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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A Lookery at: The Book Club Voyage

An article I read recently, stated that today’s book clubs and reading groups are populated by bourgeois middle-class women, looking to improve their minds. While this may be true, every book club has its own unique personality. Finding one to fit you might take a lot of thought. Or it’s possible that a group will be spontaneously generated by moms in your playgroup or friends in your bunko club. I spent several years envying friends who participated in reading clubs, but searched long and hard for a particular group that met my specific requirements. I’m happy to say that I am thrilled with the book club that I joined, and it was worth the wait to find exactly what I wanted.

Perhaps you, too, are interested in starting or looking for a book club. Finding a group can be as simple as joining one at the local library or may take more research. IMHO, there are several factors to take into consideration when joining a reading club.

For example, when does the club meet? Are you interested in getting together with others in the daytime, nighttime, or on a weekday or weekend? How often do you want to commit to attending a get-together?  How far are you willing to travel to share your reading experiences, and where are the meetings held? Bookstores or libraries? Private home, restaurant or community room; park, playground or church?

Many times just locating a club of fellow bibliophiles can be difficult. Bookstores, libraries and schools are all good places to start your search, but don’t rule out searching online, publishers’ websites, friends and family, checking notice boards, facebook or using a website such as meetup.com for availability.

A lookery at how the group is hosted is important. Some groups randomly trade off hosting duties while others limit their membership to a certain number so that a strict hosting rotation calendar can be kept. Or perhaps one person is designated the leader on a permanent basis, such as a librarian, instructor of some sort, or the owner of a bookstore. How are the books to be read chosen for each gathering? How much responsibility for hosting, leading and maybe even choosing the reading material do you want to shoulder?

Consider subjects such as genre. Do you want to read only classics, sci-fi, faith-based literature or non-fiction, for example? If you select a group with a miscellaneous category selection, you need to have an open mind toward exploring books that you might not otherwise pursue.

Reading clubs can often have demographic parameters. Gender, age, couples, mother/daughter, religion – any number of membership requirements exist. Look for a group made up of people with whom you will enjoy reading, examining and discussing books. Being comfortable with expressing your point of view in a meeting is of paramount importance.

And lastly, but very importantly, how social or serious do you want the book club you join to be? Will discussing the book under review as well as other topics over a glass of sauvignon blanc satisfy your needs, or do you want to stick to a strictly academic consideration of the current selection? Would you like to maintain a relationship with other members outside the confines of the book club?

Most of these questions were on my mind as I waited to find what I was beginning to think was an impossible match for me and a book club. But in time, and with the help of many of the suggestions above, I found a fabulous group to belong to! Best wishes for finding a literary home yourself, and remember the line from Emily Dickinson‘s poem “There is no frigate like a book…”. Make sure the voyage and your fellow passengers in this journey promise fair weather and smooth sailing!

A Lookery at: “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” by Beth Hoffman

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Beth Hoffman

Pamela Dorman Books, publisher (2010)

$25.95

This month’s selection for the book club I belong to is Beth Hoffman’s first novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Some of what we discussed about the book will be shared today, but bear in mind that personal information about my fellow readers will not be given. Also, any ratings are mine, and not necessarily those of the club members. In order to put the review into the right context, it is beneficial to know that the book club is made up of women of a “certain age”. Most of us did not know each other prior to forming the group about a year ago, and new readers are joining each month. This tiny glimpse into the composition of the club serves as a reference point for some of the thoughts shared about Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

Cecelia Rose Honeycutt (CeeCee) is a young preteen who has lived all of her life in a small Ohio town. Her story takes place during the 1960s. Although CeeCee has some magical memories of her mother from her very young childhood, as CeeCee matures, she realizes that her mother, Camille, is not “normal”. By the time she is twelve, Cecelia recognizes that there is something wrong with her mother’s mental health, and that other people can see this as well.

Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt is a transplanted Southern belle, whose greatest claim to fame was winning the title of Vidalia Onion Queen of 1951. Although watching beauty pageants is a guilty pleasure for millions, in some parts of the country, a woman’s entire identity often becomes determined by her success at achieving a beauty queen title. Mrs. Honeycutt finds it odd that “Yankees” do not place much importance on such achievements.

In fact, Camille feels that the Yankees of Ohio are cold people who live in cold weather, and feels terribly out of place away from her friends and family in Savannah, Georgia. Even when Camille is still somewhat sane, she is a free spirit in a land of conservative residents.

As her illness progresses, she spends more and more time and money purchasing used prom dresses (with dyed to match shoes, if possible) from Goodwill, and parades around town in her pageantry finery. In turn, her husband Carl, spends less and less time at home as a travelling salesman. It falls to young CeeCee to take on the role of parent to Camille, keeping her safe and bringing her home when she creates scenes in town. In time, CeeCee begins to resent her mother, and when tragedy occurs, harbors great guilt and remorse for her feelings.

Soon afterwards, Cecelia’s Aunt Tootie arrives from Savannah to take the young girl back to her mother’s hometown. CeeCee meets Tootie’s friends and relatives, and is drawn into a world dominated by unique, strong women characters. She is cared for by Tootie and her housekeeper, Olette.

Several of Tootie’s eccentric friends and family members show up to meet CeeCee, and introduce her to the warm and hospitable society of the South. Men are incidental to the story, and tend to be relatively weak characters.

Some of the points brought up by club members included a discussion about Cecelia being raised in a highly dysfunctional environment. Also, race relations are an important part of the story. Some incidents are fairly difficult to believe looking at the 1960s from the perspective of the 21st century. It was also mentioned that there are aspects of the movie Steel Magnolias and Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help in the book. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman is described by some readers as “sugar coated” or too saccharin. However, most members felt that was part of the charm of the book. Hoffman’s novel is definitely a feel good tale, in spite of the terrible life that CeeCee experienced in Ohio.

thebooklookery’s rating for Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is four eyes, for the depiction of family life with untreated mentally ill members, and yes, also because it is a “feel good” novel. thebooklookery looks forward to future novels by author Beth Hoffman.

A Lookery at: “The Book of Lost Fragrances” by M. J. Rose

The Book of Lost Fragrances        

M.J. Rose

Atria Books (2012)

$24.00

Founded before the French Revolution by the family of the same name, The House of L’Etoile is an exclusive perfumery. L’Etoile has developed some of the world’s most famous and beloved scents for centuries. But now, the future of the company is threatened because of the mental deterioration of its current director, Louis L’Etoile. It is up to Louis’ children, daughter Jac and son Robbie, to sort through the mess left in the company office by their father.

Jac is convinced that the only way to save the company is to sell off the formulas and rights to two of The House of L’Etoile’s signature scents. Robbie feels the business has a future if the storied and elusive family treasure – Cleopatra’s “Book of Fragrances” – can be recovered. Central to this ancient document is a formula for a fragrance that can induce memories of past lives using exotic ingredients that may be extinct. Neither sibling has ever seen the mysterious book, but in his Alzheimer’s confusion, Louis has torn apart his workshop looking for it.

Jac, who has the most highly developed “nose” in the family, has rejected the perfume industry in favor of becoming a mythologist. She studies and researches the origins of myths and presents her findings on her American television program and in books she’s authored. For much of her life she has experienced psychotic episodes. Most of these visions reveal stories of Egypt and France’s pasts. Several specialists have tried to treat her for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Jac finally consults with psychologist Dr. Malachai Samuels, who believes in the possibility of discovering past lives through hallucinations like Jac’s. Malachai teaches Jac to analyze her trances and eventually, her episodes decrease.

Robbie lacks Jac’s gift of a finely developed nose for fragrances, but is still talented enough as a perfumer to develop niche scents for The House of L’Etoile. He is dedicated to saving the business without compromising it in any way. Robbie is also a follower of the Dalai Lama and is a believer in reincarnation. He discovers pieces of an ancient Egyptian fragrance pot amongst his father’s possessions that he feels may have contained Cleopatra’s famous “Fragrance of Lost Memories”. Jac’s brother is determined to analyze the remnants of the pot’s contents and the symbols on it to prove that such a scent existed, thereby making it possible for The House of L’Etoile to recreate the perfume, thus rescuing the business.

The search for the Egyptian document wanders through the epochs of Cleopatra’s reign, pre-revolutionary France, modern Tibet and the People’s Republic of China, and even the centuries-old underground tunnels beneath Paris.  M. J. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances explores the possibilities of reincarnation and the effect of scent on memories and emotions. In scenes set throughout history and the world, myths, legends, politics, belief systems and of course, the perfume industry are explored within this novel of suspense. A very intriguing read, The Book of Lost Fragrances rates three eyes from thebooklookery.