Death Comes as the End is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in October 1944 and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in March of the following year. The US Edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).
It is the only one of Christie's novels not to be set in the 20th century, and - unusually for her - also features no European characters. Instead, the novel is set in Thebes in 2000 BC, a setting for which Christie gained an appreciation of while working with her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan in the Middle East. The novel is notable for its very high number of deaths and is comparable to And Then There Were None from this standpoint.
The suggestion to base the story in ancient Egypt came from noted Egyptologist and family friend Stephen Glanville. He also assisted Christie with details of daily household life in Egypt 4000 years ago. In addition he made forceful suggestions to Christie to change the ending of the book. This she did but regretted the fact afterwards, feeling that her (unpublished) ending was better.
The novel is based on some real letters, translated by egyptologist Battiscombe Gunn, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period from a man called Heqanakhte to his family, complaining about their behaviour and treatment of his concubine.
Christie uses a theme for her chapter titles, as she did for many of her novels, in this case the Egyptian agricultural calendar.
The quiet lives of an Egyptian family are disturbed when the father, Imhotep, returns from the North with his new concubine, Nofret, who begins to sow discontent amongst them. Once the deaths begin, fears are aroused of a curse upon the house, but is the killer closer to home?
The novel is primarily written from the perspective of Renisenb, a young widow reacquainting herself with her family when her father, a successful, but pompous and short-sighted, mortuary priest, Imhotep, brings a new "wife", Nofret, into their lives. Nofret soon disrupts and antagonises Imhotep's sons, Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy, as well as their wives. The housekeeper Henet, under a feigned devotion, is full of hatred, as Renisenb realizes. She eventually confronts Henet, who in a fit of pique, admits she hates Renisenb and hated Renisenb's long-deceased mother.
After Imhotep is called away, Satipy and Kait, the elder sons' wives, try to bully Nofret with tricks, but the plan backfires when Nofret appeals to Imhotep and he threatens to disown his sons and their families upon his return. Suddenly everyone has a motive to kill Nofret and when she is found dead at the foot of a cliff, an accident seems unlikely, although no one will acknowledge anything else.
Next, Satipy falls to her death in terror from the same cliff while walking with Yahmose. Was it Nofret's vengeful spirit that she was looking at over Yahmose's shoulder moments before her death? The rumours only gather pace when Yahmose and Sobek drink poisoned wine. Sobek dies, but Yahmose lingers on, perhaps due to a more insidious slow-acting poison. A slave boy who says he saw Nofret's ghost poisoning the wine dies of poison shortly afterwards.
The handsome scribe Kameni has fallen in love with Renisenb, and eventually asks her to marry him. Unsure whether she loves him or Hori, whom she has known since she was a child when he mended her toys, she leaves the choice effectively in her father’s hands and becomes engaged to Kameni. She realises, however, that his relationship with Nofret was closer than she had supposed, and that jealousy may have influenced Nofret's bitter hatred towards the family. Hori and Esa, the elderly mother of Imhotep, a clever woman, who, although almost completely blind, sees things clearer than most others, especially her son, begin to investigate the possibility of a human murderer. Ipy, himself a likely suspect, starts to boast about his new, better position with his father; he plots to get rid of housekeeper Henet and tells her so. The next morning, Ipy is found dead in the lake, drowned.
The field of suspects has been further narrowed. Esa attempts to flush out the murderer by dropping a hint about the death of Satipy, but is herself murdered, although she has a food taster, by means of poisoned unguent. Henet – who knows the murderer's identity and is momentarily powerful amid the chaos – is found smothered by the linens used to wrap the ever increasing number of victims.
On the same cliff path where Nofret and Satipy died, Renisenb, apparently summoned by Hori, hears footsteps behind her and turns to see Yahmose. She then sees the look of murderous hatred in her brother's eyes that the other women saw before they were killed. On the brink of her own death, she realises that Satipy was not looking in fear at anything beyond Yahmose—she was looking straight at him. He had consumed a non-lethal dose of poison and pretended to recuperate while committing murders, both to make himself chief heir and to indulge his newfound love of violence. As Renisenb realises some of this, Hori slays Yahmose with an arrow and saves her. Hori explains all. Renisenb's final choice is which of the scribes to marry: Kameni, a lively husband not unlike her first, or Hori, an older and more enigmatic figure. She makes her choice and falls into Hori’s arms.
Characters in "Death Comes as the End"
- Imhotep, a Mortuary Priest
- Nofret, Imhotep's concubine from the North
- Esa, Imhotep’s mother
- Yahmose, Imhotep’s eldest son
- Satipy, Yahmose’s wife
- Ipy, Imhotep’s youngest son
- Renisenb, Imhotep’s daughter
- Sobek, Imhotep’s second son
- Kait, Sobek’s wife
- Henet, a female retainer
- Hori, the family’s scribe
- Kameni, a scribe from the North
- Teti, Renisenb's daughter
- Khay, Renisenb's late husband, deceased
Literary significance and reception
Maurice Willson Disher said in The Times Literary Supplement of 28 April 1945 that, "When a specialist acquires unerring skill there is a temptation to find tasks that are exceptionally difficult. The scenes of Death Comes as the End are laid out in Ancient Egypt. They are painted delicately. The household of the priest, who is depicted not as a sacred personage, but as a humdrum landowner, makes an instant appeal because its members are human. But while the author's skill can cause a stir over the death of an old woman some thousands of years ago, that length of time lessens curiosity concerning why or how she (and others) died."
Maurice Richardson, a self-proclaimed admirer of Christie, wrote in the 8 April 1945 issue of The Observer, "One of the best weeks of the war for crime fiction. First, of course, the new Agatha Christie; Death Comes as the End. And it really is startlingly new, with its ancient Egyptian setting in the country household of a mortuary priest who overstrains his already tense family by bringing home an ultra-tough line in concubines from Memphis. Result: a series of murders. With her special archaeological equipment, Mrs Christie makes you feel just as much at home on the Nile in 1945 B.C. as if she were bombarding you with false clues in a chintz-covered drawing room in Leamington Spa. But she has not merely changed scenes; her reconstruction is vivid and she works really hard at her characters. My already insensate admiration for her leaps even higher."
Robert Barnard: "Hercule Poirot's Christmas, transported to Egypt, ca 2000 B.C. Done with tact, yet the result is somehow skeletal – one realises how much the average Christie depends on trappings: clothes, furniture, the paraphernalia of bourgeois living. The culprit in this one is revealed less by detection than by a process of elimination."
- 1944, US, Dodd & Mead, October 1944, hardback (First US edition), 223 pp
- 1945, UK, The Crime Club Collins, March 1945, hardback (First UK edition), 160 pp
- 1947, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, (Pocket number 465), 179 pp
- 1953, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 926), 188 pp
- 1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1957, Pan Books, Paperback, 221 pp
- 1975, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 334 pp
- Czech: Nakonec přijde smrt (Death Comes as the End)
- German: Rächende Geister (Avenging Spirits)
- Portuguese: Morrer não é o Fim (Death Doesn't Come as the End)