Notes On Death Comes As The End

Rating: Four out of five

Year of Publication: 1945

Motive for Murder: Hatred

Plot: The West Bank of the Nile, Egypt. 2000 BC. In Imhotep’s household, all is well when he goes away. His elderly mother Esa listens to everything happening in her son’s home; her widow granddaughter has returned home with her young child and her grandsons attend to their father’s orders obligingly.  In the background she hears her granddaughters-in-law continually bicker over small matters.

All is well until a beautiful concubine is brought home from the North. As the reality sinks in, the the three sons now realise to whom the crop profits have gone while their wives learn that they have to live with an enemy in their quarters.

As Imhotep has to return to the North over a crisis, she leaves the woman behind against Elsa’ wish. Then comes the news of the woman’s death; her falling from the Tomb is an accident. Nonetheless, is it an accident too when the eldest son’s wife dies at the same spot? Deaths that follow shock the family; Imhotep is speechless and he becomes weaker. Moreover, he believes that those are the concubine’s revenge from the Underworld but Esa thinks the opposite. For she is convinced that a living human is responsible for the murders. Is she right?

Time is running out as the family is almost wiped out. Who will be the next victim?

Highlights:

Crimes are as old as the human civilisation itself. They may not be recorded but the fact that those occurred exist. Christie understood it well and the result was a story plot which involves family politics in a noble household, supposing a mortuary priest four thousand years ago was highly respected profession. Furthermore, her experience travelling to the Levantine and Irak as her husband’s companion during various expeditions must have inspired the setting in Thebes.

I can imagine the excitement of her readers when she finally wrote crimes with a totally different approach. Such may have been a welcoming change from her usual Devonshire and Dartmoor locations as in her two previous published books Five Little Pigs (1943) and Evil Under The Sun (1941). There was neither police nor a conspiracy theory to invade Britain. A little man with his egg-shaped head and grey cells retires from the scene.  Yet, how was crimes solved before the age of sleuths and constables?

First and foremost, there is the heroine Renisenb as a major character; a naive young widow who returns to her childhood home following her husband’s demise. Still very young and beautiful, she is transformed into a woman who is matured by deaths. It is as if her grief is not enough, for her aim for going back is to find peace and a semblance to normality – not more deaths. After eight years away everything seems the same to her mind.  Or she thought it was as her views are gradually altered by the turns of the events.

To begin with, a handsome Kameni, apparently a distant relative, comes with the priest and Nofret the concubine. The man’s presence tickles Nofret’s memory of her husband and she is later puzzled by her feeling towards him. In the meantime, she sees the change of  dynamics as Nofret settles down in the house, particularly in the women’s quarters. Nofret is expected to be respected but she is as cunning as a fox. Besides, little does the priest’s daughter realise that Nofret hates her out of jealousy.

Next, Henet, the old servant; the one who sees the advantages of siding with Nofret. But for Imhotep everyone wants her to go. She hates Renisenb for no apparent reason.

Interestingly, it takes Satipy’s sharp tongue to set the wheel in motion. Then in his anger to Nofret Sobek, the priest’s middle son, kills a cobra in front of Renisenb’s eyes. A few days later, still reeling from the shock, Renisenb finds Nofret’s body at the Tomb. Satipy meets the same fate afterwards.  At this point her demise seems to fulfil Renisenb’s suspicion that Satipy killed Nofret and died from her guilty feeling. How wrong she was, for after her funeral Sobek is poisoned.

Speechless Renisend might seem to be, it  dawns at her that there is a killer in the midst; someone she thought she had known all her life.

I must applaud Christie’s way of introducing her heroine to the harsh reality of life; gradual but matter-in-fact. As a heroine, Renisenb is rather unreliable and she is unsure about herself.  Halfway readers will see her becoming stronger, smarter and braver. I guess it is deliberate on the authoress’s part having to show her vulnerable side as a young widow and a woman at a crossroads in life. Esa’s guidance and Hori -Imhotep’s right hand man-‘s wisdom play a significant part to get her grip with the tragedies.

The subplots are trickier. There are quite a few scenes created to distract readers from finding the murderer – as Christie usually does. Henet, the wicked servant, has a motive; she feels she has been undermined for many years. Ipy the youngest son is strong and full of rage towards Nofret. Hori appears to be level headed and poised but who knows?

In the story there are some similar subplots of which they are also used in other novels. Take the example of Esa’s gathering all family members is a resemblance to Poirot’s sherry party in Three-Act Tragedy. Then Yahmose’s recovery from poison will jog readers’ memory to Nurse Hopkins’s sick face in Sad Cypress (1940).

What intrigues me is the term “physician” used for a healer. Priest Mersu is summoned to attend Imhotep’s sons after they fell ill. I wonder because as far as I am concerned a “physician” cannot be a priest although it is possible. More significantly, a physician is not likely to embrace supernatural beliefs and will decline to take part in a plan to plea to a dead person to intervene to the world affair. Most importantly, the authoress usually is specific about the type of poison, be it strychnine or morphine and yet there is nothing mentioned about it. These may sound minor points but they bother me all the same.

Concerning the characters, Christie as usual blended well some that readers might come across in other novels. The indomitable Esa could be the shrewd Aunt Ada (By The Pricking Of My Thumb) or Laura Welman(Sad Cypress); Nofret is the scarlet woman in Evil Under The Sun and her icy smile is like Elsa Greer (Five Little Pigs) and Renisenb is a cross between Elinor Carlisle (Sad Cypress) and  Mary Cavendish (Mysterious Affair At Styles).  Imhotep bears traces of Captain Kenneth Marshall’s personality and Hori is Captain Hastings, who is lucky in love.

On the whole, in Death Comes AsThe End Christie is able to strike a good balance between crime and passion, jealousy and hatred as well as sibling rivalries. Is it me or the crime itself is less important than the happiness of a woman?

 The Twists:

–          A slave boy witnessed a woman dressed in a dyed linen dress wearing Nofret’s necklace.

–          The gold necklace was found in Renisenb’s jewellery box.

Cast of Characters:

Esa (Imhotep’s elderly mother)

Henet (a long-standing servant who came with the late wife of Imhotep’s after they were married)

Hori (Imhotep’s right hand man)

Imhotep (the Mortuary Priest, the head of the family)

Ipy (Imhotep’s youngest son)

Kameni (a scribe from the North, a man who loved Renisenb)

Nofret (the concubine)

Renisenb (Imhotep’s only daughter)

Satipy (Yahmose’s wife and Imhotep’s daughter-in-law)

Sobek (Imhotep’s middle son)

Yahmose (Imhotep’s eldest son)

The Most Fascinating Character: Henet

The servant who everybody in the family ignores; least of her ugliness but her tendency to either stir or amplify  matters – many are trivial things- which then lead to arguments and rows. For many years she lives under Imhotep’s protection and hates his children, his mother and his daughters-in-law for different reasons. To him she continually complains about the others.

The only person that can put her back in her place and she is afraid of is none other than Esa the grandmother, for she is forthright and seems to know whatever in Henet’s mind.

As a  minor character, Henet is someone that many can relate to. A woman in the shadow that has great knowledge to her environment. I straightaway associate her with Mrs. O’Brien, the Lady’s maid  in Downtown Abbey series; a woman who creates divisions in the family.  Like Mrs. O’Brien, Henet has no real friend. Both spiteful words bring about misunderstanding and prejudice.  Furthermore, having known the priest’s offspring since they were small, she comes to understand who among them that is most dangerous. Nonetheless, her narrow mindedness prevents her from knowing of the danger it may cause. Later, when Esa tried to help her, Henet thought the other is having another go at her. ‘Be very sure of what you are saying, Henet. Knowledge is dangerous,’ said Esa. Henet should have listened her.

Henet is the choice of the most fascinating character because of her hatred bottled up and also there is little written about her. She came with Renisenb’s late mother after her marriage to Imhotep. Prior to that her husband had left her and her child died at birth. When she meets Nofret, she finally finds a friend in her and vice versa. Nofret is generous to her by giving her a gold necklace and an amethyst clasp among others. Nonetheless, as far as her loyalty is concerned, Henet still sides with the family member. At the end of the day Nofret’s concubine status to her is less than the people who do not think much about her. Amazing.

Above all, she reminds me of Celia Austin (Hickory Dickory Dock). Both possess crucial information without their realising it and have to die as a result.

Clues:

Esa:

‘A tongue, Henet, may sometimes be a weapon. A tongue may cause a death – may cause more than one death, I hope your tongue, Henet, has not caused a death.’

‘That phrase has remained in my mind – something behind – something that wasn’t there. Henet said,” He should have looked at me.” And she went on to speak of Satipy –yes, of Satipy- and of how Satipy was clever, but where Satip now?… ‘Does that mean nothing to any of you? Think of Satipy – Satipy who is dead…And remember one should look at a person – not something that isn’t there….’

Hori: [to Renisenb]

‘I remember when we were all small children – Sobek attacked Yahmose. Yahmose was a year older, but Sobek was the bigger and stronger. He had a stone and he was banging Yahmose’s head with it. Your mother came running and tore them apart. I remember how she stood looking down at Yahmose – and how she cried out: “You must not do things like that, Sobek – it is dangerous! I tell you, it is dangerous!”

Renisenb:

[her exchange of words with Satipy after Nofret died]

‘Satipy,’ said REnisenb. ‘What is the matter? Won’t you tell me? Yahmose is worried about you and- ‘

‘Yahmose?What – what did he say?’

‘He is anxious. You have been calling out in your sleep – ‘

‘Renisenb! Did I say – What did I say? Does Yahmose think – what did he tell you?’

‘We both think that you are ill – or – or unhappy.’

‘Unhappy?’

‘’Are you unhappy, Satipy?’

‘Perhaps…I don’t know. It is not that.’

‘No. You are frightened, aren’t you?’

‘Why should you say that? Why should I be frightened? What is there to frighten me?’

‘I don’t know. But it’s true, isn’t it?’

[to Esa]:

‘Yahmose is dear. He is kind to everybody – and as gentle as a woman – if women are gentle.’

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