Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) – Agatha Christie

Title:Murder in Mesopotamia
Author:Agatha Christie
Date published:1936
Publisher:Pan Books
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Agatha Christie often set her novels in places far away from her beloved England, and Murder in Mesopotamia is no exception. In a foreign land our narrator is very vocal regarding her love for home and the comforts that western civilization has clearly not yet brought to Baghdad and the Assyrian city she ends up staying in during her time away. In this Hercule Poirot mystery our narrator is Nurse Amy Leatheran, a woman who is acquired to look after Louise Liedner, the wife of archaeologist Dr. Leidner, who has been oddly diagnosed as suffering from the ‘fancies’ (read: nervous condition).

Outside of Hassanieh a mostly American expedition of archaeologists have set themselves up in a large house in Tell Yarimjah. They are there to do excavations and the house is large and equipped with rooms for antiques, photography, a drawing room, a dining room, and a laboratory, as well as bedrooms for each of the team. When the nurse arrives she gives the reader clear descriptions and accounts of all those working and living there, as well as a rather detailed map of the entire house. It is through her perspective that we feel the intensity between some of the characters, and their overall reaction towards Nurse Leatheran’s sudden appearance which in many ways is somewhat cold and uninviting. Most of this unpleasantness is witnessed during their group meal times as the characters frigidly pass potatoes to one another with a stiffness that is difficult to ignore.

Dr. Liedner is convinced that everyone on the expedition adores his wife, but the nurse in her quest to find out why Louise Liedner has been acting so strangely of late is quick to realize that not everyone is a fan of the doctor’s wife. The house’s inhabitants share stories of Louise noticing ghostly faces in her bedroom window and hearing noises at night that no one else hears. Soon enough gossip surrounding Louise’s first husband and the threatening letters she used to receive following her divorce reach Nurse Leatheran, and she begins to wonder if this is causing the woman’s anxiety, hysteria and erratic behavior.

Among those living at the expedition house is a French priest named Father Lavigny, the English architect Carey who may or may not be having an illicit affair with Louise, a few young archaeologists working for universities named Coleman, Reiter and Emmot, a husband and wife the Mercados and an English woman Miss Johnson. Local Arabs are employed to clean the specimens, to cook and clean, and to guard the compound day and night. {it is worth noting that Nurse Leatheran is a little bit derogatory towards the Arab people and the general and obvious differences between British and Arab ways}

Whilst Leatheran is trying to figure out her patient there is a murder in the house and the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who just so happens to have been in Syria and will be passing through on his way back home is requested at Tell Yarimjah by local policeman Captain Maitland to assist in solving the mystery. Nurse Leatheran and Poirot soon join forces (and make a rather great team mind you) as they begin questioning the inhabitants of the house after it becomes abundantly clear that it may be an ‘inside’ job.

“Murder is a habit…”

Soon enough after realizing that everyone is a suspect in the murder case, another sudden death occurs at Tell Yarimjah, and though it is first believed to be a suicide, Poirot is not convinced…

Something about Louise Liedner and her flirtatious ways coupled with her husband’s devotion and the second victim’s last words are not adding up. It seems someone has gone to great lengths to commit these murders, and literal skeletons from the past are revealing themselves through the one thing that cannot be hidden: human emotion.

Through the eyes of Nurse Leatheran, and the talent of one Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, those who have spent their lives uncovering the dead are now having to consider their own mortality and the way they treat their fellow man. In 1936 Agatha Christie’s protagonist is not favorable towards people of color nor is she tolerant of different cultures, and I think in many ways Nurse Leatheran’s intolerance is the perfect example of a general pattern of behavior that was often overlooked in terms of criticism because it simply was not criticized outside of fictional worlds. Poirot, though often considered difficult is a character that ultimately accepts and adapts to the ever-changing environments and cultures he encounters making him far more likeable than Leatheran, and a master at observing human nature. Murder in Mesopotamia is one of Christie’s darker and more revealing works that is both a murder mystery and a study of the human condition.

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