If Only the Future Matters

Agatha Christie’s novel featuring Hercule Poirot, Death on the Nile, ends in a very interesting way.

Lastly the body of Linnet Doyle was brought ashore, and all over the world wires began to hum, telling the public that Linnet Doyle, who had been Linnet Ridgeway, the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy Linnet Doyle was dead.

Sir George Wode read about it in his London club, and Sterndale Rockford in New York, and Joanna Southwood in Switzerland, and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.

And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”

But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.

These are callbacks to various characters; Sir George Wode sold his estate to Linnet, and hated what she was doing to the place. Joanna Southwood was a jewel thief, and Mr. Burnaby was a neighbor of Linnet’s who only showed up in the very beginning:

That’s her! said Mr Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns… “Millions she’s got… Going to spend thousands on the place. Swimming pools there’s going to be, and Italian gardens and a ballroom and half of the house pulled down and rebuilt…”

And Mr. Ferguson was a communist who thought it best that all of the people killed during the story were dead, since they were all parasites who did no honest work, by which he probably meant factory work. His answer to everything was that it was not the past that mattered, but the future.

This is, of course, a universal defeater. Anything that has actually happened is either in the past or will be in a moment, so really this is another way of saying that nothing real matters. If a man has been murdered, what of it? That is in the past. If a woman relied on a man’s promises which he now finds inconvenient, what of it? That’s in the past.

That last example, by the way, may even have been in Agatha Christie’s mind. She, herself, was abandoned by a husband who thought only of the future, and I suspect she saw all sorts of people who got screwed over by the same sort of thing.

Women are at their most attractive when young and unattached. Youthful beauty is not really a thing in itself but a promise (that is, hint) of what the woman can do, and wise women use their youthful good looks to secure things that will last longer: a husband and, God willing, children and eventually grandchildren. There is something, then, especially awful in a man who pretends to offer these things to a woman while she is still young then throws her away when she is older and her looks begin to fade. This is precisely the kind of cad that Mr. Ferguson is. He wants the benefits of being able to make promises and be believed, but not of the inconveniences in having to keep them.

This view was widespread, in one form or another, back in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see this is the fashion for divorce, which for all the screaming that people do about how important and necessary it is is just people breaking their promises and asking to be taken seriously on making new ones anyway. (When I say that this was widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, I mean giving justifications for it. These days people break their promises at least as often, but they don’t give it a second thought.)

This general theme does also show up in the desire of socialists to steal other people’s things. The justification for why anyone owns something is always in the past—he made it, he bought it, his father made it, etc. I suspect that the reason why anyone got any traction with this is that Europe suffered a great deal of trouble from the transition from feudalism to a modern industrial economy. In the aftermath of guns making the nobility useless on the battlefield, the nobility transformed into the much more familiar aristocracy, which were mostly just a bunch of parasites (this varied considerably with time and place). The question of “why should the aristocracy keep getting to extract as much value as possible from people merely because their distant ancestors were useful?” was a legitimate question.

The thing is, it was a legitimate question that was widely taken advantage of by bad people in order to help them get away with the evil that they wanted to do.

And we have characters like Mr. Ferguson because they didn’t waste any time in trying to apply that.

It is very curious, though, that the book ends by noting that it’s also true of people like Mr. Burnaby, as well. This points to the fact that such an attitude is, to a degree, inevitable. I’ve seen it in the closing of other murder mysteries, too; Saint Peter’s Fair comes to mind. After all of the labors of the murderer, after all the pain that they caused, after the detective sets right what can be set right—life goes on. The murderer threw away other people’s live, and quite often his own—and for nothing. And then the people who are left move on. There may be a hole in their lives and in their hearts, but there is still work to be done with whatever is left, and things to build. The past matters, but not to the exclusion of the future.

This is why, I think, murder mysteries so often involve romantic sub-plots. A young couple, coming together, represents that life goes on, for they will (we assume) go on to have children and raise them. While it is true that it can make good commercial sense for an author to include a romantic sub-plot simply because they are popular, they actually fit extremely well into a murder mystery.

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