Unlike some mystery novels that focus on a single incident, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile almost every character could be implicated in some sort of crime. Some of these crimes—like Tim Allerton’s jewelry thievery with his cousin Joanna, Miss Van Schuyler’s kleptomania, or Signor Richetti’s politically motivated murders—are only tangentially related to the central mystery: the murder of Linnet Doyle. Hercule Poirot (with some help from Colonel Race) takes it upon himself to uncover all of these crimes, not for a paycheck but for what he believes is the general good of humankind. Being a private citizen, however, Poirot does not enforce the law as rigidly as a police officer or judge might. Throughout Death on the Nile, Poirot operates according to a code of justice that doesn’t always fit the letter of the law, which allows Christie to explore how a traditional legal system serves justice—and also how it doesn’t.
Poirot’s status as an independent agent—a famous investigator who is unaffiliated with any police department—is crucial. Because he isn’t paid for his work, his ideas about justice are impartial (at least in Christie’s view), and he is able to consider multiple other characters’ perspectives. Poirot himself often emphasizes his motives. For instance, when Linnet Doyle asks Poirot to help her with an issue—Jacqueline has been stalking her and Simon on their honeymoon—Poirot refuses payment but agrees to speak to Jacqueline anyway. He claims that he is acting “in the interests of humanity.” Though Poirot does speak to Jacqueline, he clarifies to her that he’s not doing it for a commission. Further, Poirot makes clear that he understands her pain, and his goal in talking to Jacqueline is not to accuse or convict her, but to protect her—perhaps from herself.
In contrast to Poirot, Colonel Race’s role in the novel is to represent a traditional justice system—while Christie largely portrays him positively, he also has some notable flaws. When Race is introduced, he is pursuing a wanted murderer in an official capacity—the fact that he is part of a team and that he has access to intelligence suggests that perhaps he is working for a government or some similar organization. (In other Christie novels, he worked for MI-5, the British intelligence agency.) This means his pursuit of justice is more traditional than Poirot’s. Race is mostly a competent and well-intentioned man. He is well-suited for methodical, protocol-driven procedures, like searches and interrogations. It is he, for instance, who finds the murder weapon. But Race’s biggest flaw is that he is always several steps behind Poirot. He is a bureaucrat, with none of Poirot’s creativity or nuanced understanding of human behavior, and it is unclear if he would have been able to solve the murder without Poirot leading the way. Ultimately, Race’s activities in the novel suggest that traditional justice systems can be effective and even well-meaning, but they are limited in both what they can accomplish and in the breadth of their interests beyond punishment.
There are several occasions where Poirot chooses not to act precisely according to the law, and these cases allow Christie to highlight ways in which Poirot can show mercy while solving crimes—a mercy that the law would never show. When Poirot deduces that Tim Allerton is the thief who stole Linnet’s pearls, he doesn’t report the matter to the police. Instead, he allows Tim to return the pearls before they’re missed. Poirot recognizes the budding relationship between Tim and Rosalie and demonstrates a capacity for forgiveness that the law itself doesn’t have—in this way, Christie shows how a strict adherence to the law doesn’t account for the character of the person being punished or allow for growth. More strikingly, Poirot tacitly allows a murder-suicide to take place by leaving Jacqueline with her second pistol instead of confiscating it. This might seem opposed to his whole moral code, but in fact, Jacqueline’s dramatic act doesn’t make much of a difference. Simon had already given a full confession, meaning he and Jacqueline likely faced the death penalty (which would have been the punishment for murder at the time Death on the Nile was written). By allowing Jacqueline to take her and Simon’s lives sooner, Poirot demonstrates a disregard for the slow process of courtrooms—he figures if the end result is the same, perhaps it is even a kindness to let her keep her pistol.
Though Poirot represents a somewhat unorthodox conception of justice, he is ultimately portrayed as more of a supplement to the traditional justice system than a replacement. After all, Race—one of the most strait-laced characters in the novel—is indispensable in helping to solve the mystery. One of Race’s most positive qualities, though, is that he’s willing to listen to Poirot and occasionally indulge the eccentric detective’s whims. While Death on the Nile is primarily meant to entertain, through Poirot, Christie advocates for a system of justice that isn’t set in stone—one that adapts to the situation, bringing the best of both traditional and nontraditional ideas.
Justice 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.”
“It is deeper than that. Do not open your heart to evil.”
“Monsieur Poirot, I’m afraid—I’m afraid of everything. I’ve never felt like this before. All these wild rocks and the awful grimness and starkness. Where are we going? What’s going to happen? I’m afraid, I tell you. Everyone hates me. I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve always been nice to people—I’ve done things for them—and they hate me—lots of people hate me. Except for Simon, I’m surrounded by enemies . . . It’s terrible to feel—that there are people who hate you. . . .”
Jacqueline hummed a little tune to herself. When the drink came, she picked it up, said: “Well, here’s to crime,” drank it off and ordered another.
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.”
Poirot picked up the handkerchief and examined it.
“A man’s handkerchief-but not a gentleman’s handkerchief. Ce cher Woolworth, I imagine. Threepence at most.”
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.
“Perhaps not, but the custom, it still remains. The Old School Tie is the Old School Tie, and there are certain things (I know this from experience) that the Old School Tie does not do! One of those things, Monsieur Fanthorp, is to butt into a private conversation unasked when one does not know the people who are conducting it.”
“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. . . .”
Mrs. Allerton shivered. “Love can be a very frightening thing.”
“That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”
Mrs. Allerton’s eyes rested upon Tim and Rosalie, standing side by side in the sunlight, and she said suddenly and passionately: “But thank God, there is happiness in the world.”
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.