First published in The Sketch, Issue 1600 (26 September 1923) this is the first Agatha Christie story with an archaeological connection, foreshadowing later full-length novels (notably my own personal favourite of all her novels, Murder in Mesopotamia) and testifying to an interest in the subject even before her marriage to celebrated archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. The story takes place “[h]ard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon” – an expedition famous for being plagued by a series of tragic coincidences which led many to posit that those involved had been the victim of an ancient Egyptian curse. The period was one at which the late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century fascination with the occult aspects of Egyptian culture and its archaeological (and spiritual) afterlife was at fever pitch. (As an aside here, I heartily recommend Roger Luckhurst’s book, The Mummy’s Curse, which takes a learned but wry look at this cultural phenomenon). This is thus another example of the tendency, in Christie’s first set of Poirot stories, to have reference to popular topics of the day – things which were culturally “in the air” and which would be of interest to readers of the Sketch. We are presented here with a case involving a “strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra”, and a similar set-up of a peer of the realm who dabbles in archaeology funded by an interested member of the aristocracy – as in the Tutankhamen case. That this is a trope—an exportable pop-cultural topic with its own generic rules and expectations—is, perhaps, emphasised by the capitalised T in Tomb.
At the same time though the story uses Poirot as a mouthpiece to emphasise the point that the belief in curses upon disturbers of tombs is “contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.” In that sense it pays lip service to the curse narrative, which forms the thematic backbone of the story, whilst also debunking it, not only with rational deduction, but with solid archaeological knowledge – the latter is offered, we might say, as the archaeological equivalent of Poirot’s own capacity to use razor-sharp inductive and deductive reasoning to counter the sensationalism which is brought to bear on more mundane crimes by the newspapers, novels and cinema films which are so eagerly consumed by Hastings and which colour his imaginative approach to these affairs.
Thus, after Sir John Willard dies of heart failure, Mr Bleibner of “acute blood poisoning”, and his nephew of suicide, Poirot is called in by Lady Willard because he is “a man of original views […] you have imagination, experience of the world”. Yet, she immediately asks him: “what are your views on the supernatural?” In narrative terms, this is entirely in keeping not only with a genre of “antiquarian” ghost story associated mainly with M.R. James – and the more specific iteration of that genre which bases itself in Egyptian archaeology (think Bram Stoker, Richard Marsh and Kipling) – but also with that kind of crime story where the solution to the mystery involves the debunking of a supernatural legend as well. Poirot’s response may surprise us by being more Van Helsing than Sherlock Holmes – more Dracula than Hound of the Baskervilles: “I, too, believe in the force of superstition, one of the greatest forces the world has ever known.” Two observations suggest themselves to me at this point though. Firstly, this is Christie once more playing with generic expectation – the fictional tropes that govern the expectations of the thriller, and which Poirot (like the murderer) is able to see through and cleverly manipulate – unlike the more gullible public, represented by the sensation-hungry Hastings. After all, Poirot’s statement is literally true, but he doesn’t mean what the “occult fiction” genre would lead us to expect – this is not a profession of belief in the supernatural, but rather of his understanding that superstitious belief can be so powerful as to have the same effect in the end regardless of whether any supernatural agency actually exists. Yet (and this is my second point) this is in itself often the point of the more effective ghost stories of the period – a case in point is W.H. Hodgson’s Carnacki stories, whose readers are never made aware until the stories’ end whether the solution to the “hauntings” investigated by the protagonist are supernatural or not, thus emphasising the need to respect fear and superstition as forces with an agency quite independent of the supernatural. For me, then, this tale is at once a debunking of the more enduring supernatural stories and popular myths to which it pays lip service, and a celebration of (and homage to) precisely that power to endure.
All of this means that, when Hastings recalls late-Victorian Gothic literature with his comment that the cause of these deaths “may be some potent curse from the past that operates in ways undreamed of by modern science”, we can’t simply put this down to his gullibility. In the days of the Society for Psychical Research, the notion that what appears “supernatural” to us moderns is actually a survival of natural phenomena of which past civilizations had an understanding that might be described as “scientific,” but which was lost to us moderns, wasn’t exactly a controversial idea. For once, this is not a question of Hastings’s naivety versus Poirot’s objective deductive prowess – rather, Poirot’s attitude is simply a more modern spin on a similar idea, replacing Hastings’s late-Victorian turn to the psychical with a modernist turn to the psychological. Once more, we see how Hastings automatically separates the supernatural from the psychological – Poirot, on the other hand, sees the one as the product of, and the agent of, the other since, for him, superstition is always-already the product of psychology in practice. Indeed, Hastings is on intellectual form in this story; his theory that Bleibner’s nephew meant to kill his uncle, but killed Sir John instead (and then took his own life when he realised his mistake) comes across as thoroughly plausible.
Rupert Bleibner (the nephew of the Bleibner who funds the expedition) complains that his uncle cares more for the dead relics of long ago than for the flesh and blood of the living. This, of course, is at the root of the whole sleight of hand distraction here – the perpetrator relies on everyone else seeing the deaths as somehow an effect of the long dead upon the living, rather than something entirely and materially grounded in the present. But all the same, death is everywhere – in Rupert Bleibner’s self-destructive lifestyle, his eventual suicide after a supposed diagnosis of leprosy, and the apparent “curse”. Bleibner’s suicide note, Hastings tells us, claims that “such as he were better dead”. This isn’t the exact wording (something that will become apparent later on) but it does tie together the theme of a preference of the living for the dead, rather than for those who are still alive – a perennial target of critique in the antiquarian ghost story tradition and, of course, a darkly ironic insinuation that uncle Bleibner might somehow be able “better” to relate to those around him if they were “dead”. All of which goes once more to demonstrate the way in which the tale’s macabre trappings have a resonance even after their allegedly supernatural significance is debunked.
Although the conclusion is entirely and cleverly rational, this enmeshment in the trappings of supernatural fiction is probably the most fully-developed in a Christie story so far – so much so that the tale wouldn’t look out of place in her later, largely supernatural collection, The Hound of Death. In other ways, however, this is a very typical Poirot story, especially as regards its depiction of Poirot travelling. His sea-sickness is, once again, his Achilles heel (his Hercules heal?). Poirot’s obsession with order and method is also in evidence. When, arriving in Egypt, Hastings gives an economical but impressive sketch of its wondrous appearance and atmosphere, Poirot is unimpressed. The Sphinx is too irregular for his tastes, his shoes are full of sand and his moustaches go limp in the heat. Poirot’s inability to travel (something he appears to have got over by the time of the foreign-set cases of the 1930s) is thus central to the flavour of the story – and the least said about his prowess on a camel the better.
Yet this is more than a charming character note. It’s actually an important reflection of why Poirot is able to solve the case – he is grounded in the present and its material discomforts and is totally unwilling to be impressed by the oppressive atmosphere of the ancients to which Hastings succumbs (“All around me I seemed to feel an atmosphere of evil, subtle and menacing. A horrible thought flashed across me. Supposing I were next?”). Perhaps this obsession with the orderliness of modernity against the clutter and dirt of a more romantic but chaotic past is part and parcel of what allows Poirot to distance himself from the distractions of the occult and see the crime for the cold-blooded scheme it really is? Interestingly, Poirot’s pretence of being taken in by the “curse” narrative plays to protestant prejudices about the “superstitious” nature of his Catholic religion – whether unconsciously when he calls to the Virgin Mary on the camel, or consciously when he pretends to harbour “some plan of exorcizing the evil spirits”. Either way, we once again see that Poirot’s pretence at being taken in by the villain also involves a pretence at succumbing either to the generic expectations of the kind of plot the villain has set up to hide his own guilt (in this case the allure of “evil”, which is explicitly called out here as the stuff of lurid popular fiction rather than the inevitable adjunct of the more prosaic question of murder for gain). As ever, Christie shows herself to be a writer attuned to the power of storytelling – and the way in which a murder investigation, like crime fiction itself, stands or falls by the competing powers of different narratives, all surrounding the cold hard fact of a dead body.