Death Sets Sail On The Nile

NB: There is some discussion of the plot of both Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie and Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens in this episode, but no major plot points are revealed.

Caroline: So we’re here today to talk about Death on the Nile, which was first published in 1937.

It’s the story of a bitter and ultimately tragic love triangle, which all plays out on a cruise up the river Nile in Egypt. Hercule Poirot just happens to also be a passenger on that steamer and gets drawn into the shipboard murder mystery. It’s become one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and celebrated novels and has been adopted many times.

The author herself turned it into a stage play. There was a star-studded film adaptation in 1978, starring Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, and Mia Farrow. And then the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot tackled the story in 2004 with David Suchet leading a cast that also included Emily Blunt, Francis De La Tour and James Fox.

And of course there’s another big budget film adaptation on the way, starring Kenneth Branagh and Gal Gadot. We just can’t get enough of this waterborne whodunnit, it would seem. So why has this story, bewitched so many readers down the decades, making it popular, even by the standards of Agatha Christie celebrated canon.

Well, in order to find out, I thought it would be worth talking to another mystery writer who has recently published a Nile based detective novel, Robin Stevens. Robin is the author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, which are set in the 1930s and follow the cases of schoolgirl detectives, Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells.

In August 2020, the ninth and final book in the series was published, Death Sets Sail, which sees her sleuths take a cruise up the river Nile for a story that is very much in dialogue with Death on the Nile itself.

Welcome Robin. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Robin: Thank you for having me. It’s really nice to be here.

Caroline: So what is it about the Nile, do you think, that makes it work for a murder mystery?

Robin: I think it’s the perfect combination of glamour and the excitement of travel and, a beautiful setting. It’s a little scary, it’s a little unknown. It’s enclosed, you’re included on the boat and at the same time you’re looking out on these beautiful vistas of the Egyptian Nile-side countryside. So it’s the perfect mix of extreme enclosure, beautiful, expansive space, glamour, excitement, mystery. It’s perfect.

Caroline: And you mentioned the enclosed space – boats work quite well for whodunnits, I think. Why do you think that is particularly?

Robin: They do. Whenever I’m explaining to people how to construct a mystery story, I always say that, choosing, transport, as your setting is really useful, you know, a train, a boat, a plane. You get on them. And you’re basically stuck in there with the other people who have paid to travel until you get to your destination. So it’s the ultimate, totally enclosed setting that you literally cannot get off because it is moving.

Caroline: So when you are putting together a story like that, presumably knowing where everybody is in that enclosed space is really important.

Robin: It is and it becomes more fiddly to deal with because you’re using much less space in terms of square footage. You have to be very careful in the way you’re moving your pieces around the board. You’re moving your characters but at the same time, there’s just so much room to play around with different people being in different locations and just missing each other and just sneaking past each other so it really dials up the tension as well. I think.

Caroline: And you’ve done a book, obviously, set on a boat, Death Sets Sail, but you’ve also done one set on a train, First Class Murder, that was similarly in dialogue with an Agatha Christie novel in that case Murder on the Orient Express. What’s it like, working with a setting and a location albeit a moving one that is so famous to mystery readers?

Robin: I find it a joy. When I write my books, I’m always in dialogue with, golden age mystery writers, especially Agatha Christie.  I don’t always agree with their worldview, their outlook. But I grew up on their stories. I am heavily indebted to them. I write the books that I do, the Murder Most Unladylike mysteries as an homage, a critical homage, but an homage to those books.

So I find it just so much fun to play with a setting that older readers, readers who like me have grown up on Christie , Sayers, Marsh, settings that those people will recognise while at the same time creating stories that if you haven’t read the Christies, you’ll read my books and then hopefully move on to them and be delighted and thrilled to see a setting that you really recognise and  speaks to you and they’re such glamorous, exciting settings. I think that is one of the keys to Christie’s  ongoing popularity. Her mystery novels are places you’d want to visit, even though you wouldn’t want a murder to happen. You want to be on the Orient Express, you want to be on a Nile river cruise boat. And you can do that when you read her books. It’s so much fun to take one of her settings and put my own spin on it. My books are totally different in terms of the mystery that my detectives are solving, but the setting is the same. And I think that that is just a really fun thing to play with. The actual setting of my boat the Hatshepsut on Death Sets Sale is literally the same as Death on the Nile, I looked at the map in Christie’s book and slightly tweaked it, but  it was using the same thing. So very much follow Christie in my outline for the book.

Caroline: And as well as looking to Christie for Death Sets Sail, what else was involved in the research process in putting together that book?

Robin: Quite a lot. I’m a huge fan of research and I do a lot. And as the series has gone on, I’ve done more and more. And for this book, I read a lot about Egypt. Egypt’s history, especially focusing on the 1930s, I interviewed several people whose families, are Egyptian or who have lived in Egypt,  to understand what it’s like to be there and be from there now.

I read Death on the Nile repeatedly, very, very important research. I watched the 1978 movie again and again. That’s my favorite. And I went to Egypt and I went, this year I went in January, which is kind of astonishing to think now that we’re, we’re where we are. But, I went on a Nile river cruise,  as close as I could get to what Agatha Christie’s describing, because of course, where she’s describing on Death on the Nile, you can’t actually take a cruise there anymore. Because all the dams have sort of stopped cruises going that far down. She starts in Aswan, and I had to end at Aswan and do a slightly different part of the river. But, yeah, I really went as close as I could to the, the Nile river cruise  experience that Poirot has in the book. And it was, it was incredibly helpful. You forget so much stuff when you’re just reading books when you’re just looking at movies, like the fact that when you’re sailing down the Nile you’re sailing up or the other way round, you know, the whole world is flipped as to what you think it is. because you’re moving down the African continent as you’re sailing up the Nile, which is really discombobulating. So, in my first draft, before I went to Egypt, I had the sun rising and setting on the wrong side of the boat, which would have been a problem if I published it that way.

Caroline: As someone who has also written a book about a river, I can say that it’s pretty difficult. I thought I caught all of the problems like that in mine, but still after the hardback came out, someone did write to me and said, I think you meant west here when you said east. Yes, I did.

Robin: It’s mindbending.

Caroline: It really is. I didn’t know that about the dams either that, make the setting different. I think when we read Death on the Nile, we sort of like to imagine that if only we could be there, it would all be the same, but obviously the world is not like that.

Robin: It isn’t and it’s funny because it took me until I was really at Aswan and I went to the, you know, Elephantine Island, which she describes at the beginning of the book and the old Cataract Hotel. I realised I was like, but they’re talking about sailing down further. And then I looked at the massive dam there now. And I was like Oh, I couldn’t retrace her steps. But, yeah, it was an interesting thing of being there and sort of seeing, what I can sort of still recreate and what I can’t.

Caroline: And the beginning part of your books, with the maps and the drawings and so on is always really, really enjoyable. At what stage in the process do you sort of bring that in? Is that something you have sketched in your notebook, right from the beginning where everybody’s cabin’s going to be?

Robin: I did actually for this one because, I’m a horrible map drawer. I’m not an artist at all. And so even though I have my locations very clear in my head, I will be thinking about a particular house or school or boat or train. I won’t normally draw the map for myself. I’ll sort of try to use something that already exists.

And so in this case I used Agatha Christie’s map, from Death on the Nile and I rejigged it, but I scanned it. And then I wrote in where all my characters would be in and sort of kept moving them around until I had the right room locations to make the story work. I’m definitely an author who really needs to be able to see the place I’m writing about like a film in my head, be able to do a walk through.

And so my first draft was not successful, but the one that I wrote before I went to Egypt and then when I was in Egypt, when I was on the cruise, we were there for almost a week and you know, I just sat on deck every day and I wrote, and it just changed everything about the book because I suddenly could imagine what it was really like to be there. I could do the walkthrough finally and that just really helped. So yeah, no, I, I can’t draw but I, I really do rely on that.

That’s amazing, so Death Sets Sail was actually written on the Nile.

It was, it really was. Oh, I should say that the maps in my books, are by my illustrator, Nina Tara, who takes my horrible drawings and turns them into beautiful, beautiful illustrations.

Caroline: Yes, I think I’m the same. I definitely can’t draw. So it’s good to have the experts take that over. So as well as, you know, just being in Egypt and being able to finally visualise anything. Was there anything else that you gathered from your research about why the 1930s in Egypt particularly was so fascinating to people?

Robin: I think there are a number of reasons for that. I do think that there is really something about travel and how Egypt was a country, I guess that was quite open in the 1930s. They had a revolution in 1922. And so it was a very sort of open period, sort of outward looking. But also an interesting period because in that revolution, of course, moved them further away, from British empire.

So it was suddenly becoming, a country that was sort of less tied to the West and looking, to other Islamic countries. So you know, it was easy to get to, you could fly there. I mean, it was still expensive to fly. I tracked the way that, Daisy and Hazel go, they go on a plane and they sort of hop across Europe and then into Africa and that was based on how you would really travel. You know, it’s very expensive, but doable for, for sort of more people. And it’s interesting when you look at the characters in Death on the Nile, they’re all, you know, basically rich, but they’re at different income levels and they’re at different levels of economic importance.

And you can see how, travel really had opened up and people, even if they weren’t super rich, like Linnet Doyle they could still go on holiday in Egypt. So that is sort of interesting to think about it as a destination, that was your fun, but achievable. But I also think, you know, it is a place, where Christie is kind of putting a lot of her, you know, sort of prejudices as a white, British traveller on, and the idea of Egypt being scary and coarse, and kind of dangerous land, I think is it’s interesting. and disturbing to read, you know, now, and always, and I think there’s a lot in there about the prejudice of travelers. And definitely. I wonder whether the fact that the revolution had just quite recently happened made British travellers also a little bit more scared and a little bit more sort of uncertain and fearful.

And I think that really plays into why it’s a great place to set a murder because, Oh, it’s a dangerous country where anything might happen, you know? I think it’s a book that really reveals white travellers prejudices, which is, again, something that I played on a lot in Death Sets Sail, a lot of my, white travelers I have a whole group of people, the Breath of Life society who believe that they are incarnations of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, even though they are, you know, white and from England and have no connection to Egypt. And I kind of wanted to use that to talk about the way that British people in the thirties and now feel an ownership over Egypt you know, we have so many artifacts and museums. I grew up in Oxford, my mother worked at the Ashmolean Museum and, you know, there are just these stunning, priceless artefacts that have been there for generations and, you know, should they be there? No but that’s what we all grew up with and we go to museums and we see that. I go to the British museum and all those beautiful statues, and we feel connected to that culture that actually white British people have nothing to do with and I think it’s very interesting and strange and disturbing phenomenon and something that I enjoyed writing about.

Caroline: It’s fascinating. You’re absolutely right as well, the extent to which just as someone who grew up in Britain, you know, doing primary school history projects about Egypt and pharaohs and so on. Whereas if I compare that to the amount of time we spent say learning about Ireland a country much closer and that has a much greater connection and interplay with Britain, there’s just no comparison. I did way more Egypt history than I did Irish history or Welsh history or anything.

Robin: Exactly and it’s really interesting to look at, you know, when I was doing my research I read history books that were written about Egypt by white, British historians in the thirties. And the idea that there was this great civilization and then it went like the dark ages and nothing happened. And, you know, they ignore all the Islamic culture and the sort of 2000 years of, civilization that was going on right up until, you know, when they were writing, they sort of blank that all out. And it’s just the ancient Egypt that they’re focusing on and again yeah, that was a really interesting thing to see how we rewrite history and how we rub out the stuff that we don’t want to think about to fit this narra tive that Ancient Egypt was great. And that’s it.

Caroline: Yeah. And there’s also the sort of acceptable mystery around ancient Egypt in that sense isn’t there? I’m thinking of the episode in Death on the Nile where, a boulder falls and nearly crushes Linnet and it’s all part of this kind of mystery of the pharaohs and you never know what’s going to happen.

And that in itself is I think quite a biased and partial view isn’t it, of that culture because as people have learned more and more sensitively about it, there’s a lot to do with ancient Egyptian rites that actually makes total sense. Like there’s nothing mysterious or unknowable about it.

Robin: Exactly. And the idea of Egyptian magic and yeah, that kind of strange view of it. I think that moment in the 1978 movie when Mia Farrow pops up in, oh, I can’t think where it is, the, the huge, statues, and there, they made that whistling noise that she comes out during the whistling. And it’s this moment of her being almost witch like, being so creepy and kind of hounding Linnet and again, the same thing of the sort of white travelers hooking into the creepy mystery of ancient Egypt and using it for effect.

Caroline: And your creation, the Breath of Life society feels very of the 1930s and it’s something I’ve really, really liked about the Murder Most Unladylike books is how as the 1930s have gone on, even though, you know, these are children and teenagers, your main characters, more and more of what’s happening in the world around them is seeping in and the Breath of Life society feels like it’s part of that.

Robin: I mean, it’s not directly based on, but I took the concept from a very real society called the Panacea society, who existed in Bedford in the 1920s and 1930s, run by a woman who called herself Octavia and believed that she was the daughter of God. And it was a British, homegrown society where they really thought that she was the second coming and she was here to sort of bring about a new world.

And it’s a really fascinating, group of people and sort of part of history. You know, I love thinking about female power Women in control and Daisy and Hazel, my two characters are by this point, the ninth book in the series, they are sort of 15, almost 16, and thinking about their own power in society, their power as young women.

And I thought it was interesting to bring them together with these group of mostly women, who again have, you know, a high opinion of their own power, misguidedly or not. and you know, so they are in control of their lives. Yeah, the Panacea Society, I think is interesting because it was born out of world war one.

And all of these women lost their husbands, they lost their sons, they had this huge  crushing grief in their lives. And they use that to create this sort of utopian society, they all lived together and they believed they were immortal. And I think it’s really interesting about the panacea society as sort of a symptom of the 1930s at large, which is a time that’s all about burying grief.

And you know, everyone in Britain comes into the 1930s with these huge scars from the people they lost in world war one, that you don’t really talk about it anymore. It’s not really sort of in the forefront of what’s going on, but it’s all we found or the surface, even when you’re having fun. And it’s a jolly time, there’s just this huge collective grief isn’t being discussed. And I think that just such an interesting thing about that time period, and one of the reasons I love it so much that it is this very jazzy, fun time when everyone is secretly really sad. And I think that’s the sort of key to the popularity of murder mysteries in the 1930s.

Caroline: One of the other dynamics that I really liked about Death Sets Sail particularly was as you say, Daisy and Hazel are older than when you started writing about them. And they’ve started discovering that they can’t go unnoticed in the way that they used to. And this is something thrown into really sharp relief by Hazel’s younger sister who is still managing to slip by without adults realising that she’s there and therefore find things out.

And that’s actually something you’re going to be writing about in your next series of books. But I wondered how that changed how you wrote about them, the fact that your characters had matured to that point.

Robin: Yeah. So when I wrote Murder Most Unladylike, all the way back in 2014, I definitely didn’t think that I was going to have a nine book series that was not in my head. We had planned three books initially. I mean, I’d written one book and then I got a book deal and it became three books. You know, at that point, they’re 13 and I aged them up slightly in every book.

They sort of age about three months in each book. And I initially thought when I was pitching the series, when I was imagining it, that the series could go on forever. I imagined it like a Poirot or a Miss Marple where you follow the characters, you care about those characters and those people get plonked down to different locations and that is the impetus for the murder mystery. They’re in the Caribbean or they’re on a boat or something. And that’s the mystery. But as I was writing and I got to sort of the seventh book, Death In The Spotlight. I started realising that my little kids, my 13 year olds were now sort of 14 coming up to 15. I remember being that age so clearly and feeling such a huge gap in how old I was sort of each moment you grew up so quickly at about that time in your life. And I knew I wanted to be writing about that and showing them growing up and aging, maturing  and that meant that they had to get older.

You know, unlike the Famous Five, Daisy and Hazel definitely age. and I started to realise at that point they were sort of aging out of these cute little kids who could hide under tables and, and listen in and spy. They were turning into young women and young women are very much looked down on in society now as well as then. but they are noticed more than little girls. And that is one of the most difficult things about being a teenage girl. People start noticing you and looking at you in ways that you can’t control and you don’t always enjoy and I wanted to write about that and I did in Death in the Spotlight and I want to show them growing up and sort of being more confident.

But I also knew that I couldn’t keep writing a children’s series anymore with these teenagers. So that was really when I decided that Death Sets Sail needed to be the last book in the series. And it was a real wrench, you know, deciding it, it was a real wrench to say goodbye. but I think definitely the right call and I’m really pleased that I finished it where I did. I feel like I sort of wrapped up their plots and their character development, and left them in a place that I been imagining for a while, but it was, it was very sad. I did cry when I wrote, the end of Death Sets Sail. It was a hard thing to do.

Caroline: And was taking them to Egypt and the Nile, was that something that you wanted to be able to do before you said goodbye to them?

Robin: Definitely.  The third book in the series was the book that was my homage to Murder on the Orient Express. And that was First Class Murder. And I enjoyed that so much that at that point I started thinking someday, I want to send them on an Nile cruise. I want to do my Death on the Nile with them.

And I didn’t know when, until I decided, okay, I’m going to finish the series at that point, I thought the big finish, the ending has to be on the Nile because it is one of the most iconic settings for a mystery story. When we think about murder mysteries,  golden age murder mystery, you think about Death on the Nile. So it was a really obvious choice. And I think because I’m in such a sort of beautiful dramatic country in that book, I could do big dramatic, shocking things for the final hurrah for the series. So, yeah, definitely very calculated choice to send them to Egypt.

Caroline: And I suppose  a place that’s very associated with death and life and rebirth and reincarnation, and so on makes sense for an ending that is also a beginning in that way?

Robin: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So having May, Hazel’s little sister in the book, was sort of my way of bridging the gap  because in Death Sets Sail she’s uh six years old, very little but my next series is going to be set during world war two and she’ll start off as 10 years old then and be one of the main characters the main three detectives. So, I used her as a bridging character to show that there’s a next generation coming in, who will continue to be detectives, even after Hazel and Daisy have moved on.

Caroline: And just before we go, I wanted to ask you about the 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, because you told me before we did this, that that was your absolute favourite and having done all this research into the book and its surrounding, I feel like you’re pretty qualified to say that. So why is it that that one stands out to you?

Robin: I think partly everything it’s when you watched it first, you know, every generation has their Poirot and you know, Suchet is, is mine, but that Ustinovfilm was one of the very first I ever saw. And it just completely thrilled me. I think I loved its campness. Such a camp production. It’s so dramatic. I think the clothes are gorgeous everyone’s sort of yelling and screaming and crying and just being absolutely 110% at all times, it’s such a great cast, which I only appreciated that as I got older, but, I think even for the first time I saw Mia Farrow playing Jackie I was just sort of mesmerized I think it’s such a fantastic, eerie performance.

And I also, I think I really love how precise it is and how it goes into the central thing that I think a good murder mystery adaptation patient needs to do, which is play with the idea of there being a multitude of possible endings, play with the idea of there being a multitude of truths. But at the end show that there’s only one truth. That could be the real one that you’re only aiming for one perfect point. It does all of its wonderful kind of recreations where it Poirot says, if you were there at this point, then you could have been there and this could have happened. And it’s. Just this incredible, sort of prismatic effect of all these possible different movies, different endings. you know, what the ending is gonna be, Poirot knows what the ending is going to be, and he’s always leading you to that point. And I think the movie does so beautifully, sort of show that he’s always got the idea in his head, but he just playing with all these different possibilities.

I love it. I just think it’s ridiculous and beautiful and dramatic.  And, the boat is perfect as well. that was what I was thinking of. Even though I had the map from the book when I was sort of turned it into 3d in my head, it of course looked like the boat from 1978 movie. That was the one.

It’s perfect and I rewatched it and rewatched it and rewatched it for this book,  and, enjoyed it every single time.

Caroline: I’ve never thought of this before, but I guess the boat in Death on the Nile is kind of a character in its own right.  So it’s very important that you should be able to visualise it. Yeah. Well, thank you very much for coming on Robin to share all of that with me. It was lovely to have you again.

Robin: It’s really nice to talk to you. Thank you.