As he did so often during the long “lost weekend” of British Imperial life between the world wars, Hercule Poirot finds himself just down the road from a murder. This time, the road is an ancient one, leading from Baghdad to a site on the banks of the Tigris, where the American archeologist Dr. Eric Leidner is conducting an excavation of a lost Assyrian city. The murder claims the life of Leidner’s wife, the “Lovely Louisa,” who addles men and women alike with her ethereal beauty. Suspects are plentiful, and all of Western origin; they include Brits, Yanks, and a lone, very peculiar Frenchmen, but no natives of Iraq (as the lands of Mesopotamia were known even then). Aside from a few dabs of local color—an evocation of a desert sunset, a stray reference to the disorientations of the Orient—Christie gives short shrift to her Near Eastern setting. (Which is too bad, since she has a knack for such atmospherics that critics have never given her enough credit for.) Within the mud-brick walls of the Leidner dig compound, there flourishes a tight little society that might as well be in Sussex, complete with the local equivalent of a lord and lady of the manor who incite secret desires and resentments in all who surround them. Poirot capably picks through all of that emotional debris, brushes away the dust that clings to it, and espies a hitherto-buried pattern that explains the who, the how, the when, and the why of Louisa’s violent death. Yet again, Christie manipulates locations, time frames, and alibis in a way that renders plausible, or indeed inevitable, a solution that had earlier seemed impossible. To tell the tale, she employs the voice of a nurse named Amy Leatheran, an all-too-reliable narrator who can be relied on to treat both the fact of murder and the “mysterious East” in a comically stolid manner.
AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).