Tag Archives: agatha christie

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“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.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant