The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The action takes place in Egypt, mostly on the Nile River.
While dining out in London, Hercule Poirot encounters Simon Doyle and his fiance Jacqueline de Bellefort. Jacqueline brings Simon to meet her best friend, the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway, in hopes of getting him a job. instead, Simon breaks off his engagement with her to marry Linnet. While on their honeymoon in Egypt, the Doyles encounter Poirot who witnesses a chance meeting between the married couple and Jacqueline. Jacqueline has been stalking and antagonizing them since their wedding. Poirot informs the Doyles that there is no legal recourse to get rid of her, and tries to reason with Jacqueline in private, urging her to not pursue them further and not to "open [her] heart to evil". Jacqueline refuses stating that Linnet stole her fiance with her dazzling wealth.
Attempting to give her the slip, the Doyles falsely claim they are extending their stay in Cairo, but secretly book passage on the Karnak, a Nile River cruise ship that Poirot is also travelling on. They discover to their rage that Jacqueline had managed to come aboard the ship. Also on the cruise are: Linnet's French maid, Louise Bourget, as well as her American trustee, Andrew Pennington; romance novelist Salome Otterbourne and her daughter, Rosalie Otterbourne; Tim Allerton and his mother, Mrs. Allerton; American socialite Marie Van Schuyler, her younger cousin, Cornelia Robson, and her nurse, Miss Bowers; a young outspoken Communist, Mr. Ferguson; Italian archaeologist Guido Richetti; a quiet young solicitor, Jim Fanthorp; and a Central European physician, Dr. Bessner. Joining the cruise on its return trip is Poirot's friend, Colonel Race, who suspects one of the passengers of the murders of several people, but does not know which one it is.
One night Jacqueline, after getting drunk, shoots Simon in the leg. In the morning Poirot, who slept deeply through the night's events, learns that Linnet has been found dead, shot in the head while sleeping in her starboard-side cabin. Examining the scene, Poirot notes that the bullet wound has scorching around it, that Linnet's pearl necklace is missing, and that there are two bottles of nail polish, each of the same red color, despite one of them being labeled pale pink. Although there is a "J" written in Linnet's blood on the wall behind her bed, Poirot notes that she died instantly. Dr. Bessner confirms that after Jacqueline had shot Simon and dropped the pistol she broke down into remorseful hysterics and was looked after by Miss Bowers until morning. He also confirms that Simon was incapacitated by the leg wound and could not move, even if he had wanted to. Both Race and Poirot theorize that one of the other passengers must have murdered Linnet, having stolen the discarded pistol after everyone left the lounge, and planted clues to implicate Jacqueline. They note that someone had already attempted to kill Linnet while they were touring temple ruins the previous day, with a boulder pushed off a cliff. Jacqueline was suspected at first but she was later found to have been on the boat at the time of the incident.
During the murder investigation, some passengers describe hearing a faint "pop" on the night of the murder, while some recall hearing a splash shortly after midnight. Miss Van Schuyler claims that she saw Rosalie throw something overboard, and that someone had stolen her velvet stole. Jacqueline's pistol is recovered from the Nile, wrapped in the missing stole. During his interview with Linnet's maid at Simon's bedside, Louise states that she saw nothing on the night of the murder but would have "if" she had left her cabin. He also learns that the maid's predecessor was set to marry an engineer on the boat, until Linnet revealed that he was married already, for which he vowed vengeance against her. Jacqueline comes to apologise to Simon, Poirot noting that she is still very much in love with Simon despite having shot him in the leg.
Race announces that a search will be made of the cabins for the missing pearls. Miss Bowers returns the pearls, confiding that Miss Van Schuyler is a kleptomaniac and had taken them from Linnet's cabin. Poirot examines the necklace and finds it to be a fake, the real pearls having been stolen sometime earlier. Later, he confronts Rosalie about her mother being a secret alcoholic and that Rosalie was seen throwing overboard her mother's hidden cache of spirits. Although she admits to this, she firmly denies she saw anyone leaving Linnet's cabin. The maid Louise is found stabbed to death in her cabin, clutching a piece of a banknote. Poirot and Race deduce this was part of a blackmail payment so the maid must have seen something on the night of the murder. Mrs. Otterbourne enters Simon's cabin, declaring she knows who killed Linnet and Louise. Simon yells at her to tell him who it is, but before she can finish her story, she is killed by a shot fired from the deck outside. The shooter disappears, Poirot and Race only find the discarded gun, which Poirot recognizes from Pennington's luggage.
Poirot clears up the lesser mysteries of the case: Pennington had illegally speculated with Linnet's holdings, and had planned to replace the stolen funds before she came of age. Her marriage forced him to take desperate measures and to attempt to dupe her into signing legal documents to exculpate him. When this failed, he attempted to kill her with the boulder at the temple ruins. Fanthorp was on the cruise merely to investigate him on behalf of Linnet's British solicitors, who were suspicious of Pennington's intentions. Tim Allerton stole the pearls from Linnet but did not kill her. Allerton agrees to return the pearls and to reform his ways, asking Rosalie's hand in marriage. Richetti is found to be a foreign agent and the man Race was seeking. Finally, Poirot reveals that Linnet's murder was committed together by Jacqueline and Simon, who had planned it months in advance.
Jacqueline deliberately missed Simon, who faked the bullet wound by using a bottle of nail polish containing red ink. Simon asked that Dr. Bessner be called to help him, and that Jacqueline be looked after during the night, thereby giving her an alibi. Once the lounge was empty, Simon rushed to Linnet's cabin with the discarded gun, shot her in the head, and used her blood to write the "J" on the wall. Rushing back, he then shot himself in the leg, using Van Schuyler's stole to silence the gun, so that Bessner would find a real wound and confirm he couldn't move. After reloading the gun with two bullets in order to make it appear that only one shot had been fired, he wrapped it in the stole and tossed both into the river. Their plan nearly fell apart when Louise hinted to him that she knew he was the murderer as she had witnessed him leaving her mistress's cabin. When Simon was alone with Jacqueline, he informed her of the blackmail. Later, under the pretense of bringing Louise her money, Jacqueline stabbed her to death with one of Bessner's scalpels. However, Salome Otterbourne spotted her leaving Louise's cabin, and deduced that Jacqueline was the murderer; when Simon yelled at Salome later, he was actually communicating to Jacqueline, in the next cabin, that she had been seen and was about to be exposed. This prompted her to steal Pennington's gun and kill Salome before she could reveal what she saw.
Poirot reveals that he knew the crime was premeditated because he suspected he had been drugged on the night of the murder. His suspicions were further raised by the hole in the stole; a third shot must have been fired that night, as Linnet's wound showed signs of scorching, therefore, the stole must have been used to silence the third shot. He finally suspected the pair were involved in the murder due to the choice of words Louise used: she spoke hypothetically ("if I had left my cabin...") which meant that the murderer was present in the room; apart from Poirot and Race, only Bessner and Simon were present. Her words must have been aimed at Simon, who was always surrounded by the doctor or the nurse, preventing Louise from being able to speak to him alone.
Confronted, Jacqueline and Simon confess to the crime, revealing that they loved each other and that Simon married Linnet, whom he never really loved, in order to get her money. After a suitable period of mourning, he and Jacqueline would reunite and marry. While Linnet's murder had been Simon's idea, Jacqueline had planned the details, since Simon, whose former employers had caught him stealing from them and subsequently fired him, was incapable of masterminding such a scheme. Jacqueline admits that Linnet did genuinely try to steal Simon away from her, and that she did not regret planning her murder, despite being glad she was not the one to kill her. As the ship arrives at its final destination and the passengers disembark, Jacqueline kills Simon and herself with a second pistol, which she had hidden in Rosalie's handbag during Race's search of the ship. Poirot confesses that he knew of its existence, and wanted to give the murderers a chance to take a more humane way out. Tim becomes engaged to Rosalie and Cornelia accepts a proposal of marriage from Dr. Bessner, much to the stupefaction of Mr Ferguson, who had been courting her in an uncouth way throughout the trip. Ferguson was actually a member of nobility travelling under an alias and became interested in communism whilst studying at Oxford.
The Times Literary Supplement's short review of 20 November 1937 by Caldwell Harpur concluded, "Hercule Poirot, as usual, digs out a truth so unforeseen that it would be unfair for a reviewer to hint at it".
In The New York Times Book Review for 6 February 1938, Isaac Anderson concluded after summarising the set-up of the plot that, "You have the right to expect great things of such a combination [of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot] and you will not be disappointed.".
In The Observer's issue of 14 November 1937, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) started off by saying, "First this week comes Agatha Christie. She scored, I contend, two outers in her last three shots; but she is back on the very centre of the bull with Death on the Nile." He summarised the set-up of the plot and then continued, "Terrible things happen and, without the formality of breaking off her narrative to issue a challenge, the author allows Poirot to summarise his clues in one compressed paragraph sixty pages from the end. It is after that, until the retired but by no means retiring little Belgian chooses to tell us the truth, that we are very angry with ourselves indeed. When he does so, anger is swallowed up in admiration. The appearance of corpse after corse [sic] in the feast of death is entirely logical, and the main alibi, unshakeable except for Poirot, is of the first brilliance. It is no less likely than the run of such things in fiction, and is built not with many preliminary falsifications but almost in a single carefully premeditated flash of movement." He concluded, "Though less than secondary, the descriptive work is adequate and hits, as it were, the Nile on the head."
The Scotsman of 11 November 1937 said, "An Agatha Christie story, and especially one with Hercule Poirot applying his 'little grey cells,' is always an event. It is a matter of opinion whether this author has a superior in giving an unexpected twist to concluding chapters, but it is arguable that she has none. In Death on the Nile, however, the solution of the mystery does not come with all that sudden shock of surprise to which Agatha Christie 'fans' are accustomed. At least it should not, providing that one carefully reads a certain chapter and is willing to pursue to their ultimate implications certain hints dropped by Poirot. Whether or not the reader will succeed in naming the murderer, by which is meant discovering how the crime was committed, and not just guessing at one of the least likely persons, is another matter. In any case, here is a problem eminently worth trying to solve." The review finished by saying that, "the author has again constructed the neatest of plots, wrapped it round with distracting circumstances, and presented it to what should be an appreciative public."
E.R. Punshon of The Guardian in his review of 10 December 1937 began by saying, "To decide whether a writer of fiction possesses the true novelist's gift it is often a good plan to consider whether the minor characters in his or her book, those to whose creation the author has probably given little thought, stand out in the narrative in their own right as living personalities. This test is one Mrs. Christie always passes successfully, and never more so than in her new book." He went on to summarise the more outlandish traits of some of the characters and then said, "each and all of these, as well their more normal fellow-passengers, are firmly and clearly sketched, even if they are all a little too much types rather than characters and so miss that full rotundity of life a Dickens or a Thackeray can give." He finished by saying that, "M. Poirot's little grey cells had indeed been obliged to work at full pressure to unravel a mystery which includes one of those carefully worked out alibis that seem alike to fascinate Mrs. Christie and to provide her with the best opportunities for displaying her own skill. A fault-finding critic may, however, wonder whether M. Poirot is not growing just a little too fond of keeping to himself such important facts as the bullet-hole in the table. If he is to enjoy all, a reader should also know all."
Mary Dell in the Daily Mirror of 11 November 1937 said, "Agatha Christie is just grand. Usually if you get a good plot there is something wrong with the writing or the characters. But with her – you have everything that makes a first-class book."
Robert Barnard: "One of the top ten, in spite of an overcomplex solution. The familiar marital triangle, set on a Nile steamer. Comparatively little local colour, but some good grotesques among the passengers – of which the film took advantage. Spies and agitators are beginning to invade the pure Christie detective story at this period, as the slide towards war begins."
Agatha Christie adapted the novel into a stage play which opened at the Dundee Repertory Theatre on 17 January 1944 under the title of Hidden Horizon and opened in the West End on 19 March 1946 under the title Murder on the Nile and on Broadway on 19 September 1946 under the same title.
A live television version of the novel under the name of Murder on the Nile was presented on 12 July 1950 in the US in a one-hour play as part of the series Kraft Television Theatre. The stars were Guy Spaull and Patricia Wheel.
The novel was adapted into a highly successful feature film, released in 1978 and starring Peter Ustinov for the first of his six appearances as Poirot. Others in the all-star cast included Bette Davis (Mrs. Van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Lois Chiles (Linnet Doyle), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), Jon Finch (Mr. Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Otterbourne), Jane Birkin (Louise), George Kennedy (Mr. Pennington), Jack Warden (Dr. Bessner) and David Niven (Colonel Race). Slight plot changes were made to the screenplay, deleting several characters, including Cornelia Robson, Signor Richetti, Joanna Southwood, the Allertons and Mr. Fanthorp. Tim Allerton is replaced as Rosalie's love interest by Ferguson.
The novel was adapted as a five-part serial for BBC Radio 4 in 1997. John Moffatt reprised his role of Poirot. The serial was broadcast weekly from Thursday, 2 January to Thursday, 30 January at 10.00am to 10.30pm. All five episodes were recorded on Friday, 12 July 1996 at Broadcasting House. It was adapted by Michael Bakewell and directed by Enyd Williams.
An adaptation for the ITV television series, Agatha Christie's Poirot, was made for the show's ninth series. It starred David Suchet as Poirot, and guest stars included Emily Blunt as Linnet, J. J. Feild as Simon Doyle, Emma Griffiths Malin as Jacqueline, James Fox as Colonel Race, Frances de la Tour as Madame Otterbourne, Zoe Telford as Rosalie Otterbourne and David Soul as Andrew Pennington. The episode was filmed in Egypt, with many of the scenes filmed on the PS Sudan.
This version remained largely faithful to the novel, with some minor changes:The characters of Miss Bowers, Jim Fanthorp and Guido Richetti are omitted from the adaptation.
Due to the omission of Richetti, Race's reason for boarding the boat was changed. In the adaptation, he meets with Poirot after having been on a diplomatic mission, and decides to journey back with him, rather than travel on a government vessel.
Poirot does not encounter Jacqueline and Simon in London, but in Cairo while on holiday in Egypt, when the former taunts and torments the latter and his wife Linnet.
Tim and Rosalie do not fall happily in love with each other at the end of the adaptation. Instead he gently refuses her advances, on the ambiguous implication that he is either gay, or in a relationship with his mother, which is implied to be a questionable fact by the adaptation.
Louise's body is found in her wardrobe during the search of the ship, and not under her bed.
The adaptation changes various elements of the scene regarding the first attempt on Linnet's life by Pennington. In the revised scene, the incident takes place at an old temple, in which a piece of the roof falls and nearly misses Linnet and Simon. Poirot confronts Pennington about this, knowing he was not in the temple but on the roof at the time, to which he reveals that he had knocked it off by accident, not in desperation or with intent to kill. Jacqueline is not on the boat when this happens, nor on the temple's roof, but near Linnet and Simon, taunting them with knowledge about an Egyptian goddess with the features of a cow.
References to real life events appear to set this episode in late 1932, though the SS Normandie only entered service in 1935, but there is some confusion here: Ferguson refers to "a lunatic about to take power in Germany", suggesting a pre-1933 setting, but a later shot of Pennington's luggage label shows the date of his sailing on the Normandie as "January 1936".
Death on the Nile was turned into a "hidden object" PC game, Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile, in 2007 by Flood Light Games, and published as a joint venture between Oberon Games and Big Fish Games. The player takes the role of Hercule Poirot as he searches various cabins of the Karnak for clues, and then questions suspects based on information he finds.
Death on the Nile was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 16 July 2007, adapted by François Rivière and Solidor (Jean-François Miniac) (ISBN 0-00-725058-4). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2003 under the title of Mort sur le Nil.1937, Collins Crime Club (London), 1 November 1937, Hardback, 288 pp
1938, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1938, Hardback, 326 pp
1944, Avon Books, Paperback, 262 pp (Avon number 46)
1949, Pan Books, Paperback, 255 pp (Pan number 87)
1953, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 927), 249 pp
1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 253 pp
1963, Bantam Books, Paperback, 214 pp
1969, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 318 pp
1970, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 318 pp
1971, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 466 pp ISBN 0-85456-671-6
1978, William Collins (Film tie-in), Hardback, 320 pp
2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1937 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, 4 September 2006, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-723447-3
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in eight instalments from 15 May (Volume 209, Number 46) to 3 July 1937 (Volume 210, Number 1) with illustrations by Henry Raleigh.