Death in the Air
by Agatha Christie

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Hercule Poirot mystery

first published in Britain as —
Death in the Clouds
Collins: London, 1935
252 pages

Dodd, Mead: New York, 1935

304 pages

March 2011


It is common for great detectives, as I'm sure for ingenious discoverers in all fields, to complete a complex and subtle reach of thinking with a summary clear enough that bystanders may exclaim, How simple that was after all! Certainly it is a reasonable reaction for the great detectives of fiction to feel occasionally a little under-appreciated or even miffed, when their painstaking solution to a problem insolvable by all others, is dismissed so easily by those others.

Mystery novelists run an equivalent risk with their audience, that after almost a whole book's worth of build-up, the unraveling of the mystery may seem anti-climactic to the reader tagging along after the great detective.

As an example, I felt somewhat let-down after reading Agatha Christie's novel Death in the Air. The heart of this we may call a locked-airplane mystery, in which there is a murder committed aboard a cross-Channel passenger flight — in the early days of such flights in the mid-1930s, when airliners were smaller and such travel still was rather a novelty.

My favorites among the Hercule Poirot mysteries tend to be those in which her great Belgian detective is present almost from the beginning of the action; and so it is in Death in the Air. Poirot is flying from France to England when a woman is murdered, in a plane small enough that we are furnished a seating chart of the passengers: all interesting suspects, except for Poirot and the murdered woman, and with the addition of a couple of stewards. Poirot himself, present during the murder, appears quite suspicious to some.

There also is a small blowgun. Death in the air, indeed.

And yet, on an idle impulse, I happened to reread Death in the Air. As before, I enjoyed the brief but sharp characterizations of the people in France and England and in transit. Agatha Christie is extremely good at this. For my rereading, having usefully forgotten most of the details, the story was fairly fresh — but my attitude now was less that of the first reader's expectant rush to a climax that is surprisingly simple after all, but that of a relaxed, close reader who takes time to enjoy the scenery. This is a good novel. There are a lot of clues: obvious and hidden, true and false and misleading. Much careful observation accompanied by careful thinking is needed to unravel this one. Hercule Poirot's superb mind is the only tool, his reasoning the driving force, capable of pushing through and ordering the tangled and obscured evidence.

So I do recommend Agatha Christie's Death in the Air. If Poirot's solution feels unsatisfying or overly simple when revealed, as a magician producing a flower in mid-air at the snap of his fingers — give the novel a rest and try it again someday. It may grow on you, surprisingly.

I wonder how many mysteries are read only once by each reader, and never get the chance for their simple-when-revealed denouement to be appreciated as the blossoming climax of the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

Detection at Troynovant
solving mysteries; detective agencies

"The force that through the green fuse
drives the flower
by Dylan Thomas
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