Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All aboard the murder train!
A long time ago when I was in high school and dinosaurs still roamed the earth I read a whole bunch of Agatha Christie novels. The weird thing is that I was never that big of a fan of hers. I was getting into mystery novels, she’s one of the best known writer in the genre, and the local library had a whole bunch of her stuff. At some point I realized that I prefer my murders to be a bit less civilized, and I moved onto other styles of the genre without giving much thought to ole Agatha after that. However, I recently watched the latest film adaptation done by Kenneth Branagh and even though it’s just OK that gave me the urge to check this out again. And it reminded me that classics are very often classics for a reason.
Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on-board the Orient Express along with an assortment of travelers and their servants. An American named Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment just as the train is stopped by snow. Circumstances make it seem that whoever killed Ratchett is probably still among the people in the first class car that night. As Poirot sorts through the evidence and questions suspects he finds contradictions that make solving the murder a very complex task.
One of my reasons I stopped reading Christie was the impression that she didn’t play fair in her whodunits. (And since I’m going off very old memories I could certainly be wrong about that.) By that I mean that it seemed like the solution depended on some kind of in-story background information that a reader couldn’t possible know. There’s a touch of that here with a big piece of the plot involving a link to a famous fictional crime. (Although it’s obviously inspired by a famous real one.)
Yet, that’s set up as background info that’s pretty much given to us as soon as it’s revealed so it doesn’t feel like Christie was just cheating by springing the unknown on a reader as a way to hide the killer. In fact, since the murder took place in a confined space where people were coming and going that everything you need to know is given to us as Poirot builds a timeline and uses a diagram to place the location of people in the train car at various times. One of the great things about this book is the way that Christie uses the logistics of this to actually give you all the clues while also obscuring the solution in the details.
I’d also had the idea that her writing was very dry and boring. There’s actually a lot of touches of humor that I missed as a young idiot. Even though there’s a lot of dated things in terms of race, sex, and class it also felt like she was often making some sly commentary on attitudes of her time. For example, the guy working for the railroad is positive that an Italian passenger must have killed Ratchett since it was done with a knife, and while Poirot often seems to agree with him that circumstances make him a good suspect you also note that he begins outright mocking the guy for sticking with this theory as things evolve.
I also very much liked the ending which again goes against my idea that these were very proper books that believe in strict law and order when the resolution here is a lot more interesting and complex.
I may have to try some more of these books to see exactly what else I was wrong about.
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