Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

Whilst at the end of a trip to Syria Poirot is called back to London on urgent business. He secures a compartment on the Orient Express and sets upon his long west-ward journey from Istanbul. The carriages are unusually full, so says the Director of The Train Operator, M. Bouc, friend and confidante of M Poirot. A fortuitous reunion as Bouc is able to accommodate a compartment for Poirot, making his friend’s journey more comfortable. Poirot becomes acquainted with some of his other travelling companions at the beginning of the journey. In particular one Mr Ratchett who tries to secure Poirot’s services but fails as Poirot ‘does not like his face.’

A heavy snowstorm which causes the train to stall sets in motion a chain of events that results in Poirot’s involvement with Ratchet after all – but only after he is killed. And so the race begins to establish who has murdered this particularly odious American and why.

As mentioned in my previous post this is perhaps the most famous of Christie’s Poirot novels. According to most others it is not her masterpiece – that title goes to The Murder of Roger Acryoyd – so what is it that makes this particular story so enduring?

Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie of the same name is the obvious place to start. It was filmed whilst Christie was still alive and, importantly, with her blessing. Its release date coincided with the book’s 40th anniversary. The all star cast featured luminaries of the acting world including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney and Sean Connery. It was filmed mostly at Elstree Studios but also on locations in Europe. But of course the real star is perhaps the Orient Express itself.

Travelling from Aleppo to Paris by train at a time when air travel was in its infancy speaks of another world. A first class compartment is suggestive of those with time on their hands and money to spare. How romantic travelling through the vast landscapes crossing timelines and borders; every whim catered for and a place to establish new friendships. I think it’s a rare thing today to be able to consider this as a viable travel option emulating the time when travel was a means to an end. Nowadays it’s the means in itself and perhaps great train journeys such as the Trans-Siberian Express (one of my greatest regrets will be perhaps never being able to do this journey), the Darjeeling Railway in India or the Caledonian Sleeper is just another tickbox exercise. Gone are the days when a train journey requires travellers to be dressed for dinner or you could summon your valet who was occupying a compartment in 2nd Class.

A story that allows for an ensemble cast and the opportunity to showcase a luxury means of travel in a time before war is perhaps why this had so much appeal. No doubt Christie’s blessing heightened its allure and, in fact, the movie went on to see commercial success gaining one Oscar win and several nominations.

So, the story itself. The tenth Poirot and written at a time in Christie’s life when she was also exploring locations in far flung countries and travelling on the Orient Express which are backdrops and inspiration for this novel. The book is written in the third person objective which allows us to focus on each of the characters’ mannerisms. We are by now, of course, familiar with Poirot’s little ticks and idiosyncrasies to know what he is thinking. The sparkling green of his eyes should make any suspect wary. His fussy little ways are not necessarily a factor because he is amongst strangers who might, at worst, find them mildly amusing.

Within the first few pages we are presented with possible suspects – Colonel Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham – and yet a murder has not been committed. But they must be considered suspects or else why does Christie insist we become acquainted with them? And then through a contrivance of events Poirot ends up on the same train as this couple. The plot thickens, perhaps one of them is to die? It’s happened before after all and to Christie any character is fair game and the cast of Lord Edgware Dies spring to mind. However, because the train journey only takes three days we have to get a wiggle on with this murder!

On the second night things start to go bump in the night. By morning we have a woman who is proclaiming there was a man in her compartment and she just so happens to be next door to the murder victim. Quelle Horreur! It is of course Poirot’s pleasure to be asked to investigate and so he narrows the suspects to the first class carriage and away we go.

It’s not quite a Locked Room mystery. That would imply that there is something supernatural afoot. We are very much grounded in reality here and Poirot is convinced that the suspect is amongst the dozen or so suspects. Through a note that has been carelessly discarded (or has it?) Poirot is able to identify the true identity of the victim – a man who was involved in the high profile kidnap and murder of a little girl. And, it seems, when each of the suspects is interviewed they do not have any sympathy for him considering it justifiable what he got.

For me one of the more shocking aspects of the novel was the free and easy way each of the characters embraced the idea of the death penalty and the man getting his ‘just desserts’. In the UK hanging was still a punishment meted out by the courts and so it is maybe not much of a surprise to hear this almost universal support aired. Although the nature of his crime is not going to elicit much sympathy from many quarters.

And so we arrive at the denouement. Without giving any spoilers away I must admit to finding it anti-climactical. The book ending certainly lacks the theatre and drama that Lumet and Branagh bring to their movies. Perhaps this helps with an all star cast who are able to convey a feeling or emotion through nuanced expressions. Just picture the arched eyebrow of Lauren Bacall. The book though? Well, when all’s said and done, it’s a murder mystery, a pot boiler perhaps, it’s not meant to be a masterclass in exploring human emotion or analysing themes about social justice. At the end of the day Poirot solves the crime, with the aid of his trusted companions, and justice is meted out.


7 thoughts on “Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

  1. Hi Sarah, an interesting review. I really enjoyed this particular book and I thought the ending was very clever. My favourite of Aggie’s books is Then there were None. I also thought that ending was clever. I read Lord Edgeware Dies a few weeks ago and need to write up a review of it. I did guess the murderer early in the story, but I still enjoyed the unravelling and unveiling.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Robbie.
      It’s definitely a clever ending – something she excelled in which probably set her apart from lots of others. If I hadn’t seen the movie would I have worked it out…? I think I might have got there, but I like finding out about the connections and the ‘why’.
      I look forward to reading your review of Lord Edgware Dies!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for the detailed review, Sarah. I have been following The Royal Reading Room with the Queen Consort. They had a wonderful retrospective of Agatha Christie that you may enjoy.

    “A fascinating journey into the greatest mystery writer of all time, Agatha Christie, as we explore her life, her work and her extraordinary legacy in the company of some of our favourite authors and actors and Christie’s own great-grandson, James Prichard.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the link and the quote! I’ll enjoy looking at that.
      I have Lucy Worsley’s book about Agatha Christie yet to read. There’s also a tv programme to accompany it but will save that for a while.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Dave. There’s definitely a glam factor with the movies that’s not quite captured in the book, but it’s fun nonetheless.
      ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is definitely very good and well worth a look. I’m glad this post has piqued your interest!

      Liked by 1 person

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