Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – Agatha Christie

Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Author: Agatha Christie
Date published: 1934
Publisher: Harper Collins
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Agatha Christie wrote a lot of books, and she in turn wrote a lot of murder mysteries. This particular novel I believe is probably her most popular. It was also recently (2017) adapted into a film by Twentieth Century Fox that included the most outrageously all-star cast I have seen in a while. This is just one of the many adaptations of Christie’s work. Having not seen it yet I do hope it does the book justice because having finally read this classic I now realize (once again) just why Agatha Christie is referred to as the Queen of Crime. Honestly, I never saw it coming….

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The story begins with Christie’s most well-known detective, Hercule Poirot, a Belgian man with an uncanny ability to decipher the most difficult and the most elaborate of clues. He can work with clues, and he can work without them – basically Poirot is just fantastic, if sometimes a little egocentric. Poirot has been visiting Syria and is on his way back to England where he now lives permanently. His plan is to take the Orient Express across Europe, and at that particular time of year he is counting on the coaches being almost empty. Upon boarding the train our detective will discover that the train is not empty at all. In fact almost every cabin save one has been taken and it takes the careful negotiations of his old friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the train company, and also traveling aboard the Orient, to make sure that the little Belgian finds himself safely among the passengers on this particular journey.

The stormy weather rages outside but inside the cabins are cosy and the dining-car is the place for passengers to meet and share secrets. Poirot is interrupted at his dinner by a rather obnoxious American of the name Ratchett who admitting that he knows of Poirot’s work as a detective, implores him to help with a case. Ratchett, being a man of substantial means claims to be in danger and wants Poirot to help him. Our detective declines the offer and it is not with a happy heart that Ratchett exits the dining car extremely disgruntled. The next morning he is found dead…

Not only has there been a murder but The Orient Express has been ‘snowed in’ and Hercule Poirot is forced to conduct an impromptu investigation aboard a train that no one can leave or enter. With the aid of Monsieur Bouc, who early on in the investigation utters these frightful lines: “the murderer is with us – on the train now” (2017; 49) and the expertise of a doctor Constantine, the group of eclectic passengers must all be interviewed and the carriages must be searched in order to find the killer.

The oddities of the extremely diverse collection of passengers are one of the many reasons for this novel’s brilliance. Among the passengers are a Russian princess, an English governess, a colonel from India, A German lady’s maid, a Swedish nurse, a large and likeable Italian and a newly married couple carrying diplomatic passports. Scattered around the train are clues that even Poirot admits are akin to that which would be found in a typical mystery novel: a monogrammed handkerchief, a pipe cleaner and a watch broken and stopped at exactly the estimated time of death. It all seems a little too staged until a note is discovered linking Ratchett with a horrific crime that occurred several years ago in America. It also does not seem to help that most of those on the train, including Ratchett’s own secretary and valet are not particularly fond of this man whom many claimed was not likeable at all.

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In a confined space with little or no resources Poirot is surrounded by a group of people who all appear innocent which in turn makes them all suspicious. None of them seem to have any reason to murder Ratchett until new evidence comes to light which suddenly makes his death seem not so unfathomable after all.

Basically it’s a fantastically mysterious state of affairs with Hercule Poirot surrounded by suspects and clues and very little time in which to figure it all out. At a time when it was commonplace to make assumptions the women aboard the train are considered too weak to have struck any fatal blows, and there are references to it being very possibly the Italian because he would most likely exhibit passionate Latin reactions. Ah, what a time to be alive! It is also evident that Christie’s sense of humor allows her characters to appear far more rounded in the limited time they have in novels that are usually never longer than 300 pages. Her writing has astuteness amidst the light-hearted entertainment, that is not always acknowledged, and Murder on the Orient Express is so much more than just a book about a murder on a train. The confined space of the train and the feeling of anxiety among the trapped passengers lend desperation to the story that surpasses Christie’s previous works. This seemingly simple story is not simple at all and will keep you guessing right till the very end. Unless of course you saw the film first…

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