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Literature / Appointment with Death

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Appointment with Death is a detective novel by Agatha Christie published in 1938.

The Boynton family is on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a mean, vicious old woman, a "mental sadist" who enjoys keeping her family under her thumb. Her stepson Raymond Boynton is attracted to Sarah King, a young doctor and another tourist in the group, but Mrs. Boynton exerts her iron will and kills that romance in the cradle. Her other stepson Lennox is married, but Lennox's wife Nadine has had it with Mrs. Boynton's control of her life and her husband's life, and Nadine is threatening to leave her husband for one Jefferson Cope, an old suitor who is also on the tour group. Mrs. Boynton's stepdaughter Carol is just as miserable, as is Ginevra, Mrs. Boynton's one biological child, who seems to be on the verge of madness. Mrs. Boynton as it turns out was a prison warden in America before she married her late husband Mr. Boynton, and enjoys running her family just like a jail.

So nobody is too upset when Mrs. Boynton dies, apparently of heart failure. But there is a suspicious pin prick on Mrs. Boynton, and Dr. Gerard, another guest on the tour, notes that his store of digitoxin is gone. Could Mrs. Boynton have been poisoned? One person will find out, another guest on the tour: world-famous detective Hercule Poirot.

The novel has been adapted multiple times. Christie herself made a stage play in 1945 that removed Poirot from the story and changed the ending. A movie adaptation directed by Michael Winner was released in 1988 featuring an All-Star Cast, including Peter Ustinov, Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, John Gielgud and Piper Laurie. In 1992 it was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4 with John Moffat as Poirot. A Japanese TV movie titled Shi to no Yakusoku ran in 2021.

It has also been adapted by ITV's Poirot as part of the 11th season, starring David Suchet as Poirot. Like many other episodes, the TV adaptation features many changes to the plot and characters. Tropes for the TV adaptation can be found on the page for the series.

Appointment with Death contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Mrs Boynton, whose only amusement in life comes from controlling and terrorising her children.
  • Asshole Victim: Mrs Boynton is unpleasant and tyrannical towards her children. They finally gain their Happy Ending at the end of the novel, which probably would not have been possible with her still alive.
  • Babies Ever After: Nadine mentions how "the children" want to see their Aunt Ginny on the stage. She and Lennox have started a family now that they're no longer under his stepmother's thumb.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Boyntons are a tight-knit family dominated by the sadistic and tyrannical Mrs. Boynton. She keeps her step-children, plus her biological daughter, on a tight leash and prevents them from having much contact with the outside world, leaving them entirely dependent on her.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: While several of the Boynton's had given thought to the idea of killing Mrs Boynton, she was in fact killed by someone outside of the family, allowing them a Happy Ending.
  • Blackmail Backfire: While the victim never actually gets that far, it's her unspoken threat to reveal the murderer's secret that gets her killed. Poirot speculates that she wanted a victim to toy with, and would have eventually revealed the truth anyway.
  • Brits Love Tea: And Americans don't particularly, which is what Miss Pierce observes when she relates how Mr. Cope the American says "tea-drinking wasn't an American habit."
  • Busman's Holiday: Poor Hercule Poirot, who can't take a vacation without someone getting murdered on the way.
    Poirot: Decidedly, wherever I go, there is something to remind me of crime!
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: After the case is solved, most of the Boynton siblings are paired up in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.
  • Clueless Mystery: The whole business about Lady Westholme being an ex-con comes out of nowhere at the end.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Poirot gives Col. Carbury of the local authorities a letter of introduction from Col. Race, which talks about "the Shaitana murder", that being novel Cards on the Table.
    • Nadine is revealed to know what went on in Murder on the Orient Express. Who exactly from the previous book told her is Riddle for the Ages.
    • Miss Pierce has read Captain Hastings' story of "the ABC case" and is something of a Poirot fan girl.
  • Control Freak: Mrs. Boynton is an extreme example, exerting total control over her family for the pleasure of causing them pain.
  • Dark Secret: Lady Westholme had been a criminal and served a prison sentence, something her wealthy husband doesn't know about. She's willing to commit murder to keep it hidden.
  • Debate and Switch: Throughout the whole book, a driving question is whether the murder can even be thought of as immoral, given that Mrs Boynton was committed to ruining the lives of all people around her. Perhaps the investigation should be stopped, even? Then it turns out that the murder happened for entirely selfish motives. This affirms the need to always look for the truth, but sidesteps the entire moral question.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Mahmoud the dragoman has an obsessive hatred of Jews and has a habit of blaming Jews whenever anything goes wrong. There's a certain amount of anti-Semitism in Christie novels but in this case it's a bit of local color marking off how Arabs are different.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Jefferson Cope has been pursuing the married Nadine, and offering her a way out of the family for some time, all without losing an aura of having her best interests in mind, although he proves to be a Graceful Loser when she finally decides to stay with her husband.
  • Driven to Suicide: Lady Westholme isn't at the Summation Gathering but she must have known what's up, as she shoots herself rather than go to jail.
  • Egomaniac Hunter: The description of Lady Westholme's husband in the text implies this, and he's content to be off shooting animals while she wages politics.
  • Everyone Must Be Paired: Of the four Boynton children, Lennox is married to Nadine (who is deciding whether or not to leave him for Jefferson Cope), Raymond is in love with Sarah King, and neither Carol nor Ginevra has a romantic plot. In the epilogue, everybody is paired off: Nadine chooses to stay with Lennox, Raymond marries Sarah, Carol marries Jefferson Cope, and Ginevra is paired off with Dr. Gerard.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mrs. Boynton is a mental sadist, keeping tight control over her family by both psychological means and in her control of her late husband's fortune. As she's prevented her children from going out in the world or getting further education, they have no way of making a living, even if they work up the courage to leave, and so are dependent on her money.
  • Foreshadowing: Dr. Gerard observes both Ginevra's extraordinary beauty and how she's not quite right in the head, and notes that she'd be a perfect Ophelia. In the end that is exactly what happens, as Ginevra, now better after being freed from her mother's malevolence, is working as an actress and playing Ophelia in a production of Hamlet.
  • He Knows Too Much: Lady Westholme murders Mrs Boynton so that she can't blackmail her.
  • Hiding in a Hijab: Lady Westholme's murder plot involves cobbling together a disguise of an Arab servant in order to steal the poison, commit the murder and create a fake suspect.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Colonel Carbury seems to be fond of detective stories, and urges Poirot to do what the detectives in stories always do: "I suppose you couldn’t do the things the detective does in books? Write a list of significant facts—things that don’t seem to mean anything but are really frightfully important—that sort of thing." Sure enough, Poirot writes out a list with some seemingly random items, like how Mrs. Boynton was 200 yards away from the main camp clearing at the time of her death, which turn out to be crucial.
  • No Party Given: Lady Westholme's political affiliation isn't explicitly stated in the text, but it's pretty obvious she's a Conservative.
  • Not His Sled: The stage play adaptation changes the solution to the murder: Rather than being murdered by Lady Westholme, Mrs Boynton commits suicide in order to instill fear and paranoia over her children, intending to make her iron grip on their lives last even in death.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Poirot becomes very curious about how Mrs. Boynton had encouraged her family to leave her presence and go enjoy the day as they saw fit, reasoning that it was very unlike her, and deducing that her reason for doing so was to get them out of the way so she could meet with and threaten Lady Westholme.
  • The Ophelia: Genevra Boynton is young, beautiful, but seems to have the intelligence of a child and paranoid delusions that she is not a member of the Boynton family, but is secret royalty, beset by abductors and assassins. Dr. Gerard posits she may be schizophrenic, and the character of Ophelia is even mentioned in reference to her.
  • Quizzical Tilt: Poirot watches Raymond walk away, "his head a little on one side as though he was listening." This is because Poirot earlier heard Raymond and Carol speculating about murdering their stepmom.
  • Racial Face Blindness: Miss Pierce says she can't identify the servant who seemed to be having an argument with Mrs. Boynton, saying "All these Arabs look alike to me." Miss Pierce's very poor observational skills turn out to be vital to the solution to the mystery.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sarah delivers one to Mrs. Boynton, pointing out she is an insufferable tyrant who rudely lords over her own children because she needs to feel powerful, but in reality she's nothing but a miserable, petty old woman whose death will only evoke relief from her own offspring. Turns out she was exactly correct and it hit the old woman hard.
    Sarah: Goodbye, Mrs. Boynton. I hope you'll have a nice trip. You've wanted to be very rude to me. You've tried to prevent your son and daughter making friends with me. Don't you think, really, that that is all very silly and childish? You like to make yourself out a kind of ogre, but really, you know, you're just pathetic and rather ludicrous. If I were you I'd give up all this silly play-acting. I expect you'll hate me for saying this, but I mean it-and some of it may stick. You know you could have a lot of fun still. It's really much better to be friendly and kind. You could be if you tried.
  • Secret Test of Character: When interviewing Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce after the murder, Poirot gives both of them one. First, he asks Westholm to describe what Pierce is wearing, without looking at her. She does so in great detail (even noting one of her stockings is laddered) and with perfect accuracy, which tells Poirot that Westholm is very perceptive and has a great memory. After she leaves, Poirot mentions to Pierce that he sneezed as they were coming in, and asks if he sneezed because of the flowers on the table. Pierce says she heard it, but didn't see if he was sniffing the flowers. After she leaves, Poirot reveals that he hadn't sneezed at all, which tells him that Pierce is not only unobservant, but highly suggestible.
  • Settle for Sibling: At the end Jefferson Cope the Dogged Nice Guy has finally given up his dream of marrying Nadine and has instead married her sister Carol. Everyone knows that Nadine was his "first love" and is OK with that, although Jefferson himself is embarrassed when needled about the fact.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In the opening paragraphs, Poirot overhears Raymond saying that Mrs Boynton will have to die. He decides it's probably an author talking about writing out a character, and recalls the story of Anthony Trollope overhearing two readers discussing the latest installment of his work and saying they were tired of a particular character. Trollope promptly introduced himself and said he'd kill off the character at the next opportunity.
    • Raymond mentions that he thought of murdering his stepmother, using a method he'd read in a detective novel. From his description, it's clear that the novel in question is Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • The Shrink: Dr. Gerard, who spends a while breaking down the relationships and underlying motives in the Boynton Family to Sarah.
  • Summation Gathering: Agatha Christie invented this trope but often subverted it. In this book Poirot invites most of the characters and, over three chapters, walks them through the case and reveals the solution, in standard Summation Gathering style—except for the fact that the murderer is pretty much the only character who was not invited to the gathering. Lady Westholme is heard shooting herself offstage right after Poirot is done.
  • Those Two Guys: Miss Pierce and Lady Westholme are always seen together, and are even interviewed simultaneously by Poirot. The twist is that this was Invoked by Lady Westholme, the murderer. She was only hanging around Miss Pierce—who is extremely susceptible to suggestion—in order to get someone to back up her false accounts.
  • Treachery Cover Up: The epilogue shows a newspaper article reporting the murderer's suicide as an accident.
  • The Un-Reveal: While Poirot has launched inquiries to find out what crime Lady Westholme served a prison sentence for, the reader never finds out, due to her killing herself at that point.
  • Vacation Episode: As usual, whenever Poirot goes on vacation somebody gets killed. Previous examples include Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia.
  • Wardens Are Evil: It's mentioned in passing that Mrs. Boynton was the governess of a women's prison, and that now she seems to keep her family is a psychological prison. It turns out the murderer was one of her prisoners.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: A very typical example. Mrs. Boynton is so despised that everyone in her family discovers her body and fails to report it, each believing that someone else in the family did it. Both Raymond and Lennox came to her with the intention of killing her, but found her already dead.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Mrs. Boynton, although it's downplayed given that her treatment of her biological daughter is just as bad if not worse than how she treats her stepchildren.
  • Yes-Man: Poirot describes one witness, Miss Pierce, as a very impressionable woman who's quick to follow what others say.