Appointment with Death is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on May 2, 1938 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
Holidaying in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears Raymond Boynton telling his sister: "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Their stepmother, 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 needed 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 murderess 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 - she also marries Dr. Gerard.
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 Amabel Pierce, a former nursery governess
Literary significance and reception
Simon Nowell-Smith's review in the Times Literary Supplement of May 7, 1938 concluded, "Poirot, if the mellowing influence of time has softened many of his mannerisms, has lost none of his skill. His examination of the family, the psychologists and the few others in the party, his sifting of truth from half-truth and contradiction, his playing off one suspect against another and gradual elimination of each in turn are in Mrs. Christie's most brilliant style. Only the solution appears a trifle tame and disappointing."
In The New York Times Book Review for September 11, 1938, Kay Irvin said, "Even a lesser Agatha Christie story holds its readers' attention with its skillful management of suspense. Appointment with Death is decidedly of the lesser ranks: indeed, it comes close to being the least solid and satisfactory of all the Poirot mystery tales. Its presentation of a family harried and tortured by a sadistic matriarch is shot full of psychological conversation and almost entirely deficient in plot. And yet, when the evil-hearted old tyrant has been murdered at last and Poirot considers the suspects, one follows with genuine interest the unraveling of even unexciting clues."
In The Observer's issue of May 1, 1938, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "I have to confess I have just been beaten again by Agatha Christie. There was no excuse. I was feeling in particularly good form; and the worst of it is that she handicapped herself in the latest game with what in anyone else would be insolent severity. Murder on the Nile (sic) was entirely brilliant; Appointment with Death, while lacking the single stroke of murderer's genius which provided the alibi in the former story, must be counted mathematically nearly twice as brilliant, since the number of suspects is reduced by nearly half. Indeed, though we begin out story in Jerusalem and meet our murder in Petra, the Red Rose City, we might as well be in a snowbound vicarage as far as the limitation of suspicion is concerned. And it is in this respect that Agatha Christie repeats her Cards on the Table triumph and beats Steinitz with a single row of pawns."
The Scotsman of May 9, 1938 said, "As usual, Miss Christie plays fair with her readers. While the solution comes with a shock of surprise, it is logical enough: the clues are there, one could fasten upon them and assess their importance. Perhaps it is another case of the reader being unable to see the wood for the trees; but there are so many trees. Not this author's best crime novel, Appointment with Death is yet clever enough and convincing enough to stand head and shoulders above the average work of the kind."
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian in his review of May 27, 1938 summarised by saying, "For ingenuity of plot and construction, unexpectedness of dénouement, subtlety of characterisation, and picturesqueness of background, Appointment with Death may take rank among the best of Mrs. Christie's tales."
Mary Dell in the Daily Mirror of May 19, 1938 said, "This is not a book I should recommend you to read last thing at night. The malignant eye of Mrs. Boynton might haunt your sleep and make a nightmare of your dreams. It's a pretty eerily bloodcurdling tale. A grand book."
Robert Barnard: "Notable example of the classic-era Christie, with excellent Near East setting, and the repulsive matriarch as victim. The family tensions around her are conveyed more involvingly than usual. The detection, with its emphasis on who-was-where-and-when, is a little too like Ngaio Marsh of the period, and there is some vagueness in the motivation, but this is as taut and atmospheric as any she wrote."
References to other works
The novel mentions several other Poirot investigations: the detective is seen to retell to Colonel Carbury the story of Cards on the Table, and Colonel Race from this investigation is mentioned. Nadine Boynton actually confronts Poirot with his own actions in the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot suggesting that she was told by one of the case's figures. Miss Pierce also comments on The A.B.C. Murders when she recognises Poirot for the great detective he is.
Film, TV or theatrical versions
1945 Stage Production
Christie adapted the book as a play of the same name in 1945. It is notable for being one of the most radical reworkings of a novel Christie ever did, eliminating Hercule Poirot from the story.
It was later adapted into the third of six films to star Peter Ustinov as Poirot and released in 1988. The film did not incorporate the changes of the play, retaining the plot of the book.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
The novel was adapted for the eleventh season of the series Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. The screenplay was written by Guy Andrews and it was filmed in Morocco in May 2008. It was directed by Ashley Pearce, who also directed Mrs McGinty's Dead and Three Act Tragedy for the Poirot series.
The storyline deviates significantly from the original novel in many respects, among them:
- Moving the central setting of the story from Petra to an archaeological dig in Syria, where Lord Boynton is searching for the head of John the Baptist.
- Adding new characters that never appeared in the original novel, such as Lord Boynton, Nanny Taylor, and Sister Agnieszka.
- Omitting characters such as Nadine Boynton, and Miss Pierce.
- Altering the backstory of the victim. In the novel, Mrs. Boynton is a tyrannical sadist whose previous profession was a prison warden. In the adaptation, she is an equally sadistic woman who has also amassed a financial empire. She couldn't have any children of her own, so she selected her children from a number of orphans, all of whom were badly abused and tormented.
- Altering the backstories of several supporting characters. In the adaptation, Jefferson Cope was one of the orphans abused by Lady Boynton in his youth, and he decides to take his revenge by wiping out her financial empire and ensuring that she is kept in the dark. Jinny (Ginevra, in the novel) is adopted like Raymond and Carol, and she also becomes the prime motivation for the murderer, whereas in the novel she was Mrs. Boynton's only biological daughter. Lady Westholme, a garrulous American and Member of Parliament, becomes the unconventional British travel writer Dame Celia Westholme in the adaptation. Dr. Gerard, a Frenchman in the novel, becomes Scottish, develops a witty personality and becomes an accomplice to the murderer (whereas in the novel, he is completely innocent).
- Adding a subplot involving slave traders. It transpires that Sister Agnieszka is an agent whose intent was to kidnap and sell Jinny. Her attempt fails when Jinny attacks her, not knowing that the undercover nun was in fact trying to kidnap her and not trying to save her.
- Altering the murderer's motives and method. In the novel, Lady Westholme murdered Mrs. Boynton in order to keep her past secret. Before climbing the social ladder, she was incarcerated in the same prison where Mrs. Boynton worked as a warden. Knowing Mrs. Boynton's sadistic personality, she silenced her in order to keep her reputation from being ruined. In the adaptation, Dame Celia Westholme served as a maid in the home of Lady Boynton (who was then Mrs. Pierce) before becoming a writer. She had an affair with Dr. Gerard, delivered a child, and was sent away to a nunnery in Ireland while Lady Boynton kept the baby. That child turned out to be Jinny. When Dame Celia and Dr. Gerard found out that Lady Boynton had abused all of her children (including Jinny), they decided to kill her for revenge. In the novel, Lady Westholme used a lethal dose of digitalis under the guise of an inconspicuous Arab servant in order to commit the murder. In the adaptation, the plan is much more elaborate. First, Dame Celia injects Lady Boynton with a drug that would slowly paralyze her, doing so under the pretense of swatting away a hornet. Dr. Gerard drops a dead one and pretends to kill it in order to verify the fact that Lady Boynton had, indeed, been stung. While Lady Boynton sits atop her platform enjoying the sun, she slowly becomes immobile. Dr. Gerard, who had injected himself with a drug that would simulate the symptoms of malaria beforehand, returns to the dig with Jinny in order to rest. Instead, he drugs Jinny and disguises himself as an Arab in order to plant a wax ball filled with the blood of a goat that he had killed under the clothes of Lady Boynton. That way, as the sun melted the wax, the blood would make it seem as if she were already dead. When Lord Boynton discovered his wife, Dame Celia went to "check" the body - in reality, she quickly stabbed the woman dead in front of everyone, right before Dr. King could examine her. In this way, neither Dr. Gerard nor Dame Celia could have been implicated for a crime that neither could have had a chance to commit. Later, when Nanny Taylor has a mental breakdown, Dr. Gerard gives her mind-altering drugs and drives her to suicide after forcing her to relive her past, making her feel guilty for delivering the beatings and punishments that Lady Boynton had ordered for her children.
- Omitting the fateful line “I’ve never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face.” Since the motive for the murder has been changed, as well as the character of Mrs./Lady Boynton, the line is irrelevant to the adaptation.
- Downsizing the importance of another line: “You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?” The line, the first sentence in the novel uttered by Raymond to his sister Carol, is not said in its entirety in the adaptation, and is not given much thought after the fact.
- 1938, Collins Crime Club (London), May 2, 1938, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1938, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1938, Hardback, 301 pp
- 1946, Dell Books, Paperback, (Dell number 105 [mapback]), 192 pp
- 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 682), 206 pp
- 1957, Pan Books, Paperback, 159 pp (Pan number 419)
- 1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 159 pp
- 1975, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 334 pp ISBN 0-85-456366-0
The first true publication of Appointment with Death occurred in the US with a nine-part serialisation in Collier's Weekly from August 28 (Volume 100, Number 9) to October 23, 1937 (Volume 100, Number 17) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.
The UK serialisation was in twenty-eight parts in the Daily Mail from Wednesday, January 19 to Saturday, February 19, 1938 under the title of A Date with Death. Fifteen of the instalments contained illustrations by J. Abbey (Joseph van Abbé, brother of Salomon van Abbé). This version did not contain any chapter divisions and omitted various small paragraphs such as the quote in Part I, Chapter twelve from Dr. Gerard which is taken from Book IV of Ecclesiastes. The political argument between Lady Westholme and Dr. Gerard in chapter ten about the League of Nations was also deleted. Finally, the epilogue did not appear in the serialisation.
Four days before the first instalment appeared, in the edition dated Saturday, January 15, a piece specially written by Christie as an introduction to the serialisation appeared in the Daily Mail in which she charted the creation of Poirot and expressed her feelings about him in the famous quote, "There have been moments when I have felt: 'Why-why-why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature!' "
- The Observer May 1, 1938 (Page 6)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction - the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- The Times Literary Supplement May 7, 1938 (Page 318)
- The New York Times Book Review September 11, 1938 (Page 26)
- The Observer May 1, 1938 (Page 7)
- The Scotsman May 9, 1938 (Page 15)
- The Guardian May 27, 1938 (Page 6)
- Daily Mirror May 19, 1938 (Page 26)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie - Revised edition (Page 188). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0006374743
- Daily Mail. January 15, 1938. Page 8. Hercule Poirot - Fiction's greatest detective.