by Agatha Christie
An interesting lecture on the ‘Queen of Crime’ during our recent cruise inspired me to re-read some of Christie’s stories featuring her cerebral Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, is one of her best known works, having been popular also as a drama for cinema and television. Ignoring the merits (or otherwise) of the films, and the changes the producers made, let’s talk about the book.
Poirot is returning home from Istanbul on an unusually crowded Orient Express when one of his fellow passengers, the American Samuel Ratchett, is murdered. The train is delayed by a snowdrift and the director of the railway persuades Poirot to investigate the case. The detective soon discovers that Ratchett was actually Cassetti, a gangster responsible for the murder of a little girl – Daisy Armstrong, an American heiress – a murder that had especially tragic consequences for the Armstrong family and household.
“Poirot’s eyes were shining. He laid down the tongs carefully. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know the dead man’s name. I know why he had to leave America.’ “
Among the passengers on the train are a Russian princess, a British colonel, an Italian salesman, a count and countess, and an assortment of other seemingly unrelated travellers. In the event that there are readers out there who (as with The Moustrap) do not know the solution to the mystery, I won’t reveal it here. However, as we expect from Christie, appearances are deceptive and there is a great deal more connecting the travellers than is apparent at the beginning of the journey.
” ‘Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompé’ ” [That’s a clue!]
By the time the snow is cleared, Poirot has it all worked out. He offers two solutions to the assembled company and invites them to decide which one should be presented to the authorities.
” ‘You can’t go about having blood feuds ……’ said the Colonel. ‘Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system.’ “ [That’s another clue!]
Though Murder on the Orient Express has an intriguing outcome, to my mind it is not one of Christie’s best stories. The plot itself, even for the 1930s, seems improbable. The characters are stiff stereotypes rather than real people. The whole book has the feel about it of the parlour game in which ‘Colonel Mustard did it in the library with a crowbar’. Maybe I’m being unfair to the author here. The snappy dialogue – and there’s a lot of it – is brilliant and the unravelling of the truth cleverly managed with clues and hints being dropped everywhere.
Helsinki Cathedral, taken during our visit on 10th July