Murder Is A Habit
by Geetashree Chatterjee
(Book Review of “Murder In Mesopotamia” by Agatha Christie)
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When Poirot says, “Murder is a habit”, the reader in me is curious to know whether he is referring to the murderer’s pathological need to kill or a sense of impunity which makes him commit crimes with recurrent perfection. The psycho-pathological make-up of the victimizer as well as the victim is important to arrive at the truth. That is the quaint Belgian detective’s well known method by which he deduces, dissects and ultimately de-mystifies an inconceivably intricate conspiracy and brings to book the elusive assassin.
The professionally trained Amy Leatheran joins an archaeological dig in faraway Iraq (Hassanieh) as nurse-cum-companion to the ‘Lovely Louise’, the wife of the celebrated archaeologist Dr. Leidner. It is rumoured that all is not quite what it seems at the dig. Nurse Leatheran also feels the same, a nerve-shattering tension bristling in the air, the first day she arrives at Hassanieh. Though apparently, the group assisting Dr. Leidner manifests great camaraderie, yet, it’s the painstakingly polite manner with which “they pass the butter” to each other at the dining table that insinuates a contrived bonhomie.
The exquisitely beautiful Louise Leidner is secretly desired by men and equally abhorred by women. For some, she is an attention hungry enchantress. For others, she is cruel, vicious and a scheming manipulator. And then there are a few who find her enigmatic and not so unkindly. Dr. Leidner dotes on her while Amy Leatheran is beguiled by her charm.
Louise and Nurse Leatheran take to each other almost instantly. Despite, her imperiousness, the observant and intelligent Amy Leatheran is soon able to make out that Louise is petrified of someone or something. One day on an impulse, Louise confides her past to Nurse Leatheran. The day next she is found dead in a bloody heap in her own room. It is impossible for an outsider to enter the well-guarded expedition house in the middle of a busy afternoon and commit the murder. The obvious conclusion, therefore is, that it is an inside job. The devastated Dr. Leidner refuses to believe that one of the inmates may be the culprit. But not for long, as the killer strikes again, fear looms large. Who will be the next victim?
Hercule Poirot, Christie’s mastermind, investigates the case with characteristic suave, alacrity and aplomb. Nothing escapes his eyes and no one is above suspicion, not even Amy Leatheran, who surrogates (the faithful Hastings) as Poirot’s assistant in this case.
“Murder In Mesopotamia” is another typically Christie-ian whodunit crime fiction – gripping, stimulating and immensely enjoyable. Christie plays her cards well. The first half of the novel is devoted to building up the backdrop, characters and the atmosphere at the dig while the second half is exclusively given to unwinding a tangled knit.
Agatha Christie, the Dame of Detective Novels, started writing by the end of the First World War. It is the ingenuity of her plots, the scrupulously transparent and logical detection techniques (dedicating the last few chapters of her every novel to an extensive discussion on the same), the thrust on understanding the nature and basis of the crime vis-à-vis the complexities and unpredictability of human mind and the pervasive scientific temper with which she discourses on the art and science of crime that elevate her novels to the level of classics.
Undeniably a trendsetter of her times, she has raised the bar of crime thrillers to such exemplary heights that it is hard for her successors to match her brilliance and ingeniousness. Understandably, therefore, one who is a Christie fan will automatically be given to drawing comparisons while reading crime thrillers authored by others during and post Christie period.
When Dr. Reilly, Poirot and Dr. Leidner’s mutual friend, for certain reasons, insists upon Amy Leatheran to write a first-hand account of the affairs at the dig, the latter shows a “curious reluctance” hoping that the good Doctor will “put the grammar right and all that”. Thus, “Murder In Mesopotamia” reads like a narrative by a novice who does not lay any claim to literary pretentions but at the same time who sports a definite snooping tendency and the delightful flair for intermittently throwing caution to the wind. It is Christie’s skillful pen which again does the trick keeping the readers on tenterhooks and jolting them by a surprise end.
As I have said earlier, the investigative acumen of Hercule Poirot is an exercise in analytical excellence. Poirot (as well as Miss Marple, the deceptively wooly spinster of St. Mary Mead village), in fact, are twin personifications of Christie’s sleuthing knack.
The underlying philosophy of Christie’s novels is misleadingly simple. The most complex of problem has the simplest of solution and the solution lies right in front of our nose. One has to just put the jigsaw puzzle straight in place in order to see the whole picture in its right perspective. It is this perspective which matters the most – what we see or believe to see is not always the truth. The truth is somewhere eclipsed by the razzmatazz of misconceptions and misperceptions. Viewed in this light, somewhere existential relativity cleverly slips in to give us a better understanding of the scheme of things.
It is Christie, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (creator of Sherlock Holmes), who imputes an element of intellectualism to sleuthing, defining it more as a cerebral pursuit as opposed to the run-of-the-mill portrayal of the smart and efficient detective possessed with supreme physical fitness coupled with the racing skills of a steeple chaser.
Christie’s conceptualization of crime, her perception of a criminal mind and her indisputably incisive method to uncover the perpetrator best come to the fore in “Murder In Mesopotamia”.
Read it before it’s too late.