The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

The Mystery of the Blue TrainIn which we meet Katherine Grey, the recent recipient of a fine inheritance, who seeks a change from her modest life in St Mary Mead by taking the Blue Train to stay with well-to-do cousins in France; but en route becomes entangled with a plot to steal rubies and murder an heiress. Fortunately, M. Hercule Poirot is also travelling on the train and is called in by the deceased’s father to identify who killed his daughter. And, lo and behold, with a little assistance from Miss Grey, he does! Don’t worry, if you haven’t read the book yet you can read this blog post and still not find out whodunit.

BillsAccording to her autobiography, this is the book of which Christie was least proud. She hated writing it, she said “she could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.” She said each time she re-read it, she found it “commonplace, full of clichés and with an uninteresting plot”. No doubt a contributory factor was the breakdown of her marriage to Archie Christie, and her famous ten-day disappearance which had recently taken place. She needed to write to pay the bills, so from that point of view the book was a great success, as it sold just as well as any of her other books. That’s why it stood out in Christie’s mind as not only her worst book, but also the book that marked her transition from amateur to professional. If she could write on demand, without particularly caring about her characters or her plot, then surely she could think of herself as a professional writer, able to tackle any task that her career (or bank manager) required of her.

private-detectiveThe plot was taken from one of Christie’s own short stories that had been written in 1923 under the title The Plymouth Express, but was not to be actually published in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases, in 1974; so it will be some time before I read and write about that one! Katherine Grey is a one-off character, but her home village of St Mary Mead would of course become very significant as the home of Miss Marple – who had yet to appear in Christie’s works. There are several other links to other Christie books. This is the first appearance of Mr Goby, the private detective who specialises in having people followed; he works for Mr Van Aldin in this book but will provide Poirot with direct detailed information on suspects in After the Funeral and Third Girl. Once again we meet Mr Aarons, who gave Poirot valuable advice regarding showbiz performers in The Murder on the Links and The Big Four; and this is also the first appearance of Poirot’s manservant George, to whom he constantly refers as Georges, although he’s definitely a George.

blue trainThe conductor on board the Blue Train is named Pierre Michel; that is also the name of the train conductor in Murder on the Orient Express, Christie’s 1934 classic. Sadly, I don’t think they’re the same people. Poirot makes no sign of recognition when he interviews Michel on the Orient Express – and with Poirot’s brain he would have certainly remembered him. In the latter book Michel is said to have worked for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits for fifteen years; the real Train Bleu was also part of that same company. Coincidence? Or did Christie think all train conductors were called Pierre Michel? After all, it seems that she thought all French houses were called the Villa Marguerite. That’s where Lady Tamplin lives in this book, and it was also the name of the residence of the Daubreuils in The Murder on the Links.

banging fistSo is Christie still developing the character of Poirot, or is he now the finished article? More than ever, Poirot is as vain, pompous and big-headed as can be. Poirot’s simple answer to Derek Kettering’s question “who are you?” is “My name is Hercule Poirot […] and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Katherine and Lenox can’t keep a straight face at Poirot’s outrageously high self-esteem: “You have seen the gentle, the calm Hercule Poirot; but there is another Hercule Poirot. I go now to bully, to threaten, to strike terror into the hearts of those who listen to me.” And he’s not wrong. His interrogation of Hipolyte and Marie, the Comte’s servants, is a shouting, bullying, fist-waving, table thumping affair that lacks all the usual style and finesse that we have come to expect from him. “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes – two people. One is le bon Dieu […] and the other is Hercule Poirot.” In previous books, regular police inspectors have questioned Poirot’s sanity, tapping their foreheads, implying the old boy’s losing his marbles, whilst of course he has not. In this book he is able to answer that question directly. ““Are you mad, Monsieur Poirot?” It was Van Aldin who spoke. “No,” said Poirot, “I am not mad. I am eccentric, perhaps – at least certain people say so; but regards my profession, I am very much, as one says, ‘all there’.””

woollen stockingsThere’s no Captain Hastings in this book for Poirot to bounce ideas off; instead Katherine Grey serves that purpose, but only on a couple of occasions. Apart from her, Poirot has only M. Caux of the Sûreté (they met once, long ago) as a helpful investigative partner. No Hastings also means no narrator as such; this might have been a contributory factor in why Christie found the book such a bind to write. Katherine is a kind and thoughtful character; independent, generous and human; but Christie doesn’t really give enough of her for us really to attach ourselves to her. Maybe if she’d written this book at a more confident and experienced time in her career, she’d have turned out to be a much more rewarding character. As it is, she is identified by Miss Viner as: “there you are, as sensible as ever you were, with a pair of good Balbriggan stockings on and your sensible shoes” – good quality stockings having been manufactured in Balbriggan, in the old County Dublin, at that time. So, a redoubtable stalwart, but not much more.

Down StreetThere aren’t many locations specified in this book, but one that may require a little explanation is Down Street tube, which is where Van Aldin alights when he goes to visit his daughter Ruth. It was located between Green Park station and Hyde Park Corner station and was closed in 1932. The Isles d’Or, which the Comte de la Roche suggests is a good spot for a liaison with Ruth, do indeed exist; they are a secluded group of four islands off the coast of France by Hyères, comprising of national park and nudist beach. But don’t believe the Comte was suggesting that kind of hanky-panky; the naturist colony there was started in 1931, three years after the book was published. The Negresco, where Derek Kettering chooses to lunch, is a swish and swanky hotel in Nice, that opened in 1913 and is still going strong.

Peer GyntSome other references that propelled me into research mode: Has there ever been an opera based on Peer Gynt? It’s a relevant question, as Mirelle discusses Claud Ambrose’s opera of Ibsen’s play because she is dancing the role of Anitra. Well, Claud Ambrose is a figment of Christie’s imagination, but yes, there have been two operatic Peer Gynts. The first, back in 1938, written by German composer Werner Egk; the second, very recently (2014) by Juri Reinvere. Of course, both were written after The Mystery of the Blue Train. Talking of which, when the train arrives at Lyons, Christie describes the “long plaintive hiss of the Westinghouse brake”. I’m no engineer, so I had to look this up. But even today, modern trains rely upon a fail-safe air brake system that is based upon a design patented by George Westinghouse on March 5, 1868. So he’s had a long-lasting influence.

Peer GyntLady Tamplin says of Katherine, “her clothes are all right. That grey thing is the same model that Gladys Cooper wore in Palm Trees in Egypt. Gladys Cooper was, of course, a renowned stage and screen actress but she never appeared in a film entitled “Palm Trees in Egypt” – nor do I think anyone else ever did. In the same conversation, Lady Tamplin resumes: “She has been a companion, I tell you. Companions don’t play tennis – or golf. They might possibly play golf-croquet, but I have always understood that they wind wool and wash dogs most of the day.” So Lady T doesn’t have much respect for the position of Companion. But what is this “golf-croquet”? I’ve heard of golf, I’ve heard of croquet, but never come across this hybrid. Actually it is a form of croquet where, as soon as someone has driven their ball through a hoop, all other players then play for the next hoop. Sounds a bit faster than regular croquet.

CrippenMajor Knighton reveals that he was staying at a house in Yorkshire when Lady Clanravon’s jewels were stolen. He suggested calling in Poirot to solve it, but they didn’t, and the jewels were never recovered. I can confirm that there is/was no such person as Lady Clanravon (a Christie invention) and the case of the Clanravon jewels doesn’t appear to be part of Christie’s back catalogue of short stories. Crippen, of course, is a different kettle of fish. Here’s the relevant passage: “”The personality of a criminal, Georges, is an interesting matter. Many murderers are men of great personal charm.” “I’ve always heard, sir, that Dr. Crippen was a pleasant-spoken gentleman. And yet he cut up his wife like so much mincemeat.” “Your instances are always apt, Georges.”” Dr Crippen murdered his wife and dismembered her, for which he was hanged in 1910. It’s one of those cases that, for some reason, lingers on in society’s consciousness.

PoundAs this is a book where inheritance, divorce settlements and valuable jewellery all play a significant part, there are many instances of financial values being quoted but their value was very different in 1928 from their value today. Van Aldin values the jewels he gives Ruth to be between four and five hundred thousand dollars – today’s equivalent of between £3.6m and £4.5m. So we’re talking big biccies here. But actually, these are small potatoes compared with the two million dollars that Kettering told Mirelle that his wife had received from her father when she got married. That’s the equivalent of over £18m – a triple rollover on the lottery. By contrast, the £500 a year that Katherine was expecting from her inheritance works out at £22,000 in today’s money. Then there’s the £100,000 Van Aldin offers Kettering if he doesn’t contest Ruth’s divorce. That’s £4.4m today. And finally there’s the £2m that Kettering inherits from Ruth – a tidy £8.8m today. He’s a lucky lad.

It’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Mystery of the Blue Train:

Publication Details: 1928. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 23rd impression published in March 1974, priced 30p. The intriguing cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a cigarette case, some strands of red auburn hair, some bloodstaining on a brass stick, all against the backdrop of Ruth Kettering’s passport. Smart!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It’s the only death too. The story does take its time to get going.

Funny lines out of context: Unusually, I couldn’t really identify any. I did, however, enjoy these individual pieces of writing:
““Mrs Samuel Harfield presents her compliments to Miss Katherine Grey and wishes to point out that under the circumstances Miss Grey may not be aware –“ Mrs Harfield, having written so far fluently, came to a dead stop, held up by what has proved an insuperable difficulty to many other people – namely the difficulty of expressing oneself fluently in the third person.””

“”Ellen does a steak with grilled tomatoes pretty fairly,” said Miss Viner. “She doesn’t do it well but she does it better than anything else.””

Memorable characters:
One of the problems with this book as that the characters are not at all memorable. They’re primarily irritating, like Mirelle with that silly accent, or underemphasised like our heroine Katherine.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The victim is killed by strangulation.

Class/social issues of the time:

Just as The Big Four offered us a rather uneducated view of mental health, this book takes a somewhat facile glance at suicide: “He fetched Zia’s cloak, and together they strolled out into the gardens. ”This is where the suicides take place,” said Zia. Poirot shrugged his shoulders. “So it is said, Men are foolish, are they not, Mademoiselle? To eat, to drink, to breathe the good air. It is a very pleasant thing, Mademoiselle. One is foolish to leave all that simply because one has no money – or because the heart aches. L’amour, it causes many fatalities, does it not?” This doesn’t show much appreciation of what we think of as mental illness today.

Miss Viner’s letter to Katherine is full of the minutiae of everyday living in St Mary Mead and gives a very vivid insight into her life, and the things that occupy her mind. “Everything goes on much the same here. There was great trouble about the new curate, who is scandalously high. In my view, he is neither more nor less than a Roman […] I have had a lot of trouble with maids lately. That girl Annie was no good – skirts up to her knees and wouldn’t wear sensible woollen stockings. Not one of them can bear being spoken to […] Dr Harris persuaded me to go and see a London specialist – a waste of three guineas and a railway fare, as I told him; but by waiting until Wednesday I managed to get a cheap return […] Is it cancer or is it not? And then, of course, he had to say it was. They say a year with care, and not too much pain, though I’m sure I can bear pain as well as any Christian woman.” So, here we have: divisions within the church, problems with servants, high cost of medical and railway services, and the fact that a diagnosis of cancer meant inevitable pain and death. It’s interesting to remember how professional fees were almost always given as guineas rather than pounds – that three guineas is the equivalent of £140 today. Pretty reasonable price in those days, by comparison! Miss Viner’s problem with maids is a classic example of Christie’s observations on the class system. In a later encounter: “”Tell Ellen she is not to have holes in her stockings when she waits at lunch.” “Is her name Ellen or Helen, Miss Viner? I thought –“ Miss Viner closed her eyes. “I can sound my h’s, dear, as well as anyone, but Helen is not a suitable name for a servant. I don’t know what the mothers in the lower classes are coming to nowadays.”

Captain Hastings, not known for his modern man approach to life, would have been in full agreement with Van Aldin’s view that all women are basically stupid: “There is one thing no man can do, and that is to get a woman to listen to reason. Somehow or other, they don’t seem to have any kind of sense. Talk of woman’s instinct – why, it is well known all the world over that a woman is the surest mark for any rascally swindler. Not one in ten of them knows a scoundrel when she meets one; they can be preyed on by any good-looking fellow with a soft side to his tongue.”

And, of course, there are the usual digs at foreigners. Jewel expert Papopolous (in itself something of a parody of a Greek surname) is described as a “wily Greek”. Chubby Evans has no time for the French, although Christie chides him for his view: “Mr. Chubby Evans listened with a very imperfect comprehension, his French being of a limited order. “So like the French,” murmured Mr Evans. He was one of those staunch patriotic Britons who, having made a portion of a foreign country their own, strongly resent the original inhabitants of it. “Always up to some silly dodge or other.”” There is also this slightly uncomfortable exchange between Poirot and Papopolous: “”Seventeen years is a long time,” said Poirot thoughtfully, “but I believe that I am right in saying, Monsieur, that your race does not forget.” “A Greek?” murmured Papopolous, with an ironical smile. “It was not as a Greek I meant,” said Poirot. There was a silence, and then the old man drew himself up proudly. “You are right, M. Poirot,” he said quietly. “I am a Jew. And, as you say, our race does not forget.””

Classic denouement: No, quite the contrary. There’s no grand assembly of all the suspects in a classy drawing room. It’s just a meeting between Poirot and two people. In fact, you only realise you’re in the denouement stage just before Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer. I had a sense of being a bit short-changed.

Happy ending? Not especially. Katherine is back at home, alone; Lenox is at home, alone. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of character progression, nor the faint tinkling of wedding bells that so often characterises a Christie climax.

Did the story ring true? At a push, it’s not too fanciful. There are a few coincidences, of course, like the fact that Poirot is in situ to start the investigation and that both Kettering and Knighton are friends of the Tamplins, but then, it wouldn’t be a Christie without some coincidences.

Overall satisfaction rating: 4/10. Considering it’s called The Mystery of the Blue Train, it takes a long time before the Blue Train gets mentioned. So you always have this nagging feeling that all the preamble is just that – not part of the mystery. So whereas in other Christies those important pages before a crime is committed can be seen as enticing, clue-giving, and motive-suggesting, in this book it just feels like it’s taking a long time to get started. And, as I suggested above, the characters just go nowhere at the end. Definitely a book that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. One further slight disappointment – even though I couldn’t remember the story from my earlier readings, I still quite easily managed to guess the murderer – so no big surprise for me at the end.

Seven Dials MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Mystery of the Blue Train and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1929, and it’s back to that wacky gang at Chimneys with The Seven Dials Mystery. I can’t remember anything about this book, so I’ll be reading it as though it were brand new. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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