Okay, this is a very, very good book. I started reading it late one Saturday evening, and had to tear myself away about a third of the way in because it was getting close to midnight and I wanted to sleep, but also, I COULDN’T PUT THE BOOK DOWN!
The premise is delightfully spooky: archaeologist Dr Leidner hires a nurse to care for his wife while she accompanied his team on a dig in Mesopotamia. Mrs Leidner has been having a tough time — she’s been hearing odd noises like scratching on the walls, and seeing stuff like, once, a creepy face at her window. The whole thing was making her extra jumpy, and Dr Leidner hoped Nurse Leatheran — who is also our narrator — can help with her nerves.
My Kindle copy had highlights galore, and the notes in my detective notebook were filled with clusters of exclamation points. Here’s a reveal! There’s a reveal! And oh my god, I can’t believe this was just revealed!!! There was a chapter where Mrs Leidner was telling Nurse Leatheran about some experiences she’d had, and I was gasping as if I were watching things unfold in a theatre. The simple phrase “I have arrived” made me jump. Seriously: a chill ran down my spine, and I clutched my poor cat for comfort. Nurse Leatheran had a much more rational response to the incident, and a matter-of-fact explanation for it. Which only goes to show me that in the world of Poirot, I’m more likely to be the ‘hysterical’ woman in need of a nurse than the level-headed nurse herself.
Ironically, despite the title of the novel, the murder itself took me by surprise. Partly because, shortly before it occurred, a revelation turned suspicion on a particular character. So when the murder happened and definitely proved that character innocent, I was thrown aback. But also, and this is yet another sign of Christie’s genius, the scene right before the murder was calm and low-key. Characters went off to their daily tasks, Nurse Leatheran settled in with a good book about a nursing home… and honestly, the scene lulled me into a false sense of security. So when Nurse Leatheran realized two hours had passed, and then a murder is discovered, it took a moment for my brain to catch up. So, well done, Dame Agatha, for pulling me in so masterfully!
Among all the Agatha Christie mysteries I’ve tried to solve so far, this one feels the most cinematic. In fact, when the characters call Hercule Poirot in for help at the 33% mark, I even cheered out loud. Because, the hero has arrived, and the story is about to ramp all the way up to full throttle. Poirot, as always, lays out the facts and possible theories with admirable precision, and by the 44% mark, I was ready to lock my prime suspect in as the murderer. I’d found them suspicious from the start, and further clues only seemed to confirm my suspicions. Of course, this being Agatha Christie, the level of my confidence is often in direct opposition to the level of my accuracy, and I knew many more things had yet to be revealed.
…Okay, I’m 81% in, a second murder has occurred, a character has disappeared, and Hercule Poirot has requested for all suspects to be gathered together. It’s time for me to make my final deductions. I make my bold proclamation and explain my rationale after the spoiler tag, and we shall see how my little grey cells stood up to this task!
Ok, hats off to you, Dame Agatha. No, I did not solve this mystery, but to be honest, I don’t even mind. Because the actual reveal blew my mind. I yelled “WHAT???” when Poirot made his accusation. I had my hand to my mouth as he explained the means the murder was committed. And I legit gasped out loud when I learned the motive. My poor cat had been cuddling with me as I read, and she shot me a look and inched away as I read these pages.
Bravo, Dame Agatha. Brilliant work!
My Theory / My Detective Big Reveal:
First, The Clues:
The afternoon of the murder, Miss Johnson was in the living room and heard a faint cry of surprise/alarm. When Nurse Leatheran and Poirot test a similar cry from Mrs Leidner’s bedroom, no sound was heard in the living room. However, when Poirot did a similar test by the window of Father Lavigny’s room, the sound was clearly heard in the dining room (which is the same distance away). Therefore, Mrs Leidner must’ve been at the window when she made that cry.
Mrs Leidner and Nurse Leatheran found wax on a gold drinking up with a ram’s head in the antika room. Mrs Leidner thinks it’s just candle wax, but I think it’s more significant. My guess is that it’s moulding wax, and someone was making an impression of the cup to create a counterfeit version.
There’s small blood stain on the rug by the bed, and a small blood stain on the rug by the washbasin near the bedroom door. But otherwise, very little blood; the bleeding was mostly internal. My guess is that Mrs Leidner was actually killed by the washbasin instead of the bed.
Father Lavigny lied about the Iraqi man he was seen chatting with. He insists the man was short, square, and fair-skinned, with a noticeable squint. But Nurse Leatheran remembers him as tall, slender, and dark-skinned, and she doesn’t remember a squint. Father Lavigny backtracks a bit, but stays insistent on the squint, and later suggests the Iraqi man may be a European disguised as an Iraqi. Who is this Iraqi man, and why is Father Lavigny covering for him?
The murderer wasn’t seen entering the complex. But while on the roof, Miss Johnson figured out how someone could come into the courtyard undetected. What did she see? From the roof, Nurse Leatheran saw the river on the left, the Tell outlined in gold. To the south were blossoming trees and peaceful cultivation. A water wheel groaned in the distance. In the north were slender minarets and Hassaneh. Mrs Leidner’s room was on the south east corner of the complex. My guess is that the waterways have something to do with it. Perhaps something about the pipes, and that’s why the water basin is significant? Did Mrs Leidner go closer to the water basin to test out a theory?
Now, Some Questions:
- Who wrote the letters to Mrs Leidner, supposedly from her husband? Why did they stop until just after her wedding to Dr Leidner?
- Who is Mrs Leidner secretly seeing during her afternoon walks?
- Why did Father Lavigny disappear? Is the arrival of the French archaeologist Verrier shortly after Father Lavigny disappeared significant?
- Why did Richard Carey hate Mrs Leidner?
- Is Emmott involved? He seemed suspicious of Mrs Leidner. But he was working with Doctor Leidner the whole time.
- Is Coleman involved? He could’ve snuck back when he should’ve been in Hassanieh. But why? I suspect a second person must be involved because the point about how someone can get in undetected is important, and Father Lavigny was inside the compound at the time of the murder.
Okay, here’s My Conclusion:
I think Father Lavigny’s a fraud. My guess is that the real Father Lavigny is off blissfully unaware of this dig (or killed, yikes!), and this fake Father infiltrated the party. I bet he disappeared because Verrier knew the real Father Lavigny and could’ve unmasked him.
I’ve found Father Lavigny suspicious from the start. He has a big black beard, which is helpful for obscuring one’s identity. And also, he rarely actually did his job. Dr Leidner and Mrs Leidner figured he was just lazy, but I think he’s up to something. Dr Leidner also commented his translations of tablets were odd; I bet he has no idea what he’s doing.
My guess is that he infiltrated the party so he could steal artifacts from them to sell on the black market. I bet the Iraqi man (who doesn’t actually have a squint and who actually is Iraqi) is his accomplice who helps him sell stuff. I think Father Lavigny was making moulds out of the artefacts; the Iraqi man was creating replicas; and the replicas are replaced in the antika room while the real ones are sold for profit. I bet they passed the goods through the windows, in between the bars.
I think Mrs Leidner saw them that afternoon. She happened to be looking out her window, possibly for her lover, and gave that cry of alarm that Miss Johnson heard. They needed to kill her to keep her quiet.
I feel like Richard Carey is Mrs Leidner’s lover, whom she secretly met on her walks. You don’t hate someone unless you feel strongly for them, and the odd formality between them is super suspicious and points to an affair. I bet she told him she was actually in love with her husband, and that’s why he hates her.
I don’t know if Coleman’s involved. If I were to fit in the bit about Mrs Leidner’s first husband Frederick and his younger brother William, I suppose Father Lavigny could’ve been Frederick, and Coleman could’ve been William. Coleman was in Hassanieh during the murder, and that could’ve been part of their route to fence the goods.
But my guess is that Mrs Leidner wrote the letters herself. I think she was jealous of archaeology taking up so much of her husband’s attention and passions, and perhaps jealous of Miss Johnson and Richard Carey for their close friendships with Dr Leidner as part of the O.G. archaeology group. And I think she could’ve written the letters to make her husband pay more attention to her.
Even though the letters may have been fake, I think a lot of the spooky stuff what Mrs Leidner heard and saw were real. Her bedroom was right beside the antika room, so I think the creepy scratching she heard was actually Father Lavigny hard at work in the antika room to create the fakes. I bet Father Lavigny and his accomplice did their part to heighten her fears to make the others take her less seriously; for example, they made that mask that she saw in the window and that Poirot later found in the cupboard.
All right, I’m locking in my guess. Let’s see how I do!
The Actual Reveal
Dr Leidner killed his wife. He was actually her first husband Frederick, who took on the identity of Dr Leidner after the latter was killed in a train crash Frederick happened to be in. He wrote the letters, and he killed her by dropping the murder weapon off the roof when she looked out the window. (To be honest, I didn’t think the bars were far enough for someone to actually stick their head out, but maybe they rise when the window is opened.)
I was right about Father Lavigny being a fraud (the real one was ill and declined the invitation to join the group), and about the artifact smuggling scheme he had going with the Iraqi man. (Who, I was right, did not have a squint.) And I was right about Mrs Leidner and Richard Carey having an affair. But I was wrong on everything else.
No wonder Miss Johnson didn’t want to tell Nurse Leatheran what she’d discovered on the roof! She’d been in love with Dr Leidner for years, and wanted to think things through before actually accusing him.
A clue I’d forgotten was when Nurse Leatheran saw Miss Johnson crying in the office, and found a crumpled up letter like the ones Mrs Leidman had received. The nurse thought Miss Johnson had been crying because she’d written the letters herself; but really, it was that she realized Dr Leidner, whom she loved, must’ve been the writer.
Poirot went through the whole process of why Father Lavigny could’ve been the murderer, and I was feeling super smug about having figured it out…until Poirot said, “It was a solution that fitted the outer facts, but it did not satisfy the psychological requirements.” Alas, again, I am foiled by the psychology of it all.
I didn’t have any inkling of the first husband part, not at all. Complete WTF twist for me. Also completely insane.
I had all my suspicion on the fake Father, Poirot and Christie absolutely faked me out there!
Glad to know I’m not alone, hahaha!
I do so envy you. Years ago, I read and reread the Agatha Christie novels and all the Mary Westmacott ones as well. Wish I was discovering them again