Thursday, November 16, 2017


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.


  1. David Suchet is the ultimate Poirot for me, Mathew - but only in the earlier seasons of the Granada series. (I think it was Granada, either that or BBC or whatnot) which showed up originally on PBS. Later the stories were butchered and they made Poirot look grim and foreboding and not at all likable. At any rate, this is a book I've read several times over the years and each time I'm caught up in the setting - the fabulous Orient Express. (My brother and his wife actually rode the train while in Europe a few years ago. But I never got the chance.) I will not see the new movie with Kenneth Branagh because he is definitely not my idea of Poirot. I do like the 1974 version though - watched it again with friends just about a week ago. I thought Lauren Bacall was especially good in the cast.

    I'm so glad that you've decided to read a few Christie books, Mathew. I wanted to recommend two more: THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD (which is more thriller again than mystery and one of my all time favorites) and THE ABC MURDERS, another very influential Poirot book. For a village cozy (if you're ever in the mood) featuring Christie's other detective, Jane Marple, I recommend MURDER IS ANNOUNCED which has a brilliant denouement which if you pay enough attention while reading you will catch onto early on. But likely not - I never did. Ha. A POCKETFUL OF RYE is another Marple book which I love - just ordered a hardcover copy since my paperback fell apart from old age. Back to Poirot - CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS is another real favorite of mine. And let's not forget AND THEN THERE WERE NONE which doesn't have either detective is one of Christie's darker works.

    1. Thanks much for your suggestions, Yvette, and especially for nudging me into the Christie fold. I'm now reading Mrs. McGinty's Dead, which really brings out both the silliness and brilliance of Poirot.I've seen several movies based on her novels, including And Then There Were None, and now I know it's high time I started reading the books! May you enjoy a lovely Thanksgiving!

    2. Thanks for the good wishes, Mathew. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving as well. I love that you're reading MRS. McGINTY'S DEAD - a terrific Poirot book from beginning to end.

  2. Need we know more? I don’t. Where’s the knife? Let me at the scoundrel!

    Just love your way of putting things, Matthew:)

    1. You are too kind, Neeru, but I must blame Dame Agatha. She's a real Golden Age hoot!

  3. Ratchett must speak at least once in the book. He talks to Poirot about the anonymous letters, the death threats, and tries to hire Poirot to be his bodyguard. And Poirot refuses the job saying: "Because, monsieur, I do not like your face."

    I saw the new version two weeks ago and found that I greatly enjoyed it. I objected only to the emphasis on McQueen as suspect #1 and that large amount of screen time that an essentially minor character has compared to some of the other suspects like Mary and the Colonel (conflated with the doctor character in this version) who figure more prominently. The other part I truly hated was the stupid chase through the trestle bridge. Utterly ridiculous. Amazingly all the other odd changes in the story and the characters did not bother me as much as I thought they would.

    1. I remember that seen, but had the notion it was revealed in Poirot's interior dialogue. I laughed at Poirot's response, wondering if Ratchett would take a swing at him.

      Movie hasn't come our way yet, and I might have to do some driving to find it. Looking forward to seeing it.

    2. Yikes--can't believe I typed "seen." Internet's maddeningly slow this morning!