Tag Archives: classic

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: Go Set a Watchman

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in a high school English class, and was surprised even then by how much I liked it. Then, 55 years after Harper Lee’s single publication, came its sequel,  Go Set a Watchman. I bought a copy of each book for my own shelf, and set them aside until I was planning my classic reads for 2017 and decided that it was time to revisit an old love and examine what might be a new one.

“Love’s the only thing in this world that’s unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

This quote rings true for me, and yet–do I love Go Set a Watchman? Do I love it? I’m not sure. I don’t feel the same about it as I do To Kill a Mockingbird. It calls for a different kind of appreciation, but at the same time it changes my view of TKaM as well.

gosetawatchmanAbout the book: Scout is grown up. Well, she’s on her way to growing up in this coming-of-age story. She’s twenty-six, visiting her family and friends in Maycomb from her current place of residence in New York. Some staple characters from her childhood have been and are being removed from her adult life by death, age, and irreconcilable difference of opinion. An automobile accident in town in which a black man brings about the death of a white man sets old memories and new problems in motion for the whole town, but especially for Scout and her family. For the first time she can remember, Scout is seeing things differently than some of the people she’s closest to–its a fundamental difference that shakes her whole world and forces her to choose sides in morality–and to see on which side of the line her loved ones lie.

“They say when you can’t stand it your body is its own defense, you black out and you don’t feel any more. The Lord never sends you more than you can bear–“

About the layout: The entire book follows Scout, mostly in her present life in 1955 but there are also flashbacks/memories of Scout’s childhood, some with reminders of what happened in TKaM, but others with new information, from later in her childhood and teen years. These glimpses into Scout’s younger life help bridge the gap between Scout’s ages and views of the world in TKaM and GSaW.

Another interesting formatting technique is that GSaW contains entire passages lifted directly or with slight paraphrasing from TKaM. Several sentences, mixed throughout the first half of the book, reveal the same information and perspective on the founding of Maycomb and how it (and the people who live in it) operates. At first I found this annoying because I had just read TKaM earlier in the week and I wanted a fresh story, not the same one. But I looked more closely at some of those passages in both books, and I found slight differences. I realized that they were revealing something about Scout: that her basic life and memories were the same between the two books, but as with all memories and perspectives, slight (or great) changes occur over time. People realize new things from old evidence. Scout’s entire perception of the events in TKaM will be turned upside down in GSaW, and these double passages serve as a reminder that our narrator is as flawed as anyone else and that no matter how sure she may be of her past, things change.

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

About the characters: Many of the characters from TKaM seem very different in GSaW than they did in the previous book. Some of the changes can seem rather upsetting at first, for the reader, but especially for Scout. My biggest disappointment of character, though, came in the form of twenty-six year-old Scout. For the first hundred pages or so, I didn’t like her at all. She seems startlingly childish for a woman of her age, but even as a child in TKaM she was not so quick to pick fights and cause trouble. She was good with her fists, yes, and wouldn’t take an insult lying down, but in GSaW she’s defiant and independent to the point of being outright rude and mean in places where it’s unnecessary and uncalled for. She has no qualms about provoking her aunt and speaking whatever’s on her mind, and although Henry clearly adores her she’s constantly badgering him.

And on the subject of Henry, might I ask why he and Dill couldn’t have been the same character? Dill, Scout’s childhood friend from TKaM is absent in GSaW, but the reader is told that soon after the end of that book, Henry Clinton moved in across the street and was more or less taken in by the Finches. It doesn’t make sense to me that such an important character in this book wouldn’t have been present in the previous book (especially since the note at the end of my copy reveals that Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and both were more or less complete at the time of her first round of publication), at the same time as a friendly face from TKaM is being removed. I would’ve liked to see the two of them melded into one character who remains constant between the books–or at the very least, to have seen Henry’s arrival in town or a hint of his upcoming importance before he becomes a major character in GSaW. The flashbacks to Scout’s later childhood with Henry help make up for his absence in TKaM, but as Henry turned out to be one of my favorite characters here, even that felt like too small an acknowledgment of his presence in Scout’s life.

“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Once I got over the extreme shock of some of the characters’ personalities coming to new light, I did like the literary moves Lee made here and the acknowledgment of Scout’s young age and potential misperception of events in To Kill a Mockingbird. Henry was perhaps the only character I really like through and through in this book, which was a change from loving everyone in TKaM, but that seems to have been the point–Scout was generous and trusting in TKaM, and in this sequel she’s seeing the world more objectively; character flaws are coming out. Despite their flaws, though, no one in GSaW is truly unredeemable, and there’s nothing I love more than a good handful of morally gray characters.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is my recommendation for readers who like To Kill a Mockingbird best from the Harper Lee duo. It advocates for freedom and equality between races at a time when slavery was still the norm in southern US, and is as deeply emotional as some of the lessons Scout learns in TKaM.
  2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is my recommendation for readers who like Go Set a Watchman for the challenges it poses to the idea that morality is a clear path. Just as GSaW muddies the waters of right and wrong with reasonings on both sides of conflict, so too do the Southern characters of Gone With the Wind who face the end of more than slavery with the arrival of the Civil War.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first novel in an adult urban fantasy trilogy. It’s not what I expected–it seems more like a romance with a fantasy backdrop so far–but it’s highly addictive even though I have some criticisms.

What are you reading to kick off summer 2017?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

A Year of Classics

Need more classics in your life? Me too!

I’ve enjoyed mixing classics into my reading agenda in the past, but when I end up too busy to read as many books as I’d planned, the classics always seem to be the first to be nudged farther down the list. There are so, so many books I want to read this coming year, but in order to prevent the classics on my list from falling by the wayside, I’ve compiled a month-by-month plan of twelve classics to keep me motivated in 2017.

If you’re interested in picking up a few more classics this year, I encourage you to join me in my Year of Classics by following along, or creating your own personalized list. Although I likely won’t be posting full-length reviews for classics, I do include a paragraph of my thoughts on every book I read in my monthly wrap-ups if you want to keep track of my progress with these classics and share your own. I haven’t read any of these books yet, so no spoilers please, but I’d love to see in the comments below if you’ve read or highly recommend any of these stories, and what classics you’re reading!

January: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

February: Persuasion by Jane Austen

March: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

April: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

May: (To Kill a Mockingbird and) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

June: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

July: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

August: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

September: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

October: Dracula by Bram Stoker

November: The Iliad by Homer

December: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

classics

These are twelve of the books I plan to read in 2017. Have you read any of these? What do you want to read more of in the new year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant