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Literature / Death Comes as the End

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Death Comes as the End is a 1944 work of Historical Detective Fiction by Agatha Christie, set in Ancient Egypt. It is the only one of its kind, all other works of Christie being set in the 20th century, and she drew inspiration from her work with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan. It was at least partly written on a dare by family friend and Egyptologist Stephen Glanville.

The story takes place in Thebes in 2000 BC, and is told from the perspective of young widow Renisenb. Her family's lives are turned upside-down when her father, Imhotep, brings home a new concubine Nofret, a wicked young woman who begins to exert undue power over the family, much to the chagrin of Imhotep's three sons, Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy and their wives. Everyone seems to have a motive to kill Nofret after she goes too far, so when she is found to have fallen to her death from a cliff, an accident seems unlikely. When more deaths occur, rumours arise of a curse on the house, or of Nofret's vengeful ghost.

In August 2016, BBC announced a seven-book adaptation deal, with this book as one of the initial three named. After some delays, very late 2018/very early 2019 it was announced that a BBC adaptation was in pre-production; to be screened in 2021.

The story contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Sobek, the nearly-always drunk member of the family.
  • Ancient Egypt: The Middle Kingdom of Egypt is the main setting of the novel.
  • Anyone Can Die: This story is notable for its high body count, second only to And Then There Were None.
  • Asshole Victim: All of the victims count except Esa and the slave boy. They were verbally or physically abusing other people, and the killer was often at the receiving end of such treatment.
  • Ax-Crazy: The murderer becomes this after tasting power and violence for the first time after years of being submissive and repressed.
  • Based on a True Story: The Heqanakte papyri are a sequence of letters from the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt exchanged between the head of a Big, Screwed-Up Family and his long suffering eldest son which describe a domestic situation similar to that of the Imhotep family. As far as we know it did not lead to murder in Real Life.
  • Beauty Is Bad: Averted, unusually for Christie. The handsome scribe Kameni is a good (although not faultless) man who falls in love with Renisenb; after some soul searching, she ultimately chooses Hori instead. Out of Imhotep's sons, the murderer is the only one not described as handsome, although the other two are jerks.
  • Big Bad Slippage: The Big Bad was originally The Dutiful Son and a meek Henpecked Husband, who only became an evil serial killer over the course of the story.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Hori saves Renisenb from becoming Yahmose's next victim by shooting him dead.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Becoming even more so when Nofret starts to bring out their dysfunctional sides.
  • Black Comedy: In one scene, the undertaker offers volume discount on enbalming.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: As the story goes on, people start dying until there's almost one per chapter.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Renisenb and Hori at the end of the story.
  • Cool Old Lady: Esa. The intelligent and observant matriarch of the family, though this does not prevent her death.
  • The Corrupter: Nofret is this. Subverted, however, because as Hori explains, rather than bringing the darkness in from outside, she merely brought out the repressed darkness that was already there in the family members.
  • Death by Irony: In the linen storeroom, Henet taunts the spirit of Imhotep's dead wife: "I'm the mistress here now and I'm telling you that your linen will bandage yet another body. And whose body is that, do you think?" - moments before the killer sneaks up behind her and mummifies her alive in linen.
  • Dedication: The book is dedicated to Egyptologist Stephen Glanville, who gave Christie the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt and helped her with the research.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Citing historical precedent, Christie has her married couples refer to each other as "brother" or "sister", terms used interchangeably in Egyptian text with "husband" and "wife". Not too many couples would do that today.
    • The murder of a slave gets very litle angst from other characters.
  • Disney Villain Death: Nofret, the wicked stepmother of the setting (though perhaps younger than her stepchildren) is thrown down a cliff. Satipy also loosely counts; she is unpleasant and domineering, but not an outright villain. The killer throws her down the same cliff.
  • Does Not Like Men: Kait is revealed to be one (although being married to Sobek probably didn't help her viewpoint). She sees them as useful only for begetting children.
  • The Dutiful Son: Yahmose. Loyal to his father, patient, and long-suffering. Until his patience runs out and he becomes a serial killer.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Like any Christie novel:
    • Imhotep is a self-important ka-priest charged with maintaining the tomb of a long-dead official completely under the thumb of his mother and wife, and a Control Freak who thinks everything goes wrong when he's not around to supervise things.
    • Yahmose is a dutiful, not-too-bright son terrified of things going wrong while the domain is under his responsibility. His wife Satipy is a horrid shrew constantly rebuking him for his failures.
    • Sobek is a ladies' man convinced of his own exceptional worth as a businessman, married to Kait, who's more interested in her children than him.
    • Ipy is a teenaged Spoiled Brat who's angry that he's constantly being treated like a child... despite, y'know, always acting like one.
    • Esa is Imhotep's domineering mother, though she's nicer than most of the cast.
    • Henet is a resentful servant always complaining that no one is grateful to her for her efforts.
    • Nofret is a Trophy Wife brought from a much livelier city to a backwater who amuses herself by being an Alpha Bitch to everyone.
    • Renisenb is Imphotep's recently-widowed daughter, who has only her own daughter to remind her of her husband.
    • The only comparatively normal people are Hori and Kameni (and even then, Kameni causes trouble by turning down Nofret).
  • Faceā€“Heel Turn: Yahmose, after killing Nofret. He is initially the kindest and most patient son of the family, but he has been repressing his anger and resentment for several years. The initial murder gives him a sense of joy and power, so he goes from being kind to being a serial killer who starts killing indiscriminately.
  • Foreshadowing: Something rustles in the bushes when Henet is washing. Oh, it is just Yahmose. Nothing happens. Well, next time he kills her.
  • Happily Married: Renisenb was this with her dead husband; however, she also acknowledges that they were still in the honeymoon phase of their marriage. One of the reasons Renisenb chooses Hori in the end is that she believes that his wisdom and strength, and her increased maturity will enable their marriage to stay strong after many years, after the shiny glow has worn off.
  • He Knows Too Much: Imhotep's mother Esa had to die after the murderer became aware that she was onto him. Henet was also killed for this reason.
  • Henpecked Husband: Yahmose. He is married to the domineering and verbally abusive Satipy. Who quickly shuts up when she realizes that her husband is capable of cruelty. Too late.
  • Historical Detective Fiction: A series of Murders in the late 21st or early 20th century BC is investigated by members of the affected family.
  • Hourglass Plot: Condensed in the first half of the book, wherein the domineering Satipy becomes meek, and her submissive husband more assertive.
  • I Have No Son!: Imhotep does this to all three of his sons after one of their wives retaliated against Nofret. Ironically, by the end of the novel, all three sons are dead and he lacks a male heir. But it is expected that Hori will become his son-in-law.
  • Insists on Being Suspected: Renisenb and Hori meet with the family matriarch Esa to discuss the mysterious string of deaths in the family. Esa outright says that anyone could be the killer, no matter how unlikely-seeming — including the three of them. Esa even suggests a plausible motive that could have driven her to commit the murders, as does Hori.
  • Oblivious to Love: Renisenb doesn't get why Nofret is so horrible or Kameni so nice to her. Only at the end, once Kameni proposes, does she figure out that Kameni rejected Nofret's advances.
  • Official Couple: Renisenb and Hori by the end of the story.
  • Oh, Crap!: At one point, the narrative switches to the perspective of old Esa waking up cold and paralyzed, with the realization that she has been murdered. Despite her cautiousness in having all her food and drink tasted beforehand, the murderer poisoned her massage ointment.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Kameni resembles Renisenb's first husband: when she first sees him, for a moment she thinks her husband has come back from the dead. She is attracted to Kameni and at one point becomes engaged to him, but eventually chooses Hori.
  • The Resenter:
    • Yahmose, very very much. He is the dutiful son of a domineering father, overshadowed by his asshole brothers, and trapped in a loveless marriage. He has been repressing his resentment for several years, but he reaches his breaking point and becomes Ax-Crazy.
    • To a lesser extend Henet. She is the long-serving housekeeper of the family, and has been feigning loyalty and devotion for decades. But she admits to Renisenb that she has hated most of her masters, including Renisenb's long-dead mother. Whether her shamelessly flattering devotion to Imhotep is real or feigned (he's the only one in the household who likes her) is undetermined.
  • Romantic False Lead: Kameni is a benign example. He is a handsome love interest to a young widow, and somewhat resembles her first husband in personality. But she instead chooses a suitor who is older in age than Kameni, but actually saved her life and has deeper feelings for her.
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: The killer intentionally drinks poisoned wine in order to kill his brother. The killer is careful to only drink enough to make himself sick. Because he is known as a man of moderation, while his brother tends towards excess, no one is surprised that the killer has only consumed a little of the wine and survives, while his brother consumes a lot and dies. And because he was the first to drink the wine, this also sets up the killer's alibi, since it makes it appear that he was the target and the brother was collateral damage.
  • Serial Killer: Yahmose. The initial murder causes feeling of joy and power in him, so he starts repeatingly killing almost everyone in his extended family and household. Some for vengeance, some to cover his tracks, some because he enjoyed it.
  • The Sociopath: Sobek has shades of this. A hard-drinking spendthrift with anger-management issues and a tendency to take out his anger in animals (such as killing a cobra to blow off some steam). However, Yahmose tops him before too long. He becomes a remorseless killer.
  • Spoiled Brat: Ipy. An egotistic man who openly celebrates his brother Sobek's death, because he is expecting a larger inheritance. He does not realize that he is the next person on the killer's list.
  • Start to Corpse: Quite a long one. The first corpse appears well over a third of the way through the novel, following a slow-paced heightening of ominous tension.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Yahmose was only momentarily this as he killed Nofret in a rage after being pushed to the bounds of endurance and snapping. However, the trope promptly dissolves as he discovers a newfound sense of power from committing murder, and becomes outright evil.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: The reason Satipy had to die. She knew the identity of the murderer and was actually willing (well, terrified into) to help him maintain his secret. But she risked revealing said secret by talking in her sleep and being overheard.
  • Theme Naming: The chapter titles are all taken from the Egyptian agricultural calendar, which also provides a timeline of events.
  • Title Drop: Esa tries to provide her son, Imhotep, with some sage advice when Nofret first enters the household:
    "Nofret is beautiful but remember this: Men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured carnealians. A trife. A likeness of a dream. And death comes as the end."
  • Unknown Rival: Nofret has the hots for her husband's handsome young scribe Kameni, who is attracted to his employer's daughter Reniseb, who isn't attracted to him as she is still grieving for her dead husband. It takes Reniseb a while to realize why Nofret dislikes her in particular.
  • Ur-Example: this was the first full-length novel to combine historical fiction with a detective story, a genre now commonly known as the 'historical whodunnit'.
  • Vorpal Pillow: A variation is used on the last victim, Henet - she is smothered with sheets rather than a pillow. More specifically, she is mummified alive.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: Part of the killer's motivation. Often abused or ridiculed by his family since childhood, he feels powerful when he overpowers, outsmarts, and/or outright kills the various victims. It helps that most of them never perceived him as a threat.