Poirot (Classic): S09E03 “Death on the Nile”

Actions, naturellement, have consequences, and many times those consequences aren’t immediately recognizable; it can take days, weeks, or years for the results of those actions to become apparent.

Consider, for example, Linnet Ridgway, a wealthy American heiress whose money comes via some shady stock dealings made by her father. Having “stolen” her friend Jackie de Bellefort’s fiance Simon and co-opted their idea of a honeymoon in Egypt, she finds herself dealing with the consequences of her actions months later on a cruise down the Nile River.

Hounded by a jealous, unhinged Jackie, Linnet and Simon navigate their trip looking over their shoulders the entire time, the cramped S.S. Karnak and its manifest of colorful, sinister passengers turning into a pressure cooker that finally boils over when a drunk Jackie shoots Simon in the leg one night in a fit of rage.

Unfortunately, “fiance getting shot by insane ex” isn’t the worst consequence to befall Linnet, because the very next morning she’s found dead in her cabin, having been shot in the head during the night. And thus in one night did the consequences of Linnet and Simon’s actions finally rear their head.


 

I distinctly remember being 12 years old, bored out of my skull at my grandparents’ home for the summer, and demanding to be taken to the library because I was a bit of jerk when I was 12 years old. My mom, desperate to shut me up for a few hours, obliged.

While there, I was struck by the cover of a book from an author I’d heard of in passing but never read before:

DoNCover

Intrigued by the cover image and reasoning that now was as good a time as any to see what all the fuss was about with this Christie person, I picked it up, and six hours later I finished it and put it down, jaw hanging. I’d been reading mysteries for a bit by then, but this? This was something different. This wasn’t the stodgy Victorian trappings and off-screen deus ex machinas of Doyle’s Holmes, or the stylized patter and existential monologuing of Chandler’s Marlowe. I loved them both, but this… was different.

This was a party, a costume ball of larger-than-life characters on vacations and honeymoons, sailing down the river Nile on a doomed voyage full of sex, booze, politics, jealousy, greed, compulsions, and misanthropy. And this party came with a map of the boat at the beginning of the book, practically begging me to play along and try and solve the crime before this strange Belgian could.

Of course, I couldn’t, because my God, this wasn’t a “mystery”, this was someone performing a magic trick right in front of my eyes, showing me an empty hat one minute daring me to find the rabbit in it only to reveal at the end that it was actually a card trick all along. Just to twist the knife a bit, here’s all the clues you missed along the way, rube.

I immediately set about re-reading it, because surely. There’s no way the narrative actually supported this impossibly complex crime, no way that events as told to the reader could have lined up to support this weird little Belgian’s solution.

I think I was even more dumbfounded after finishing it a second time.

It was the first Christie I’d ever read, but it would be far from the last, and the consequence of that particular action is that thirty-odd years later, we’re talking today.


 

Oh, the episode? Well, the episode is pretty great too, as a matter of fact. As in the book, the cast of characters is vivid and memorable; each one makes the most of their screen time, and for the most part they’re visually striking as well. Allerton’s weird hair, Pennington’s ever-present golf club, Rosalie’s severe look and dark eyes, Bessner’s mole-man demeanor, and Cornelia’s wholesome, aw-shucks naivete are all welcome quirks that make the group pop.

But I think what I love most about this episode are the little human moments of sadness and humor along the way. It’s still a contrived little murder party, but it’s a party with people attending.

A rare Poirot acknowledgment of what he might have sacrificed in life in his pursuit of mental exhilaration, delivered in a final desperate attempt to sway Jackie from her course of action, as he looks out over a dark, implacable river. The shared look between Poirot and Col. Race as they tolerate Salome Otterbourne’s crazy theories of the crime. The honest acknowledgement of how once someone starts killing, it gets easier and easier, until the human cost is entirely forgotten. An impromptu marriage proposal. “Ooh, er“.

It manages to balance the seriousness of the situation and its events while still managing, somehow, to be a good time and still carry emotional heft. Some very cinematic directorial choices here too, with occasional tracking shots, crane shots swooping in from afar, and a melancholy score as the Karnak plods tirelessly down the river. If I had a quibble, there’s quite a lot of dubbing work here, but it never gets too distracting.

And I always marvel at how sleek this thing is (particularly compared with the Ustinov film, which runs a full 45 minutes longer and boy howdy, feels like it) – there’s a fair bit of time (perhaps a full half of the episode) spent building towards that fateful gunshot in the lounge, but none of it feels extraneous or unnecessary, and its dividends are paid in full by episode end.

So, yes, it is another case of a love triangle gone wrong far from home, with Poirot and his desert beige, spyglass cane, and faithful assistant divining truth from a pack of liars, and it’s something we’re used to by now. One could be forgiven for wondering how this is anything other than a sauced-up “Triangle at Rhodes” or “Evil Under The Sun”

The difference to me is that in this adaptation, everybody here is a person (a theme underscored by Ferguson’s haranguing of his fellow passengers about focusing on the human cost of building the Pyramids, and by the bookending scenes in a cheap little flat in London, far away from the glamorous exotics of a Nile cruise for the rich). Everybody gets an ending – a consequence – of some sort here, not all of them happy and not all of them expected or deserved.

But that’s life, innit? Life’s full of those kinds of consequences, perhaps not realized until much later, and it’s almost never relentlessly cheerful or wall-to-wall misery, and this adaptation reflects that. The magic trick of the book is left fully intact to the new viewer, and Poirot remains Poirot throughout, by turns thoughtful, compassionate, insightful, and convinced of his own rightness.

It’s impossible for me to do anything but love this episode and this book, and I wholeheartedly recommend both.

Next Week, on Poirot: Tarot cards, a country house, a wife caught with a revolver in her hand, and boy oh boy is someone’s pool going to need a little more chlorine this week! Is everything exactly as it seems, or is something missing at its core? Find out in… “The Hollow”!