A Lookery at: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express                   

Agatha Christie (1933)

Harper Paperbacks (reprint 2011)

$6.99

As a kid, I devoured Bobbsey Twin Mysteries by Laura Lee Hope, but was never a big fan of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys mystery series. From Hope’s books, I graduated to mystery novels by Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence all became favorite characters of mine very quickly. In the 1970s, several Christie mysteries were released in film – just at the time when I was beginning to enjoy outings to the movie theatre with friends. My favorite was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, starring Peter Ustinov as the internationally famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Something about that movie, and perhaps the beauty of the train itself captured my imagination, and I still get a thrill watching the movie nearly 40 years later. For some summer fun, I decided to revisit the tale of the storied train, both in film and in novel form.

At the conclusion of a case in Syria, Hercule Poirot arrives in Stamboul in order to catch the Orient Express to Calais, continuing on urgent business to London in order to solve another crime. Although it is December, the first and second class coaches to Calais are completely booked. M. Poirot’s Belgian friend M. Bouc, director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits demands that the conductor of the car puts Poirot on the train, albeit in a shared compartment, when another passenger fails to appear close to departure time. The spectacular train takes off to its first stop in Belgrade, its first class car populated with over a dozen passengers from all walks of life.

One rider, an American businessman by the name of Ratchett stops the detective in the empty dining car, and tries to hire him to protect him from an unnamed person who has been sending him threatening letters. The Belgian firmly declines the offer.

After a brief stop in Belgrade, where Poirot is transferred to a compartment of his own, the train becomes stuck in the snow in Jugo-Slavia in the middle of the night. The passengers pass the night in various states of rest or activity. In the morning, Ratchett is discovered murdered in his bed. He is the victim of a dozen stab wounds to his chest – all of varying degrees of damage.

M. Bouc immediately implores Hercule to solve the murder before the train is rescued and becomes subject to a traditional police investigation on arrival in Brod. The sleuth quickly establishes that the victim is not named Ratchett, but rather Cassetti; the mastermind of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, Daisy Armstrong, several years earlier. Most of the Armstrong family and household died shortly after Daisy’s body was discovered. Cassetti was caught and put on trial. But Cassetti was acquitted of the crime due to crooked deals made with his illegally-gained fortune. The brain behind the crime disappeared from America, out of reach of the public eye.

Poirot obtains the floor plan of the passengers’ compartments, their passports and train tickets. Hercule, Monsieur Bouc, and a Greek physician riding in another car on the train, Dr. Constantine, examine the scene of the crime and the body before setting up shop in the dining car. There the Belgian detective conducts interviews of the various passengers who boarded the train when he did. The dozen or so passengers are of all classes and status – from the Hungarian diplomat and his beautiful young wife, a Swedish missionary, an obnoxious American woman, an English valet – even a Russian princess and her German lady’s maid.

As is typical of an Agatha Christie mystery, the suspects are numerous, decoys prevalent and motives obscured. Most Agatha Christie stories seem to be solved almost magically, using vaguely presented clues. Christie deftly distracts the reader from noticing a glaring clue with a multitude of seemingly unrelated facts and tales. But Hercule Poirot uses his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain matter), and ultimately solves the mysterious crime.

A film following the release of a successful novel is very often a disappointment. But to me, both the trips back in time to re-read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and watch the 1974 movie version of the book, were a great thrill. Thebooklookery gives 4 eyes to the book and the movie. Both are recommended in tandem for a delightful summer vacation!

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