MURDER BY SIX

MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA: AGATHA CHRISTIE & ARCHAEOLOGY
By G. W. Thomas


Agatha was not a young woman when she married archaeologist Max Mallowan

 Murder in Mesopotamia is as close as Agatha Christie ever came to writing an autobiographical mystery.  Her unpublished novel Unfinished Portrait (1934) as Mary Westmacott, is largely based on her childhood at Ashfield, but is not a mystery.  Murder in Mesopotamia concerns archaeology, the profession of her second husband, Max Mallowan.  Though Max’s work would flavor novels like Death on the Nile and Death Comes at the End (a murder mystey set in Ancient Egypt) only this, her twenty-first novel, focuses specifically on archeologists, their digs and the people who surround them in their work.

 The plot of Murder in Mesopotamia revolves around an archeologist’s wife who suffers from a strange nervousness, which everyone at the dig attributes to her love of self-drama.  Only after she is murdered, struck down by some heavy object, does anyone begin to consider her fears real.  Nurse Leathern, the narrator of the tale, discovers that the woman feared her first husband, a German war criminal, who might yet be alive and trying to kill her for marrying again.  A series of warning letters seem to support this theory.

 After the woman’s death, Hercule Poirot is brought in from Baghdad, where he is visiting, to solve the mystery.  The Little Belgian attempts to reconstruct the personality of the murdered woman and her relationships with the other members of the Leidner expedition.  Eventually, Poirot comes to the conclusion that one of the expedition members is both the killer and Louise Leidner’s former husband, or his faithful younger brother, since no one from outside the complex could have committed the crime.

 Later, Miss Johnson, Eric Leidner’s assistant, discovers how the murder was accomplished but is herself killed by having her nightly glass of water substituted for hydrochloric acid.  Her dying words are “The window --” After this gruesome death, Poirot solves the meaning of those words and the mystery.  The husband, Eric Leidner was in fact the first husband, Frederick Bosner!  He had killed his own wife by swinging a heavy stone on a rope at his wife who looked up through her bedroom window.  Later, in fear that she would expose him, he murdered Anne Johnson as well.

 The biographical qualities of Murder in Mesopotamia take two forms.  The first is location.  The entire setting for the novel is based on real places.  The scientists’ camp, known as Tell Yarimjah, was based on Leonard Woolley’s expedition house at Ur as well as later locations the Mallowan’s would inhabit.  “The expedition house resembled their quarters at Chagar Bazar but the mood was that of Ur.”

 The second, and more fascinating aspect, is the inhabitants of Tell Yarimjah, who are largely based on the researchers and servants of the Woolley expedition.  At the center of the book, and at the center of Agatha’s motivation to write Murder in Mesopotamia is Woolley’s wife, the dominating and tyrannical Katherine, who is Louise Leidner in the novel.  Poirot feels the absolute power of this woman so strongly that he focuses his investigation on understanding her completely. “And I am convinced, mademoiselle, that the key to this enigma lies in a complete understanding of Mrs. Leidner’s character.  If I could get the opinion -- the honest opinion -- of every member of the staff, I might, from the whole, build up a picture.” In this respect Murder in Mesopotamia is a novel of character, a study of Katherine Woolley.  Max Mallowan describes her in his autobiography, Mallowan’s Memoirs.


Max Mallowan and his Memoirs

 His wife, Katherine Woolley, who always accompanied him, was a dominating and powerful personality of whom even at this time it is difficult to speak fairly.  Her first marriage had been a disaster, for not long after the honeymoon her husband shot himself at the foot of the Great Pyramid and it was only with reluctance that she brought herself to marry Woolley -- she needed a man to look after her, but was not intended for the physical side of matrimony.  Katherine was a gifted woman, of great charm when she liked to apply it, but feline and described by Gertrude Bell, not inaptly, as a dangerous woman.  She had the power of entrancing those associated with her when she was in the mood, or on the contrary of creating a charged poisonous atmosphere; to live with her was to walk on a tightrope.  Many a man led on by her bewitching spells suddenly found himself cast aside with disdain, but she could inspire affection and was good company -- well-read and never dull.  Opinionated, Teutonic in overriding contrary opinion, ultra-sensative and ready to take offence: there was no room for any other woman on the expedition.  The Woolleys wisely saw to it that there never was one.  Even the workmen on the dig were afraid of her and I remember an occasion when the male members of the expedition were vainly attempting to separate a tribal quarrel in the course of which the combatants were cracking each other’s heads with maces: the sudden appearance of Katherine on the scene was enough to bring about an instantaneous end to the battle.

 It is likely that Max Mallowan reviewed Agatha’s characterization of Katherine when writing his memoirs (published in 1977) for there are some similarities between this description and portions of Murder in Mesopotamia.  Father Lavigny, the monk, speaks archaeologist Gertrude Bell’s description of Katherine when he describes Louise Leidner as “a dangerous woman”.  Nurse Leathern agrees with Max Mallowan’s description of her education when she says: “‘Oh! she was a very clever woman,’ I said eagerly, ‘Very well read and up in everything.  She wasn’t a bit ordinary.’”  Poirot adds to this in his summation: “She had, to begin with, an interest in culture and in modern science -- that is, a distinct intellectual side.”

 Miss Reilly, the daughter of the Baghdad physician, Dr. Reilly, gives a lengthy description of the Louise Leidner/Katherine Woolley psyche in Chapter 18:

“... Has she told you of the queer atmosphere there was at Tell Yarimjah?  Has she told how jumpy they all were?  And how they all used to glare at each other like enemies?  That was Louise Leidner’s doing.  When I was a kid out there three years ago they were the happiest, jolliest lot imaginable.  Even last year they were pretty well all right.  But this year there was a blight over them -- and it was her doing.  She was the kind of woman who won’t let anybody else be happy!  There are women like that and she was one of them!  She wanted to break up things always.  Just for fun -- or for the sense of power -- or perhaps just because she was made that way.  And she was the kind of woman who had to get hold of every male creature within reach ... She’s not sensual.  She doesn’t want affairs.  It’s just cold-blooded experiment on her part and the fun of stirring people up and setting them against each other.  She dabbled in that too.  She’s the sort of woman who’s never had a row with any one in her life -- but rows always happen where she is!  She makes them happen.  She’s a kind of female Iago.  She must have drama.  But she doesn’t want to be involved herself.  She’s always outside pulling strings -- looking on -- enjoying it ...”

 Poirot himself sums up all the separate descriptions of Louise Leidner in the final analysis of his case.

 It was quite clear to me from the accounts of Dr. Reilly and others that Mrs. Leidner was one of those women who are endowed by Nature not only with beauty but with the kind of calamitous magic which sometimes accompanies beauty and can, indeed, exist independently of it.  Such women usually leave a trail of violent happenings behind them.  They bring disaster -- sometimes on others -- sometimes on themselves.
 “I was convinced that Mrs. Leidner was a woman who essentially worshipped herself and who enjoyed more than anything the sense of power.  Wherever she was, she must be the centre of the universe.  And every one round her, man or woman, had got to acknowledge her sway.  With some people that was easy ... But there was a second way in which Mrs. Leidner exercised her sway -- the way of fear.  Where conquest was too easy she indulged a more cruel side to her nature -- but I wish to reiterate emphatically that it was not what you might call conscious cruelty.  It was as natural and unthinking as is the conduct of a cat with a mouse.  Where consciousness came in, she was essentially kind and would often go out of her way to do kind and thoughtful actions for other people.”


Leonard Woolley

It is this same natural power that the pain-filled Mr. Carey also possesses, in fact, strong enough even to lure the rather a-sexual Louise into his arms.  Poirot defines this “calamitous magic” with a modern term “le sex appeal!”

 The characterization of Katherine Woolley is inextricably linked to that of Leonard Woolley, for, as Eric Leidner, his actions and traits often accentuate hers.  Leonard Woolley’s portrait is a dual job, first as the innocent and pathetic Eric Leidner and then as the shadowy Frederick Bosner.   Leonard Woolley, as leader of the excavations at Ur is described by Max Mallowan:

“... Woolley, always amiable, studiously polite and usually genial, was something of a tyrant as all successful heads of expeditions have to be, but he was always just and never expected more than he gave himself. Both the Woolleys were snobs and were unashamed to bend any potential helpers to their aid and likewise to cast them off when they were no longer useful, a short-sighted policy which made enemies.”

 This last portion sounds truer of Frederick Bosner, Eric Leidner’s first incarnation.  “‘He was so kind, too -- so gentle. There was always something a little ruthless behind his gentleness.’”  The kind of ruthlessness that produced a series of threatening letters and finally two murders in the story.

 The Leonard-Katherine marriage is described thus by Max Mallowan: “Although her [Katherine] health was an anxiety to Woolley, and her exactions made constant demands on his time, marriage made him more human and with advantage often diverted a single-mindedness which otherwise would have left no more time whatever for anything but work.”  As stated earlier by Mallowan, Katherine had married Leonard shortly after the suicide of her first husband, largely out of comfort.  Agatha captures this one-sided relationship perfectly with her portrait of the Leidner’s marriage when Louise Leidner declares, “... I meant never to marry. Eric made me change my mind.  I was frightened -- but not so much as I might have been to begin with. Being with Eric made me feel safe ...”  Agatha also provides a rather cutting analysis of the Woolley’s different psychological needs: “...she [Louise] was already essential an egoist.  Such women naturally revolt from the idea of marriage.  They may be attracted by men, but they prefer to belong to themselves.”  While Leonard was: a man of great ability, his profession is congenial to him, and he makes a success of it.  But he never forgets the ruling passion of his life.”

 Christie uses Katherine’s unfortunate first marriage as a Doyle-esque “phantom-from-the past” theme in the novel.  According to Louise Leidner, she had married at twenty only to hand her husband over to the authorities for being a German spy during World War I.  Being taken to his execution, Bosner escapes during a train crash, assuming the guise of Eric Leidner.  More colorful than Katherine Woolley’s life(but only slightly!) there can be little doubt where Christie got the idea from.  In typical Christie fashion she takes a real event and shapes it to her own purposes.

 The contrived events of Murder in Mesopotamia, the letters, the elaborate plot, which included having a nurse on hand to establish time of death, and Mrs. Leidner’s death, are all constructs of the story’s plot.  Whether Katherine Woolley ever engaged in affairs is not recorded, but she did end her days with Leonard Woolley.  Mallowan tells of her odd death scene, dramatic to the last:

“Katherine died aged about fifty having struggled with bad health all her life.  One night before going to bed she said to Leonard, ‘Len, I am going to die this night.  You will find me dead in the morning: you must carry on exactly as you would if I were alive.’  He received the statement with disbelief, for there had been many alarms, but the next morning she was indeed dead ...”

 The strong character of Katherine Woolley, (who as Louise Leidner is compared to Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci, a swamp creature, and the Snow Queen of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale may seem reason enough for Agatha Christie to use her as a model in a novel, but there is a further motive, literary vengeance.  In 1930, after their meeting at Ur, Max Mallowan and Agatha found themselves together often.  First introduced, and in Max’s case, forced together by Katherine, the younger archaeologist soon fell in love with the senior Christie.  Max Mallowan in his memoirs recalls the moment when he recognized Agatha for an incredible woman and his choice as wife:

 When Agatha came down to stay in March of that year Katherine Woolley in her imperious way ordered me to take her [Agatha] on a round trip to Baghdad and see something of the desert ... as it was a boiling hot day, we decided to have a bathe in a salt lake near by, but in doing so the car became inextricably stuck in the sand and looked as if it would never get out   Fortunately we had with us a Bedouin guard supplied by the police at Nejeif ... and after praying to Allah he set off to make the forty-mile journey on foot ... I remember being amazed that Agatha did not reproach me for my incompetence in leading the driver to get stuck in the sand, for had I been accompanied by Katherine Woolley that is what would have happened, and I then decided that she [Agatha] must be a remarkable woman.

 Later, Agatha had to leave Iraq because of the sudden illness of her daughter, Rosalind.  This time, at his own insistence, Max accompanied Agatha(who suffered from a sprained ankle) back to England on the Orient Express.  Later invited to the family home, Ashfield, Max proposed to her.  The fourteen year older Christie weighed her decision carefully, taking into consideration her age, her celebrity, and freedom as a divorcee, but chose to marry Max anyway.  After a few months joyous honeymooning:

“... However, all too soon their happiness was scheduled to be put on hold, since Max had promised the Woolleys to return to Iraq in October for his final season at Ur.  Katherine Woolley had advised Agatha to wait a few years before marrying Max, and when this suggestion proved unacceptable, Katherine ordered her husband to inform Agatha that she would not be welcome as a guest during the five months of the dig and that her coming to Baghdad in October would equally be frowned at.

 The next season, Max signed on with Campbell Thompson at Chagar Bazar where Agatha was free to join him.  This was the parting of the ways for the Mallowans and the Woolleys.

 Six years later, Agatha Christie would write Murder in Mesopotamia.  Janet Morgan reports in her biography of Christie:

“In 1935, egged on by her old friend Algy Whitburn, Woolley’s architect, she drew up the outline of a detective story in which a Katherine-like figure was to feature, Murder in Mesopotamia.  The first three names on the list in her draft are old acquaintances: ‘Woolleys, C. T.s, Father Burrows’ ... She developed two or three possible plots for Murder in Mesopotamia, clarifying her thoughts with a sketch map of the expedition house and a timetable of its occupants’ movements, and thinking aloud about various devices: ‘Can we work in the window idea?’ she asked herself ... Her notes began : ‘The wife -- very queer --(? Is she being doped against her own knowledge) -- atmosphere gradually develops in intensity -- a bomb may explode any minute ...’

 The Woolleys reception of the novel was feared, especially Katherine’s reaction.  Max Mallowan tells us though: “Fortunately, and perhaps not unexpectedly, Katherine did not recognize certain traits which might have been taken as applicable to herself, and took no umbrage.”

 Of the other real life persons Agatha based the expedition member-characters on, Max Mallowan, her future husband, served as David Emmott.  Mallowan discusses his portrait in his memoirs in one line: “In this book I figured as Emmott, a minor but decent character.”   Though this statement is true, it is unnecessarily brief.  Emmott is Leidner’s assistant and is described repeatedly thus: “It was David Emmott to whom she spoke, the other assistant.  I had taken rather a fancy to Mr. Emmott; his taciturnity was not, I felt sure, unfriendly.  There was something about him that seemed very steadfast and reassuring in an atmosphere where one was uncertain what any one was feeling or thinking”.

 Agatha fondly pays Max a compliment only a mystery writer can make, through the guise of Hercule Poirot: “‘I may say that of all the expedition as far as character and capability were concerned, Mr. Emmott seemed to me the most fitted to bring a clever and well-timed crime off satisfactorily’” To this odd-sounding praise, Emmott simply says “Thank you.”

 The character of Father Lavigny was based on S. J.. Burrows, who like the Lavigny character was a cleric who had specialized in the epigraphics, the translating of cuniform tablets.  Max Mallowan tells of Burrows:

 The other delightful colleague was Father S. J. Burrows, a Jesuit priest from Campion Hall who served as epigraphist in succession to Father Legrain.  This unworldly man, an endearing character, and perhaps something of a mystic, was so far removed from the small realities of life that he was little comfort to a young man such as myself who occasionally needed solace ... When showing visitors round the dig his method of exposition was diametrically opposite to that of Woolley who was certain about everything.  Burrow’s hesitation, even at translating the simplest brick inscriptions, were not calculated to inspire confidence and only the expert would have suspected him of possessing profound academic learning.

 Mallowan then tells about a humorous episode in which Burrows gave a Christmas service to an audience of only one local person, who turned out to be a Muslim.  The priest swore Max to never tell of it.  A small trust of which the archaeologist says: “I trust that Burrows’ shade will forgive me for revealing this secret after a lapse of fifty years.”

 As with Katherine Woolley, Agatha Christie takes one feature of the real person, in this case the father’s lack of academic appearance, and turns it to her own purposes.  In  Father Lavigny’s case it is that he is no priest at all, but Raoul Menier, “one of the cleverest thieves known to the French police.” Lavigny, in the end, steals the gold prince’s cup and disappears, explaining the mysterious but immaterial thief who broke in one night, the wax on the prince’s goblet and the unknown Iraqi who was seen talking to Father Lavigny, all red-herrings to build the story’s suspense.  Though a criminal, Lavigny is not the murderer.

 A. S. [“Algy”] Whitburn, life-long friend of both Agatha and Max Mallowan, plays either the Cockney Bill Coleman or, more likely, the idealized Mr. Carey, who fell in love with Louise Leidner.  Both Carey and Whitburn were architects.  Whether Whitburn and Katherine Woolley had ever had any kind of romantic interlude is unlikely, especially since it was Whitburn who coerced Agatha into writing the novel.  His love-lorn role may have been Christie’s idea of a little vengeful humor.

 As Janet Morgan notes: “Agatha mischievously dedicated the novel to ‘my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria’; one or two were annoyed, whether because they figured in its pages or because they did not was never entirely clear.”  Nor is it clear to the researcher now who the “C. Ts”[Campbell Thompsons] played -- perhaps the Mercados, though they are two unlikable characters -- nor who the other portraits of friends and colleagues are and that might have been entirely fictional.  Only Burrows, Emmott and the Leidners can be identified for sure.  This little mystery is a tantalizing but ultimately frustrating game for the inquiring reader.
 But what of Agatha herself?  What character does she play?  In fact, she is fairly easy to spot.  Agatha, as might be expected in a semi-autobiographical book, is the narrator, the not-entirely attractive Miss Amy Leathern, a nurse who comes to look after Mrs. Leidner’s health.  Janet Morgan points out “... the portraits of Nurse Leathern ... and of Mrs. Oliver in later books show that Agatha also looked coolly at herself.”  Where many narrators seem impartial or affable, Nurse Leathern is the cliche First-World traveller, who finds everything less acceptable than back home.  Miss Reilly sums up Nurse Leathern’s philosophy towards Iraq perfectly when she says, “There are some picturesque corners ..But I don’t know that you’d care for them.  They’re extremely dirty.” Later, at the digs, Amy Leathern again declares her war on dirt.

 He sat up, took his knife and began daintily cutting the earth away from round the bones, stopping every now and then to use either a bellows or his own breath.  A very insanitary proceeding the latter, I thought.  “You’ll get all sorts of nasty germs in your mouth, Mr. Emmott,” I protested.

 Christie expounds on her physical faults in a blunt fashion.  At  45 in 1936, Agatha’s girlish figure had turned rather plumper than she liked.  The author comments on this through Hercule Poirot, when he suggests that Nurse Leathern could be a man impersonating a female nurse.  “There are many successful female impersonators, you know.” Nurse is, of course, most displeased with him.

 Agatha’s previous occupation as a dispensary nurse during World War I also makes identification with the Leathern character likely..  Christie indulges in a momentary bit of fun when Amy Leathern is resting in her room reading a book.  The novel is called Death in a Nursing Home.  Miss Leathern comments to herself: “really a most exciting story -- though I don’t think the author knew much about the way nursing homes are run.”  Then a line which Christie must have heard too many times not to parody: “.. it was the red-haired parlourmaid and I’d never suspected her once!”  Whether she is poking fun at herself or Mary Roberts Rinehart, who wrote a popular series featuring a detective nurse named Miss Pinkerton, can be argued, more likely the latter, as Gillian Gill points out in Agatha Christie’s biography.1

 Chapter 23, entitled “I Go Psychic” shows Agatha’s interest in spiritualism, very popular in the 1930’s, when Nurse Leathern tries to use psychic methods to divine the killer.  The result is when Bill Coleman enters the room in which nurse is lying on the bed with her eyes closed, she jumps with fright like a silly school girl.  The entire episode is remonscient of childhood campfire stories, designed for a cheap thrill.  It may be that Christie mocks her interest in spiritualism knowing it to be less than respectable, but enticing all the same.  (It is this same vice that inspired many of the stories in her excellent collection The Hound of Death(1933)  Though the chapter builds the threatening suspense of the book, it is largely an intrusion into the plot, a brief side corridor in which we learn something about Nurse Leathern and Agatha Christie.

 The L’envoi to Murder in Mesopotamia sums up Christie’s memories of Ur in 1930, as seen from the advantage of six years distance.  Though the words belong to Amy Leathern at the beginning of the book, it is really Agatha Christie commenting on all her “many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”, when she writes at the end of the novel: “Somehow, the more I get older, and the more I see of people and sadness and illness and everything, the sorrier I get for every one.”  Ultimately, Agatha Christie sees old adversaries like Katherine Woolley in a burnished light, not the cold clear light of recent difficulty, perhaps with forgiveness and pity.

*

 Up to now, we have discussed the novel, its characters and plot, but just how much archeology is there in Murder in Mesopotamia?  In Chapter Seven, Nurse Leathern claims to know little of archeology. “I think I’d better make it clear right away that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story.  I don’t know anything about archeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.” Though this statement is in clear keeping with the characterization of a nurse, it is not true of Agatha Christie, and as the first part of the novel unfolds, it isn’t really true of the story either.  For “local color” the author tells about nurse’s trip out to the dig, the old walls, the grave of a young child, later, of gold treasures, a charming watermill, the diseased-look of the workers, as well as many other pieces of true description.  All these things, Agatha would have seen and experiences while on the dig with Max Mallowan and later after their marriage at other sights.

 In Chapter 7, as Nurse Leathern the author records her first reaction to archaeological work: “I can tell you it was a disappointment!  The whole excavation looked like nothing but mud to me -- no marble or gold or anything handsome -- my aunt’s house in Cricklewood would have made a much more imposing ruin!” though later she finds the joy as well. “Afterwards Dr. Leidner and Mr. Mercado cleaned some pottery, pouring a solution of hydrochloric acid over it.  One pot went a lovely plum colour and a pattern of bulls’ horns came out on another one  It was really quite magical ...” And in the phrase that Poirot uses to sum up the events at Yarimjah: Bismillahi ar rahman ar rahim (In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.)  “I don’t think up till that moment I’d ever felt any of the so-called ‘glamour of the East’.  Frankly, what had struck me was the mess everywhere.  But suddenly, with M. Poirot’s words, a queer sort of vision seemed to grow up before my eyes.”  This second opinion of archaeology is more that of the author.  As Janet Morgan says of her and the business of digging up the dead: “In many respects archaeology was like detection.  It required its practitioners to recognize, match and arrange fragments of clues, to reconstruct what might have happened from evidence that remained.  Luck and intuition were needed, as well as persistence.”16

 Though Christie never slows the story for descriptive over-kill, what she has written is telling, colorful and purposeful.  For instance, the gold treasures of the prince tomb, gives a logical motive for possible crimes, makes it necessary for guards to watch the expedition house, (who later corroborate evidence) and builds atmospheric tension. This is also true of the murder weapon, which remains a mystery until the death of Ann Johnson, is also linked with archeology, an ancient stone grinder known as a quern.   But after the murder of Louise Leidner, any but the most immediate references to the surroundings are dropped.  This happens after only a dozen chapters, leaving the remaining two thirds of the book for Hercule Poirot and his investigation.  In the end, Amy Leathern’s claim proves true.  Ultimately, Agatha Christie knew what the purpose of the story was, the deductive puzzle, not archaeological study.

 Though later writers like Aaron Elkins, an archaeologist by profession, like his detective-character, Gideon Oliver, would create a sub-genre of the mystery dealing with archeology in more depth, perhaps it is Agatha Christie should be credited with getting the ball rolling with Murder in Mesopotamia.
 


Max and Agatha at Tell-Halaf


 

Bibliography

Christie, Agatha.  Murder in Mesopotamia.  New York: Berkeley  Books, 1936.
Gill, Gillian.  Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries.   Toronto: Maxwell Macmillian, 1990.
Mallowan, Max.  Mallowan’s Memoirs.  London: Collins, 1977.
Morgan, Janet.  Agatha Christie: A Biography.  New York: Alfred A.  Knopf, 1983.


This article appeared in The Amrchair Detective