Holidaying in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears Raymond Boynton telling his sister: "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Their mother, Mrs. Boynton, is a sadistic tyrant who dominates all the younger members of her family, and who attracts the strong dislike of a group of people outside the immediate family. But when she is found dead, there are only twenty-four hours for Hercule Poirot to solve the case and he has no way of even proving whether it was murder.
The first part of the novel (a little over a third) is an effective psychological thriller as the family and the victim are introduced, principally through the perspective of Sarah King and Dr. Gerard, who discuss the behaviour of the family. Mrs. Boynton is sadistic and domineering, traits that (it is suggested) may have influenced her choice of original profession: prison warden.
Sarah is attracted to Raymond Boynton, while Jefferson Cope admits to wanting to take Nadine Boynton away from her husband, Lennox Boynton, and the influence of her mother-in-law. Having been thwarted in her desire to free the young Boyntons, Sarah confronts Mrs. Boynton whose apparent reply is a strange threat: “I’ve never forgotten anything – not an action, not a name, not a face.” When the party reaches Petra, Mrs. Boynton uncharacteristically sends her family away from her for a period. Later, she is found dead with a needle puncture in her wrist.
Poirot claims that he can solve the mystery within twenty-four hours simply by interviewing the suspects. During these interviews he establishes a timeline that seems impossible: Sarah King places the time of death considerably before the times at which various of the family members claim last to have seen the victim alive. Attention is focused on a hypodermic syringe that has seemingly been stolen from Dr. Gerard’s tent and later replaced. The poison administered to the victim is believed to be digitoxin: something that she already took medicinally.
During a protracted denouement, Poirot explains how each member of the family has, in turn, discovered Mrs. Boynton to be dead and, suspecting another family member, failed to report the fact. In reality, none of the family would have needed to murder the victim with a hypodermic, since an overdose could much more effectively have been administered in her medicine. This places the suspicion on one of the outsiders.
The murderer is revealed to be Lady Westholme who, previous to her marriage, had been incarcerated in the prison in which the victim was once a warden. It was to Lady Westholme, and not to Sarah, that Mrs. Boynton had addressed that peculiar threat; the temptation to acquire a new subject to torture had been too great for her to resist. Disguised as an Arab servant she had committed the murder and then relied upon the suggestibility of Miss Pierce to lay two pieces of misdirection that had concealed her role in the murder.
Lady Westholme, eavesdropping in an adjoining room, overhears that her criminal history is about to be revealed to the world and commits suicide. The family, free at last, take up happier lives: Sarah marries Raymond; Carol marries Jefferson; and Ginevra takes up a successful career as a stage actress.
Simon Nowell-Smith's review in the Times Literary Supplement of May 7, 1938 concluded, "Poirot, if the mellowing influence of time has softened many of his mannerisms, has lost none of his skill. His examination of the family, the psychologists and the few others in the party, his sifting of truth from half-truth and contradiction, his playing off one suspect against another and gradual elimination of each in turn are in Mrs. Christie's most brilliant style. Only the solution appears a trifle tame and disappointing.
In The New York Times Book Review for September 11, 1938, Kay Irvin said, "Even a lesser Agatha Christie story holds its readers' attention with its skillful management of suspense. Appointment with Death is decidedly of the lesser ranks: indeed, it comes close to being the least solid and satisfactory of all the Poirot mystery tales. Its presentation of a family harried and tortured by a sadistic matriarch is shot full of psychological conversation and almost entirely deficient in plot. And yet, when the evil-hearted old tyrant has been murdered at last and Poirot considers the suspects, one follows with genuine interest the unraveling of even unexciting clues.
In The Observer's issue of May 1, 1938, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "I have to confess I have just been beaten again by Agatha Christie. There was no excuse. I was feeling in particularly good form; and the worst of it is that she handicapped herself in the latest game with what in anyone else would be insolent severity. Murder on the Nile (sic) was entirely brilliant; Appointment with Death, while lacking the single stroke of murderer's genius which provided the alibi in the former story, must be counted mathematically nearly twice as brilliant, since the number of suspects is reduced by nearly half. Indeed, though we begin out story in Jerusalem and meet our murder in Petra, the Red Rose City, we might as well be in a snowbound vicarage as far as the limitation of suspicion is concerned. And it is in this respect that Agatha Christie repeats her Cards on the Table triumph and beats Steinitz with a single row of pawns.
The Scotsman of May 9, 1938 said, "As usual, Miss Christie plays fair with her readers. While the solution comes with a shock of surprise, it is logical enough: the clues are there, one could fasten upon them and assess their importance. Perhaps it is another case of the reader being unable to see the wood for the trees; but there are so many trees. Not this author's best crime novel, Appointment with Death is yet clever enough and convincing enough to stand head and shoulders above the average work of the kind.
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian in his review of May 27, 1938 summarised by saying, "For ingenuity of plot and construction, unexpectedness of dénouement, subtlety of characterisation, and picturesqueness of background, Appointment with Death may take rank among the best of Mrs. Christie's tales.
Mary Dell in the Daily Mirror of May 19, 1938 said, "This is not a book I should recommend you to read last thing at night. The malignant eye of Mrs. Boynton might haunt your sleep and make a nightmare of your dreams. It's a pretty eerily bloodcurdling tale. A grand book.
Robert Barnard: "Notable example of the classic-era Christie, with excellent Near East setting, and the repulsive matriarch as victim. The family tensions around her are conveyed more involvingly than usual. The detection, with its emphasis on who-was-where-and-when, is a little too like Ngaio Marsh of the period, and there is some vagueness in the motivation, but this is as taut and atmospheric as any she wrote.
The novel mentions several other Poirot investigations: the detective is seen to retell to Colonel Carbury the story of Cards on the Table and Nadine Boynton actually confronts Poirot with his own actions in the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express although it is not explained how she knew of this. Miss Pierce also comments on The A.B.C. Murders when she recognises Poirot for the great detective he is.
Christie adapted the book as a play of the same name in 1945. It is notable for being one of the most radical reworkings of a novel Christie ever did, not only eliminating Hercule Poirot from the story, but changing the identity of the killer. In the play, the ill Mrs Boynton committed suicide and dropped several red herrings that pointed to her family members as possible suspects, hoping that they would suspect each other and therefore continue to live in her shadow even after her death.
It was later adapted into the third of six films to star Peter Ustinov was Poirot and released in 1988. The film did not incorporate the changes of the play, retaining the plot of the book.
The novel was adapted for the eleventh season of the series Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. The screenplay was written by Guy Andrews and it was filmed in Morocco in May 2008. It will air later this year on ITV.
The first true publication of Appointment with Death occurred in the US with a nine-part serialisation in Collier's Weekly from August 28 (Volume 100, Number 9) to October 23, 1937 (Volume 100, Number 17) with illustrations by Mario Cooper.
The UK serialisation was in twenty-eight parts in the Daily Mail from Wednesday, January 19 to Saturday, February 19, 1938 under the title of A Date with Death. Fifteen of the instalments contained illustrations by J. Abbey (Joseph van Abbé, brother of Salomon van Abbé). This version did not contain any chapter divisions and omitted various small paragraphs such as the quote in Part I, Chapter twelve from Dr. Gerard which is taken from Book IV of Ecclesiastes. The political argument between Lady Westholme and Dr. Gerard in chapter ten about the League of Nations was also deleted. Finally, the epilogue did not appear in the serialisation.
Four days before the first instalment appeared, in the edition dated Saturday, January 15, a piece specially written by Christie as an introduction to the serialisation appeared in the Daily Mail in which she charted the creation of Poirot and expressed her feelings about him in the famous quote, "There have been moments when I have felt: 'Why-why-why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature!'