The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

Murder on the Orient ExpressIn which Hercule Poirot travels on the Simplon-Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris but the train is caught in a snowdrift near Vincovci, and when Poirot wakes the next morning, he discovers that one of his fellow passengers has been murdered. With the aid of his friend M. Bouc, a director of the Wagon-lits company, and the Greek Dr Constantine, he sets about questioning the surviving passengers whilst waiting for the Yugoslavian police to arrive. And he works out the whos and hows of the crime before they get there! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit – although I think the identity of the murderer is very well known in folk mythology!

NinevehThe book is dedicated to “M.E.L.M, Arpachya, 1933”. Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, Christie’s second husband, the famous archaeologist worked on the dig at Arpachya, four miles from Nineveh in present day Iraq, and Christie accompanied him there for a few weeks, keeping records, and re-assembling and cleaning pottery fragments. She wrote some of the book there, but also, famously, at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul.

Cilician GatesIt’s one of Christie’s best known and best loved novels, and for a very good reason – it’s a wonderful read. The intrigue of the Middle East, the curiosity of Eastern Europe, the glamorous environment on board an exclusive train, an extraordinary crime and a cast of many varied memorable characters from all across the globe, this book has it all. And it’s written from experience; Christie travelled by the Orient Express many times, delayed by adverse weather conditions, meeting grand passengers of many nationalities. The book begins, almost in travelogue mode, at Aleppo station, boarding the Taurus Express, bound for Stamboul, via Konya and the Cilician Gates. It’s the stuff that dreams are made on.

Taurus ExpressThe Taurus Express operated from Istanbul to Baghdad and only ceased operation in 2003 due to the war. Even today it runs part of the journey, from Eskişehir to Adana, with expectation to extend back to Istanbul once track work is complete, and, who knows, to Baghdad again if there is no war. Christie’s autobiography contains passages of her taking in the view of the Cilician Gates, a pass through the Taurus Mountains connecting the low plains of Cilicia to the Anatolian Plateau in southern Turkey. Poirot stays at the Tokatlian Hotel, as did Christie herself, a hotel that even today is still partly in use.

Orient ExpressThe Orient Express, of course, that fine old name in grand railway travel, was very well known, covering a few routes through Europe; the Simplon-Orient Express that features in this book started (or ended, depending on your direction) in Istanbul and journeyed via Sofia, Belgrade, Venice, Milan, Lausanne, and ended up in Paris. Alas this itinerary ceased in 1977, with the journey shortening to Bucharest, and then Vienna, until it finally ceased operating in 2009. Today, other passenger trains may adopt the Orient Express name, but they are not associated with the original company. Seems a pity.

vinkovciThe book is nevertheless scattered with exciting-sounding places that conjure up a forbidden time and place. The last stop before the train crawls to a halt because of snow is at Vincovci, (Vinkovci) now in the easternmost part of modern day Croatia. Colonel Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham first meet during the journey from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Nissibin in Turkey. Mr Ratchett might have turned his clock back an hour at Tzaribrod (modern day Dimitrovgrad) as it’s on the extreme edge of modern day Serbia near its border with Bulgaria (and would indeed be taken over by Bulgaria for three years during the second world war). All names of excitement, or romance, or danger, that really imbue this book with atmosphere.

Charles LindberghI won’t be giving anything away by stating that at the heart of the book is the Armstrong Kidnapping Case, where three-year-old heiress Daisy Armstrong was kidnapped for a fabulous ransom sum – but nevertheless, once the sum was paid, the child was still murdered. This was based on the true life, 1932, Lindbergh kidnapping case, where the twenty-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was abducted and later found dead.

planWhat makes this book stand out from all the other Poirots that had gone before is the emphasis on the process of detection. Those little grey cells had never been so exercised. The very factual, totally chronological third-party narration of the story (not by Hastings, who presumably was not around at the time) is designed to present the evidence to the reader at exactly the same time as Poirot receives it, and encourages the reader to work hard to solve the case before the detective does. Christie gives us all the information we require, with the floor plan of the Pullman coach, the sequential conversations in full with all the suspects, and above all, full access to Poirot’s thought processes, with his reactions to M Bouc’s and Dr Constantine’s suggestions and observations. Possibly because of that, you couldn’t call this an action-packed book, like The Secret of Chimneys, for example, where so much activity is poured into the pages that you barely have a chance to think. This is the opposite; there is no activity, everyone is just waiting around for something to happen. It also means that his cast of exciting and glamorous characters each have an opportunity to shine, as each has their own chapter where they give their evidence. It also suggests that an equal weight is given to each response they make, which, at the end of the day, is a good call.

Dress designerAs a result, Poirot’s own characteristics and personality take something of a backseat with this book, as it is the suspects who are primarily under the glare. Of course there are, as always, a few interesting comments concerning Poirot. It’s Miss Debenham who first notices him, at Aleppo: “what an egg-shaped head he had […] A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” Not a great judge of character, then, Miss Debenham. Mr MacQueen is also wrong-footed by his initial appraisal of Poirot: ““I am a detective. My name is Hercule Poirot […] You know the name, perhaps?” “Why, it does seem kind of familiar – only I always thought it was a woman’s dressmaker.” Hercule Poirot looked at him with distaste. “It is incredible!” he said.”

BalzacHowever, in this book I rather like the character of M. Bouc, who to an extent plays the role that Hastings sometimes plays – that of coming up with bright but totally inaccurate ideas off which Poirot can bounce – except that sometimes Hastings just says the right thing. And Bouc says the right thing in this book too, very early on: “It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment. He was at the stage of a meal when one becomes philosophic. “Ah!” he sighed. “If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene. […] All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.” “And yet,” said Poirot, “suppose an accident – […] nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together – by death.” “Some more wine,” said M. Bouc, hastily pouring it out. “You are morbid, mon cher. It is, perhaps, the digestion.”

Lady MacbethI also like how M. Bouc has, what can only be described as, a Lady Macbeth moment; when Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth hears the news that Duncan has been murdered, she exclaims, “what, in our house?” which many commentators have considered to be a psychological slip on her part, accidentally giving away her own guilt. When M. Bouc realises that a murder has been committed on the Orient Express, and that the victim is an evil criminal himself, he exclaims: ““I cannot regret that he is dead – not at all! […] Tout de même, it is not necessary that he should be killed on the Orient Express. There are other places.” Poirot smiled a little. He realised that M. Bouc was biased in the matter.” Does this give away some Bouc guilty secret? You’ll have to read it to find out.

avenue kleberUnlike nearly all the other Christie books, we don’t get to see many of Christie’s usual themes or recurrent issues. This book is so totally plot and evidence driven, there is little time for social commentary. There are however a number of references and moments of “is this true or is Christie making it up” that I’ve been doing some research. Poirot’s luck is in when the gentleman who has reserved the final second-class compartment on the Orient Express appears to be too late to check in: “”An Englishman,” the conductor consulted his list. “A M. Harris.” “A name of good omen,” said Poirot, “I read my Dickens. M. Harris, he will not arrive.” Mrs Harris was a figment of Sarah Gamp’s imagination in Martin Chuzzlewit. Masterman gives his home address as 21, Friar Street, Clerkenwell. Does this address exist? Well, there is a Friar Street near Ludgate Hill, which I suppose at a pinch you could describe as Clerkenwell but it’s a little bit south. Let’s give Christie the benefit of the doubt – she probably wasn’t that au fait with seedier addresses in London. At the other end of the scale, the Princess Dragomiroff says she lives in the avenue Kleber, in Paris. I bet she does.

Glauber’s SaltsMasterman says he spent the evening of the murder reading his current favourite book, Love’s Captive by Mrs Arabella Richardson. Ring any bells with anyone? No, why would it, it’s a Christie invention. It really doesn’t sound like the kind of thing Masterman would enjoy though, does it? In the same conversation: “By the way, are you a pipe smoker?” “No sir, I only smoke cigarettes – gaspers.” We don’t use that word “gaspers” any more. It was a slang term for a high tar cigarette – so given because, when you smoked them, you inevitably had to gasp for breath. You might have guessed that, but what are Glauber’s Salts, such as were found in Mrs Hubbard’s handbag? Here’s a definition straight off the Internet: “A crystalline hydrated form of sodium sulfate, used chiefly as a laxative.” So now you know. And what on earth is a Fallal handkerchief, which is how Mrs Hubbard describes the hanky with the letter H that Poirot is desperate to find an owner for? If you didn’t know – and I certainly didn’t – fallal is a very old-fashioned word (early 18th century) best translated today as bling.

Wagon Lit ConductorAnd finally, whilst M. Bouc is trying to rationalise and imagine which of the train guests might have worn the Wagon Lit uniform – and coming up with no real options – Poirot references “our old friend Euclid”. As you may well know, Euclid was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”. Now it may well be that Euclid had a theory that Poirot recollected, but I’m far too much of a maths moron to even try to work out what that might be. I’ll leave it up to your imaginations.

RansomRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only two important sums mentioned in this book – the $20,000 offered by Ratchett to Poirot if he would work for him, and the (gasp) $200,000, which was the ransom demanded for the return of Daisy Armstrong. In today’s figures these would be approximately £18.3m and £183m. I’m more astonished at the former than the latter – if Poirot passed up the opportunity to earn that kind of money merely on principle, then he’s one helluva principled guy.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder on the Orient Express:

Publication Details: 1934. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in May 1972, priced 25p. The thrillingly evocative cover illustration by Tom Adams of an Eastern European map covered with the multitude of clues that Poirot has to sift through, always made me feel strangely excited as a child.

How many pages until the first death: 29. That’s when the death is reported although it probably happens six pages earlier. Enough time to lay the groundwork, and plenty of time to exercise the little grey cells.

Funny lines out of context: Most unusually, I’ve scoured the book and actually found very little, whereas usually there are plenty of these to enjoy. Sorry to disappoint you this time round.

Memorable characters:
Here’s where it excels. It positively drips with them. You have the grand, slightly scary Princess Dragomiroff; the aggressive-assertive Colonel Arbuthnot; the verbose Mrs Hubbard; the stereotypically loud Italian Foscarelli. I also enjoyed the blundering but well-meaning M. Bouc, and I think it’s a shame that he doesn’t reappear anywhere else in Christie’s works. And of course you have Ratchett, one of the most deserving victims in literature.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. Death is administered by fatal stabbing.

Class/social issues of the time:

As I suggested earlier, there isn’t much in the way of social issue debate in this book because it would get in the way of the pure facts on which Poirot and his team are purely concentrating. There are some good examples of xenophobia though, many of which feel very contemporary in today’s world of unfortunate distrust between the United Kingdom, the USA and mainland Europe.

The character of Ratchett is blown up to be a really unappealing character and his American-ness, if I can call it that, is very strongly conveyed. When Masterman is asked if he liked his employer, he hesitates to tell the complete truth: “Shall we put it that I don’t care very much for Americans, sir.” Mrs Hubbard too, with her interminably dramatic and self-indulgent speeches also conveys many of the aspects of an American which, dare I suggest, a European might find discourteous: “there isn’t anybody knows a thing on this train. And nobody’s trying to do anything. Just a pack of useless foreigners.” Mr Hardman, too, when asked about the girl in the Armstrong case who threw herself out of the window, remarks: “she was a foreigner of some kind. Maybe she had some wop relations.” Charming. Colonel Arbuthnot is another perpetrator. When interviewing him, “Poirot proceeded: “It is that you come home from India on what is called the leave – what we call en permission?” Colonel Arbuthnot, uninterested in what a pack of foreigners called anything, replied with true British brevity: “Yes.””

But there are a couple of instances when this xenophobia gets turned on its head, with rather enjoyable effects. When Masterman is caught lying, he suddenly gets very protective of his Italian colleague: “I hope, sir, that you’re not suspecting Tonio in any way. Old Tonio, sir, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And I can swear positively that he never left the carriage all last night. So, you see, sir, he couldn’t have done it. Tonio may be a foreigner, sir but he’s a very gentle creature – not like those nasty murdering Italians one reads about.” And, given that this book was published five years before the start of the Second World War, consider this brief conversation between Poirot and Frau Schmidt: “You have heard, perhaps, of who this man who was killed really was – that he was responsible for the death of a little child.” “Yes, I have heard, Monsieur. It was abominable – wicked. The good God should not allow such things. We are not so wicked as that in Germany.”

Classic denouement: Absolutely. All the suspects are there, all the representatives of the law are there, and Poirot propounds two theories. One – the truth. Another – one that fits exactly with the sequence of events and cannot be disproved. He hands both ideas over to M. Bouc and Dr Constantine for their recommendation.

Happy ending? Extremely. There may well be wedding bells between two of the characters, but that is of lesser importance than the suggestion that justice has been done. It’s the justice that really makes this a happy ending.

Did the story ring true? It’s far-fetched, of course, but actually it rings completely true. I’m surprised that crimes like this don’t happen more frequently – maybe they do!

Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10. An absolute gem of a classic!

Listerdale MysteryThanks for reading my blog of Murder on the Orient Express 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, it’s back to the short story format with The Listerdale Mystery; it’s been a long time since I’ve read this and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to getting tucked in to it! 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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