The Retreat (Introverted Feeling)

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

If a readers’ initial mood is turned in and focused on disturbing emotions, a congenial opening might be an image of retreat from the world, such as a fictional protagonist who has retired from worldly concerns to a place such as a monastery or convent in an medieval mystery. Typically, however, the character’s urge to withdraw is in dynamic tension with the same character’s need to solve a mystery. Historical fictions are not the only literary works that may begin with the theme of retreat, but the use of a historical setting helps to distance action in a way that can make a novel itself an escape for present-day readers.

Agatha Christie’s historical mystery Death Comes as the End (1944) is a good example of this pattern of the initial retreat, probably because of Christie’s own personal predilection to retreat from crises, both fictional and real. She is best known for her nonhistorical mysteries featuring Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, both of whom are often in states of semiretirement. When Christie’s first husband asked her for a divorce in 1928, she disappeared from public view for ten days. It was an emotional withdrawal so extreme that she later said it induced amnesia. Although she managed to pull herself together enough to return temporarily, she eventually left for the Middle East—an area very remote from Europe in those days. She later married an archaeologist and devoted much of her new married life to digs into the Middle Eastern past.

Christie’s Death Comes as the End juxtaposes nostalgia for its ancient Egyptian setting with distaste for the character Nofret, a family-disrupting concubine. Within the narrow confines of the novel’s plantation, the detective figure, Renisenb, uses her investigatory reasoning to recover from the disturbing loss of her husband. She zigzags between moments of panicky withdrawal and courageous return to detection, as if the narrative were teaching integration of feeling and thinking, as well as of introversion and extroversion. Like most historical mysteries, this book’s emphasis on the distinctiveness of its historical setting may invite readers to associate it with their own pasts, yet find it safer, making it an excellent space for rumination through Renisenb, who finds a handsome new partner. In writing this book, Christie may have been dealing with memories of divorce and remarriage.