fun. It even made Poirot smile.
Sadly, the nurse is also a wonderful example of the deeply ingrained sense of English Exceptionalism that even an English woman in a fairly modest position was imbued with. Foreigners, like Poirot, are strange people and not entirely to be trusted. Natives, the Iraqis whose country they are all guests in, are slightly worse than foreigners and are not to be depended upon except as objects of suspicion.
By the time Poirot arrived, about halfway through the book, a classic Locked Room Mystery had been set up, complete with a diagram showing the layout of the building. The challenge was not just to discover who killed the woman but how they managed it. The cast of characters was relatively small but very colourful and the setting was exotic.
Poirot, who just happened to have been passing through Iraq on the day the murder occurred, arrived at this remote archaeological dig in the middle of the desert and begins, rather laboriously, to set out the problem space – just in case the reader missed the fact that the woman was killed in a locked room without anyone hearing any noise and when everybody appears to have an alibi. Thankfully, as this is all filtered through the nurse’s slightly dismissive, why-doesn’t-he-get-on-with-it? commentary, it comes alive a little more than it would otherwise have done.
I spent the next thirty per cent of the book happily absorbing all the little disclosures about the various people who might have been the killer and about the background of the woman who was murdered, without having the slightest clue as to who the killer was or how the killing was done.
Then I got to the ‘Poirot Explains It All’ part and the whole book popped like an over-inflated balloon.
As Poirot shared his findings with all the remaining potential suspects, I was reminded, once again, of what a tedious, self-aggrandising man Poirot is.
I was thrown out of the story a little when Poirot publicly gives some unasked for advice to an overly-servile young man that, to impress a lady, he’d be better off hitting her in the head with a plate to show her he is a man. Even as humour that was a bizarre comment.
What really killed the book for me was that, having endured Poirot’s explanation, I was offered a solution that is so far beyond the bounds of possibility in terms of concept, execution and the murderer’s reaction that, had I not been reading a Library Book, I’d have cheerfully thrown the thing in the bin for wasting hours of my time.