First, let me start by saying, the movie Murder On The Orient Express (1974 version) is one of my favorite murder mystery films. But I hesitated in reading the book. Firstly because I was worried it would not live up to the film, but also because I had read And Then There Were None and had found it dark and disturbing with none of the light-hearted comedy found in the Agatha Christie films and TV shows that I love so well. But I finally decided to read this book at winter, given its imagery of a train stuck in deep snow! Thankfully the book did not disappoint and (this is rare in Hollywood) the film was very true to the book.
So why is it that this is one of my favorite murder mysteries? Well let me explain.
1. The typical plot of a limited number of suspects in a confined place and time.
This is a formula often used in murder mysteries, indeed the game Cluedo is based on this whole premise. A murder occurs in a place where only a few people could of done it. A mansion in the middle of no where, a small island or a train stuck in the snow. Any outsiders are quickly disregarded as they would of been seen arriving or could not of escaped. This helps the detective (and the reader) limit their suspects easily. The fact that this story takes place in the highly romantic 1930’s Orient Express. With its epic scenery, the beautiful and the rich mixing with gangsters and revengeful servants – the reader feels they are in a very glamorous time and space.
2. Agatha is the queen of misdirection (spoiler alert).
Agatha Christie is brilliant at confusing the reader. She throws in so many clues that you have to decide which are true and which are red herrings. The handkerchief, the pipe cleaner, the button, the open window, the broken watch, the train uniform, the threatening letters, the bloody knife…the list goes on. Agatha even drops clues in her writing in order to misdirect us “All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.” Here Agatha could be thought to be setting out the obvious, when really this statement is far from the truth. Agatha takes her misdirection further with hiding the true identity of all her characters, even the murder victim himself
What I also love in this book is that throughout the novel 12 murderers continuously try to misdirect the detective (and in turn the reader) without pinning the blame on any one person. The reader feels as if they are putting wit against wit ( and in this case 12 other wits) to find the solution. Not only against the murder but in turn Agatha. Will we let her lead us down the garden path or are we (like Poirot) too clever for that?
3. The humor in the book
For a book that is primarily about the brutal stabbing of a child murderer there is a lot of character driven humor in the book. From the comical Mrs Hubbard – who never stops talking or eating – not even when she learns of the horrid murder “I don’t feel as though I’ve got the heart to eat anything,” and then partook of everything offered her,” To Dr Constantine – who when Poirot asks him to think deeply to solve the crime ends up fantasizing about his mistress. And the comical Poirot himself “Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his mustaches out of the soup.”
4. Justified murder and the thrill of the chase (Spoiler alert)
In the Orient Express Hatchet is murdered, however he is no victim. Right from the start Poirot describes him as evil “But I could not rid myself of the impression that evil had passed me by very close.” And I personally believe it is when Poirot discovers he is a notorious baby kidnapper and murderer-that only escapes being hung because of a legal technically-that he decides to forgive whoever the murderer is. This idea is given more weight as throughout the book we are told by several characters that his murder is justifiable, including Princess Dragomiroff: “In my view, then, this murder is an entirely admirable happening!” and Greta Ohlsson: “I did so rejoice that that evil man was dead – that he could not any more kill or torture little children”. So why is Poirot looking for the killer when he knows he will not send them to prison? Because he wants to prove his intelligence. He does not want the murderers to think they have outwitted him, instead to catch a killer has become a game to him
5. This leads me on to my final reason of why I love Murder on the Orient Express. The ending.
Like all good endings Agatha keeps it short and sweet. Not bothering to explain what happens when the train finally gets out of the snow and has to report the murder to the authorities. Instead we are left in the bubble of this tiny world. A miniature of the world with its different classes, races and professions; who now all share a secret for life but a secret they had decided to keep in order to find human justice. This was not a usual murder led by greed or lust. Instead we have witnessed a small battle between good and evil, with good becoming the definite winner. You can’t help but close this book with a smile, knowing there is a small silent army of good in this world who will do what it takes to rid us of evil.
However I find I can not be so bias towards this book as to not acknowledge a common problem felt by many readers. That the book is unsolvable. This mainly arises from the fact the reader is given little information about the Armstrong case or its family. So for Poirot to suddenly point out that Countess Anrenyi is in fact the younger sister of the late Mrs Armstrong – is something the reader could never have guessed (However the fact her passport and baggage label is disfigured is a big clue her name was changed-but to what is unknown). However once this point is told to the reader I believe it is possible to figure out the rest. Throughout the book Agatha leaves us with many clues, for instance early in the book she draws a picture of the train carriage, where it can easily be seen (if you discount the murder victim and the detective) there are 12 people. Then you have Colonel Arbuthnot mention a jury of 12 people to decide a criminals fate. “Well, you can’t go about having blood feuds and stabbing each other like Corsicans or the Mafia,” said the Colonel. “Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system.” There are 12 wounds on the body which we are told is made by more than one person-so why not 12. We have the fact the train is weirdly full when it is the time of year it should be empty. We have 2 people presenting not to know each other when they clearly do, so why would they all not be lying. As for the rest, as Poirot says it is all thinking and guess work “If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, he will usually admit it – often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce your effect.” And besides is that not the reader is doing as we read – just guessing who the murder is.