By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man, muffled up to the ears, of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward curled moustache.
This small man is of course the famous detective Hercule Poirot, the world’s best-known Belgian. And The Murder on the Orient Express is possibly his most famous case.
The accusation most often levelled against Agatha Christie is that she couldn’t write. I believe she could, and the first few pages of Orient Express provide ample evidence. It’s a brilliant evocation of a desultory conversation between two strangers at five in the morning on a freezing cold station.
‘La Sainte Sophie, it is very fine,’ said Lieutenant Dubosc, who had never seen it.
Hercule Poirot is beginning the long journey home to London after helping out an old friend in Syria. In Istanbul he boards the Simplon Orient Express and is delighted to find on board another friend, M. Bouc, a director of the train company.
The Orient Express is stocked with as varied a set of travelling companions as one could wish for: an English Army officer, a young governess, a Swedish missionary, an American millionaire and his secretary and valet, an Italian salesman, an American grandmother, a Hungarian Count and Countess, a Russian Princess. An all-star cast shown on the back of my Fontana edition.
Almost as soon as he is aboard, Poirot is offered a job by a Mr Ratchett. Ratchett is the American millionaire, and believes somebody is coming to kill him after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot refuses, for the simple reason he does not like the man’s face. He looks evil, as he explains to M. Bouc:
‘The body – the cage – is everything of the most respectable – but through the bars, the wild animal looks out.’
On the second night of the journey, the train runs into a snowdrift in Yugoslavia, halfway between Vincovci and Brod. And there it must stay until rescue arrives.
Harking back to my earlier point about Christie’s writing, that night in the snow is brilliantly described. A sleepless Poirot, isolated in his compartment, hears snatches of conversation, bells being rung, a series of disconnected events.
…the sound of a tap running, a splashing noise, then another click as the basin shut to again. Footsteps passed up the corridor outside, the shuffling footsteps of someone in bedroom slippers…
It’s all quite eerie and lonely.
Anyway, no real surprise: In the morning, a murder is discovered. The evil-faced Mr Ratchett has been stabbed twelve times. It soon turns out that whoever was responsible probably did the world a favour. Ratchett was actually Cassetti, an American crook responsible for the kidnapping and death of a young American girl a few years earlier. Cassetti got off on a technicality and fled the States.
Since the train is entirely cut off from the outside world, M. Bouc begs Poirot to solve the crime. Unless a solution can be handed to the police when they arrive, the train will suffer further delays. Poirot agrees, and having persuaded himself that an outside agency cannot be responsible, begins the process of interrogating the passengers. It’s very much his kind of case:
‘We are cut off from all the normal routes of procedure. Are these people whose evidence we have taken speaking the truth or lying? We have no means of finding out – except such means as we can devise ourselves. It is an exercise, this, of the brain.’
Alibis are key to this one. After the first round of interviews, I ended up with a lot of notes saying things like ‘Conductor: Valet + McQueen went in. Masterman = Valet: 2100 duties, 2200 leaves, MCQ on his own’ but you don’t need to do this: Poirot tabulates it all very neatly a bit later on.
Edmund Wilson, the critic who famously panned detective fiction in the 1930s, levelled the following accusation against Christie.
Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it.
Is this true of Orient Express? Well, unfortunately I think it is. It seems as though Christie had another of her subversive inspirations – why not have x do it? – and then had to make it happen somehow. The final resolution stretches belief and comes across as artificial. I can buy the motive, but the actual crime? It’s just not realistic. As M. Bouc would say:
However, don’t think I didn’t enjoy the book. Poirot is fun, as always, and there are some really really good bits. Even though I doubt I’ll forget the unfortunately memorable ending, I still might well read it again someday.
Don Gilbert on Reinterpreting Murder on the Orient Express (spoilers, but interesting if you know the ending)
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.