Notes On Murder In Mesopotamia

Rating: 4.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1936

Motive for Murder: Hatred

Plot: At Tell Yamrijah, Louise Lerdner is in fear for her life after a series of incidents at the expedition house. She lives there with her archaeologist husband, with whom his team are unearthing an Assyrian city. Dr. Eric Leidner perceives the incidents simply are Louise’s hallucinations.

Opinions of her are divided among the seven people in the team. On the one hand she seems to get along with them. On the other, allegations are made that tensions and jealousy between them are caused by her.

Then she is murdered and everyone is a suspect.  It turns out that each of them has a motive. Meanwhile, the murderer is ready to strike again.

 

Oh, what can ail thee knight-at-arms, lonely and pale loitering?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John William Waterhouse, 1893. It was inspired by John Keats’s ballad with the same title.

 

Highlights:

It is Christie’s first crime set in the Middle East, inspired by journeys she undertook with her husband Max Mallowan to Syria in the thirties (and afterwards Death On The Nile and Death Comes As The End, published respectively in 1937 and in 1944). It is highly probable that she was writing the former during her three months’ living on the site; much of her experience is told in her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946).

I imagine her hand moving swiftly over the paper as she was sitting at her desk in the simmering heat before sunset, drafting the circumstances surrounding the killing of Louise Leidner. The case is told from Nurse Amy Leatheran’s viewpoint, of whom she was assigned to attend her a few weeks before Louise’s death. I am intrigued by the endorsement of a Dr. Giles Reilly at the beginning, which may tell readers a thing or two about the formality and hierarchy between a nurse and a doctor.

A guern – the deadly weapon for Louise Leidner.

Just like her protagonist Louise Leidner,Agatha Christie Mallowan was the wife of the expedition leader. Her enormous interest in her husband’s work in Chagar Bazar can be understood from her choice of the deadly weapon for murdering Louise (see picture). As is the timing of the killing in the scorching heat of the desert, it is a departure from her usual method of strangulation or poisoning. Her perceptive mind is a marvel, considering the environment she was living at that time. I suppose only a keen observer could utilise God’s nature to their advantage.

Quite a few things in her memoir are used in the book. To begin with, there is a David Emmott who bears similar traits to Mac, the architect she met.  Next, her husband’s annoying habit of asking to cram one or two of his heavy books in among her belongings. This strikes a chord with Leatheran’s description of the ‘simplicity of Mrs. Leidner’s items’ in her room. Likewise, Mrs. Mallowan seems to have only brought the essential things for herself. Be that as it may, it is interesting to realise that there should be books found among Louise’s effects; some of them are Linda Condon, Back to Methuselah and the Life of Lady Henlen Stanhope.

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839); a courageous traveller to the East.

Arguably, Louise Leidner is loosely based on Christie. Nonetheless, apart from the aforementioned facts, it is hard to conjure the image of John Keats’s  La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Christie.

In fact, it is the impression Leatheran has after meeting with Mrs. Leidner. ‘I saw that the Belle Dame sans Merci was Mrs. Leidner and she was leaning sideways on a horse with an embroidery of flowers in her hands- and then the horse stumbled and everywhere there were bones coated in wax, and I woke up all goose-flesh and shivering…’

Doubtless that Leatheran is a nurse owing to Christie’s being a VAD (Voluntary Aid  Detachments) in the First World War. She is different than other nurse characters in Christie’s novels nevertheless, eg. Celia Austin in Hickory Dickory Dock (see the Notes).  First and foremost, Leatheran is a reliable voice. Her passionate character is revealed at the beginning through a letter she has written to her colleague back in England. Her lively sentences describe succinctly about the people and the atmosphere in Syria.

What  interests me is the feminine touch in Leatheran’s accounts as she delivers her judgment on each minor character. Superficially she is articulate but polite. Her thoughts are quite the opposite, particularly regarding the women, for her choice of words is far from delicate. By this I mean her using words such as ‘coloured people’ for the Arabs (quite politically incorrect nowadays) and ‘a touch of tarbush’ for Mrs. Mercado .

Yet she seems to meet her match in Hercule Poirot. Suddenly she becomes vigilant and careful about assisting a ‘foreigner; a rather xenophobic attitude on her part. To this the sleuth broaches the subject straightaway. ‘You disapprove me, ma souer? Remember, the pudding proves itself only when you eat it.’

The dynamics in their relationship are the backbone of the plot. Poirot treats her with care; he reminds her of the danger of speaking her views out loud in front of others. Moreover, when the shock of the second murder renders her speechless, Papa Poirot calls the beleaguered woman ‘mon enfant’ instead of his usual ma soeur.

In return, her respect for the ‘egg-shaped head little man’ develops and later approves him entirely as someone who knows his job extremely well. In the end, she is fascinated by his quoting ‘Bismillahi ar Rahman ar Rahim’ as he gathers all the suspects in a room for the denouement. In the name of Allah, the (Most) Compassionate, the (Most) Merciful (quoted as ‘the Arab phrase used before starting out on a journey’).  It is likely to bethe moment when she begins to change as a person; her increased appreciation of the local culture from a mere outsider – just as  Louise Leidner who is said to ‘like Arabs very much and she appreciates their simplicity and their sense of humour.’ Personally, this summing up of the two is my favourite.

What I like  least is the murderer’s character. He is certainly cunning and smart and plots the killing with painstaking details. As Poirot points out, there is no proof of his doing it.  It is the hatred and love on the part of the murderer that has killed Louise Leidner. Can someone love and end the life of a person?  Be that as it may, the murderer masks his personality well – t0 everyone but the sleuth. As a cold-blooded killer, it does not seem to have bothered him that Mrs. Leidner used to fall for another man.

What is more, I wonder that a brainy woman like Mrs.Leidner can be deceived. She is a kind of woman who let his first husband being captured, having reported him as a German spy. Surely, she would have backed it up with enough evidence. And therefore I am fascinated that she was unable to have recognised a face after many years.   Although they had lived in the same house and met one another on a regular basis.

 

The Twists:

–          An anonymous letter for Louise Leidner is received by hand   

–          Dr. Leidner’s remark to Amy Leatheran (right after his wife’s death) : ‘I let her go to her death…Yes, I let her go to her death- not believing-…’

–          Louise Leidner’s faint cry is heard by Miss Johnson

–          Miss Johnson’s words to Amy Leatheran: ‘I’ve seen how someone could come in from outside – and no one would ever guess.’

–          The discovery of a terrifying mask in the cupboard in antika room

–          The absence of wax in a gold cup observed by Poirot, having been mentioned in passing by the nurse

–           Father Lavigny disappears

 

Cast of Characters:

Amy Leatheran (a nurse to Louise Leidner, the narrator of the case)

Carl Reiter (the photographer)

David Emmott (Dr. Leidner’s assistant)

Dr. Eric Leidner (the prominent archaeologist, the head of a large American dig)

Dr. Giles Reilly ( a doctor stationed at Hassanieh, the nearest city to Tell Yamrijah)

Hercule Poirot

Miss Johnson (Dr. Leidner’s assistant)

Dr. Joseph Mercado (a fellow archaeologist)

Mrs. Kelsey (Amy’s previous employer before agreeing to work for Dr. Leidner)

Father Lavigny (an expert in   script)

Louise Lerdner (Eric’s wife)

Captain Maitland (a local British army)

Mrs.Mercado  (Dr. Joseph’s wife)

Richard Carey (the architect and Dr. Leidner’s friend)

Sheila Reilly (Dr. Giles’s daughter)

William Coleman (Dr. Leidner’s other assistant)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Sheila Reilly

The daughter of Giles Reilly, M.D. is an attractive young woman with a sharp tongue, who  knows the people in Dr. Leidner’s team well. She dislikes Mrs. Leidner and Mrs. Mercado and makes her strong remarks on them. Nonetheless, from her readers learn about the other man in Mrs. Leidner’s life and the details of their rendevouz.

Presumably her mother died when she was little and her father has brought her up alone. Her age is not exact but concluded from Amy Leatheran’s description of her: ’…. I had a probationer under me once- a girl who worked well, I’ll admit, but whose manner always riled me.’

What is fascinating is Reilly’s jealousy of Louise Leidner. She seems to regard her as an arch enemy ‘…she was the kind of woman who had to get hold of every male creature within reach.’ Another one: ‘Good God. Aren’t nine people looking after her already enough?’ if anything, Mrs. Leidner’s presence eighteen months before her death seems to be the principal factor of Reilly’s no longer being the centre of attention among the male members of the expedition.

At the beginning of the book, Leatheran has doubts about showing the manuscript to Dr. Reilly, having been aware of some criticism she made towards Sheila.  To which he responds: ‘I soon disposed of that, assuring her that as children criticise their parents freely in print nowadays, parents are only too delighted when their offspring come in for their share of abuse!’ Ah, the difficulty of being a single parent.-

In the end readers will see the chief concern of Sheila’s jealousy of Leidner. I fancy Sheila knows exactly who the other likes very much. Interestingly enough, the young girl even encourages Mrs. Leidner to admit her feelings to the man .

Readers, all end well for Miss Reilly: she finally has found her love.

 

Clues:

About Louise Leidner:

Dr. Giles Reilly: ‘Mrs. Leidner is a very lovely lady. She’s seldom of the same mind about anything two days on end. But on the whole she favours the idea. She’s an odd woman. A mass of affectation and, I should fancy, a champion liar – but Leidner seems honestly to believe that she is scared out of her life by something or other.’

Father Lavigny: ‘Yes, she could be ruthless. I am quite sure of that. And yet- though she is so hard- like stone, like marble- yet she is afraid. What is she afraid of?’

Miss Johnson: ‘She is a very charming woman – and one can quite understand why Dr. Leidner ‘fell for her’- to use a slang term. But I can’t help feeling she’s out of place here. She- it unsettles things.’

Mrs. Kelsey: ‘I didn’t say she was quarrelsome. She causes quarrels. Why? Why? Because she’s bored. She’s not an archaeologist, only the wife of one. She’s bored shut away from any excitements and so she provides her own drama. She amuses herself by setting other people by the ears. ‘

Mrs. Mercado: ‘Normal? I should say not. Frightening us to death. One night it was fingers tapping on her window. And then it was a hand without an arm attached. But when it came to a yellow face pressed against the window – and when she rushed to the window there was nothing there – well, I ask you [Amy Leatheran], it is a bit creepy for all of us.’

Sheila Reilly: ‘Of course there’s nothing the matter with her! The woman’s as strong as an ox. “Dear Louise hasn’t slept”. “She’s got black circles under her eyes”. Yes- put there with a blue pencil! Anything to get attention, to have everybody hovering round her, making fuss of her!’

Richard Carey: ‘To be perfectly honest,Mrs. Leidner and I didn’t hit it off particularly well. I don’t mean that we were in any sense of the word enemies, but we were not exactly friends. Mrs. Leidner was, perhaps, a shade jealous of my old friendship with her husband. I, for my part, although I admired her very much and thought she was an extremely attractive woman, was just a shade resentful of her influence over Leidner….’

William Coleman: ‘Matter of fact I didn’t like Mrs. L any too much at first. She used to jump down my throat every time I opened my mouth. But I’ve begun to understand her better now. She’s one of the kindest women I’ve ever met. You find yourself telling her all the foolish scrapes you ever got into before you know where you are…’

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