Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers: New York
I have, from time to time, reviewed fiction with an archaeological theme that may be out of print, remaindered, published some time in the distant past, or simply a classic in the genre. With an Agatha Christie mystery, one need never fear that it will go out of print and one may rest assured that it is a classic.
Murder in Mesopotamia, first published in 1935, is generally viewed as the novel that resulted from the experiences she had visiting the excavations at Ur of the Chaldees, in modern day Iraq, as a guest of the famous British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Wooley and his wife, Katherine. On her second visit to Ur, in 1930, she met archaeologist, Max Mallowan, an assistant to Wooley, who was to become Christie’s second husband.
The novel itself is vintage Christie. Nurse Amy Leatheran is introduced as the narrator of the “events chronicled” at the archaeological excavation at Tell Yarimjah, not too distant from Kirkuk, in Iraq. Amy had been persuaded some three years earlier to hire on as a nurse companion to Louise Leidner, the highly strung, possibly paranoid, wife of the excavation’s director, Dr. Eric Leidner, a highly regarded Swedish-American archaeologist. Leidner is delighted to hire Amy, believing it will make his wife feel, “safer”—a term Amy finds to be a curious choice. Amy determines quickly that Louise Leidner, while apparently physically healthy, suffers from “nervous terrors,” and displayed signs of possible addictions to drugs or alcohol. Upon establishing herself as a companion who can be trusted, Amy learns from Louise that she is indeed in fear of her life—she claims to have witnessed a leering yellow face at her window in the compound, as well as a disembodied hand and the sound of tapping fingers—and believes the threat comes from her first husband, a man accused and convicted of spying for the German during the Great War, and who thought to have perished in a train wreck in America.
In standard Christie fashion, the reader is then introduced to an array of major characters who comprise the excavation staff—Father Lavigny, the French epigrapher from Carthage, who seems to be quite the expert all had expected; the foppish William Coleman; the dark-visaged, brooding, but handsome historical architect, Richard Carey (who would seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to Max Mallowan!); the somewhat mannish, but dedicated assistant to Dr. Leidner, Miss Johnson; Carl Reiter, photographer and David Emmott, pottery expert—both American; and archaeologist Joseph Mercado and his very young wife, who appears to be dreadfully jealous of Louise Leidner. When Louise is found dead in her room, bludgeoned to death, all of the excavation staff become instant suspects. It is fortunate for all concerned—except for the individual ultimately unveiled as the killer—that Hercule Poirot happens to be passing through the area on his way from Syria to Baghdad, and is able to apply his prodigious “little gray cells” to solving the mystery.
While the archaeological background is important to the overall plot of the murder mystery, it does, in fact, play a somewhat peripheral role in terms of detailed description of the activities at Tell Yarimjah. However, it would seem that Ms. Christie did very likely pattern Louise Leidner after Katherine Wooley, who was by all accounts, a somewhat difficult person. And while Agatha Christie, judging from her personal correspondence and autobiographical writings, loved archaeology and the work she did in Iraq with her husband Max, she cleverly employs her protagonist, Nurse Leatheran, to give a somewhat jaundiced view of the antiquities unearthed at Tell Yarimjah: “I wondered what sort of palaces they had in those days, and if it would be like the pictures I’d seen of Tutankhamen’s tomb furniture. But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high—and that’s all there was to it.”
This is an engaging mystery from the Golden Age, and at least this reviewer could never see himself giving anything but Four Trowels to a work by Dame Agatha!