Sunday, 9 June 2019

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express is the tenth Hercules Poirot novel, published in 1934. 

I was familiar with it long before I read it, through the two movie adaptations. 

In many ways it's the archetypical Agatha Christie novel, with its challenging mystery and brilliant resolution.

Finally reading it was satisfyingly like arriving at a long-awaited rendezvous. 

The story begins beautifully and concisely and evocatively: "It was five o'clock on a winter's morning in Syria." 

And it makes for rather odd reading now, with exotic place names such as Mosul so horribly familiar to us because of the current conflict in Syria.

But we are in the 1930s here and the romance of travel is very much to the fore.  "A whistle blew, there was a long, melancholy cry from the engine... The Orient Express had started its three-days' journey across Europe."

It seems obvious now, but a train — what's more, a stranded train stuck in a snow drift — is a truly inspired location for a murder investigation...

Because, of course, that's what happens. As with Death in the Clouds, a diverse and intriguing collection of characters have been brought together by their travel plans.

There is an aristocratic old Russian lady, the aptly named Princess Dragomiroff, with a "yellow, toad-like face."

And Mary Debenham, a pretty young English woman who displays an "almost feverish anxiety" when it looks like she might miss the train. 

Plus a chap called Foscarelli who moves with a "swift, cat-like tread" and who might be one of those "nasty murdering Italians..."

And of course, there is Hercules Poirot.

Whereas in Death in the Clouds a poison dart dispatched a passenger in broad daylight, this time there is a murder in the middle of the night. A stabbing.

And Poirot is enlisted to find the culprit.

This novel is the polar opposite of Sad Cypress — a Poirot tale where the victim was almost unbearably undeserving of her fate. 

Here the guy was a gangster who really got what was coming to him.

I won't say too much about the plot, except that the train getting stuck in the snow interferes crucially with the killer's plans.

As usual, there is considerable fun at our hero's expense — he is thought to look like "a women's dress maker" — as the other characters initially underestimate him.

But soon Poirot is cracking the puzzle in his own unique way: "to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think."

And his formidable intellect begins to make itself evident. "Poirot's eyes... were bright and sharp like a bird's." 

Following his own advice, "Hercules Poirot sat very still. One might have thought he was asleep."

And then the solution comes to him. "His eyes opened. They were green, like a cat's." 

And what a solution it is.

A true classic. 

(Image credits: As usual, the main image with its gorgeous Tom Adams cover painting is a scan of my own copy. All the other covers save one are from the ever-useful Good Reads, including the beautiful art nouveau Richard Amsel painting for the American movie edition, with its train/dagger. The exception is the Norwegian edition with the cool, retro cut-away diagram illustration, which is from Bergen Bibliotek.)


  1. One of my favourites and the original film adaptation is my favourite Poirot on screen; a brilliant, transformative performance by Albert Finney in a beautiful ensemble of stars. The recent Kenneth Branagh version however is a bit pants

  2. As much as I like some of the cast of the new movie, especially Daisy Ridley, I have to agree that the earlier version is vastly better: Paul Dehn script, Richard Rodney Bennett music and direction by Sidney Lumet... now I want to see it again! Thanks for reading, and commenting.