3. Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

Hercule Poirot #9

The passengers on the Calais Coach wake to find themselves trapped by a snowdrift… and something far worse.

Returning home from the Middle East, Hercule Poirot – by sheer coincidence and his connections – manages to get the last berth on the Calais Coach of the Orient Express, wherein he is quickly approached by a wealthy passenger, Mr. Ratchett who wants Poirot to keep watch for people who may be trying to kill him. Poirot refuses the commission and, to his dismay, learns the next morning that Ratchett has been killed in cold blood. With the train trapped due to a snowblock, Poirot and his assistants, Monsieur Bouc and Dr. Constantine, must gather the clues and untangle a web of deceit which has ensnared the thirteen suspects on board the train.

Murder on the Orient Express is quintessential Christie, make no mistake. The closed-off location, the multitude of suspects, the straightforward analytical way in which Poirot is able to handle the matter. (Indeed, due to the circumstances of the crime, he must surely have relished this, as rarely does he get to be so methodical). Within this format, Christie has the perfect outlet for her contrivances, for the red herrings and mistaken identities, for the lies and suspicions and paranoia that flow from the initial murder. In fact, Murder on the Orient Express reads somewhat like an amalgam of other great Christies. Like Death in the Clouds, we have a limited number of suspects, and a crime which somehow was not witnessed. Like Ordeal by Innocence, we’re aware of the increasing paranoia and the shortened length of time in which the crime must be solved. And structurally, the novel couldn’t be better: the set-up is clean and simple, the murder endlessly complex, and the interviews methodical yet fascinating. And it all leads up to a devastating denouement in which Poirot gathers the passengers to give them not one, but two solutions, and must make a moral decision unique in the books – at least until he made a far greater one in his final case, Curtain.

There isn’t a line out of place in this novel. The endless array of clues – smudges on passports, mysterious handkerchiefs, disappearing women in kimonos and buttons belonging to nobody – are all perfectly explained, and each raises a question: legitimate clue, accidental red herring or deliberate red herring? Not everyone will enjoy the way that Dame Agatha twists and tailors the plot to her needs, but helpless Poirot fans like myself are rendered inert by the sheer technical perfection of the way things are carried out. All plotting, after all, is contrivance, by its very nature. What makes some work better than others is in not letting the strings show. And just when you’re about to complain about one plot element ringing false, Christie goes and makes it part of the plot all along!

Okay, to be honest, there may be one tiny niggling weakness: a couple of the suspects are very sketchily drawn, appearing mainly to shore up the numbers in the train (which has to be full for one element of the story to work). This becomes equally notable in both the major film adaptations, but – given how many of the characters  do come across strongly – I’ll let it slide. Miraculously, every character comes across as more than just an archetype; there are no stodgy vicars, cruel matriarchs or the like here. Instead, even the most stereotypical characters transcend their tropes, with backgrounds and motivations far beyond what we expect, given how common the ‘stock characters stuck together suspects of murder’ formula is.

Murder on the Orient Express is a story with a cracker of an ending, and – although I wrote only a year ago on Goodreads that “it has sadly never been filmed all that well” – I have to apologise to the previous filmmakers for my comments. The all-star film, with Albert Finney as Poirot, is very strong, lavish and eye-catching, with Finney giving an enjoyable – if mannered – performance as the detective. David Suchet’s 2010 adaptation was exquisite in capturing the aging Poirot’s personality, tying in nicely with his final decision. However, although rendered with a wonderfully dark palette, it was hard to get a grip on a number of the characters, which is a shame as the interview section of the book is my favourite.

Orient Express is a lovely example of a book that fully deserves its notoriety. It is the finest of Christie’s detective stories, taking a basic plot device that was already hoary in 1934, and somehow being both classical and innovative. There’s just no wonder that Poirot’s investigative methods are the stuff of legend, and that nearly any murder mystery is now compared to this novel. It’s a quintessential piece of the ‘Golden Age’: in that the plan comes together perfectly and only Poirot’s presence can reveal the murderers’ devious scheme (the 2010 film’s greatest strength is how it does a modern spin on this, by making the scheme much more haphazard, and allowing Poirot to come off as something far more human). I would call this the first of three undisputed masterpieces in Christie’s canon. However the other two, which we’ll visit shortly, are horses of an entirely different colour: one features a detective but a murder from the far-distant past; the other features plenty of murder, but no detective.

Rating: 10/10

Poirot ranking: 2nd of 38

Next time: Poirot’s greatest novel, as he examines murder in retrospect.