First Published: Serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935.
I Read: Murder In Mesopotamia. New York, Harper, 2011.
Summary: A crazy random happenstance event has befallen Nurse Amy Leatheran which will allow her to remain in Iraq (being in a different part of the world for a little while is always agreeable). Amy has been hired to care for Louise Leidner, or Lovely Louise as she is affectionately called, who is the wife of a prominent archeologist on a dig. The only problem is Amy cannot find anything medically wrong with Lovely Louise other than a slight cases of nerves and anxiety.
As it turns out Louise’s anxiety is based in the belief she is being stalked; letters, a hovering mask outside her window and mysterious shuffling near her room have lead to this conclusion and strained her nerves. Amy isn’t inclined to believe the wild stories...until Louise’s notion of persecution is born out when her body is discovered in her bedroom. The only problem is there isn’t any way for the murderer to get into the room without being seen, so how did they do it? It is up to Poirot and Amy to figure it out!
Review: There is a subgenre of detective fiction called the locked room mystery, where a murder has taken place but it seems impossible that the solution will ever be figured out because the evidence around it is so peculiar or lacking. An example of this style of murder is a woman drowning in a bone dry basement, a man shot with a bullet which has disappeared from the wound or finding a body in the snow without any footprints around it (and they have not been filled in by falling snow). Well, in this book Christie tries her hand at the locked room mystery and comes up with a pretty successful idea. The problem is that Christie over complicates the solution which shuffles the locked room business off to the side by a completely preposterous motive. This excessive motive takes the mystery completely out of orbit during the last nine pages which sinks it from a pot roast (lovely) level down to squash (middling) one.
What really saved this mystery in my opinion was Nurse Amy Leatheran; she was a fine, clear-eyed, sensible narrator. Amy was not prone to huge flights of fancy, who questioned Poirot in a useful ways without constantly nay-saying him. I really enjoyed reading the mystery from her point of view; it felt different from Christie’s usual methods of story telling. So in this case read the mystery for Amy’s sake (and for Poirot of course). The locked room aspect is fun as well, just sidestep the bit during Poirot’s big reveal about the identity of Lovely Louise’s murder (you’ll know what sliver I mean when you get there) and enjoy the ride.
One of the funny moments in this book is when Amy visits the dig site being excavated by the team in Iraq, “I wondered what sort of places they had in those days, and if it would be like the pictures I’d seen of Tutankhamen’s tomb furniture. But would you believe it, there was nothing but mud!” (pg. 43). The reality was vastly underwhelming compared to the pictures and mental images Amy unknowingly possessed about what she would find at a dig site. Similar to people’s preconceived notion of what working in a book shop entails - we constantly hear people saying they’d love to sit around and read all day, I promise you those days are really few and far between!
A few years ago, right before Father’s day, I had a classic experience where my mind's eye and reality line up rather poorly. For this tale what you need to know is my dad took up a new hobby, scroll sawing. I was thrilled because this hobby meant I finally had something to work with when looking for gifts for him. I was really excited when Father’s Day rolled around, no boring gifts from me! So I went online and ordered him a gross, 144, blades for the saw. I figured he could work to his heart’s content without running out of the little suckers any time in the near future (fyi the blades last so long that he’s still working his way through the pack).
When I got the package in the mail I was absolutely furious, the envelope was absolutely too tiny to hold a gross! Seriously how could 144 of anything fit into such a small package (it was about the size of a mass market paperback)? While stomping back to my apartment I grew to the size of an enraged t-rex in my mind, working up a full head of steam preparing to do battle with the retailer over sending me the wrong stuff (or alternatively an empty package). When I got home and opened the package my fury morphed into utter disbelief the saw blades were in the mailer! It turns out in my mind's eye I’d never thought of anything labeled as a “saw blade” as ever being that small. The entire packet of 144 fit easily into the oversized card I’d bought for the occasion. I was totally flabbergasted! It makes me laugh now when I think about it, I was so mad over absolutely nothing!
In the case of Amy & the dig site or me & the saw blades, it is amusing when reality is joined with our preconceived notions. This writing device is used by Christie in her mysteries repeatedly to either fool us or simply make her readers chuckle. In this case to make us laugh with Amy and remember when it happened to you!
“I’m not often bored,” I assured her. “Life’s not long enough for that.” (pg. 33)
“Many people go right through life in the grip of an idea which has been impressed on them in very tender years.” (pg. 119)
“There was a queer atmosphere of tension. I can explain best what I mean by saying that they all passed the butter to each other too politely.” (pg. 12)
Interesting Fact: Most people out there are one point or another have blamed something they ate for bad or weird dreams. Our nurse Amy in the Murder In Mesopotamia is no exception,
“...I fell off to sleep again and I saw Belle Dame sans Merci was Mrs. Leidner and she was leaning sideways on a horse with an embroidery of flowers in her hands-- and then the horse stumbles and everywhere there were bones coated in wax, and I woke up all gooseflesh and shivering, and told myself that curry never had agreed with me at night.” (pg.42).
She is not the only fictional character to blame digestion for their odd dreams,
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because” said Scrooge “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol blamed his visitation by Marley’s ghost on this old wives' tale. Like many of these superstitions, there seems to be a kernel of truth to this idea. Scientists have been testing the theory of whether what we eat right before bed actually affects our dreams. There is evidence that yes, it does. When we eat, our digestion raises our metabolism and body temperature which in turn boosts our mental activity when we are sleeping (during the REM cycle). Which can lead, depending on other variables like stress, anxiety and oddly enough whether you sleep on your right or left side (lefties seem more prone) to having nightmares.
Did you know there is an extension of this myth stating that eating cheese right before you go to bed causes nightmares? Well of course you do, you guys are far more knowledgeable than I am (lol since starting this blog I am amazed at the gaps in my knowledge; fortunately they are filling rapidly. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in school and read less fiction, but alas I have no regrets and the fantasy section of most bookshops hold little mystery for me. But I digress.). It seems cheese has been given a bad rap in this particular case. As far as I can tell from articles I read, this specificity of food is not actually accurate according to scientists. Increased brain activity during REM sleep has been caused by spicy foods and junk foods during other sleep studies. So cheese is off the hook (unless you are taking a certain kind of antidepressant which reacts badly to a chemical found in it - but that isn’t cheese’s fault).
I think the moral of this story here is if you are stressed, anxious or have watched a scary movie you may want to skip that midnight snack, just in case. Perhaps dodging dreams of ghosts, bones, or of standing in the middle of a parking lot on a rainy night and being shot (yeah that dream was about as much fun as it sounds).
(Oh and BTW for those who like me wondered who the heck Belle Dame sans Merci is from Amy’s dream, another knowledge gap, the title translates to The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy a classic poem written by Keats. I think I am a fan of his now...)
Cheating: None to be found this week!
The blog this week is brought to you by wine....