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Murder in Mesopotamia: crime, archaeology and Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie Murder in Mesopotamia: crime, archaeology and Agatha Christie

Yesterday I popped along to the Murder in Mesopotamia talk at the Melbourne Museum. Presented by both the museum and Sisters in Crime, the event looked at the influence of archaeology on Agatha Christies work, and on Christies legacy as a writer and amateur archaeologist.

The event was chaired by author Angela Savage, and featured a recorded interview with Henrietta McCall, specialist on Agatha Christie and archaeology from the British Museum, as well as a discussion panel with author Kerry Greenwood and Dr Patrick Greene, archaeologist and CEO of Museum Victoria. With, as you do, a moustachioed, cane-toting Poirot.

Below is a summary of the notes I took during the forum (or at least those notes I could read, given that my handwriting is very often illegible. I think I was a doctor in a past life.)

The interview with Henrietta McCall:

McCall notes that Agatha Christies first foray into archaeology occurred after her divorce from her first husband. Shed struck out on her own and had begun writing novelsThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the first of these.

Presently she met a young couple who waxed lyrical about the splendour of Baghdad, and was convinced that she should book a trip on the Orient Express.'For Christie, the train was both a method of escape, and also had exotic appeal. This was in the 1930s, so just after the excavation of King Tuts tomb, and archaeology had become the hobby du jour.

Christie got in touch with a couple known as the Woolleys who were heading up an archaeological dig at Ur, and asked whether she might attend the dig. This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as her second visit to the site resulted in her meeting her second husbanda man some fifteen years her junior.

While on the dig, Christie began work on'Murder in Mesopotamia, which is her most archaeological noveland her most autobiographical novel. She made no effort to disguise the characters, who were based on those attending the dig with her. 'With Christie being a newcomer to archaeology, the novel itself is quite accessible for the layperson.

Much of Christies work contains archaeological clues.'Death Comes at the End, for example, was set in antiquity and was based around the discovery of an obscure papyrus. Christie consulted with an Egyptologist to come up with the plot, and her detailing is accurate throughout. Her novel'They Came To Baghdad (1951) may also be loosely autobiographical, with the novels heroine perhaps being Christie on her first trip. By this point in her career, Christies approach to archaeology was less hobbyist and more knowledgeable. Indeed, she spent plenty of time on various digsshe was almost 70 when she retired, and had been living in tents all along!

Discussion with Kerry Greenwood and Dr Patrick Greene

Kerry Greenwood, a widely published crime and mystery writer, told us that Agatha Christie wasnt particularly influential on her own writing. Though shed read all of Christie as a young teen, she had decided that a lot more could be done with the genre than the five plots of Christies work. Christie, she noted, is often a starting point for crime writers, and is seen as an exemplar of the golden age of crime fiction, where three elements were crucial: the crime, the detective, and the solution. By the end of such a book, the reader must be able to guess the identity of the killerthey must have been given enough information to solve the mystery themselves. Greenwood also pointed out that Christies work was written for a particular era, the post-war era, during which people wanted puzzles and adventurebut not anything that would invite mourning or empathy.

Patrick Greene, too, read Christie at an early age, but also had a local connection with the author, having been, like Christie, born in Devon. Greene mentioned having read Woolleys account of the dig at Ur, and noted that it had been through an astonishing number of re-prints, which suggested just how popular archaeology had been at the time. Greene described the golden rule of archaeology as being 1) stratigraphy and 2) replication. When asked whether archaeologists are liars, he noted that archaeologists work with what clues and information that they have, but any solutions that are proposed will change as new information comes to light.

When asked why Mesopotamia has not captured the public imagination in the same way that Ancient Egypt has, Greene said that it has a lot to do with the fact that Mesopotamian artefacts are not as visually striking as those from Egypt, being made not from stone but from mud brick. Greenwood, on the other hand, argued that the artefacts from Egypt are more humanpoetry, songs and so onwhereas those from Mesopotamia are more removed from everyday life. Its what a society writes down thats important, she said.

The link between crime fiction, historical fiction and archaeology

Both crime fiction and archaeology involve putting together clues in the correct order in order to come up with a solution, said Greene; he'also noted that both historical fiction and archaeology rely on attention to detail in order to result in conviction. And yes, he said, archaeology has resulted in a murder or two being solved.


  1. Ah, Stephanie, you were there? I was too! Had I but known! I enjoyed it no end, and the exhibition too. I knew next to nothing about Mesopotamia before I went so it was fascinating to learn some more about it. There was a lot about Agatha I didnt know, too. I must get hold of her autobiography now and I wouldnt mind a copy of that out-of-print book that Patrick and Kerry both had, either.

    • Stephanie /

      What a shame I missed you, Imelda! I saw the exhibition a few weeks ago (it was a birthday present from the husband), and was blown away. Ive had a few recommendations for her autobiography now, so I definitely plan to get on it!

  2. I really need to get tickets for Mesopotamia before it closes and I suddenly realise it is too late! Maybe during the school holidays.

    • Stephanie /

      I highly recommend it, Marg. Its just wonderful. There are often lectures on as well, so it might be worth booking for both the exhibition and a lecture. :)

  3. Sounds like fun! I loved Agatha Christie and once upon a time, I loved Kerry Greenwood. Well, I still do love her I just dont have the patience (I think I may just have mentioned that) to keep up with her series ;p

    • Stephanie /

      I havent read any Greenwood, but she seems amazingly prolific. I think she has something like 50-60 books to her name!

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