I’d never read ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ or seen any of the movies so all I knew about it was that there was a murder on the Orient Express with Poirot conveniently aboard to investigate it and that it’s a favourite book for many Agatha Christie fans.
I had a great time reading the book, going in blind. So, in case you haven’t read it either, I’m not going to share any plot points here. I’m just going to talk about what made the books such fun.
What I liked most about this book was how playful it was. The humour starts from the first scene with Poirot engaged in an uncomfortable conversation about the weather with the French officer assigned to see him off on the train. It’s a cinematic opening to the novel that dwells not on any sense of foreboding, or even on how exciting long-distance train travel across two continents could be but rather on the embarrassment caused to two men with nothing in common but the need to be polite to one another.
This sense of playfulness continues with small comedy of manners pieces throughout the book but the most playful aspect of the book is the puzzle itself.
The plot had the potential to be deeply boring. Someone gets killed. It seems likely that only people on a certain carriage on the train would have had the opportunity to commit the murder. You interview all the people one at a time in the dining car until you find out who did it. How static and tedious would that have been?
Christie turns it into something lively by having a set of characters, passengers and crew, of different nationalities, social class, trustworthiness and confidence and then adding a plot where every new piece of information seems to eliminate one or more of the suspects until, apart from the fact that there is a dead body, it would seem to have been impossible for the murder to have been committed. I found myself imagining Christie grinning as she twisted the plot one more time, challenging the reader to work it out.
The Orient Express, or at least the concept of the privilege and luxury and the unashamed ‘we’re here for the rich and titled’ attitude, became a character in the book. The train, pushing through the winter snow on the mountains, became more like a ship far from shore.
Then there was the ending. It was perfect. I was grinning with childish delight when the solution to the puzzle was revealed. It was satisfying not just as an answer to a puzzle but as a solution I could cheer for.
I even liked Poirot in this book. Perhaps it was the absence of Hastings or the presence of so many larger-than-life characters, or that the people around him knew his reputation, but he seemed to do less grandstanding and made less reference to his ‘method’. He just got on with the job and showed his skill for interviewing people and for analysing the information he gained from them. Not that any of that helped me solve the puzzle but it was fun to watch.
My enjoyment of the book was enhanced by listening to the audiobook version narrated by Dan Stevens. There are a couple of other audible versions around, one by Suchet and one by Branagh but I wanted a version that wasn’t just a reprise of ‘when I played Poirot’. After all, Poirot is rarely the most interesting character in the book. He works best as a mildly eccentric Dues ex Machina obsessed with the voluptuous richness of his moustaches. Dan Stevens did an excellent job of bringing the large and diverse cast of characters alive. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.