Murder in Mesopotamia is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 6 July 1936 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 Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The novel is set at an archaeological excavation in Iraq, and descriptive details derive from the author's visit to the archeology site where she met her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, and other British archaeologists.
Dr Eric Leidner is, ostensibly, a Swedish archaeologist on a dig near Hassanieh, Iraq, then a British protectorate. A middle aged man, he is married just two years to a beautiful woman. His wife Louise was married briefly during the Great War 15 years earlier in 1918, to a German named Frederick Bosner, a young man who worked for the U.S. State Department, but was actually a spy for Germany. He was caught, tried and sentenced to death. He managed to escape while he was being transported. It was to no avail as he ended up on a train that crashed; a body bearing his identification was found in the wreckage.
Amy Leatheran is a nurse working in Iraq when she meets Dr Leidner. He asks her to join the dig to look after his wife. Mrs Leidner has been frightened by weird goings on, such as a ghostly face appearing just outside her window one night and threatening letters. She confides to Nurse Leatheran that she had received similar threatening letters several years before that were worded as if written by her dead first husband. They arrived every time she would go out with a new man, then stopped when she broke off the relationship. One of the letters was signed with her late husband's name. She had no letters from him from their short marriage, so she could not ascertain whether the letters were really written by him. No letters arrived when or after she met and married Dr Leidner, and had hoped that experience was behind her. Its recurrence at the dig scares her badly.
Nurse Leatheran settles in to the routine of the archeological dig, with its mix of local people and scientists or enthusiasts from England, America, and France. The young men seem to be in puppy love with Mrs Leidner, while Dr. Leidner's longtime colleague Richard Carey is formal and terse at meals with her. Miss Johnson is a longtime part of the team, and she, Nurse Leatheran decides, is more than ordinarily attracted to the head of the team. This dig, the whole team seems on edge, unlike previous years. It had been a group known for good humor and good relations among all the varied specialists and workers. Mrs Leidner begins to be at ease as she trusts the nurse brought in to be her companion. Other strangers, however, make her jump, as shown when the pair observe an unknown man at the house, peering in a window. She is calmed only when Father Lavigny explains who the man is, and the man leaves.
A week after the nurse's arrival, Mrs Leidner is found dead by her husband in her room. He calls the nurse in to the room, as he cannot handle this loss. His wife was struck fatally on the head with a large blunt object. Nurse Leatheran observes that the murder weapon is not in the room. Captain Maitland spoke with all in the house, while Dr Reilly inspected the body. They establish the time line, and are certain it is an inside job. The Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is also traveling in Iraq; his old friend Dr Reilly asks him to solve the crime, on behalf of Dr Leidner.
Poirot questions everyone informally. It is rapidly apparent to all that the murderer of Mrs Leidner must be one of us as no "strangers" were seen by anyone, archeologist, servant, or worker, at the house or courtyard in the time when she was murdered. The only entry to the bedroom is from the house, as the one window is barred, and was shut when her body was discovered. Miss Johnson thought she heard a cry, but disbelieves her own ears when she learns that the window was closed, no way for any sound to reach her. This adds to the tensions in the group, who try to carry on as Dr Leidner arranges for his wife's funeral and the local police begin their work, along with Poirot. The first round of questions show no obvious suspect, as everyone can account for their time, in the sight of others. Poirot considers each in turn, as available or capable of the crime.
Away from the dig at Dr Reilly's home, Nurse Leatheran tells Poirot the story of Mrs Leidner's earlier life, her first marriage, its end, and the young brother-in-law she has not seen in fifteen years. Poirot speculates that one of the members of the dig may, in fact, be this younger brother, William Bosner. Two of the young men are the right age. He goes further, wondering if the older men at the dig could be her first husband, as the identity of the body in the train wreck could not be certain. They meet Sheila Reilly, who adds another perspective on the murdered woman, as one who must have the attention of every man around her. Dr Reilly adds his own views, calling her a "belle dame sans merci". Poirot considers whether Nurse Leatheran is safe to return to the house, remarking that murder is a habit. She does return, wanting to properly end her connection with Dr. Leidner, and to attend the funeral.
After the funeral, late in the day, Miss Johnson is on the roof. Nurse Leatheran joins her, seeing how very distracted and upset she appears. Miss Johnson makes clear she has had a new thought about how someone could enter without being seen, but explains nothing. She must think about it more. That night, Miss Johnson is murdered in her bed, dying with Nurse Leatheran at her side, trying to revive her. The method was rather vicious, poisoning by hydrochloric acid substituted in the glass of water on her nightstand. She manages to choke out the words "The window! The window!" before she dies. Nurse Leatheran first makes it clear this was no suicide, thinking the words indicate how her water was replaced by the acid – through her window. Poirot now has two murders to solve. He considers it a crime passionnel, in which he must understand the character of Louise Leidner to solve both murders. He solves the crimes, but has no proof. He presents his results to the group at the house, after a day of sending telegrams all over the world. He analyzes each person in turn, before explaining the resolution with its complex motives and surprising events.
Mrs Leidner and Miss Johnson were murdered by Dr Leidner, who is, in fact, Frederick Bosner. He survived the train crash; but a young Swedish archaeologist named Erich Leidner did not, and was disfigured beyond facial recognition. Bosner stole the dead man's identity. Fifteen years later, established as Leidner, he remarried his wife, who did not recognize him. Bosner sent the letters to discourage Louise from her other relationships. When Bosner re-married her under his new identity, he stopped writing them. He saw, however, that Louise was falling in love with Richard Carey, his own friend. If Leidner could not have Louise, no one could.
How did he do it? Bosner committed the crime without ever leaving the roof as he sorted pottery. Louise Leidner took an afternoon rest as her husband and the rest of the team were working. She heard a noise, then saw a mask at her window. She realized this simple mask was the same image that appeared as a head without a body one night a few weeks earlier. No longer afraid, she opened the window and stuck her head out through the bars. She was then bludgeoned with a heavy stone quern dropped above her on the roof. Bosner retrieved the murder weapon with the rope tied through a hole in the quern. Mrs Leidner cried out briefly; it was this cry that Miss Johnson heard. Bosner altered the scene of the crime before anyone else saw his wife or her room. When he climbed down from the roof as usual to see his wife in her room, he moved her body away from the window, and moved the blood-stained rug near the jug and bowl. Lastly he shut the window before calling Nurse Leatheran to the room, while he nursed his grief at this shocking loss. When planning the murder, Bosner made every effort to divert suspicion from himself. This is the true reason Bosner asked Nurse Leatheran to join the expedition. The nurse would be his perfect alibi, a competent medical professional on the spot to state the time of death.
Bosner was on the roof when Miss Johnson talked with the nurse about her new idea. Although she has kept quiet out of loyalty and indecision, Bosner realises she may eventually crack. That night he plants the missing murder weapon under her bed while she sleeps, and replaces a glass of water on her bedside table with hydrochloric acid. His notion is that once she is found, everyone will think she murdered Louise so she could seduce her husband and, overcome by remorse, killed herself. Maitland saw things that way during his first arrival at the house when her death was discovered. However, as Poirot points out, drinking hydrochloric acid is an incredibly painful and bizarre way to kill oneself.
Poirot realized another sort of crime had taken place at the dig. The man Louise and Nurse Leatheran saw looking through the antika room window in that peaceful week was Ali Yusuf, a known associate of Raoul Menier, a skilled thief of antiquities. Raoul Menier joined the expedition disguised as epigraphist Father Lavigny, a Catholic cleric with a wide reputation. He was not known personally to any in the team, allowing this simple ruse. Lavigny was too ill to join as planned. Menier intercepted the wire declining the invitation to the dig. Thus he had a free hand to steal precious artifacts from the dig and replace them with near-perfect copies made on site. The two were captured boarding a steamer at Beyrouth by the police, who had been warned by Poirot. Bosner acknowledged everything, regretting Miss Johnson's murder but not that of Louise Leidner. Not long after, Sheila Reilly married David Emmott, a suitable match. Nurse Leatheran returned to England, where she would think often of her adventure in the East.
Archaeological Dig at Tell Yarimah
- Nurse Amy Leatheran
- Louise Leidner - beautiful, intelligent American woman, married two years earlier to Dr Eric Leidner, in her thirties. Widowed from a brief marriage in the Great War, 15 years earlier.
- Eric Leidner - archaeologist of some repute, head of the dig at Tell Yarimjah near Hassanieh, sponsored by the (fictional) University of Pittstown (U.S.) for the last five years.
- Richard Carey - longtime colleague of Dr. Leidner, handsome man near 40 who falls victim to Louise's charm in spite of himself.
- Miss Anne Johnson - longtime colleague of Dr Leidner, gray haired, near 50, native of Yorkshire.
- Mrs Marie Mercado
- Mr Joseph Mercado
- David Emmott
- Bill Coleman
- Carl Reiter
- Father Lavigny
- Ali Yusuf
Hassanieh - nearest town to the dig
Literary significance and reception
(long section - click on expand to read)
The Times Literary Supplement of 18 July 1936, summarised in its review by Harry Pirie-Gordon the setup of the plot and concluded, "The plot is ingenious and the first murder very cleverly contrived but some will doubt whether Mrs Leidner, as described, could have been so forgetful and unobservant as to render the principal preliminary conditions of the story possible."
In The New York Times Book Review (20 September 1936), Kay Irvin wrote: "Agatha Christie is a past master, as every one knows, in presenting us with a full assortment of clues which we cannot read. And there are mysteries within mysteries among this quiet yet oddly troubled group of scientific workers, one of whom must have been the murderer; it is part of the author's skill to make us feel that every human character is a little mysterious, and that when crimes are committed among a group of apparently well-bred and cultivated people every one of them may be suspect. Agatha Christie's expertness in building up her detective stories, as such, to astonishing (though sometimes very far-fetched) conclusions has more or less over-shadowed her amazing versatility, not only in background and incident, but in character-drawing and actual style. The story here is told by a trained nurse – as has been done by other eminent mystery novelists. Nurse Leatheran holds her own with them all. This latest Christie opus is a smooth, highly original and completely absorbing tale".
In The Observer 12 July 1936 issue, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) wrote that "Agatha Christie has a humorous, well-observed story amongst the ruins of Tell Yarimjah, and her latest method of murder, which got me guessing fruitlessly, has, as usual, more simplicity of a miracle than the complication of a conjuring trick. Poirot as a man is quite as delightful as ever, and Poirot as a detective not only perplexes the pleasant and not too intelligent hospital nurse, whose duty it is to tell the story, but, again as usual, the intelligent reader as well. The trouble is that he also perplexes the unprejudiced in a way most unusual to him: I for one cannot understand why he has allowed Agatha Christie to make him party to a crime whose integrity stands or falls by a central situation which, though most ingenious, is next door to impossible. The point at issue, which it would be grossly unfair to specify, between Mrs Christie and the reader is one which would provide a really interesting silly season correspondence." He concluded that "usually Poirot is to be toasted in anything handy, and no heel-taps; this time I drink to him a rather sorrowful glass of Lachryma Christie."
The Daily Mirror (9 July 1936) wrote: "Don't start reading this if you've got something to do or want a book just for a quarter of an hour or so. Because you simply won't put it down til you've reached the last sentence." The review finished by saying, "Agatha Christie's grand. In this tale of peculiarly placed murder she's given us another rattling good tale."
Robert Barnard: "Archeological dig provides unusual setting, expertly and entertainingly presented. Wife-victim surely based on Katharine Woolley, and very well done. Narrated by nurse, a temporary Hastings-substitute—soon she found she could do without such a figure altogether. Marred by an ending which goes beyond the improbable to the inconceivable."
References to other works
- Although this novel was published in 1936, the events described are stated to place three years earlier. It is when he returns from Mesopotamia that Poirot travels on the Orient Express and solves the murder that takes place aboard it.
- In Chapter XII, Dr Leidner recalls hearing a "Mr Van Aldin" speak highly of Poirot. Rufus Van Aldin was a prominent character in Christie's earlier work The Mystery of the Blue Train
Agatha Christie's Poirot
Radio 4 adaptation
The novel was adapted by BBC Radio 4 as radio play which was first broadcast in 5 parts between 26 - 30 December 1994 featuring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot.
Graphic novel adaptation
Murder in Mesopotamia was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on July 1, 2008, adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by "Chandre" (ISBN 0-00-727530-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2005 under the title of Meurtre en Mésopotamie.
- 1936, Collins Crime Club (London), 6 July 1936, Hardcover, 288 pp
- 1936, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 298 pp
- 1944, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 145 mapback), 223 pp
- 1952, Pan Books, Paperback, (Pan number 200)
- 1955, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 1099), 219 pp
- 1962, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 190 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 367 pp; ISBN 0-85456-667-8
- 2007, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1936 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, February 5, 2007, Hardcover; ISBN 0-00-723444-9
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from November 9 (Volume 208, Number 19) to December 14, 1935 (Volume 208, Number 24) with illustrations by F. R. Gruger.
In the UK, the novel was serialised as an abridged version in the weekly Woman's Pictorial magazine in eight instalments from February 8 (Volume 31, Number 787) to March 28, 1936 (Volume 31, Number 794) under the title No Other Love. There were no chapter divisions and all of the instalments carried illustrations by Clive Uptton. Several character names were different from the eventual published novel: Amy Leatheran became Amy Seymour while Mr. and Mrs. Leidner were surnamed Trevor.
- Brazilian: Morte na Mesopotâmia (Death in Mesopotamia)
- Chinese (simplified): 古墓之谜 (The Mystery of the Ancient Tomb)
- Czech: Vražda v Mezopotámii (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Dutch: Moord in Mesopotamië (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Estonian Neljapäewal peale lõunat (At the Thursday Afternoon), Mõrvad Mesopotaamias (Murders in Mesopotamia)
- French: Meurtre en Mésopotamie (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- German: Mord in Mesopotamien (Murder in Mesopotamia) (since 1954), first edition in 1939: Eine Frau in Gefahr (A Woman in Danger)
- Hungarian: Ne jöjj vissza... (Don't Come Back...), Gyilkosság Mezopotámiában (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Indonesian: Pembunuhan di Mesopotamia (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Italian: Non c'è più scampo (There's No Way to Escape Any More)
- Japanese: メソポタミヤの殺人 (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Polish: Morderstwo w Mezopotamii (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Portuguese: Assassínio na Mesopotâmia (Murder in Mesopotamia) and Crime na Mesopotâmia (Crime in Mesopotamia)
- Romanian: Crima din Mesopotamia (The Crime in Mesopotamia)
- Russian: Убийство в Месопотамии (=Ubiystvo v Mesopotamii, Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Slovak: Vražda je zvyk (Murder is a habit)
- Spanish: Asesinato en Mesopotamia (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Swedish: Mord i Mesopotamien (Murder in Mesopotamia)
- Turkish: Gece gelen ölüm (Death in the night)