Appointment with Death
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Appointment with Death (published in 1938) is a crime novel written by Agatha Christie featuring her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The novel reflects Christie's experiences travelling in the Middle East with her husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.
Holidaying in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears Raymond Boynton telling his sister: "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Their mother, Mrs. Boynton, is a sadistic tyrant who dominates all the younger members of her family, and who attracts the strong dislike of a group of people outside the immediate family. But when she is found dead, there are only twenty-four hours for Hercule Poirot to solve the case and he has no way of even proving whether it was murder.
The first part of the novel (a little over a third) is an effective psychological thriller as the family and the victim are introduced, principally through the perspective of Sarah King and Dr. Gerard, who discuss the behaviour of the family. Mrs. Boynton is sadistic and domineering, traits that (it is suggested) may have influenced her choice of original profession: prison warden.
Sarah is attracted to Raymond Boynton, while Jefferson Cope admits to wanting to take Nadine Boynton away from her husband, Lennox Boynton, and the influence of her mother-in-law. Having been thwarted in her desire to free the young Boyntons, Sarah confronts Mrs. Boynton whose apparent reply is a strange threat: “I’ve never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face.” When the party reaches Petra, Mrs. Boynton uncharacteristically sends her family away from her for a period. Later, she is found dead with a needle puncture in her wrist.
Poirot claims that he can solve the mystery within twenty-four hours simply by interviewing the suspects. During these interviews he establishes a timeline that seems impossible: Sarah King places the time of death considerably before the times at which various of the family members claim last to have seen the victim alive. Attention is focused on a hypodermic syringe that has seemingly been stolen from Dr. Gerard’s tent and later replaced. The poison administered to the victim is believed to be digitoxin: something that she already took medicinally.
During a protracted denouement, Poirot explains how each member of the family has, in turn, discovered Mrs. Boynton to be dead and, suspecting another family member, failed to report the fact. In reality, none of the family would have need to murder the victim with a hypodermic, since an overdose could much more effectively have been administered in her medicine. This places the suspicion on one of the outsiders.
The murderer is revealed to be Lady Westholme who, previous to her marriage, had been incarcerated in the prison in which the victim was once a warden. It was to Lady Westholme, and not to Sarah, that Mrs. Boynton had addressed that peculiar threat; the temptation to acquire a new subject to torture had been too great for her to resist. Disguised as an Arab servant she had committed the murder and then relied upon the suggestibility of Miss Pierce to lay two pieces of misdirection that had concealed her role in the murder.
Lady Westholme, eavesdropping in an adjoining room, overhears that her criminal history is about to be revealed to the world and commits suicide. The family, free at last, take up happier lives: Sarah marries Raymond; Carol marries Jefferson; and Ginevra takes up a successful career as a stage actress.
Characters in “Appointment with Death”
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian Detective
- Colonel Carbury, senior figure in Transjordania
- Mrs. Boynton, the victim
- Raymond Boynton, the victim’s stepson
- Carol Boynton, the victim’s stepdaughter
- Lennox Boynton, the victim’s stepson
- Nadine Boynton, Lennox's wife
- Jefferson Cope, an American
- Ginevra Boynton, the victim’s daughter
- Dr. Gerard, a French psychologist
- Sarah King, a young doctor
- Lady Westholme, a member of Parliament
- Miss Pierce, a former nursery governess
The novel mentions two other Poirot investigations: the detective is seen to retell to Colonel Carbury the story of Cards on the Table and Nadine Boynton actually confronts Poirot with his own actions in the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express.
Film, TV or theatrical versions
Adapted as a play in 1945, and as a Peter Ustinov film in 1988. The stage adaptation is notable for being one of the most radical reworkings of a novel Christie ever did, not only eliminating Hercule Poirot from the story, but changing the identity of the killer.
In the play, the ill Mrs Boynton committed suicide and dropped several red herrings that pointed to her family members as possible suspects, hoping that they would suspect each other and therefore continue to live in her shadow even after her death. The film did not incorporate these changes, retaining the plot of the book.