I made it to my 30s before reading a book by Agatha Christie. Why did I wait? No idea. My high-school self would have loved Murder on the Orient Express. As much as I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, I resented when a case was solved via clues that weren’t accessible to the reader. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie lets the reader play along.
From the back cover:
Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.
This book not only introduced me to Christie, but also to her detective, Hercule Poirot. He’s more personable than Sherlock and the way he summarizes each development in the case made it easy for me to keep track of the long list of suspects. The characters are identified by their country of origin as often as by name (which feels dated), but it’s easier to recall a list of countries than a list of names. Some countries come with stereotypes, but I’ve always found the loud, nosy, demonstrative American hilarious when penned by a British author. When Mrs. Hubbard goes on about “Amurrican methods” (decades before the ‘Murica! memes), she’s “vurry” memorable. Oh, and:
His tone expressed professional disapproval.
“There is a large American on the train,” said M. Bouc, pursuing his idea—“a common looking man with terrible clothes. He chews the gum which I believe is not done in good circles. You know whom I mean?” (45-46)
Poirot is on the case by page 42 after a series of well-chosen introductory details. He takes the case because it intrigues him, but also because the train has come to a stop in the snow and there’s little else to pass the time. I like the practical way he works through the mystery point-by-point, but Part 2 hits a rut. Take a look at the Table of Contents:
The Evidence of the Wagon Lit Conductor
The Evidence of the Secretary
The Evidence of the Valet
The Evidence of the American Lady
The Evidence of the Swedish Lady
The Evidence of the Russian Princess
The Evidence of Count and Countess Andrenyi
The Evidence of Colonel Arbuthnot
The Evidence of Mr. Hardman
The Evidence of the Italian
The Evidence of Miss Debenham
The Evidence of the German Lady’s Maid
Summary of the Passengers’ Evidence
The Evidence of the Weapon
The Evidence of the Passengers’ Luggage
Each of these chapters recounts an interview with Poirot. The first few are most interesting since they present new information, but there are only so many ways to narrate events from the night of the murder. Poirot’s eye for detail and a liberal sprinkling of red herrings keep things fresh, but the momentum can’t help but flag. Poirot brings some outside knowledge to the case, and at first I feared this would deny me a chance to play along, but it is possible to work out the broad outlines of the mystery as a reader. Hurrah! So it’s like Sherlock, but more fun. I suppose I should say that “fun” is relative; this is a murder mystery after all.
This is one review that must be kept short since I don’t want to talk my way into dropping hints/spoilers. I’m not quite sure what I expected when I picked it up, but the warm tone and accessibility of the case drew me in. I like Poirot’s method and look forward to reading many more:
“And suppose I do not solve it?”
“Ah! mon cher.” M. Bouc’s voice became positively caressing. “I know your reputation. I know something of your methods. This is the ideal case for you. To look up the antecedents of all these people, to discover their bona fides—all that takes time and endless inconvenience. 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? Do that. Interview the passengers on the train, view the body, examine what clues there are and then—well, I have faith in you! I am assured that it is no idle boast of yours. Lie back and think—use (as I have heard you say so often) the little grey cells of the mind—and you will know!” (47)
So that’s what all those mentions of “little grey cells” allude to on lit sites. It’s nice to finally get the joke.
Overall: 4.7 I’m excited to read more books by Agatha Christie. I found a deal on the complete collection of Miss Marple stories so it may be some time before I return to Poirot, but I’ll be reading plenty of Christie in 2017. If it ever gets cold here, I hope to curl up with a mug of hot coffee and book some Saturday morning.
Translation: Read it.