Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (Collins Crime Club, 1934)
What do you do when there have been so many adaptations and presentations of one of your favourite murder mysteries that it's all jumbled up in your head and nothing seems like the real tale any more? My answer was to go back to the book and reconnect with Agatha Christie's own creation. I'm so glad I did because it grounded me again in the original Murder on the Orient Express.
It's winter in Syria, and Hercule Poirot has just solved another mystery. The detective travels by mundane express up to Istanbul and plans to spend a few days there, only to find himself urgently recalled to England. Although these two cases are presented early in the book, the murder that will occupy Poirot in fact takes place during his journey from Istanbul to London.
On the second night, after Poirot has finally managed to get a compartment to himself on a train that ought to be virtually empty at this time of year, he is disturbed by a plethora of sounds and events taking place in the corridor outside his compartment. The abundance of clues continues next morning, when Poirot is asked by his old friend (and director of the Venice Simplon Orient Express) M Bouc to investigate the murder that took place onboard the train during the night.
In the dead passenger's compartment Poirot discovers a veritable trove of clues and becomes suspicious that some, or all, may have been planted. The initialed lady's handkerchief, the gentleman's pipe cleaner, the smashed watch suggesting 1.15 as the time of death seem too good to be true. But it's the clue he wasn't intended to find (a burnt scrap of paper) that establishes the true identity of the victim. Cassetti was a gangster who kidnapped children, often killing the child even though a huge ransom was paid.
Poirot has already made the acquaintance of two fellow passengers (young governess Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, on leave from his regiment in India) during the train journey up from Syria, but his suspicions are aroused because the couple now pretends to be total strangers. When he tasks them with why, they both refuse to explain.
There are further discrepancies in the evidence provided by the other passengers, pertinent to how many of them knew the family of Cassetti's most famous victim. Only one passenger volunteers that he knew the family. Poirot is perplexed by much of what he unearths, unable to accept the conclusion towards which the evidence leads.
Murder on the Orient Express has fascinated readers since its publication for the vivid image of people from all over the world becoming trapped in a snowdrift that cuts them off from the authorities long enough for Poirot to get to the truth. The combination of luxury train travel, the sheer variety of passengers the train journey brings together and the bloodthirsty nature of the murder all capture public imagination.
Agatha Christie powerfully considers whether there is a crime so heinous that even a previously law-abiding and decent citizen would be driven to commit murder in vengeance and if it is possible for those who subsequently become aware of that fact to condone this act. Her book asks the reader to consider what would happen to someone with a profound moral compass when prosecution in front of a jury fails to deliver justice. This leaves then with only a mind-numbing bereavement, gradually replaced by anger and, finally, a gut-wrenching determination to take matters into their own hands.
In developing the backstory of such a crime, Agatha Christie turned to real life for inspiration. She appreciated that her reading public would accept a murder grounded in actuality far more easily than an invented one as the driving force behind just such an outraged response.
For all the glamour and the accompanying dazzle of the snow trapping the passengers, Murder on the Orient Express remains at heart a portrait of unbearable loss and the lengths to which such suffering can drive someone. In that regard, for me, it remains one of Christie's most moving books.
Thank you so much for joining me for my review of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie: the inaugural John C Adams Reviews Mysteries on Monday post. Please share your thoughts the comments section below. My next review is for Why Not Wednesday in a couple of days time. See you then!
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my article about sea voyages in fantasy fiction (On the Ocean Wave) here.