Sunday, June 7, 2009

Death on the Nile

I've been reading Agatha Christie for nearly 30 years - she was my gateway into adult fiction, and a few years ago, I realized that despite the many hours I'd spent with her books, I'd only read about 2/3 of them and re-read about a dozen multiple times.  I've since worked on reading more of the cannon, but that doesn't stop me from pulling one of the favorite few off the shelf every few months.

Death on the Nile is one of those favorites.  I remember the first time I read it, as a 15-year-old on my way back from vacation in Rio de Jenario.  25 years and at least a dozen revisits later, I still flash back to my mother retrieving me from the airport snack bar where I was pouring over the plan of the S.S. Karnak so intently I hadn't heard our flight announced.  

The plot of Death on the Nile follows the locked room template.  Someone murders Lynnette Doyle while she's on a honeymoon cruise in Egypt.  No one other than her fellow passengers could have committed the crime, most of them have both alibis and motives, and it is up to Hercule Poirot to deduce the identity of the murderer.   Of course, I know who murdered Lynnette Doyle, and why, and how.  That allows me to enjoy the setting and the characters, especially the Allertons (does Mrs. Allerton really not know what her son is up to?), Simon Doyle (is he really the sweet, stolid, doting husband he appears to be?) and Cornelia Robeson (is she dim, or has she been typecast by her family?).  Rereading Death on the Nile, or any Christie novel, is untaxing pleasure reading in its most basic form.

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

The advantage to writing historical mysteries is that the author can place his stories as far apart as he wishes.  Steven Saylor's Roman detective Gordianus aged 31 years over the course of 10 novels published between 1991 and 2005, with nearly a decade between the early novels and months between later ones.   Gordianus's timeline speeds up because Saylor places him as a bit player in major events, and those events become more frequent as the Roman Republic segues into Empire.  

A Gladiator Dies Only Once is Saylor's second collection of Gordianus short stories, and like The House of the Vestals, it both fills in gaps in Gordianus's personal history and provides insight into Roman culture.  He provides a primer on gladiator games and funeral rites, the manufacture of garum, Roman sports, and the foibles of historical characters.  What strikes me is how modern Gordianus's life really is.  In one story, his pre-teen son has replaced toys with statues of mythological creatures, like a modern boy replacing Matchbox cars with action figures.  Gordianus endures rather than enjoys dinners with his frequent client Cicero, the embodiment of the pompous, long-winded politician.  He takes cases he doesn't like solely for money and deals with the cynical ends to which his work is applied.  Saylor, like Miss Marple, knows that human nature is the same, no matter what the setting.