WARNING: I know that it’s considered seriously uncool to reveal the solution of one of Mrs. Christie’s mysteries (indeed, the person who blew the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for me still ought to be on her guard), but there are times when the outcome of a detective novel requires discussion. One such case, I feel, is the dénouement of Mrs. Christie’s 1944 opus, Death Comes as the End.
In what follows, I have done my best not to reveal the murderer’s identity, to which end I have replaced the murderer’s name by the quaintly dated device of a line of asterisks. I also steer clear of gender-specific pronouns (even when it proves cumbersome), as there are so few characters left standing as Death Comes as the End comes to an end that knowing the killer’s sex would make it far too easy to discover his or her identity. My topic does, however, require identifying by name two characters who are not the murderer and who survive. Although I have withheld the name of a further character who is not the murderer and who survives, I’m afraid it’s fairly obvious who is meant.
No matter how fair I have tried to play, my advice is still not to read this if you haven’t read Death Comes as the End. You never know when you might find yourself stranded on a desert island with a weather-beaten copy of the novel as your only entertainment.
Death Comes as the End is an oddity in the Christean œuvre, a historical mystery set in Eleventh Dynasty Egypt, which is to say somewhere around 2000 BCE. The idea for the book came from Professor Stephen Glanville, an Egyptologist, who then acted as consultant for matters Egyptian as the book was written. His assistance is acknowledged in the novel’s particularly affectionate dedication.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Christie’s Autobiography comments most tantalizingly about one of Professor Glanville’s contributions:
Stephen argued with me a great deal on one point of my denouement [sic] and I am sorry to say that I gave in to him in the end. I was always annoyed with myself for having done so. He had a kind of hypnotic influence about that sort of thing; he was so positive himself that he was right that you couldn’t help having doubts yourself. Up to then, on the whole, though I have given in to people on every subject under the sun, I have never given in to anyone over what I write.
If I think I have got a certain thing right in a book – the way it should be – I’m not easily moved from it. In this case, against my better judgment, I did give in. it was a moot point, but I still think now, when I re-read the book, that I would like to rewrite the end of it – which shows that you should stick to your guns in the first place, or you will be dissatisfied with yourself. But I was a little hampered by the gratitude I felt to Stephen for all the trouble he had taken, and that fact that it had been his idea to start with.
What makes the passage tantalizing is the knowledge that there was an alternate (and, in Mrs. Christie’s opinion, preferable) dénouement to the book. After I finished reading Death Comes as the End, I googled Death Comes As The End Original Ending, assuming I’d find out what it was. Instead, the most I could turn up was forum-type speculations on how Mrs. Christie’s final chapter was to have gone. I thus found that I’d stumbled into an unexpected real-life mystery. I will confess that I didn’t scour every corner of the internet, but, as Mrs. Christie doesn’t reveal the alternate dénouement in the Autobiography, perhaps it had been consigned to the rubbish bin at the time of the book’s writing, or, perhaps it was merely an idea Mrs. Christie had bounced off Professor Glanville, and that no manuscript had ever existed.
In any event, I am going to assume that the original ending is lost. As a professional writer with half of an unfinished mystery novel somewhere inside the bowels of this computer, I possess unparalleled qualifications for forwarding a theory as to how Death Comes as the End should have been in the end. If nothing else, posting this might attract the attention of someone who actually knows Mrs. Christie’s original design. I’m willing to risk being called an idiot if it can get me the answer. The other half of that bargain is that I may be called brilliant for my insightful reconstruction. That seems a risk worth taking.
Such discussion of the topic as I looked at this weekend generally worked with the assumption that the identity of the killer is what had been changed. I consider that unlikely in the extreme: a mystery novel is written from back to front, and the identity of the killer is woven into the book’s very fabric. Finding out who the killer is and seeing how you might have figured it out is what makes the end of a whodunit so entertaining. The whole book builds towards its solution, so that merely changing the final chapter would not be an effective way of altering the puzzle. (Moreover, that it does turn out to be ***** makes sense in the context of what has gone before. It makes so much sense that I doubt I am the only person to have figured out the killer’s identity before the final chapter.) The Autobiography also refers to a “moot point,” and, while there is some ambiguity as to what, exactly, is the moot point, the phrase could well mean that what was changed was moot as far as the ultimate outcome of the novel was concerned. Changing out the killer is hardly a moot point.
My hypothesis is that what was changed was the way in which the killer meets the killer’s ultimate fate. Given the novel’s setting, there are no civil authorities on the case, so that the characters themselves must take on the responsibilities of the police, and, in a final flash, those of judge, jury and executioner as well. Poirot solving the case and turning it over to Scotland Yard isn’t an option in Ancient Egypt.
As published, the way in which justice is meted out comes out of left field. Literally. The book’s heroine, Renisenb, discovers the murder’s identity when the murderer is about to cast her down the rocky precipice from which two previous characters had toppled to their deaths. She assumes she has but seconds to live, and, then:
Something came singing through the air. ***** stopped, swayed, then with a loud cry [he or she] pitched forward on [his or her] face at her feet. She stared down stupidly at the feather shaft of an arrow. Then she looked down over the edge – to where Hori stood, the bow still held to his shoulder.
Although the cavalry comes in to save the day often enough in Mrs. Christie’s novels, this time you’re truly left with your brow furrowed in dissatisfaction. Among other objections (and there are several to be made), Hori is, for all intents and purposes, a mild-mannered accountant, and the character in the book least likely to be a crack shot with a bow and arrow.
My argument is that this was Professor Glanville’s change: bringing in Hori and a bow and arrow to rescue Renisenb from *****’s clutches. My guess as to the original was that ***** either slipped, or that Renisenb somehow got the upper hand in the struggle and pushed the murderer off the cliff. That would be in keeping with the previous murders which took place on that spot, and, thus, would provide the poetic justice totally missing in the published ending.
Although the Autobiography states that Mrs. Christie would like to have rewritten the entire final chapter, the textual evidence (assuming I am correct) suggests that a far smaller rewrite was involved at Professor Glanville’s instigation. No more than seven lines of the 2012 William Morrow edition of the book would have needed to be changed to affect the change in *****’s fate. After that, only one sentence at the end of Hori’s explanation speech would need to have been added. Worth noting is that, despite the length of Hori’s summing-up speech, only that one sentence addresses his shooting of *****.
This poses the question of why Professor Glanville insisted that the authoress make the change. I can’t fully put myself into the mindset of a mid-20th century British professor of Egyptology, but I might hazard a guess. He might simply have thought it “unlikely” that Renisenb, a mere woman, could have dispatched the killer (if that had been the original intent), or that it wasn’t sporting to have the killer die as the result of a slip and fall accident. Especially in the absence of civil authorities, Professor Glanville perhaps felt that ***** needed to be brought to justice, a task which ought to be entrusted to a male executioner.
It’s a guess. I admit I could be blatheringly wrong.
Therefore, I will also suggest a second hypothesis as to what was changed, according to which the final section of the novel would have to have been rewritten completely. The book’s romantic coda requires Renisenb to choose between two suitors, so perhaps it was Renisenb’s final decision on that count which was altered. The text does attempt to be impartial as to which man Renisenb should choose, but, almost from the beginning, there is a woven-in bias in favor of the man she does choose. Choosing the other would create enough dissonance to make one suspect a switched ending, so that, had Renisenb chosen differently, there would have been more reason to suspect that that was where the alteration was made. As it stands, Renisenb’s choice makes sense. Moreover, the way I’m imagining Professor Glanville, I rather much doubt that he’d have felt too strongly one way or the other as to the outcome of the novel’s peripheral romantic subplot.
Like Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, I have proposed two solutions to the puzzle of the original ending of Death Comes as the End. Both fit the facts, but, just as one solution in Murder on the Orient Express is far preferable to the other, one of my solutions here is to be preferred. I am thus voting in favor of my first theory, and appending an appeal to anyone who might know for a fact what Mrs. Christie’s original design was to let me know just how bad my educated guess is.
Reading some of the Internet comments on Death Comes as the End, I discovered that some devoted readers of Mrs. Christie consider it, to coin a phrase, a real stinkaroo. As she never attempted historical detective fiction again, Death Comes as the End can more charitably be looked at as an interesting, if not completely successful, experiment. Partly for that reason, I found it an entertaining read. I will admit, however, that coming up with a hypothesis for the original ending has been a far more challenging task than identifying the murderer was.