I. A red Rolls-Royce carrying Linnet Ridgeway, a wealthy American heiress, pulls up in front of a small post office in the English country village of Malton-under-Wode. A local business owner named Mr. Burnaby gossips about her with a friend. Burnaby is excited about the money she’s going to bring into the town, focusing on her renovation plans for the estate of Wode Hall, which she recently bought from the bankrupt Englishman Sir George Wode. Burnaby’s friend sourly comments on the unfairness of Linnet having both money and good looks.
The Rolls-Royce immediately indicates that Linnet is a wealthy character. Though Mr. Burnaby isn’t an important character, he shows up at the beginning and the end of the novel to show how Linnet stirs up local gossip. His friend, who comments jealously about Linnet, voices aloud something that many character throughout the novel think to themselves, but that they never tell Linnet to her face.
II. A gossip column in a local newspaper mentions the arrival of Linnet Ridgeway. It notes that she was seen out and about with Hon. Joanna Southwood and Lord Windlesham. The column speculates that Linnet may soon be engaged, and that Windlesham might be the man.
The gossip column once again reinforces that these characters are upper-class. It also shows how the upper class in England at the time followed strict conventions and cared a lot about how they were perceived in public. Linnet’s marriage is not just a private issue for her but also a public affair.
III. In Linnet’s bedroom at her new estate, she and Joanna Southwood are chatting. At 27 years old, Joanna is seven years older than Linnet, and pales a bit in comparison to the younger woman. She notices Linnet’s pearl necklace, is delighted to learn that it costs $50,000, and then asks if she can borrow it until dinnertime. Linnet says of course. Joanna says she envies Linnet: Linnet is in control of her own life, wealthy, healthy, good-looking, and smart. Joanna then mentions. Linnet’s possible engagement to Charles Windlesham, but Linnet shrugs and says she isn’t ready to marry.
Christie introduces several characters in this first chapter, and it isn’t clear yet who will be important and involved in the main crimes and who is just there to help set up the premise. The emphasis on Linnet’s expensive pearl necklace, wealth, beauty, and good fortune reinforces that class and privilege play an important role in how the novel’s characters judge and relate to one another.
Linnet gets a call from her old friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose family recently lost all their money. She’s coming to visit Linnet that night. Joanna comments that she immediately drops any friend who stops being successful. Linnet is shocked, but Joanna says she’s just being more honest than other people are. She says she’s “on the make, like everyone else.” Linnet retorts that she’s not on the make and adds that Jacqueline has never asked her for anything. She does admit that Jacqueline can be excitable, though, and once used a penknife to stab a man who was mistreating a dog.
Jacqueline de Bellefort is one of the most important characters to the story, and Christie introduces her by showing what other characters think of her—which seems appropriate, given the role that gossip columns and social expectations play in the first chapter. The story about Jacqueline stabbing a man with a penknife could foreshadow that she’ll play a role in the titular “death on the Nile”—but it could also be a red herring (a purposely misleading clue).
Finally, Linnet and Joanna discuss Linnet’s maid, Marie, who has been crying. Linnet notes that she looked into the background of a man the maid wanted to marry and saved her from marrying him because he was already married and had children. Joanna comments that this sort of helpful behavior must make Linnet a lot of enemies. Linnet is surprised and replies, “Why, I haven’t got an enemy in the world.”
Joanna’s comment that Linnet makes herself a lot of enemies is intended as a joke, but it also contains a kernel of truth—it does seem as though Linnet interfered in her maid’s life without being asked. Linnet’s surprise at the comment could indicate that she is naïve or lying to herself—or perhaps a little of both.
IV. Lord Charles Windlesham looks at Wode Hall and admires its “old-world” beauty. Then he imagines it transformed into an Elizabethan mansion, and he sees his own family’s mansion of Charltonbury, and he further imagines Linnet standing in front of the building as his wife. Even though she has already turned his proposal down, he doesn’t consider it a “definite refusal.” He believes he would love her under any circumstances, although he does find it fortunate that she happens to be rich. He dreams of all the things he’d do if he had access to Linnet’s fortune.
The section reveals Windlesham as a pompous, self-involved character who only sees Linnet as a trophy and who believes he’ll always get what he wants—and that he deserves it. Many of the characters in the novel come from a similarly upper-class background, and they, too, are entitled and lack self-awareness. This passage is humorous because it’s clear that Lord Windlesham is deluding himself about Linnet’s feelings for him and about his reasons for loving her. Even his name is funny: “Windlesham” sounds like “Swindle” and “Sham,” again emphasizing the hypocrisy of wealthy Britons like him.
V. At four in the afternoon, Miss Jacqueline de Bellefort arrives at Linnet’s home, when Windlesham is also visiting. Linnet introduces Jacqueline to Windlesham as her “best friend” before he steps aside to let them talk alone. Jacqueline asks Linnet if she’s really going to marry Windlesham, like all the papers say, but Linnet replies that she hasn’t decided yet. Jacqueline says that Linnet always takes her time with big decisions, as if she were a queen. Then Jacqueline says that Linnet really always was like a queen, and she claims the role of “Queen’s confidante” for herself.
The passage establishes the Jacqueline and Linnet’s close friendship. The two of them gossip about Linnet’s love life, going beyond what’s printed in the papers, which suggests Linnet trusts Jacqueline. Jacqueline’s insistence that Linnet is a queen helps establish how much power and wealth she has. Since Jacqueline herself is part of high society, if she sees Linnet as a queen, Linnet must really be even more wealthy and prestigious.
After more talk, Jacqueline reveals that she’s actually come to ask for an important favor. She doesn’t want money. Rather, she reveals that she’s engaged to a country man from Devonshire named Simon Doyle, who has been working at an office job in London for the past five years. Jacqueline says she’s crazy about Simon, that he’s crazy about her, and that she’ll die without him. Because Simon’s so poor, however, Jacqueline wants Linnet to give Simon a job as her land agent to take care of the Wode Hall property. Linnet is mildly taken aback by Jacqueline’s excitement, but seems happy for her, and agrees to at least see Simon. Jacqueline hugs Linnet and promises to bring Simon the next day.
Simon’s identity as a fairly unremarkable office worker is important. Though he’s called a “country man,” he isn’t a farmer or manual laborer. He is, however, too poor to marry Jacqueline, particularly in the high-class, gossip-focused society that she inhabits. Because she feels the need to meet upper-class society’s expectations, Jacqueline proposes a scheme that will help make Simon a more suitable match.
VI. M. Gaston Blondin, owner of the famous restaurant Chez Ma Tante, avoids mingling with guests unless they’re truly rich and famous. It may seem surprising that he pays such attention to a small man with a large mustache: the detective Hercule Poirot, who once helped Blondin by solving a crime that could have caused problems. Poirot regretfully tells Blondin that he is not currently at work on a case and that, as a “man of leisure,” he is planning a winter vacation in Egypt. He hopes to travel there by land because sea travel doesn’t agree with him.
Hercule Poirot is introduced as a Belgian man eating at a French restaurant in London, which shows that he is worldly and cosmopolitan. He is introduced as a famous person, which was true both in fiction and in the real world—Poirot had already appeared in several Agatha Christie novels by this point, including the famous Murder on the Orient Express. His mention of a vacation in Egypt is a sign that he will eventually be involved in solving this novel’s titular death on the Nile.
An orchestra of “Negros” begins to play upbeat music. Poirot observes a diverse assortment of people of all shapes and sizes around him, finding particular interest in a young dancing couple. He notes that the girl in the couple “cares too much” and that this can’t be safe. Then he hears them mention Egypt. The girl has “soft-sounding foreign R’s,” while the man has an upper-class English accent.
This is the first mention of Black characters in the story, and Christie generally never moves beyond stereotypes when portraying them. Here, they’re referred to as “negros,” which was a common term at the time but is widely considered outdated and offensive today. That they’re playing music reflects the fact that some Black musicians (including many American jazz legends) were able to find success in Europe because of different racial attitudes, although often they faced different prejudices.
The girl tells the man that Linnet won’t let them down, and she calls her partner Simon. Simon agrees that the job is perfect for him and promises not to let the girl down. Then they plan that after waiting three months to make sure Simon doesn’t get fired, they’ll get married and honeymoon in Egypt. Simon says it will be marvelous, but the girl suddenly wonders if Simon will love it as much as she will, if he loves her as much as she loves him. Simon says she is being absurd, but the girl—and Poirot—wonder.
Poirot’s presence at this particular restaurant with Simon and the girl (who’s implied to be Jacqueline) is extremely coincidental—a hallmark of mystery novels. The book intentionally leaves the conversation between Simon and Jacqueline as somewhat vague—it will take on different meanings in the story as more information comes to light.
VII. Later, Joanna and Linnet gossip about Jacqueline’s engagement to Simon. Joanna suggests Simon must be “a terrible tough,” but Linnet says she trusts Joanna’s judgment. Joanna replies, “Ah, but people don’t run true to form in love affairs.” Linnet just shakes her head and changes the subject to mention that she’s tearing down some old cottages that would’ve interfered with the view from her swimming pool. She adds that the current residents of the cottages—even those who don’t want to move—will get better living conditions out of the deal. Joanna calls Linnet a tyrant (albeit a “beneficent” one) capable of getting whatever she wants with either her money or her charm, and she wonders what will happen if Linnet ever gets it into her mind to go the wrong way down a one-way street.
This passage introduces the idea that people act differently because of love. While Joanna is nice to Linnet and tolerates what she says, this makes it clear that Linnet isn’t the selfless person she seems to think she is. She cleared out a bunch of families’ homes for the sole purpose of giving herself a better view from her swimming pool, though she claims that this was for their own benefit. Joanna’s thoughts hint that Linnet’s influence over people could become more sinister if left unchecked.
Windlesham comes back, interrupting the conversation. Once Joanna leaves, he gets right to business: he asks Linnet if she’s come to a decision regarding his proposal. She says that if she’s not sure, she guesses she should say no, so he encourages her to take more time before giving a definitive answer. Linnet says she’s been enjoying herself making Wode Hall into her idea of a perfect country home. They then talk about his home in Charltonbury, which his ancestors have owned since the Elizabethan era. Though Linnet agrees she likes the place, she resents his mentioning of it for some reason she isn’t able to place.
Once again, Windlesham ends up looking like a fool. It is clear from his conversation with Linnet that the two of them aren’t compatible and that they have different goals. Still, he persists in trying to woo her, though the reader knows that he is primarily motivated by Linnet’s fortune rather than genuine love.
Once Windlesham leaves, Linnet realizes that he wouldn’t take Wode Hall seriously, and that Wode wouldn’t matter if she married Windlesham. She’d have to give it up, since Windlesham already has a country place. She realizes, in fact, that if she married Windlesham, she would no longer be “queen” but rather just Windlesham’s “queen consort.”
Perhaps Linnet seriously considers Windlesham’s offer at first, on account of his high standing in society. But by the end of this passage, she has clearly made up her mind against him. Linnet values her independence—although her independence is, perhaps, rooted in her selfishness. Once again, Linnet is compared to a queen, and it is clear that she likes being in a position of authority—and that she has the wealth and influence to hold onto this power, if she chooses.
Linnet thinks about Jacqueline and how in love with Simon she seems to be. Linnet thinks it would be wonderful to be able to feel that way, and she realizes that Windlesham doesn’t stir those sorts of feelings in her. Just then, Jacqueline and Simon arrive. Simon is handsome and looks at Linnet with “naïve genuine admiration.” Linnet feels a warm, intoxicating rush. She decides that she likes Simon “enormously,” greets him as her new land agent, and then has a thought: “Lucky Jackie….”
Linnet is used to getting everything she wants when she wants it—she doesn’t know how to cope with the jealousy she feels when she sees Jacqueline in love with Simon. It seems unfair to her that she should have to settle for Windlesham while Jacqueline experiences a real romance. This jealousy, combined with the way Simon looks at her with “naïve genuine admiration,” is what leads Linnet to suddenly find Simon so charming—not because she genuinely likes him.
VIII. Tim Allerton, a lanky young man with dark hair, and his mother Mrs. Allerton, a “good-looking, white-haired woman of fifty,” are sitting and looking out at the sea. They complain about Majorca, where they are currently vacationing, being cold and cheap. Tim used to be sickly and is supposedly a writer but doesn’t publish anything. Tim reveals to his mother that he’s thinking of going to Egypt. She argues it would be too expensive, especially for them, but Tim says he has a way to take care of the expenses.
That Tim and Mrs. Allerton complain about being on vacation in Majorca characterizes them as spoiled. Mrs. Allerton is the more practical one—Tim seems to have no concern about spending money. His suggestion that he has a way to take care of expenses creates a sense of mystery, though it is too early to determine whether this detail will actually be a significant part of the plot or just an aside.
Tim claims he got a letter from a stockbroker that morning, but Mrs. Allerton knows from the handwriting that the letter is from his cousin Joanna Southwood. Tim finds this amusing and compares her to the famous detective Hercule Poirot. Mrs. Allerton disapproves of Tim and Joanna’s correspondence because she thinks it’s just idle gossip. She also doesn’t like Joanna much. She doesn’t think Tim is in love with Joanna, but Joanna still makes her uncomfortable because the two of them get along so well, and Mrs. Allerton is used to having Tim focus his attention on her.
This section shows how the Allertons are connected to Joanna (and therefore, how they are also connected to Linnet). As with many Agatha Christie novels, the characters are connected by a complex web of relationships—which means that there are many potential motives when a crime is eventually committed. Though Mrs. Allerton is one of the more sympathetic characters in the book thus far, she is fussy, as her disapproval of Joanna illustrates. Though it seems that she’s just afraid of losing Tim’s attention to another person, later chapters will reveal that there may be more to her disapproval.
Tim reveals some of the gossip that Joanna has included in her latest letter. He says Joanna told him that Linnet is going to marry Simon and that Windlesham was so distraught he left for Canada. Mrs. Allerton disapproves. She claims that back in her day, people had standards, but today’s young people just go ahead and do whatever they want. Tim doesn’t disagree. Mrs. Allerton realizes as Tim puts away the letter that he only ever reads her snippets from Joanna’s letters instead of the whole thing, which is what he does for other letters. She pushes the thought aside and pretends she didn’t have it.
Christie builds suspense by withholding information about Jacqueline—there’s no indication of when or why she broke off her engagement with Simon, or how Linnet got engaged to him instead. Tim and Joanna’s relationship, meanwhile, is not as simple as it seems to Mrs. Allerton.
Tim and Mrs. Allerton talk about Joanna’s life. They talk about how she gets extravagant clothes, then just doesn’t pay for them and lives on credit. The conversation turns to Sir George Wode, who ended up in bankruptcy court (and whose old home, Wode Hall, now belongs to Linnet). Mrs. Allerton chastises Tim for not talking about George Wode with more respect—she thinks he is a well-mannered man, despite the “funny stories” about him that Tim has heard. The two of them talk about the bitterness that Wode feels toward Linnet, and how the George refuses to go to his old estate to see what Linnet has done with it. Mrs. Allerton thinks Linnet should have known better than to ask George to visit his old estate, but Tim thinks Linnet did him a favor by paying so much for his old “worm-eaten” home.
Tim and Mrs. Allerton’s conversation about George Wode reveals their different values. Tim is cynical about wealthy people, believing that George Wode is greedy man who likely wasted his fortune on gambling. Mrs. Allerton, however, doesn’t think Tim understand high society’s manners and conventions as well as she does. George Wode’s enmity toward Linnet might seem like something that could be the motivation for a crime later, but at this point in the novel, it isn’t even clear what the central crime of the story will be, let alone who will commit it.
Tim and Mrs. Allerton make more plans about going to Egypt, which they’ve both always wanted to see, and decide January will be the best time to go. They mention Mrs. Leech, who believes that a ring of hers was stolen but who doesn’t speak enough Spanish to report it to the local Mallorcan police. Tim is certain Mrs. Leech actually lost the ring in the ocean and is just going to get some maid in trouble with her report. Mrs. Allerton asks if Tim would prefer if there were more young people around, and particularly if Joanna was there. He bluntly replies that he doesn’t actually like Joanna much, that he’d be fine if he never saw her again, and that one of the only respectable women in the world is Mrs. Allerton herself.
The theft of Mrs. Leech’s jewelry is intended to be suspicious. While it isn’t clear yet if Tim is involved in the crime, it’s clear that he knows something he’s not telling his mother, hence why he’s acting strange. Tim also seems unusually adamant when he insists to his mother that he doesn’t like Joanna, although this may just be because he knows Mrs. Allerton doesn’t approve of her. Like some of the other minor characters, Mrs. Leech’s name is meant to be humorous (Tim suggests that Mrs. Leech’s behavior is selfish and harmful to others, much like a parasitic leech).
IX. In an apartment in New York, Mrs. Robson, a wealthy American woman, discusses the upcoming trip to Europe that her “big clumsy” daughter Cornelia and Cornelia’s much older cousin Miss Marie Van Schuyler are about to take. Cornelia is excited and promises to do whatever Miss Van Schuyler wants. She then goes off to find Miss Bowers (Miss Van Schuyler’s servant) in order to get Miss Van Schuyler some eggnog.
The fact that the book jumps from Majorca to New York again emphasizes that the characters are cosmopolitan people who come from all over the world.
Miss Van Schuyler and Mrs. Robson then discuss how it must embarrass Cornelia that she isn’t a “social success.” Miss Van Schuyler says she’s glad to take Cornelia with her to Europe since Cornelia is “willing to run errands” and is not as self-centered as other young people. As they’re leaving, Mrs. Robson runs into Miss Bowers on the stairs. As they discuss the trip, Mrs. Robson suddenly says she hopes there won’t be any trouble on the trip. Miss Bowers assures her she will make sure of it, but Mrs. Robson still seems a bit concerned.
Miss Van Schuyler is the richest among the women and extremely class-conscious, to the point that she even looks down on her cousin. Cornelia, by contrast, is both less wealthy and less self-assured, making her vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
X. Andrew Pennington reads a letter that makes him slam his fist on his desk in his New York office. Sterndale Rockford, his partner, appears. Pennington reveals the news: Linnet Ridgeway has just been married to Simon Doyle, the very day the letter arrived. They are both surprised because they didn’t get any advance warning. Pennington wonders whether there was something secret about the whole affair.
Like many of the other characters who have been introduced thus far, Pennington is connected to Linnet—though it’s not yet clear who he is or why, exactly, Linnet and Simon’s marriage is important to him. His suspicion hints that the marriage may not be as genuine and loving as it might appear to outsiders.
Pennington and Rockford discuss, obliquely, how Linnet’s marriage will affect them. As they think about ways to respond, they reference other lawyers and traveling to England, before finally deciding that they can best accomplish what they need to do when Linnet is in Egypt for her honeymoon, and they plan to engineer a “chance meeting” with her there. The two of them agree that while Linnet is smart, there may still be ways of “managing it.” Rockford makes the call that Pennington should be the one to go because Linnet likes him. She calls him “Uncle Andrew.” The two agree that the situation is “critical,” and Pennington better be able to pull off their plan.
The conversation between Pennington and Rockford is deliberately ambiguous, but it’s clear that they’re lawyers and that they have some professional stake in watching—and perhaps influencing—what Linnet does. Pennington, at least, will play some role in what happens on the Nile.
XI. William Carmichael, an older man and a senior partner at the law firm Carmichael, Grant & Carmichael, asks for the young man Jim Fanthorp (also a lawyer and Carmichael’s nephew) to be sent in to see him. At Carmichael’s request, Fanthorp flips through some a just-arrived letter from Egypt, and says it looks “fishy” to him. The letter writer comments on it being strange to send a business letter on “such a day,” then describes going to places in Egypt and an upcoming trip on a steamer boat on the Nile. It also mentions a chance encounter with “my American trustee, Andrew Pennington,” who, the sender says, had no idea that the sender of the letter was married and who is on the same trip up the Nile.
This passage deepens the mystery of what’s going with Linnet’s business affairs. The reader learns here that Pennington is Linnet’s trustee, meaning that he likely has control over her estate and finances. At this point, it’s too early to tell who, if anyone, is the hero and who is the villain—the only thing that’s clear is that a lot of other people have a stake in Linnet’s money. This scene also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world at this time (the early 20th century), since news in Egypt quickly makes it back to England.
Carmichael tells Fanthorp he’s already heard all that he needs to hear from the letter. Fanthorp comments that he thinks it is not a coincidence, and Carmichael agrees. Carmichael tells Fanthorp to take a trip to Egypt. He argues Fanthorp is perfect because neither Linnet nor Pennington know him. Fanthorp doesn’t like the idea, but Carmichael insists on it, calling the whole mission “absolutely vital.”
Carmichael and Fanthorp’s conversation, like the American trustees’, is somewhat vague—although it’s clear that important business is at stake. Fanthorp’s reluctance to go may be a sign that he has a conscience—or it might just mean he doesn’t want to get stuck with a difficult job.
XII. Mrs. Otterbourne is on vacation in Jerusalem with her daughter Rosalie. She’s wearing a turban made of “native material” wrapped around her head. Mrs. Otterbourne tries to talk to Rosalie about how she’s so sick of Jerusalem that she just wants to move on to Egypt, but her daughter is too engrossed in a newspaper reproduction about “Mrs. Simon Doyle” (formerly Miss Linnet Ridgeway) and her honeymoon in Egypt.
Turbans are an important part of Jerusalem’s history—thousands of years ago, the High Priest of Israel would wear turbans when serving in the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem. Mrs. Otterbourne’s choice of clothing—a turban, especially one made of “native material”—could thus be read as cultural appropriation (though this term didn’t exist when Agatha Christie was writing), since turbans aren’t a part of Mrs. Otterbourne’s own British culture.
Mrs. Otterbourne continues to complain about their current accommodations, saying both that they should leave and that she’s ready to stay and assert her rights. Rosalie herself feels that “one place is very like another,” but eventually she concedes that they might as well go to Egypt as anywhere. Mrs. Otterbourne agrees that it’s “certainly not a matter of life and death.” On this point, though, the narrator corrects her, saying, “But there she was quite wrong—for a matter of life and death was exactly what it was.”
As with Tim and Mrs. Allerton, Mrs. Otterbourne’s complaints about her vacation characterize her as wealthy and entitled. Rosalie’s feeling that “one place is very like another” suggests that for all the geographic and cultural differences between various countries, the people one meets and the experiences one has in different places may be quite similar. On another note, though Christie’s narrator stays in the background for most of the story, they address the reader directly at the end of the first chapter, reassuring them that despite a relatively low-key introductory chapter, eventually there will be a death on the Nile.