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Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition by Robin Macartney

Appointment with Death is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on May 2, 1938 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.

The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and reflects Christie's experiences travelling in the Middle East with her husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.

Synopsis

Holidaying in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears Raymond Boynton telling his sister: "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Their stepmother, Mrs Boynton, is a sadistic tyrant who dominates her family. But when she is found dead on a trip to Petra, Poirot proposes to solve the case in twenty-four hours, even though he has no way of even proving whether it was murder.

Plot summary

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

The novel opens as the Boynton family are introduced through the perspective of Sarah King and Dr. Gerard. Mrs Boynton is sadistic and domineering, behaviours which she may have carried over from her original profession of prison warden. Sarah is attracted to Raymond Boynton, while Jefferson Cope admits to wanting to take Nadine Boynton away from her husband, Lennox Boynton, and the influence of her mother-in-law. Having been thwarted in her desire to free the young Boyntons, Sarah confronts Mrs. Boynton whose apparent reply is a strange threat: "I’ve never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face." When the party reaches Petra, Mrs. Boynton uncharacteristically sends her family away from her for a period. Later, she is found dead with a needle puncture in her wrist.

Poirot claims that he can solve the mystery within twenty-four hours simply by interviewing the suspects. During these interviews he establishes a timeline that seems impossible: Sarah King places the time of death considerably before the times at which various of the family members claim last to have seen the victim alive. Attention is focused on a hypodermic syringe that has seemingly been stolen from Dr. Gerard's tent and later replaced. The poison administered to the victim is believed to be digitoxin, something that she already took medicinally.

Poirot then calls for a meeting and explains how each member of the family has, in turn, discovered Mrs. Boynton to be dead and, suspecting another family member, failed to report the fact. None of the family would have needed to murder the victim with a hypodermic syringe, since an overdose could have been administered much more effectively in her medicine. This places the suspicion on one of the outsiders.

The murderer is revealed to be Lady Westholme who, prior to her marriage, had been incarcerated in the prison in which the victim was once a warden. It was to Lady Westholme, and not to Sarah, that Mrs. Boynton had addressed that peculiar threat; the temptation to acquire a new subject to torture had been too great for her to resist. Disguised as an Arab servant, she had committed the murder and then relied upon the suggestibility of Miss Pierce to lay two pieces of misdirection that had concealed her role in the murder. Lady Westholme, eavesdropping in an adjoining room, overhears that her criminal history is about to be revealed to the world and commits suicide. The family, free at last, take up happier lives: Sarah marries Raymond; Carol marries Jefferson; and Ginevra takes up a successful career as a stage actress – she also marries Dr. Gerard.

Characters

Mrs Boynton's circle

Others at Petra

At Amman

Mentions

Tropes and themes

Literary significance and reception

Simon Nowell-Smith's review in the Times Literary Supplement of 7 May 1938 concluded that "Poirot, if the mellowing influence of time has softened many of his mannerisms, has lost none of his skill. His examination of the family, the psychologists and the few others in the party, his sifting of truth from half-truth and contradiction, his playing off one suspect against another and gradual elimination of each in turn are in Mrs Christie's most brilliant style. Only the solution appears a trifle tame and disappointing."

In The New York Times Book Review for 11 September 1938, Kay Irvin said, "Even a lesser Agatha Christie story holds its readers' attention with its skillful management of suspense. Appointment with Death is decidedly of the lesser ranks: indeed, it comes close to being the least solid and satisfactory of all the Poirot mystery tales. Its presentation of a family harried and tortured by a sadistic matriarch is shot full of psychological conversation and almost entirely deficient in plot. And yet, when the evil-hearted old tyrant has been murdered at last and Poirot considers the suspects, one follows with genuine interest the unraveling of even unexciting clues."

In The Observer's issue of 1 May 1938, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "I have to confess I have just been beaten again by Agatha Christie. There was no excuse. I was feeling in particularly good form; and the worst of it is that she handicapped herself in the latest game with what in anyone else would be insolent severity. Murder on the Nile (sic) was entirely brilliant; Appointment with Death, while lacking the single stroke of murderer's genius which provided the alibi in the former story, must be counted mathematically nearly twice as brilliant, since the number of suspects is reduced by nearly half. Indeed, though we begin out story in Jerusalem and meet our murder in Petra, the Red Rose City, we might as well be in a snowbound vicarage as far as the limitation of suspicion is concerned. And it is in this respect that Agatha Christie repeats her Cards on the Table triumph and beats Steinitz with a single row of pawns."

The Scotsman of 9 May 1938 said, "As usual, Miss Christie plays fair with her readers. While the solution comes with a shock of surprise, it is logical enough: the clues are there, one could fasten upon them and assess their importance. Perhaps it is another case of the reader being unable to see the wood for the trees; but there are so many trees. Not this author's best crime novel, Appointment with Death is yet clever enough and convincing enough to stand head and shoulders above the average work of the kind."

E.R. Punshon of The Guardian in his review of 27 May 1938 summarised: "For ingenuity of plot and construction, unexpectedness of dénouement, subtlety of characterisation, and picturesqueness of background, Appointment with Death may take rank among the best of Mrs. Christie's tales."

Mary Dell in the Daily Mirror of 19 May 1938 said, "This is not a book I should recommend you to read last thing at night. The malignant eye of Mrs. Boynton might haunt your sleep and make a nightmare of your dreams. It's a pretty eerily bloodcurdling tale. A grand book."

Robert Barnard: "Notable example of the classic-era Christie, with excellent Near East setting, and the repulsive matriarch as victim. The family tensions around her are conveyed more involvingly than usual. The detection, with its emphasis on who-was-where-and-when, is a little too like Ngaio Marsh of the period, and there is some vagueness in the motivation, but this is as taut and atmospheric as any she wrote."

References to other works

The novel mentions several other Poirot investigations: the detective is seen to retell to Colonel Carbury the story of Cards on the Table, and Colonel Race from this investigation is mentioned. Nadine Boynton actually confronts Poirot with his own actions in the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot suggesting that she was told by one of the case's figures. Miss Pierce also comments on The A.B.C. Murders when she recognises Poirot as a great detective.

Film, TV or theatrical versions

1945 Stage Production

Main article: Appointment with Death (1945 play)

Christie adapted the book as a play of the same name in 1945. It is notable for being one of the most radical reworkings of a novel Christie ever did, not only eliminating Hercule Poirot from the story, but also changing the identity of the killer. In the play, the ill Mrs Boynton committed suicide and dropped several red herrings that pointed to her family members as possible suspects, hoping that they would suspect each other and therefore continue to live in her shadow even after her death. In addition, the character of Carol Boynton has been dropped, Ginevra is now a stepdaughter (rather than a natural child) of Mrs. Boynton, Lady Westholme becomes an ex-Member of Parliament, Miss Pierce is now Miss Pryce, and Alderman Higgs has been added as a fellow vacationer/verbal sparring partner for Lady Westholme.

Appointment with Death (1988 Film)

Main article: Appointment with Death (1988 film)

The novel was adapted as a full length feature film, the sixth and last of six films to star Peter Ustinov as Poirot and released in 1988. The film was fairly faithful to the original novel and did not incorporate the changes of the play. The cast included Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, Sir John Gielgud, Piper Laurie, Hayley Mills, Jenny Seagrove and David Soul.

Agatha Christie's Poirot

Main article: Appointment with Death (Agatha Christie's Poirot episode)

The novel was adapted for episode 4 of series 11 of Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. This adaptation deviated significantly from the original novel although it retained the Middle-eastern setting and the personality of Mrs Boynton.

Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha

Main article: Rendez-vous avec la mort (Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie)

A French adaptation Rendez-vous avec la mort was made as episode 26 of season 2 of the series Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie, first broadcast on France 2 on 20 Sep 2019. The setting is changed from Petra to a hotel in the north of France.

Radio 4 Adaptation

Appointment with Death was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot.

Publication history

  • 1938, Collins Crime Club (London), 2 May 1938, Hardback, 256 pp
  • 1938, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1938, Hardback, 301 pp
  • 1946, Dell Books, Paperback, (Dell number 105 mapback), 192 pp
  • 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 682), 206 pp
  • 1957, Pan Books, Paperback, 159 pp (Pan number 419)
  • 1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 159 pp
  • 1975, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 334 pp ISBN 0-85456-366-0

The first true publication of Appointment with Death occurred in the US with a nine-part serialisation in Collier's Weekly from 28 August (Volume 100, Number 9) to 23 October 1937 (Volume 100, Number 17) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.

The UK serialisation was in twenty-eight parts in the Daily Mail from Wednesday, 19 January to Saturday, 19 February 1938 under the title of A Date with Death. Fifteen of the instalments contained illustrations by J. Abbey (Joseph van Abbé, brother of Salomon van Abbé). This version did not contain any chapter divisions and omitted various small paragraphs such as the quote in Part I, Chapter twelve from Dr Gerard which is taken from Book IV of Ecclesiastes. The political argument between Lady Westholme and Dr Gerard in chapter ten about the League of Nations was also deleted. Finally, the epilogue did not appear in the serialisation.

Four days before the first instalment appeared, in the edition dated Saturday, 15 January, a piece specially written by Christie as an introduction to the serialisation appeared in the Daily Mail. She charted the creation of Poirot and expressed her feelings about him in the famous quote, "There have been moments when I have felt: 'Why-why-why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature!'"

International titles

  • Arabic: جريمة في الصحراء (A crime in the desert)
  • Bulgarian: Среща със смъртта (Appointment With Death)
  • Chinese (simplified): 死亡约会 (Date with Death)
  • Czech: Schůzka se smrtí (Appointment With Death)
  • Croatian: Sastanak sa Smrću (Appointment With Death)
  • Dutch: Dood van een huistiran (Death of a family tyrant)
  • Estonian: Kokkusaamine surmaga (Appointment With Death)
  • Finnish: Hänet täytyy tappaa (She must be killed)
  • French: Rendez-vous avec la mort (Appointment With Death)
  • German: Der Tod wartet (Death awaits) / Rendezvous mit einer Leiche (Rendezvous with a corpse) - 1989 movie tie-in edition
  • Greek: Ραντεβού με τον Θάνατο (Appointment With Death)
  • Hungarian: Poirot mester (Master Poirot), Találkozás a halállal (Appointment with Death)
  • Italian: La domatrice (The Oppressor), Appuntamento con la morte (Appointment with Death)
  • Japanese: 死との約束 (Appointment With Death)
  • Polish: Rendez-vous ze śmiercią (Appointment with Death)
  • Portuguese: Morte entre as Ruínas (Death within the Ruins), Encontro com a Morte (Appointment With Death)
  • Russian: Встреча со смертью (=Vstrecha so smert'yu, Meeting with Death), Свидание со смертью (=Svidanie so smert'yu, Appointment with Death)
  • Serbian: Састанак са Смрћу (Appointment With Death)
  • Spanish: Cita con la Muerte (Appointment with Death)
  • Swedish: Döden till mötes (Appointment with Death)
  • Turkish: Ölümle Randevu (Appointment with Death)


Novels
Hercule Poirot novels The Mysterious Affair at Styles - The Murder on the Links - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - The Big Four - The Mystery of the Blue Train -Peril at End House - Lord Edgware Dies - Murder on the Orient Express - Three Act Tragedy - Death in the Clouds - The A.B.C. Murders - Murder in Mesopotamia - Cards on the Table - Dumb Witness - Death on the Nile - Appointment with Death - Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Sad Cypress - One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Evil Under the Sun - Five Little Pigs - The Hollow - Taken at the Flood - Mrs McGinty's Dead - After the Funeral - Hickory Dickory Dock - Dead Man's Folly - Cat Among the Pigeons - The Clocks - Third Girl - Hallowe'en Party - Elephants Can Remember - Curtain
Miss Marple novels The Murder at the Vicarage - The Body in the Library - The Moving Finger - A Murder is Announced - They do it with Mirrors - A Pocket Full of Rye - 4.50 from Paddington - The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side - A Caribbean Mystery - At Bertram's Hotel - Nemesis - Sleeping Murder
Tommy and Tuppence novels The Secret Adversary - N or M? - By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Postern of Fate
Superintendent Battle novels The Secret of Chimneys - The Seven Dials Mystery - Cards on the Table - Murder is Easy - Towards Zero
Colonel Race novels The Man in the Brown Suit - Cards on the Table - Death on the Nile - Sparkling Cyanide
Other novels The Sittaford Mystery - Why Didn't They Ask Evans? - And Then There Were None - Death Comes as the End - Sparkling Cyanide - Crooked House - They Came to Baghdad - Destination Unknown - The Pale Horse - Endless Night - Passenger to Frankfurt
Published as Mary Westmacott Giant's Bread - Unfinished Portrait - Absent in the Spring - The Rose and the Yew Tree - A Daughter's a Daughter - The Burden
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