While Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is a classic example of a detective novel, in many ways it also subverts expectations about the genre. This is because the detective, Hercule Poirot, is not only an expert investigator but also an expert on detective fiction. Many aspects of the novel follow the conventions of a detective novel, where realism is less important than weaving a compelling mystery. There are elaborately planned crimes, an improbably high body count, and other unrealistic elements commonly seen in the detective genre. At the same time, however, many of the characters—and especially Poirot—are familiar with the tropes of older detective fiction, with the murderer even trying to mislead Poirot by writing the letter J in the victim’s blood. (The cliché of a dying victim leaving a clue about their killer dates back to the 19th century, and Christie herself had used it some of her other books.) Ultimately, detective fiction is a genre built around carefully orchestrated surprises, and in Death on the Nile, Christie subverts some expectations while fulfilling others in order to keep her audience guessing about what the final outcome will be, while still delivering the thrills of a traditional mystery story.
One of the most unusual aspects of Death on the Nile is that, unlike most whodunnits, where the murder happens near the beginning, the main murder in Death on the Nile doesn’t happen until approximately midway through the story. This allows Christie to build suspense not just about the identity of the murderer, but also about the identity of the victim (or, as it turns out, victims). The title of the novel plays an important role in setting the audience’s expectations. Because the title specifically mentions being on the Nile, it is unlikely that there will be any deaths in the earliest parts of the book, set in England, the United States, and Egypt’s Cataract Hotel. The title signals that the beginning of the book is all set-up—which puts a special exciting emphasis on all of the character’s interactions, as every single word or gesture might be a key clue.
Christie also subverts expectations in the novel in a second unique way: by not subverting expectations. Christie hints strongly from the very start of the novel that Linnet will be involved in the central crime. In the first chapter of the book, Joanna Southwood comments to Linnet “What a lot of enemies you must make, Linnet.” While the comment is partly a joke, later events make it clear that Linnet does indeed attract enemies. Furthermore, it’s clear that Linnet is important since almost every other character either knows her or knows of her. When Linnet becomes the main murder victim, it isn’t a twist—it’s something the whole first half of the novel has been building toward. And yet because the whole novel has been building to this point, and because it is an Agatha Christie mystery, that Linnet actually turned out to be the murder victim feels like a surprise precisely because it isn’t one. Even as Christie heavily foreshadows that Linnet will be a murder victim, she also springs surprises on the reader: the deaths of Louise and Mrs. Otterbourne are totally unexpected. In this way, while she subverts the expectations of a mystery by playing some things straight, she lives up to the expectations of a mystery by including unexpected twists. It is as if Christie is showing off her expertise and sense of humor: she’s tricky when she’s straightforward, and conventional when she’s being tricky.
While Christie plays with the conventions of the mystery, she has her characters show themselves to be experts in those same conventions. Meanwhile, Christie also assumes that the reader is well-versed in those conventions, and then uses the reader’s knowledge to play further tricks. When a J is found near Linnet’s body after the murder, Christie uses Poirot to immediately dispense with the least interesting possibility: that the J was written by Linnet herself to indicate the identity of her murderer. In a typical whodunnit, the J might initially be seen as a clue pointing to Jacqueline, only to be revealed near the end that the J meant something else (perhaps there was another character whose name secretly began with J, or the J was the start of another message she didn’t finish). By trusting her audience to already be familiar with this most obvious solution to the mystery, Christie takes the mystery to the next level. She forces Poirot and the reader to grapple with the question of what to think if they knew the J was deliberately planted as a false clue. Because Christie has dispensed with the most obvious scenarios, it is harder for a reader to guess what the significance of the J really is.
By the time Christie wrote Death on the Nile, both she and Hercule Poirot were already famous, and readers came to new novels with expectations set by the previous ones. Mysteries, and particularly whodunnits, are a formulaic genre—this is part of the appeal. Still, they are also a genre built on the carefully orchestrated reveal of surprises. By playing with the conventions of genre, Christie found a way to write a story that was both familiar and surprising at the same time.
Deception and Genre Expectations ThemeTracker
Deception and Genre Expectations Quotes in Death on the Nile
“No, Madame.” His tone was firm. “I will not accept a commission from you. I will do what I can in the interests of humanity.”
“My dear Monsieur Poirot—how can I put it? It’s like the moon when the sun comes out. You don’t know it’s there anymore. When once I’d met Linnet—Jackie didn’t exist.”
Simon’s eyes were open. They too held contentment. What a fool he’d been to be rattled that first night . . . There was nothing to be rattled about. . . Everything was all right . . . After all, one could trust Jackie—
There was a shout-people running towards him waving their arms-shouting. . . .
Simon stared stupidly for a moment. Then he sprang to his feet and dragged Linnet with him.
Not a minute too soon. A big boulder hurtling down the cliff crashed past them. If Linnet had remained where she was she would have been crushed to atoms.
“A telegram for me.”
She snatched it off the board and tore it open.
“Why—I don’t understand—potatoes, beetroots—what does it mean, Simon?"
Simon was just coming to look over her shoulder when a furious voice said: “Excuse me, that telegram is for me,” and Signor Richetti snatched it rudely from her hand, fixing her with a furious glare as he did so.
Hercule Poirot was just wiping the lather from his freshly shaved face when there was a quick tap on the door, and hard on top of it Colonel Race entered unceremoniously. He closed the door behind him.
He said: “Your instinct was quite correct. It’s happened.”
Poirot straightened up and asked sharply: “What has happened?”
“Linnet Doyle’s dead—shot through the head last night.”
Hercule Poirot nodded his head.
“You did not look. But I, I have the eyes which notice, and there were no pearls on the table beside the bed this morning.”
Finally he turned his attention to the washstand. There were various creams, powders, face lotions. But the only thing that seemed to interest Poirot were two little bottles labelled Nailex. He picked them up at last and brought them to the dressing table. One, which bore the inscription Nailex Rose, was empty but for a drop or two of dark red fluid at the bottom. The other, the same size, but labelled Nailex Cardinal, was nearly full. Poirot uncorked first the empty, then the full one, and sniffed them both delicately.
The body of the dead woman, who in life had been Louise Bourget, lay on the floor of her cabin. The two men bent over it.
Race straightened himself first.
“Been dead close on an hour, I should say. We’ll get Bessner on to it. Stabbed to the heart. Death pretty well instantaneous, I should imagine. She doesn’t look pretty, does she?”
Poirot shook his head with a slight shudder.
The dark feline face was convulsed, as though with surprise and fury, the lips drawn back from the teeth.
Poirot bent again gently and picked up the right hand. Something just showed within the fingers. He detached it and held it out to Race, a little sliver of flimsy paper coloured a pale mauvish pink.
“You see what it is?”
“Money,” said Race.
“The corner of a thousand-franc note, I fancy.”
Mrs. Otterbourne continued: “The arrangement was that I should go round to the stern on the deck below this, and there I should find the man waiting for me. As I went along the deck a cabin door opened and somebody looked out. It was this girl-Louise Bourget, or whatever her name is. She seemed to be expecting someone. When she saw it was me, she looked disappointed and went abruptly inside again. I didn’t think anything of it, of course. I went along just as I had said I would and got the-the stuff from the man. I paid him and-er-just had a word with him. Then I started back. Just as I came around the corner I saw someone knock on the maid’s door and go into the cabin.”
Race said, “And that person was—?"
The noise of the explosion filled the cabin. There was an acrid sour smell of smoke. Mrs. Otterbourne turned slowly sideways, as though in supreme inquiry, then her body slumped forward and she fell to the ground with a crash. From just behind her ear the blood flowed from a round neat hole.
“That was an accident. I swear it was an accident!” The man leant forward, his face working, his eyes terrified. “I stumbled and fell against it. I swear it was an accident. . . .”
The two men said nothing.
Pennington suddenly pulled himself together. He was still a wreck of a man, but his fighting spirit had returned in a certain measure. He moved towards the door.
“You can’t pin that on me, gentlemen. It was an accident. And it wasn’t I who shot her. D’you hear? You can’t pin that on me either—and you never will.”
He went out.
“Well, sir, where do we go from here? I admit taking the pearls from Linnet’s cabin and you’ll find them just where you say they are. I’m guilty all right. But as far as Miss Southwood is concerned, I’m not admitting anything. You’ve no evidence whatever against her. How I got hold of the fake necklace is my own business.”
Poirot murmured: “A very correct attitude.”
Poirot was silent. But it was not a modest silence. His eyes seemed to be saying: “You are wrong. They didn’t allow for Hercule Poirot.”
Aloud he said, “And now, Doctor we will go and have a word with your patient.”
“Yes,” she said “it’s rather horrible isn’t it? I can’t believe that I—did that! I know now what you meant by opening your heart to evil . . . You know pretty well how it happened. Louise made it clear to Simon that she knew. Simon got you to bring me to him. As soon as we were alone together he told me what had happened. He told me what I’d got to do. I wasn’t even horrified. I was so afraid—so deadly afraid . . . That’s what murder does to you. Simon and I were safe—quite safe—except for this miserable blackmailing French girl. I took her all the money we could get hold of. I pretended to grovel. And then, when she was counting the money, I—did it! It was quite easy. That’s what’s so horribly, horribly frightening about it . . . It’s so terribly easy. . . .”
Lastly the body of Linnet Doyle was brought ashore, and all over the world wires began to hum, telling the public that Linnet Doyle, who had been Linnet Ridgeway, the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy Linnet Doyle was dead.
Sir George Wode read about it in his London club, and Sterndale Rockford in New York, and Joanna Southwood in Switzerland, and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed instead who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.