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 Poirot (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.
- 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?
- 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.
The Literary Elephant