Monday, December 11, 2017

DEAD TO BEGIN WITH – Bill Crider

You fall asleep in Mayberry, North Carolina, and wake up to find yourself in Blacklin County, Texas. It might take you awhile to realize you've been transported.You have the same hawhaw country laughs and foolishness, but instead of Andy and Barney running things you have Sheriff Rhodes and Hack & Lawton. And interrupting the foolishness and hawhaws every so often you'll find youself in the middle of real crimes, everyday crimes up to and including murder. Of the two dozen "episodes" of Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries series, Dead To Begin With is the most recent. I've read the first one and a couple in between, with more waiting in my Kindle library. I'm almost a permanent Blacklin County resident by now, and I like it. But I have no intention of running for sheriff there. Rhodes has more hair than I do and more patience than I ever would, considering Hack, his dispatcher, and Lawton, his jailer, haven't driven him crazy by now. Here they are, by sheer coincidence, discussing the sheriff's hair:

"'What he called about is a bad haircut,'" Hack said, referring to a call he'd just received from a citizen.
“'I had one of those once,' Lawton...said as he walked in from the cellblock. 'Wanted to stay in bed for a week but had to work instead. Wore a ball cap all day for a while.'
“'I remember that,' Hack said. 'That was a good while ago. Back when you had hair.'
“'I got hair. More hair than some I could name.'
“'You talkin’ about me or the sheriff? ’Cause he’s the one got the thin spot in back. I still got all my own hair. Mostly.'
"Rhodes knew what they were doing. He’d thought for years it was a conspiracy to drive him crazy, but he’d decided it wasn’t, not really. They dragged everything out simply because they couldn’t help themselves. Or because they thought of themselves as the Abbott and Costello of Blacklin County, Texas, a duo to whom they bore a physical resemblance.
"Or it might have been a conspiracy."
Bill Crider
Even though I've kinda gotten to like them—at a distance--I would have to fire them both, which is why I could never be sheriff of Blacklin County. Also, I'm much too chicken to inspect the catwalk above the Opera House stage, not to mention trying to pull myself to safety if rotten boards give way under my feet, which is what Rhodes does and then is needled mercilessly by Hack and Lawton who see the video shot by a local freelance Internet journalist. And someone has to inspect the catwalk because Jacob "Jake" Marley, the murder victim, plunged to his death from there. Marley'd bought the old abandoned theater and was fixing it up with the intent of staging a Texas version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Marley'd left in his will that he wanted several former high school classmates of his to play the parts, except for Jacob Marley's ghost, which Jake Marley had reserved for himself. Fifty years hence, the classmates are still in Blacklin County, and Sheriff Rhodes must try to figure out which one of them murdered Marley—if in fact he was murdered. Rhodes thinks he probably was, but the motive, if any, is elusive.
A realist, Rhodes knows the odds are against him. He "knew he wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, and he knew that CSI: Blacklin County was never likely to become a hit TV series. Or any kind of TV series. Rhodes relied mainly on talking to people and waiting for someone to lie to him or make a mistake that would lead him to the answers he was looking for." Sort of a country bumpkin Columbo—with thinning hair.
Hair is a recurring gag. Here he is talking to a couple of hairdressers he's just saved their shop from being smashed up with a sledgehammer by a disappointed customer:
“'You want a haircut on the house?” Lonnie asked. 'I could give you what we call the Brad Pitt cut. Looks tousled all the time but still looks really good. What do you think, Eric?'
“'He’s definitely the Brad Pitt type,' Eric said. 'A little taller than Brad, though.'
"Rhodes didn’t think he was the Brad Pitt type at all.
'I don’t know about that thin spot in the back of your hair, Sheriff,' Eric said. 'That might not work with a Brad Pitt cut.'"
One might wonder if indeed Hack and Lawton had planted a bad seed in their boss's head. Here's more evidence of his sudden obsession with hair:
He observes that a suspect he's interviewing has thck, wavy hair with "no thin spot in the back." And another suspect's hair was "thin all over, so thin on top that his scalp showed through. Rhodes wondered how long it would be before his own hair became like that." The sheriff inspects even a female suspect, noting that "her smooth brown hair hung just about to her collar. Rhodes was sure that the cut wasn’t a Brad Pitt, and it didn’t look like Elaine’s classic bob, so Rhodes had no idea what to call it. To him it was just a haircut."
If it seems I'm making Rhodes look ridiculous, I apologize. It's not my intention. Maybe I'm the one with the hair obsession. Rhodes is a very human fellow (I almost wrote "for a cop," but that would be a cheap shot. I know some deeply human police officers. Rhodes, though fictional, is one of them). He's unseasy examining the dead Jake Marley's body on the Opera House stage:
"Rhodes wondered if he’d ever get accustomed to death. He’d seen many dead bodies, too many of them, and every time he felt a kind of sadness come over him. Some people reached out and embraced life, and some people, like [the reclusive] Marley, shut themselves away from it, but they all came to the same end.
"It wasn’t as if Rhodes had known Marley. He’d hardly ever spoken to him, but the death of any person took something out of the world that couldn’t be returned, no matter what the person had been."
Here he tries to avoid one of the endless arguments Hack seems to love to start: "Rhodes started to argue, but thought better of it. He wouldn’t be able to change Hack’s mind, no matter what. It wasn’t just Hack, either. Rhodes’s experience had been that he’d never changed anybody’s mind by arguing with them. He thought that when the rest of the world caught on to that important truth, things would change for the better."
When Jennifer, the freelance journalist, tries buttering him up to get an interview, claiming he "gets a lot of respect," Rhodes reminds himself he's the "Rodney Dangerfield of sheriffs." He doesn't tell her that, but he gives her the interview.
Dead to Begin With is another enjoyable canter in the series. The pacing is smooth and easy, with a seamless mix of gentle humor and serious police work. I've come to regard Dan Rhodes as a friend. And I'd buy Hack and Lawton a beer were I to run into them in a bar, but I'd get the hell out of there before they started in on me.
The book's title? Straight from Dickens: Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
 


[For more tributes to Bill Crider check the links Friday on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Thursday, December 7, 2017

OUR GAME – John le Carré

Trying to preserve the very British feel of Our Game for this report, the best word I can think of to describe the effect of Sergio Angelini’s Our Game review on me, even now, is daunting. (I tried to think of a way to slip a pip pip chin up in there somewhere, but a frisson of sanity arrived in time to warn me I was dangerously close to stepping a bit over the top, which, of course, one never does.)
After much procrastination then, eliminating many false starts with words less precise than daunting, I’m now taking the bold step of muddling forward with a purely American TV sportscasting analogy in mind, to wit: I shall try to serve as “color man” to Sergio’s play-by-play announcing of plot, context (historical and vis a vis the le Carré canon), and overall articulation of the Our Game literary experience. Oh yes, my friends, John le Carré’s novel is literary despite the Nyew Yawk literati’s presumed sniffs at any fiction pandering to common tastes by means of story—i.e. beginning, middle, end. To carry the aforementioned analogy a step further, Our Game’s got story. And, as one might guess, it’s a spy story. Although the title as well adheres to the sports analogy its resonance does suggest the less collegial game of international high jinks.
[I strongly suggest that anyone who’s read this far and wonders when the hell I’m going to get to the actual novel should first read Sergio Angelini’s definitive review, and then perhaps come back to this—or, perhaps read them side-by-side, or at least in close proximity. Immediately following this intrusion is an explanation directly from Our Game as to what in fact the title means in the novel’s context.]

The two main characters, Tim and Larry, first meet in England’s notorious public school system—a fictitious school named Winchester—where Tim outranks Larry and, according to custom even though they are friends, has to cut Larry down to size unless he can pass an arbitrary test administered by Tim:
“‘What is the Notion for Winchester football?’ It is the easiest test I can think of in the entire school vernacular, a gift.
“‘Jew baiting,’ he replies.
So I have no alternative but to beat him, when all he needed to say was Our Game.”
The expression never appears again. The boys move on to Oxford, and thence to British intelligence, where Tim again is Larry’s superior recruiting him as a double agent to feed misinformation to the Soviets. As Our Game opens, the Cold War essentially is over, the Soviet Union is breaking up, and Tim and Larry are recently retired. Tim takes over his parents’ winery, and is living with a girl half his age. Larry gallivants around the world, as is his nature, but now and then visits Tim, eventually stealing Tim’s girl. Larry and the girl go missing, and Tim soon learns from his former employers that Larry and his former Soviet contact have stolen 37 million British pounds from the Russian Embassy. Tim, as Larry’s former handler, is suspected as an accomplice.
le Carré
 I didn’t like Tim especially—at first. Found him too fussy and passive. I’d have had little sympathy for him when Larry ran off with the girlfriend were it not that by then I’d begun identifying with him, as I almost invariably do with protagonists, especially when, as Tim does, they narrate the story. But I didn’t like Larry, either. Here’s how Tim sums him up:
How could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless English middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejecter; a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted, semicreative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one?”
Then again, neither does Tim think much of himself:
I began cursing.
I cursed the goad of Englishness that had held me back and spurred me forward all my life.
I cursed [ex-wife] Diana for stealing my childhood, and despising me while she did it.
I remembered all my agonizing lurches for connection, the mismatches, and the return, time and again, to burning alone.
And after I had cursed the England that had made me, I cursed the Office for being its secret seminary, and [girlfriend] Emma for luring me from my comfortable captivity.
And then I cursed Larry for shining a lamp into the cavernous emptiness of what he called my dull rectangular mind and dragging me beyond the limits of my precious self-mastery.
Above all I cursed myself.”
Tim, of course, now a fugitive from his former employers, must try and find Larry if only to clear his name in the theft. Reviving the spy’s tradecraft he’d left behind in his retirement, he tracks Larry to a tiny country splintered from the former Soviet Union. There he finds himself caught up in a historical civil war among the peoples divided ethnically for centuries. Speaking here is a former Soviet KGB agent, a native of one of the splinter countries:
Ingushetia is a country under Russian occupation. And here in Moscow we are pariahs. We are neither trusted nor liked. We are the victims of the same prejudices that prevailed in tsarist times. Communism brought us nothing but the same. Now Yeltsin’s government is full of Cossacks, and the Cossacks have hated us since the dawning of the earth.”
Sergio mentions obvious overtones of Joseph ConradLord Jim and Heart of Darkness—and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in this novel. I would add T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (I should think even the Nyew Yawk literati would accept these works as literature. But, then, what the hell do I know?) I agree with Sergio, though, and urge you once again to read his most excellent review of Our Game.
 


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]



Thursday, November 30, 2017

SINGLE & SINGLE – John le Carré

I laughed whenever I heard the whimpering sounds in the song Lawyers in Love, and I laughed in the movie Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus plucks the screaming lawyer out of a privy and eats him. I might have laughed when Alfie, one of the lawyers in Single & Single was facing his execution, but I could not. That's because Alfie had gotten into my head cringing and prattling and babbling and wheedling and wetting his pants while staring down the muzzle of a Russian gangster's pistol. Almost wet my own pants as his fear clung to me for dear life.

At the same time Alfie is frantically applying his sizable lawyerly skills trying to persuade the gangsters they’re making a large mistake, his senses are heightened to excruciating acuteness, noticing smells and sounds and visual details as if discovering a new universe while his mind zips around, like a honeybee in a flower bed, sampling notions, memories, regrets, hopes, promises, possibilities, and impossibilities, his powers of denial gradually leaching away from the stark, unyielding core of the fate no one ever escapes.

This first scene/chapter has the kind of leap-into-the-deep-end writing that reminded me I’d neglected le Carré far too long. My blogging buddies Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, and Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery are way ahead of me, and their reviews have enticed me back to the fold. And their reviews are real reviews, with knowledge of the le Carré canon lending an authority to their opinions I cannot match. Nor, as a reader whose priority is entertainment, do I care a whit for authority in trying to convey my experience to you—unless, of course I come away from the book with a bad taste, and, if so, I let you know straight up. Le Carré had me in the palm of his authorial hand with Single & Single. Savory all the way. Ordinarily when reading fiction I suspend my critical faculties—such as they are—surrendering to atmosphere and character and being pulled willy nilly through story by a narrative subtly subordinate to the experience. The author’s wizardry casts a spell that carries me over the occasional bump or odd turn with no inclination on my part to give these micro distractions a hold on my attention. Le Carré’s skills worked this magic on me with singular success in Single & Single haha.

I’ve already started Our Game (for next week), which Sergio says in his review of Single & Single is a tad better. Thus far, Our Game does feel more plot-friendly, with its single narrator and a storyline like a monster storm edging up over the treeline. Both are set in the immediate post-Cold War, with Our Game’s focus apparently more on the sputtering remnants of East/West spy intrigues and Single & Single’s on the feeding frenzy of greedy, crooked venture capitalists and international crime networks grabbing what they can of the fallen Soviet economy’s material assets.

One aspect of Single & Single that had a special resonance with me is the relationship between the two principal characters—the crooked big-time lawyer Tiger Single and his honorable, somewhat bumbling son, Oliver. Le Carré acknowledges in the book’s introduction his personal father/son relationship suggested the fictional one in Single & Single, as it did also in The Perfect Spy. Not up to the bummer of doing an actual biography of his own father, he says, he nonetheless can’t resist bringing an imagined version of him into his fiction. “...it is inevitable,” he explains, “that now and then I propose a version of him, not an actual version, not a snippet of documentary, but a hypothesis, a ‘what-if.’ And the ‘what-if ‘ in Single & Single is this: What if my father, instead of being rumbled by the forces of the law—which sadly for him was regularly the case—what if, like so many of the bent businessmen around him, he had got away with his scams scot free, and become, as he always dreamed of becoming, a respected fat-cat of the West End, owner of an instant ancient pile in Buckinghamshire, president of the local football club, cricket club, giver of garden fêtes for the renewal of the church roof?

What if, instead of merely enrolling from time to time as a law student, he had possessed enough self-discipline to study law rather than just finger it—and had thus acquired the skills that enable so many crooked lawyers to flourish in the world of finance?”

Perhaps this subliminal association brought an extra dimension to the characters, making them more empathic to me, and maybe the troubled father/son dynamic attracted my attention more closely, as well. Single & Single’s other characters are pretty much from Central Casting—Brock, the good guy representing the British Customs Office in an unspecified “interservice task force,” who recruits Oliver to help bring down the elder Single’s crooked empire; the rough-hewn Georgia-Russian patriarch; his dark-eyed poetic daughter (who captures Oliver’s heart); and her husband, the ex-KGB gangster whose face and manner gradually morph (for me) into Vladimir Putin’s.

Tiger Single, while nearly a caricature of the sort of James Cagney charming/tough-guy operator, has enough real blood in him to be believable, especially as seen through the sensibility of his doting-yet-horrified son. The son, Oliver, is one of the more simpatico characters I’ve come across in any fiction genre, if only for the avocation he works so hard to perfect, entertaining children with magic shows. We find him constantly practicing his skills--sleight of hand maneuvers and making figures out of balloons—between episodes of high danger and unimaginable suspense:

Balloons were Oliver’s sanity and Brearly was his mentor. When he could resolve nothing else in life, he could still set a box of balloons at his feet and recall Brearly on the arts of modeling...

The balloon burst, but Oliver—who in the normal way held himself responsible for every natural or unnatural disaster—did not scold himself. There was not a magician on earth, he was assured by Brearly, who could beat bad luck with a balloon, and Oliver believed this.”

A little nuts, my lawyer dad would have said, but on another occasion he would have assured me, “everyone’s a little nuts,” albeit never including himself in that assessment.

le Carré

For me, the two central characters in Our Game have proven thus far to be rather predictable. Larry, the scamp, a former British Intelligence operative who disappears, is the most interesting. But I don’t like him. Engaging though he is I wouldn’t let him near me, especially were I with a beautiful woman. Oh, hell, I despise the punk! He’s better looking than I was at his age, smarter, and can do apparently anything he wishes to do, again, better than I ever could had I tried. The other fellow, who narrates the novel and whose name I believe is—I could flip back to the Kindle app to refresh my memory, but it doesn’t matter. The guy’s too bland, too passive, too deserving of having Larry steal the beautiful musician half his age who’s living with him. But I’ve just started this one. Le Carré might well surprise me. He’s done it time and time again.




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]





Tuesday, November 21, 2017

MRS. MCGINTY'S DEAD – Agatha Christie

Had I any inkling Agatha Christie was this good—the humor, the characters, the crafty plotting, the...I'll think of more, trust me—I would have started on her gargantuan canon ages ago. Ages ago! Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is only my third Christie—and my second Hercule Poirot, and I’m so so far behind, just thinking about it makes me feel verklempt.

Hercule Poirot. What a character for a detective! [That’s two exclamation points. I’m allowing myself five for this report.] I said in my report on The Orient Express that Peter Lorre would have (and might have) made a terrific Poirot. And what a switch that would be, Poirot slapping Sam Spade around and Spade liking it! [two more] But there’s no Sam Spade in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, alas, but it was fun imagining Spade eavesdropping while Poirot’s saying this to himself:
“It is my weakness, it has always been my weakness, to desire to show off...But indeed it is very necessary for a man of my abilities to admire himself— and for that one needs stimulation from outside. I cannot, truly I cannot, sit in a chair all day reflecting how truly admirable I am. One needs the human touch. One needs—as they say nowadays—the stooge.”
Spade, of course, would have thought Poirot considered him the stooge. Oh, the fun. Who gets slapped versus who deserves to get slapped...but in this instance Poirot is thinking about his friend Hastings, “My first friend in this country— and still to me the dearest friend I have. True, often and often did he enrage me. But do I remember that now? No. I remember only his incredulous wonder, his openmouthed appreciation of my talents— the ease with which I misled him without uttering an untrue word, his bafflement, his stupendous astonishment when he at last perceived the truth that had been clear to me all along.”
As I was reading this I had a sudden urge to slap him myself—Poirot, that is, and then realized he was only a figment of Agatha Christie’s bathtub-conjuring imagination. What fun she must have had with what at least one of her characters describes as a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.”
And she turns the unforgiving spotlight on herself! [last one] She appears thinly disguised, one presumes, as Ariadne Oliver, here describing how she loathes one of her characters:
“‘How do I know?’ said Mrs. Oliver crossly. ‘How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something—and people seem to like it—and then you go on—and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.’” [watch out, Poirot! (exclamation points don’t count in brackets)]
And here’s a confession: “What a mistake for an author to emerge from her secret fastness. Authors were shy, unsociable creatures, atoning for their lack of social aptitude by inventing their own companions and conversations.”
 
Yup. An authentic ring, for sure. Poor shy, unsociable Dame Agatha—somehow that doesn’t ring so true. Ah, well, on to the puzzle.
Poirot has just gotten home, having walked from a “dingy little” French restaurant he’d only just discovered, where he’d enjoyed a superb meal—a big deal, in fact, for him: “‘The truth is,’ Poirot reflected as he turned his steps homeward, ‘I am not in tune with the modern world. And I am, in a superior way, a slave as other men are slaves. My work has enslaved me just as their work enslaves them. When the hour of leisure arrives, they have nothing with which to fill their leisure. The retired financier takes up golf, the little merchant puts bulbs in his garden, me, I eat. But there it is, I come round to it again. One can only eat three times a day. And in between are the gaps.’”
Anyway, when he arrives home George, his “manservant,” greets him at the door and informs him he has a visitor. Poirot discovers it’s Superintendent Spence of the Kilchester Police, with whom he’d worked evidently some while in the past. Spence’s conscience is bothering him. He’d investigated a murder that led to the conviction of a man who was now two weeks away from the gallows. Despite fairly obvious circumstantial evidence against the man, Spence has a nagging suspicion he’s innocent of the killing. He wants Poirot to re-open the investigation in the hope that if someone else is guilty it could be proven in time to save the condemned man from hanging.
The victim, of course, was Mrs. McGinty, a cleaning lady, and the man convicted of splitting her skull open was her roomer. But of course Poirot takes the case, and of course… It starts out simply enough. Poirot takes a room in the small community where Mrs. McGinty had lived. He gets to know people there, focusing on those whose homes Mrs. McGinty had cleaned. Remember, he has a two-week deadline to find the real murderer, or at least find new evidence tightening the rope around the roomer’s neck and putting Supt. Spence’s conscience to rest. I needn’t tell you things get complicated. Even more complicated than The Murder on the Orient Express, which I reported on last week (without telling you just how complicated it was—discussing plot details is not my thing, as I’m always afraid I’ll inadvertently tip the author’s hand and spoil the ending—same thing could happen here, despite the complexity of the backgrounds of Poirot’s, and our, suspects). But for those of you drooling over the prospect of one helluva good murder-plot puzzle, trust me, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead won’t let you down. Actually, the plot is so complicated I’d have to read the novel again just to make sure I had everything straight enough to give you a spoiler-free synopsis, were something of that sort even possible.
What I can do, and am quite willing to do, is to reveal Poirot’s strategy in trying to shake loose information from residents of this small community who do not share Supt. Spence’s pang of conscience. They believe the jury that convicted the roomer had no choice based on what was apparently irrefutable evidence. Poirot let it be known to everyone with whom he spoke, that new evidence had come to his attention. The idea was that if the killer was still at large, he or she might get nervous and do something revealing. Poirot counted on his reputation to enhance this effect. Yet, when he introduces himself to his temporary landlady at the guest house where he’s staying, she, Maureen Summerhayes (a redhead—Christie’s had one in all three of her novels I’ve read) is not impressed:
“‘I should, perhaps, madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirot.’
“The revelation left Mrs. Summerhayes unmoved. ‘What a lovely name,’ she said kindly. ‘Greek, isn’t it?’
“‘I am, as you may know,’ said Poirot, ‘a detective.’ He tapped his chest. ‘Perhaps the most famous detective there is.’
“Mrs. Summerhayes screamed with amusement.”
No longer amused, is she, when Poirot finally gathers all of his suspects (including her) in her guest house to reveal his solution to the puzzle. But first we see him at perhaps his most vulnerable:
“‘I get nowhere— nowhere,’ said Poirot to himself. ‘There is nothing— no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!’ [...]
“He was the great, the unique Hercule Poirot, but he was also a very old man and his shoes were tight."


But now, with the suspects gathered together, Poirot plays his hand: “A new note crept into his voice. He was no longer a ridiculous little man with an absurd mustache and dyed hair, he was a hunter very close to his quarry.”
And so, the murderer of Mrs. McGinty is… Mwaaaahahahahaaa...


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]



Thursday, November 16, 2017

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Agatha Christie

I should point out first off that until I began reading Murder on the Orient Express last week I had no idea Hercule Poirot was such a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” This from the mouth of Mary Debenham, one of the eponymous train’s passengers who, along with me and other first-time readers of Agatha Christie’s most popular fictional detective series, soon will come to see Poirot in a more dangerous light.

Also, as Murder on the Orient Express was first published some 83 years ago, I must assume most if not all readers here know how it ends—either from having read the novel or seen one of its various film adaptations, including the one just released starring Kenneth Branagh as the “ridiculous-looking little man.” Yet, for the theoretical one or two of you who might look forward to being kept in suspense along with everyone on the train, including Poirot, I shall do my damnedest to keep even the slightest potential spoiler from your eyes. Truth be told, although I’d seen one of the film adaptations—the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot—seen it a couple of times in fact, I had forgotten most of the plot, including the whodunnit part, until I started reading the novel. That’s no reflection on Christie’s plot, which is ingenious if a tad gimmicky, but on my own shortcoming in not retaining as much passively as when written words engage my imagination.
What I offer here is a brief synopsis of the plot and some observations of Christie’s style and characters, quirks and anything else of note that comes to mind.

First the synopsis: heavy snow blocks train miles from nowhere; a man whose sinister eyes give everyone the impression he’s dangerous, or even evil, turns up stabbed to death in his compartment; Poirot investigates, learns the killer had to be someone in this particular car because it was locked on either end and no footprints made by a possible killer were seen in the snow; because there is no way to reach the outside world Poirot cannot confirm any of the background stories the passengers give him, leaving it up to his world-renowned detective’s brain to deduce which of them is the murderer.
Sounds like a parlor game, and in all likelihood there is one, or more, based on this scenario. But the skillful way Christie presents it, giving us character-studies that start on the surface and incrementally penetrate the layers, Murder on the Orient Express has—or had for me
Albert Finney
, anyway—the effect of a plausible real-life event. Then again, I’m relatively new to the classic
puzzle plot style, unfamiliar with what I presume are the genre’s standard tropes, and with a perhaps unusually suggestive imagination. In more conventional terms, this one “worked for me”--despite finding myself quickly remembering how the thing ended. I had as much fun knowing where the story led and how Christie and Poirot got there than I’ve had ordinarily trying to follow or outwit a fictional detective when I was unsure who the killer was or what was his or her motive for the killing.
At least one surprise for me could not have been intentional. Right off the bat, Christie slapped me awake with the novel’s first two sentences: “It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express."
David Suchet
Aleppo. Yikes. Had Christie only known the heartbreak that city’s name would connote in years to come. Fortunately for us she mentions it only the once before jettisoning it from the story. But by then she had me absolutely aboard the snowbound train, locked inside the Stamboul-Calais coach with Hercule Poirot, a dozen murder suspects, and the corpse of a man neither Poirot nor any of the suspects had found at all likable.
Three suspects I recognized right away as perhaps Christie’s ensemble types. As this was only the second of her canon I’ve read, I’d be surprised if there were not more. In Orient the types are represented by the anonymous, tall, red-headed woman, the jabbering American woman “Caroline Hubbard,” and the yellow-complected, elderly, ugly Princess Dragomiroff. In the first Christie I read, Destination Unknown, these three types appeared as Hilary Craven, the tall, red-headed woman protagonist, Mrs. Calvin Baker as the jabbering American, and the elderly, ugly, yellow-complected Monsieur Aristides. In both novels these elderly fossils made up for their withered, yellow ugliness by intelligent, forceful eyes.
Robert Powell
Christie really gets into describing uglies. Here’s her take on Princess Dragomiroff: her “small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once.” I could substitute Monsieur Aristides for the princess in that description without missing a beat. I haven’t come across a Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet type yet, but I have many more Christies ahead in which to find them. Come to think of it, Lorre, with his smarmy voice and his leering eyes complemented by bat-wing mustaches (Christie prefers the plural, presumably considering each wing a separate ‘stache), might have made a perfect Poirot—in fact, so many have played the brilliant “ridiculous-looking little man” on film, he might actually have done so. Can you believe Tony Randall in the role? See photo.
Oh yes, Tony Randall
It’s apparent from just these two novels that Christie, besides being a masterful plot-maker, has loads of fun describing her characters, and not just for her own amusement. Take the villain, for example, please. Hahaha. Christie sets us up nicely to loathe the dude by indirection. He never speaks, that I recall, except to other characters who report what he said. But here’s Poirot’s first impression of the fellow known as Ratchett (the name itself is our first clue, sort of rhyming as it does with “wretched”): “He was a man of between sixty and seventy. From a little distance he had the bland aspect of a philanthropist. His slightly bald head, his domed forehead, the smiling mouth that displayed a very white set of false teeth, all seemed to speak of a benevolent personality. Only the eyes belied this assumption. They were small, deep set and crafty. Not only that. As the man, making some remark to his young companion, glanced across the room, his gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment, and just for that second there was a strange malevolence, and unnatural tensity in the glance.” Need we know more? I don’t. Where’s the knife? Let me at the scoundrel!
Not that Murder on the Orient Express is a forgotten book, far from it. More like unforgettable. Yet, it’s joining the others on Patti Abbott’s Friday’sForgottenBooks feature, which,this week is hosted by the inimitable Todd Mason.