Rating: Three out of five
Year of Publication: 1938
Motive for Murder: Identity
Sarah King is in for a great surprise when she sees Raymond Boynton again in Petra. In Jerusalem they met, but then he seemed to ignore her friendly gestures. Despite her being upset to his attitude, she began to realise what had made him behave in such a way.
Meanwhile, on his first night in the ancient city of Palestine Hercule Poirot heard words uttered by unseen lips: ‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
To Dr. Gerard’s mind the Boyntons are definitely peculiar. The old Mrs. Boynton is always surrounded by her grown-up stepchildren and daughter. Never will they dare to move away from her side. They also obey to what she says at any time.
When she is found dead in her chair on their second night in Petra, it seems to bring a great relief to everyone. But for Dr. Gerard, the circumstances could have been dismissed due to a natural cause – her suffering from the heart attack. His suspicion comes after the disappearance of his hypodermic syringe and a large quantity of digitoxin from his medicine chest on the day of the murder.
As the deceased’s body is then brought to Amman, the curious fact interests Colonel Canbury, who is in charge of the local authority. He appeals to his guest, the Belgian sleuth, to look into the case.
No sooner has he made out Raymond Boynton than he understands that the words the other say and is overheard is neither part of a detective plot nor a play.
First of all, what caught my mind straightaway is the setting in Palestine and Jordan. Surely, the choice of places comes from Christie’s travelling to the East as a companion to her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan in the thirties.
I can’t help feel ‘twisted’ by the setting, for the two countries nowadays are segregated by many checkpoints, conflicts and the Israel settlements. It was strange to understand that there had been a period of time when vigorous checks and controls were inapplicable and the political turmoil in Europe in the late thirties did not seem to touch the lives in the Middle East (except for the Beduin guide’s lashing out on Jews).
Secondly, crimes start to follow Poirot on his holidays. I wonder if this book is the first of its kind, as I have read other books, which are published later (Evil Under The Sun, 1940 and The Labours of Hercules, 1947).
The opening is brilliant in which a brother and sister contemplate on the murder of their tyrant stepmother. As it grips readers from the very beginning, the conversations between Sarah King and Dr. Gerard about the Boyntons further on is a bit off-putting (despite their interesting remarks on the family). Personally the psychoanalysis at length does not interest me much but the ‘showing, not telling’ principle Christie usually had in other books.
Although it is done in the spirit of giving readers hints regarding the motive for Mrs. Boynton’s death. It matters less that the family is the U.S. citizens, for the more important thing is the frightening aura of the deceased and its impacts to the individuals concerned. Except for the courageous Nadine Boynton (see The Most Fascinating Character). Whilst the rest is afraid of breaking away from the old woman’s dominance, Nadine remains unchanged. She dislikes her mother-in-law and tries to persuade her husband to run away from the house.
Thirdly, the above description leads to what fascinates me most about the suspects. In my views they are all have the Stockholm Syndrome; a dependency to their ’captor’ emanated from years of manipulation and domination. Consequently each of them are scared, imprisoned by their fears to the tough challenges in the outside world.
Furthermore, it is extremely interesting from outsiders’ point of views: what harm can be for a disabled woman, who is unable to move a lot due to her weight and has a heart problem? Physically weak she might seem, it is the strength in her mind that others toe the lines to whatever she wants them to be. More significantly, she curbs their freedom by making them financially dependent to her despite the money was their father’s.
What lingers in my mind is the deceased’s profile. Just as Aristide Leonides (Crooked House), Mrs. Boynton’s characters are discussed a great deal by the suspects. The descriptions mostly concern with both persons’s powerful personalities and fewer are the details of their movements and belongings. That reminds me also to Louise Leidner (Murder In Mesopotamia) and the old Mrs. Inglethorp (The Mysterious Affair At Styles).
What is most intriguing about Mrs. Boynton is her similarities in character to the late Queen Victoria. First and foremost, the queen’s nine children did not leave her mother’s side. She used her power as the queen to restrain her children’s movements and aspirations. Her insisting wearing black for many years meant her children must follow suit. As a result they were deeply unhappy and their respective minds were imprisoned. My wondering is: how did the authoress obtain the accurate descriptions of the late queen? Bear in mind that over seventy years ago the society still frowned at people who spoke ill of the dead, let alone the ‘great Queen’ (see Clues).
This shadow from the late Victorian era may be the strongest of all, for Christie tend to apply a stroke of brush about Victorian values.
Back to the overwhelming analysis about the state of minds of the Boyntons, it is safe to say that the two characters with suitable backgrounds – one a fresh graduate in medicine and the other is a prominent psychiatrist- can be opted out from the suspects’ list. I wonder in which book of hers that a psychiatrist is a murderer.
Apart from the lengthy psychology, the book on the whole deserves applauds for its deliberation on the family dynamics. It is a well-crafted crime novel; yet I feel somehow that the pace is unsuitable for a murder investigation. A few days only to reveal the murderer based on the calculated risk on the part of Poirot himself. Too soon to be true?
What do you think?
– Mrs. Boynton allows her family to go for a walk without her around Petra (she stays in her cave)
– Dr. Gerard’s hypodermic syringe goes missing
– Raymond Boynton says that he talked to Mrs. Boynton at ten minutes to six
– Mrs. Boynton’s answer to Lady Westholme’s and Miss Pierce’s calling at a quarter to four is a grunt
– Mrs. Boynton is noticed by Miss Pierce to have been angry to an Arab servant who came up to her beforehand
– Nadine Boynton tells her husband that she is leaving him a few hours before Mrs. Boynton’s death
– -Lady Westholme is killed in a gun accident in her tent
The Most Fascinating Character: Nadine Boynton
She is the quiet and sensible wife of Lennox Boynton’s, the eldest son. She is the only person who is willing to stand up to the tyrant regime of Mrs. Boynton’s and does not seem to be affected by her oppressive attitude to others.
She met her husband while she was training as a nurse; her being sent to the family then to look after the youngest, Ginevra. Although Nadine loves her husband, her marriage has not been a happy one due to the unhealthy atmosphere in the house and her mother-in-law’s ruthlessness.
To Dr. Gerard’s mind, Nadine’s personality is ‘interesting’. In his conversation to Jefferson Cope it is apparent that Cope loves Nadine and she has been made aware of that. Indifferent, she is more concerned with the wellbeing of Lennox’s rather than her own happiness. To Dr. Gerard Cope sums up his feelings: ‘My idea is to be right here at hand if she (Nadine) needs me.’
It is fascinating the way she copes to live under such condition for a number of years. She is a rock that her mother-in-law cannot penetrate and a refuge to Lennox and his siblings. I believe she holds the family’s sanity.
She starts to change during the family’s first holiday abroad. The travelling seems to open up her mind to possibilities. Then she begs Lennox to leave the family, running away from them (see Clues) while there is a presence of another man who is ready to ‘rescue’ her at any time.
Her interview with Poirot concerning the circumstances of the death is worthwhile to look at. Her judgment is surprisingly fresh as it shows readers about a scrupulous mind. She does not beat around the bush with Poirot, having understood who he really is and his method of work.
‘M. Poirot, I did not kill my mother-in-law. That you know! She was alive and well when I left her. There are many people who can testify to that! Therefore, being innocent of the crime, I can venture to appeal to you. Why must you mix yourself up in this business? If I swear to you on my honour that justice and only justice has been done, will you not abandon this inquiry? There has been so much suffering – you do not know. Now that at last there is peace and the possibility of happiness, must you destroy it all?
In the afternoon prior to her mother-in-law’s passing, she told her husband that she was going to leave him for Mr. Cope. She told him after she went up to the old woman telling her intention.
Would Nadine continue with her plan?
Cast of Characters:
People in a tour to Petra:
- The Boyntons (An American family):
Mrs. Boynton (stepmother, an ex-wardress in prison)
Ginevra (the youngest in the family – Mrs. Boynton’s daughter)
Nadine (Lennox’s wife)
Miss Amabel Pierce (English woman, an ex-governess)
Jefferson Cope (American, the Boyntons’s family friend)
Sarah King (English, just graduated from Medical Faculty)
Dr. Theodore Gerard (a prominent French pychiarist)
Lady Westholme (previously a Mrs. Vansittart, an English M.P., who is on the same tour trip to Petra)
Colonel Carbury (the authority in Amman with whom Poirot is staying)
Hercule Poirot (on holiday in Jerusalem and Petra)
Mrs. Boynton [to nobody in particular, looking beyond Sarah King who was talking to her before]
‘I never forget. Remember that. I’ve never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face…’
Dr. Gerrard [to Sarah King]
‘….There is some deep underlying compulsion. She (Mrs. Boynton) does not love tyranny because she has been a wardress. Let us rather say that she became a wardress because she loved tyranny. In my theory it was a secret desire for power over other human beings that led her to adopt that profession.’
‘There are such strange things buried down in the unconscious. A lust for power – a lust for cruelty- as savage desire to tear and rend-all the inheritance of our past racial memories… They are all there, Miss King, all the cruelty and savagery and lust…We shut the door on them and deny them conscious life, but sometimes – they are too strong.’
Nadine Boynton [to her husband, Lennox Boynton]:
‘No, I’m sane. Absolutely and completely sane. I want a life of my own with you, in the sunshine – no stifled in the shadow of an old woman who is a tyrant and delights in making you unhappy.’
Raymond Boynton [to Sarah King]:
‘I’m going back now. No, not with you. I want to go back by myself. There’s something to say and do. Once that’s done, once I’ve proved to myself that I’m not a coward-then-then-I shan’t be ashamed to come to you and ask you to help me…’
Sarah King [to Mrs. Boynton]:
‘You’ve tried to prevent your son and daughter making friends with me. Don’t you think, really, that that is all very silly and childish? You like to make yourself out of ogre, but really, you know, you’re just pathetic and rather ludicruous. If I were you I’d give up all this silly play-acting. I expect you’ll hate me for saying this, but I mean it- and some of it may stick. You know you could have a lot of fun still. It’s really much better to be- friendly- and kind. You could be if you tried.’
Lady Westholme [to Hercule Poirot]:
‘One of the Bedouin servants attached to the camp. He went up to her- I think she must have sent him to fetch her something, and I suppose he brought the wrong thing- I don’t really know what it was- but she was angry about it. The poor man slunk away as fast as he could, and she shook her stick at him and called out.’
‘He [the Arab] was a man of more than average height and wore the usual native head-dress. He had on a pair of very torn and patched breeches-really disgraceful they were- and his puttess were wound most untidily- all anyhow! These men need discipline.’