Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: Archaeologists in Christie's stories

Various things have been happening, one of which is that I am on jury service this week, which is not nearly as exciting as one might think when watching old Perry Mason episodes. In fact, it is very boring with a good deal of time spent just hanging around and not being able to get wi-fi. That accounts for the fact that I have not written anything about the progress of the EU Referendum Bill but before I go on to the far more intriguing subject of Agatha Christie and archaeologists I ought to remind my readers that the Committee stage of the Bill in the House of Lords will begin tomorrow (October 28) and is scheduled to last three days with the Report stage lasting two days.

And now: back to Dame Agatha Christie Mallowan whose 125th birthday we have been celebrating by this series of blogs. First of all, let me remind everyone that the originator of this idea is Curt Evans whose blog, The Passing Tramp is indispensable to anyone who is interested in the genre. Here is his latest contribution, on the subject of Tom Adams's brilliant book covers. In all honesty, I feel that his work in collecting and posting all the links to the various Tuesday Night blogs should be acknowledged, so here they are: the first, introductory, posting; week two with a delightful picture of afternoon tea; week three and week four. This is week five and the last of the Christie blogging as a group. Another member, Noah Stewart, has suggested that we should move on to other well known Golden Age Detective writers and the first of them will be Ellery Queen. I have not yet made up my mind whether to participate because, though I have read a good many of the novels and short stories, I have little to say that even I can consider to be interesting. The plan is to go on to Ngaio Marsh about whom I have a good deal to say and then Rex Stout who created one of my favourite characters in detective fiction: Archie Goodwin.

As every school child knows, Agatha Christie's second husband was the noted archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, with whom she went to Syria and Iraq when he was excavating. there and where she helped by washing and classifying the finds. I recall hearing a lecture at the British Museum about Christie and archaeology. Apparently, she is highly thought of in that field. One of my co-bloggers in the group, Moira Redmond, wrote last week about Christie and digs, quoting her delightful account of her times in the Middle East, Come, Tell Me How You Live.

In it and in They Came To Baghdad, which takes place partially on an archaeological dig, Christie describes the way people's lives and even personalities can be discovered and understood through archaeological finds, which makes it a subject of particular interest to detective fiction writers: the two processes have much in common.

There have been a number of archaeologists who are also detectives: Glyn Daniel's Professor Sir Richard Cherrington (written at first under the pseudonym, Dilwyn Rees) is an obvious example. Then there was Tamara Hoyland, the heroine of Jessica Mann's early series as well as her erstwhile teacher, Professor Thea Crawford. Ellis Peters's George Felse series as well as a number of the stand-alone novels revolve round archaeological sites with archaeologists either solving the mystery or contributing to the solution. Elizabeth Peters and Elly Griffiths's heroines (and heroes) are archaeologists and Kate Ellis's novels tend to have a double strand of modern crime and archaeological study that interweave with DI Wesley Peterson as the amateur archaeologist and professional police officer and his friend Neil Watson the opposite. These are just the examples I could think of immediately.

Christie did not have a single archaeologist as an investigator though a few try their hands at it, particularly in Murder In Mesopotamia, the one novel that takes place almost entirely on a dig and the only book that is narrated by a woman. It also has possibly the most preposterous solution of any Christie detective story, which is rather a pity as so much about it is so very good and entertaining.

How can one categorize the archaeologists? Let us try to employ those little grey cells. There are the phony ones - the crooks who masquerade as an archaeologist in order to steal various artefacts or, in one case, silver from the local mansion. There is Dr Stone in Murder at the Vicarage and Father Lavigny in Murder in Mesopotamia. They both usurp the personality of a well-known practitioner in order to carry out their nefarious projects. Both manage to escape but will, almost certainly, be found in the near future and imprisoned for fraud and theft.

Then there are the criminal archaeologists. The best known of these [name withheld] is the murderer in Mesopotamia. A less well known one is Dr Carter who crops up in one of the Parker Pyne short stories, The Pearl of Price. He tries to steal an expensive pearl earring in order to finance his next expedition. Not only he fails as Parker Pyne works out what has happened but the earring is a fake so criminal success would not have given him what he wanted.

Another criminal, a far more evil one, is Dr Ames in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, an early Poirot short story. The collection in which it appeared, Poirot Investigates, was published in 1924 and Hastings is in all the stories. Strictly speaking Dr Ames is a medical man, who accompanies the exhibition but he is most definitely evil.

So we come to the archaeologist heroes. In two books (though it sometimes feels as if there were many more of them) the heroine forms an attachment to a charming young man who turns out to be a very bad person, indeed.

In They Came to Baghdad, he is seen as "Lucifer", the beautiful fallen angel, the man who wants to create world-wide chaos in order to take over eventually. Or something like that. This is one of those books whose parts are considerably better than the whole. The heroine, Victoria Jones, who is rather feisty one has to admit, is rescued from the emotional morass by an archaeologist. She ends the adventure by re-joining the dig and intending to work there, having become quite interested in the subject as well as in the man who explains it all to her.

The other novel in which the heroine, also quite an admirable young lady, is saved from her infatuation with a charming rotter, in this case a serial killer, by a young archaeologist whose expedition she will be accompanying as an assistant, largely though Poirot's intervention is Death in the Clouds, illustrated here.

Poor Archie Christie, clearly the man on whom those charming villains are based, was really no worse and no less sensitive than many men of his class and generation. He was certainly not a criminal. But he paid heavily for his misdemeanours in his wife's novels.


  1. Yes, Helen, I've often thought that handsome young male charmers accounted for a good number of Christie's murderers because of Archie's mischief during their marriage. Just to strike a blow on the side of charming rotters (which I could not be if I tried!) let's add another fake archaeologist: Mr. Richetti from Death on the Nile, whose telegrams about fruits and vegetables mask some sort of nefarious deeds that I believe belong in a Christie thriller!

    1. Aaargh! Forgot Mr Richetti. How could I? When I was planning the posting I had him in mind as well. (Ashes and sackcloth)

  2. Very nice roundup and analysis. The descriptions of the digs almost tempted me when I was a teenager - I wasn't put off by the murders. I *was* terribly surprised by the presence of priests on digs, didn't quite know what they were doing there. Love that Murder in Mesopotamia cover above, and the photograph.

  3. Very nice look at all the archaeologists in the stories! It's definitely been too long since I read some of these.

  4. Helen, as always an interesting article. I haven't read a Christie for decades. When I did the conventional wisdom was that "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was the pinnacle of her achievement, and it didn't disappoint.

    I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I got a chuckle from this sentence.

    "As every school child knows, Agatha Christie's second husband was the noted archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, with whom she went to Syria and Iraq when he was excavated there and where she helped by washing and classifying the finds."

    I think you meant excavating. At any rate comparative rogue though he might have been he certainly seems better than the husband this woman "excavated" in Syria.


    1. Thanks, Ian. That I corrected in the text. Really, I thought I had proof-read it.