Book review – Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie [pub. 1934]
[Dont worry, I won’t be giving away the book’s ending in this review]
This is a rambling review of the first and only Agatha Christie that I have read, Murder on the Orient Express (1934). And like a train this review may be inclined to twist and turn, be shunted into a siding or diverted to Crewe. Indeed, the fact that I’m writing about this book at all is a diversion. I needed a light break from my main read The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (review to follow). So I chose Christie’s fictional murder in the Yugoslavian snow as a relief from all too real murder in the Stalinist snow.
I found a battered copy of Murder on the Orient Express on my mother’s book shelves and it reminded me of a family holiday that we had in Istanbul. Sadly my mum passed away in the summer and I was helping to clear out books from the house. She was a voracious reader. Apart from the public library (and later the Lewisham Library ‘home delivery service’), the books were often acquired from Kirkdale bookshop in Sydenham via the bargain tables outside. The bookshop had a helpful “buy back” policy, which made the bargains even cheaper. Buy, read and return. Via this highly economical method she was able to access prodigious quantities of paperbacks over many years, often returning them for a few pennies that could be put towards the next stack of titles. Agatha Christie’s green cover Penguins were a typical read.
Up until 1977 the Orient Express railway service ran from Istanbul (Turkey) to Calais (France). Agatha Christie allegedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411 at the Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul. As a small child with my family, I briefly visited that ancient city and stayed at the Pera Palace. This was less than 40 years after Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel and when the author was still alive. By this time it was surprisingly cheap to stay at the hotel; little had been spent on maintenance and decoration but otherwise it was probably much the same as it was during Christie’s visit. The hotel was built in 1892 for the purpose of accommodating the passengers of the Orient Express and it features briefly in the novel. Looking back, it was the most atmospheric place that I have ever stayed in. Or is it just that everything from my early childhood is more vivid now? A magnificent building, but with the elegantly dressed staff outnumbering the guests. The ornate lift (elevator) plunged downwards and then stalled, then plunged again. A great thrill for any youngster. How alive you feel when you know that you may snuff it at any moment! The hotel desperately needed tender loving care and a vague nod to health and safety. It has since been given a long overdue make-over, but I hope that, like the Orient Express itself, it is still dripping with nostalgia and romance.
Even if you have never read Murder on the Orient Express you may know the basic story. Hercule Poirot, “The world’s greatest detective”, boards the luxury Orient Express train at it’s starting point in the historic city of Istanbul/Constantinople. While travelling through the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (in snowy Central Europe) a rich man with a dark past is murdered in his First Class cabin. It appears that the murderer must be among a select group of passengers. An avalanche halts the Orient Express and it is up to our hero to solve the mystery. The novel is the definitive whodunit with the reader given the opportunity to engage in the same process of deduction as Inspector Poirot throughout the investigation, with clues and false clues in abundance. During my read I had various theories, but failed to guess correctly. Wonderful ending.
Crime is a popular genre. Agatha Christie is the joint most successful fiction author in history, with estimated sales of 2 to 4 billion (I read this on Wikipedia so it must be true). Her only rival is William Shakespeare, who wrote about a few crimes himself. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the murdered man is stabbed 12 times and we don’t know who did it until the end, whereas in Shakespeare’s Roman play, Julius Caesar was stabbed 33 times and the great bard foolishly gives away “whodunit” straight away. Missed a trick there. “Even you, Brutus?” is the ultimate spoiler.
Murder on the Orient Express is not the book that I expected it to be. I have vague recollections of seeing a couple of star-studded film versions that may have influenced my expectations (there’s another one in the cinema now). I anticipated atmospheric descriptions and psychological depth, but there’s not a lot of that in the book. What you do get is cracking dialogue, tight prose and a pleasingly nippy pace.
You also get a writer amused at, and intrigued by, the follies and foibles of her characters. She cares about them and therefore so should we – and we do – in huge numbers – and in multiple formats (various book editions, radio plays, movies, TV versions, on stage, a computer game, model railways et al).
The plot of Murder on the Orient Express is far fetched. Coincidences and clues rain from the heavens, and none of the characters seem surprised by this. And yet curiously it didn’t bother me in the least. There is a reassuring internal consistency about it all that ensured, at least whilst I was reading, it didn’t feel discordant or annoying. Far from it, I wanted to step inside this world. I felt a strong desire to board that illustrious locomotive, make my way to the restaurant carriage and mischievously study my fellow passengers behind a freshly ironed copy of the Herald Tribune.
As I wrote the paragraph above it occurred to me that the main observation that I’m making is more commonplace than I had intended. Much the same could be said about Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. And perhaps – Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. The improbable or fantastic is accepted because we have a yearning for the delightful/colourful, internally consistent worlds the writers have created for us. We believe because we want to believe.
A while ago I visited John Rylands Library in Manchester (UK), a beautiful late-Victorian neo-Gothic building. As I walked around the library with my companion, there were excited children all around, giggling with merriment, peering behind pillars and photographing gargoyles. I murmured in a puzzled voice: “It’s wonderful to see all this enthusiasm in an academic library, but I don’t quite understand it”. “Harry Potter” whispered my friend. Suddenly I understood. It seems that the most gifted or luckiest of artists create worlds so intoxicating that we ache to leave our old world behind and immerse ourselves fully in them. If only we could find Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, climb through that wardrobe, or step aboard the Orient Express.
Humans are not wholly rational creatures, anyone who assumes they could be “if only all the nonsense was removed” is destined for big disappointment. If “the plan” is for us great apes to live happily in a global culture not dissimilar to the Arndale Shopping Centre, it is not going to end well. We live inside our stories, of one sort or another. As increasingly our traditional cultures are under attack, perhaps we will need our artists more than ever to provide us with what is a basic human need – stories that we can live within – or if that isn’t possible – stories that can provide us with a temporary escape.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)
It is a power that can be used for good or bad. Plato (the ancient Greek philosopher) thought that artists were so powerful they should be licenced. Happily we have mostly managed to avoid going down that route.
I’m doubtful Plato would have approved of Murder on the Orient Express. But he would have appreciated that Agatha Christie’s stories take place within a fairly clear moral universe, unlike the ambiguous worlds of Game of Thrones, Grand Theft Auto or a Stephen King novel. I give this novel four stars out of five, Plato will give it 3 out 5, if he ever comes out of that cave.
Murder on the Orient Express is not an obvious “quotable book”, but here are some lines that caught my attention.
“I like to see an angry Englishman,” said Poirot. “They are very amusing. The more emotional they feel the less command they have of language.”
“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.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you are all aware that a repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively, and, perhaps deservedly, murdered.”
“About Miss Debenham,” he said rather awkwardly. “You can take it from me that she’s all right. She’s a pukka sahib.”
Flushing a little, he withdrew.
“What,” asked Dr. Constantine with interest, “does a pukka sahib mean?”
“It means,” said Poirot, “that Miss Debenham’s father and brothers were at the same kind of school as Colonel Arbuthnot”
“I thought there were no detectives on the train when it passed through Yugo-Slavia – not until one got to Italy.”
“I am not a Yugo-Slavian detective, Madame. I am an international detective.”
“You belong to the League of Nations?”
“I belong to the world, Madame,” said Poirot dramatically.
Pera Palace hotel:
Images (below) from the interior of the 21st century Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul, built to accommodate passengers from the Orient Express railway service. Agatha Christie allegedly wrote the famous novel in Room 411.