set in Ancient Egypt, 2000 BCE
[The patriarch Imhotep is returning to his family from a trip]
Then, the greetings finished and the surrounding murmur dying down, Imhotep raised his hand for silence and spoke out loud and clear: "My sons and daughters - friends. I have a piece of news for you. For many years, as you all know, I have been a lonely man in one respect. My wife - your mother, Yahmose and Sobek - and my sister - your mother, Ipy - have both gone to Osiris many years ago. So to you, Satipy and Kait, I bring a new sister to share your home. Behold, this is my concubine, Nofret, whom you shall love for my sake. She has come with me from Memphis in the north and will dwell here with you when I go away again."
As he spoke he drew forward a woman by the hand. She stood there beside him, her head flung back, her eyes narrowed, young, arrogant and beautiful.
Renisenb thought with a shock of surprise: "But she's quite young - perhaps not as old as I am."
Nofret stood quite still. There was a faint smile on her lips - it had more derision in it than any anxiety to please. She had very straight black brows and a rich bronze skin, and her eyelashes were so long and thick that one could hardly see her eyes. The family, taken aback, stared in dumb silence.
commentary: There are many books I should be reading, and Christmas preparations I should be making, but blogfriend Christine Poulson very inconsiderately read this book and blogged on it, so that I immediately wanted to re-read it myself – it’s one of the few Christies that I don’t often pick up, but now I had to look at it again.
This was Agatha Christie’s sortie into historical fiction: because of her husband’s profession of archaeologist, and her own great interest in the place and era, she wrote about Egypt. She describes in her wonderful Autobiography how she was encouraged to do so by her great friend the egyptologist Stephen Glanville. She based her setup on
recently-published letters from a Ka priest in the 11th dynasty.
These letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father, fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do what he said; the sons, one obedient but obviously not bright, and the other, sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief.
The old man laid down rules about how they were to do so-and-so with the oil, and so-and-so with the barley. They were not to let this person or that person cheat them over the quality of certain foods. The whole family grew clearer and clearer in my mind. I added a daughter, and some details from one or two other texts–the arrival of a new wife, by whom the father was besotted. I also threw in a spoilt small boy and a greedy but shrewd grandmother.
Any regular reader of Christie can see exactly why this idea appealed to her – the characters, situations and relationships are similar to those found in her books about comfortable (apart from murder) 20th century English families. Robert Barnard, in his always illuminating A Talent To Deceive, says Death Comes as the End is merely Hercule Poirot’s Christmas transferred back in time, and there is something in that. The murder mystery is not her best – there’s almost no-one left to suspect by the final pages – and the heroine Renisenb is childishly passive and rather annoying. But the details of Egyptian life are fascinating, and she obviously did a great deal of research.
Christie says this in the autobiography:
Stephen [Glanville] argued with me a great deal on one point of my denouement, and I am sorry to say that I gave in to him in the end. I was always annoyed with myself for having done so. He had a kind of hypnotic influence about that sort of thing; He was so positive himself that he was right that you couldn’t help having doubts yourself. Up to then, on the whole, though I have given in to people on every subject under the sun, I have never given in to anyone over what I write.
--- I was left absolutely longing to know what exactly had been changed, but I suppose we will never find out…
Do read Chrissie’s review too. I have to forgive her for making me re-read, because in fact it made a nice break from Xmas reading and activities..
The pictures of Egyptian women are from the ever wonderful and generous resource, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.