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Appointment with Death: Human memory and a major plot-twist

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I have just re-read Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, following a first reading some ten to fifteen years ago.

(spoiler alert)

While the book was as interesting and well-crafted as I remembered, my enjoyment was marred by the knowledge, from my first reading, that there actually had not been a murder—but a malicious suicide.

I read on, probably not paying as much attention to details as I should have, and saw Poirot, in his traditional final summary/round-up/interrogation, eliminate suspect after suspect, often explaining the inconsistencies in witness statements by a deliberate attempt to protect someone else (in turn based on the incorrect belief that this someone else was the murderer), leaving us with … a murder.

This leads me to two sub-topics:

Firstly, memory is a fickle thing. Incidents like these make me question how much of e.g. my own life that I (and others of theirs) might remember in a distorted manner, especially with an eye on the occasional inclusion in my writings. They also raise serious concerns about e.g. the reliability of witnesses*, and strengthen my opinions concerning topics like statutes of limitations.

*Professionals have raised such concerns for a long time. For that matter, Christie has been known to use unreliable witnesses, including an easily manipulated old lady in this book.

My suspicion is that a suicide was my main hypothesis for most of the original reading, and that this hypothesis, through a larger exposure, remained in my memory, while the actual culprit faded away. Indeed, I have repeatedly had similar experiences in the past (although none so harmful to a re-reading), e.g. in that I had a clear childhood recollection of the brave and capable hero of “Leiningen Versus the Ants” ultimately succumbing to a swarm of his enemies; but found that he actually survived and defeated the ants, when I re-read the story as an adult. Indeed, during the re-reading, my faulty recollection had me contemplating an interpretation of the story as symbolic of the futility of human plans and efforts against something too powerful (e.g. nature, God, or a greater mass of people)—an interpretation that did not pan out… That misrecollection was similar in that most of Leiningen’s efforts through-out the story had been futile: He had repeatedly temporarily held off the ants with consecutive lines of defense, but each line was ultimately over-come, and the general tendency of failure dominates the story. To boot, the scene with his last desperate run, and the attacks during it, must have been very strong to a child, leaving a correspondingly strong impression.

Secondly, I am left with the feeling that Christie made an error of judgment in what is otherwise the best of her books that I have read.* Not only was this the perfect opportunity for the twist ending of twist endings,** but it would also have fit with both the character of the victim (Mrs Boynton) and the timing of events: Mrs Boynton was portrayed as an extremely malicious and tyrannical woman, who enjoyed keeping her family down. To boot, she was elderly and sickly, with her death not being truly unexpected. To boot, her grasp over the family was cracking, as she had under her thumb an own daughter, three step-children, and the wife of one of the step-sons—and the latter had declared her intention to leave (even at the cost of losing her husband), the husband was contemplating following her, another step-son was enticed to rebellion by a new romantic interest (Sarah), and he and the step-daughter had contemplated murder to free the family…***

*In a guesstimate about a dozen—which is still only a fraction of her overall works.

**In light of the good fit, I make a minor reservation that Christie might have deliberately tried to mislead the reader into thinking suicide, and using the reversal as the twist. With my second reading, I am faced with the problem that I might have failed to see such attempts, already being convinced of the suicide; while my first reading is too long gone by. Even should this be the case, however, I consider the suicide version to be better (with corresponding alterations to remove any too open hints at suicide.)

***Here the question of what Mrs Boynton knew is important, with this question partially hinging on when she died. For instance, she was aware of Sarah, but likely never understood how great her effect was: The step-son in question went to take a stand and break free on the very day of her murder, but she is, towards the end, revealed to have already been dead when he reached her. However, since he pretended towards the others that she was still alive, another interpretation is possible for most of the book, that he did tell her off and that she took this as an impulse to act. The situation with the other step-son is quite similar.

Consider now a scenario in which she has the knowledge that her death is not long due, she is faced with this collapse of her petty dominion, and she sees a final way to spite the family—commit suicide and make sure that one or several of the “steps” go down for murder. (This might also, depending on the wills and laws involved, have moved more of her late husbands fortune onto her biological daughter.)

I am uncertain whether this scenario would have fit well enough given the facts presented prior to the summary, but if not, little would have to be changed. The issues around the syringe(s) need not be a problem, assuming e.g. that she had herself stolen one and deliberately left it at the site of the crime (in order to draw attention to the unnatural death); while one of the family members had later removed it, in an attempt to protect another family member (consistent with behavior actually displayed). Contradictory claims of when she was alive and when she must have been dead might be resolvable through an alleged incident with Mrs Boynton’s watch, which had run out and then been rewound and reset by one of the step-sons—possibly, she deliberately let the watch run out in order to somehow trick him into noting the wrong time from some other source.

The actual culprit and the resolution are unsatisfactory, too sudden, and leave the reader in a position where he would be hard-pressed to reach the right conclusion*: Mrs Boynton had once been a wardress in a prison. The murderer, Lady Westholme, had once been an inmate at said prison, Mrs Boynton had recognized her, and was now intending or threatening to use this knowledge to destroy Lady Westholme’s reputation, political career, whatnot.** Poirot’s conclusion of this hinged on statements made by Mrs Boynton directed at Lady Westholme immediately after being given a speech by Sarah, who was not even aware of Lady Westholme’s presence. (Specifically, statements that she never forgot a face and whatnot.) Re-reading the corresponding passages, I can see Poirot’s point (e.g. direction of gaze, surprising formulation); however, resolving the oddity of the statements in context by assuming that they were directed towards a third party forces the introduction of a greater oddity—she must now have left a severe insult to her self-image go entirely unanswered.*** To boot, the formulation was merely surprising, not implausible, with e .g. “I will never forget you or your insults; and one of these days, I am going to get you” being a reasonable interpretation. (Certainly, the effect on Sarah was considerable, pointing to an odd-but-skillful threat.)

*Poirot’s repeated emphasis of the scene might have been clue enough, but (a) I, specifically, was not paying the attention that a Christie story requires, (b) readers, in general, should not have to rely on meta-information, e.g. what the detective’s suspicions are, in order to reach the right conclusion—the point of a good murder mystery is for the reader to try to find the culprit in competition with the detective, not to be led by him. (I have no recollection of whether I managed to get to the right conclusion during my first reading.)

**How seriously such threats were taken by Lady Westholme is further illustrated by there actually being a suicide in the book: Lady Westholme’s, as she realized that the game was up. Notably, Poirot repeatedly emphasizes that he could not necessarily prove anything, and a conviction was likely far from certain, making a “death before dishonor” scenario likelier than despair over a return to prison.

***Unless we assume that she deliberately directed the same set of statements towards two individuals simultaneously, which, while not entirely impossible, is a bit far-fetched. (Or, just possibly, that she deliberately ignored Sarah as a slight in its own right. If so, however, it failed entirely.)

Generally, to my taste, too many of Christie’s work involve various surprise connections from the past, people living under assumed identities, and similar. In one extreme case, I believe “A Murder is Announced”, there are actually two (!) long separated siblings independently using assumed identities. That these surprise connections are not necessarily the culprits, actually makes matters worse: With Lady Westholme, the surprise connection was the reason for the murder—in other cases, we have both a murder and an unrelated surprise connection. (Not to mention the additional coincidence that these murders take place in connection with Poirot or Miss Marple far more often than could be statistically expected. More generally, if a crime-fighter goes on vacation, it appears a fictional necessity that a crime takes place under his nose…)

A related criticism is how often the murderer is someone originally not among the obvious suspects: If the murderer is someone unexpected in a single story, this is not a problem—it might even be good. However, when it happens in story after story, the effect will be ruined by readers who learn to expect the unexpected. Do X, Y, and Z inherit a fortune after the murder? Then X, Y, and Z are likely innocent, so let us focus on A, B, and C instead.

(These criticisms notwithstanding, I consider Christie brilliant.)

Excursion on incongruities:
When looking at fictional detectives, small incongruities are often very important, in that when nine out of ten facts fit a hypothesis, the hypothesis will turn out to be wrong. Sherlock Holmes might have gained less relative the police from his deductive abilities than from his search for small details and insistence that all the details be explained by a single hypothesis. This well matches my experiences from other areas, e.g. in that a minor deviation in a database is often a sign of faulty code—and possibly code that will at some point cause a major deviation. Scientific theories are a great source of examples—if the theory does not explain all that it is supposed to explain, and have all its predictions come true, something needs to be fixed. (My experiences with real-life crime-fighting is extremely limited, but the same almost must hold there, except as far as coincidences need to be taken into account—that cigar ash might have been left by the burglar, but there is also some chance that the butler had taken liberties and failed to clean up the evidence in the excitement after the burglary was discovered.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 16, 2018 at 12:24 am