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
, 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."
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.
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.