The time: the mid-1930s. The place: Eastern Europe. After clearing up a military scandal in Aleppo, Syria, Hercule Poirot boards the Taurus Express to travel to Stamboul. While on board he encounters a young Englishwoman and a military type gentleman whose curious remarks and secretive meetings puzzle Poirot.
After arrival at Stamboul and crossing the Bosphorus, Poirot receives a telegram summoning him back to London immediately. Thanks to his old friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of a train company, Poirot is able to get a last minute berth on the Simplon Orient Express to Calais. His two fellow passengers from Aleppo are amongst the many travellers on board.
And then, at midnight, the train comes to a halt after encountering a snowdrift blocking the line. All seems peaceful - until the next morning, when Poirot rises to discover that one of the passengers has been brutally murdered, stabbed a dozen times over.... his door locked from the inside.
Determined to discover the truth, the Belgian detective encounters passengers who are not all they seem to be... Can it be that one of them is a cold-blooded killer?
Murder on the Orient Express (also known as Murder on the Calais Coach) was originally published in 1934. It was the 19th published book by Agatha Christie and the ninth to feature Hercule Poirot.
Orient Express is arguably Christie's most famous story, and probably the first book that leaps to our minds whenever Christie's name is mentioned. Read by many people around the world, and dramatised into a major Hollywood film, it is certainly thought of as one of the greatest whodunits.
But does it live up to its classic status?
I had read many Christie books by the time I reached this novel. For example, Peril at End House (1932) and The ABC Murders (1935), both published around the same time, were books I had enjoyed immensely. I was looking forward to this one. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy it as much as her previous works. Why? Read on!
Christie has divided the book into three parts: Part I - The Facts, Part II - The Evidence, Part III - Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks. Each Part is divided into about ten smaller chapters. In Part II, each chapter contains an interview with each suspect. Christie would often use different ways of structuring her novels and this is one of her rarer methods.
There are thirteen suspects aboard the main carriage: Mrs Hubbard, a chatty middle-aged American lady; the gruff Colonel Arbuthnot; Ratchett's secretary, MacQueen; his valet, Masterman; a friendly Swedish missionary, Greta Ohlsson; the Hungarian Count Andrenyi and his wife; a flamboyant American, Mr Hardman; Foscarelli, a cheery Italian; a young English governess, Mary Debenham; a lady's maid, Miss Schmidt; the elderly Princess Dragomiroff; and the Wagon Lit conductor, Pierre Michel.
The main problem I had with this story is that there were too many characters. Thirteen suspects is too many! For the reader to accept a person as a genuine suspect, each one needs to be fleshed out so as to make them more real and believable, and with only 230 pages to play with, it just doesn't work well enough. In Part II, while each suspect gets their own chapter, some of them hardly feature in the rest of the book, and there's a sense of unreality about it all. For example, the valet, Masterman, is interviewed for five pages and then disappears until the last 15 pages of the book! How can the reader take him seriously as a suspect? Ideally there should be no more than seven or eight suspects, which is the usual number in this author's works.
Each suspect should then feature throughout the story, prominently enough so that they make an impression on the reader. The best example of this is Cards on the Table (1936) where there are four suspects only, and each one is written in sufficient depth to be a potential killer.
Although this is a huge flaw and reduced my enjoyment of the book, it is the only weakness on display. Yes, the characters aren't real enough, but the plot is strong enough to hold the reader's interest.
Once again, Christie uses the plot device of isolating the characters in one particular setting. In my last review (Death on the Nile), the suspects were confined to a river steamboat on the Nile. In this situation, the action is confined to two carriages of a train, the most claustrophobic setting Christie has ever created. In fact, Part II is set entirely within the restaurant car, to hold the interviews. By staying in one room for such a long time, the book could quickly become monotonous reading, but Christie avoids this trap, by concentrating our attention on the crime itself and the various ways it could have been committed. Her writing style helps, as there is little descriptive text and lots of exposition.
Another useful Christie device is a diagram of the murder scene, and it is especially handy here. A map of the carriage is provided. This allows us to: a) see which compartment each passenger was in; and b) draw conclusions as to the likeliest suspects (amusingly, Poirot himself is the passenger closest to the victim's compartment).
Of course, the main talking point about this book is the denouement and how clever it is. This is a characteristic of all good Christie novels, the ability to stun the reader with a completely unexpected solution, but this one is arguably the best she ever wrote (although The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) comes close). Obviously I won't reveal any details, but suffice to say Poirot gathers all the suspects into the restaurant car and propounds his solution in detail (in fact, two solutions - you'll have to read the book to understand what I mean) and it's jaw dropping! So much so, that it goes some way to making up for the character deficiencies I detailed earlier.
Oddly, it is suggested that Poirot is comfortable with someone taking the law into their own hands if there is no legal way of bringing a criminal to justice. This is out of character for a man who has always made it clear that murder is murder, and he won't let you get away with it, whatever the reason for committing the crime! It's certainly something different, after so many books where he has the police on hand to arrest the murderer after Poirot has denounced him!
Advantages: Clever plot, incredible denouement
Disadvantages: Weak characterisation