Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.
Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.
A well-plotted story with a truly memorable conclusion. It is not my favorite Poirot novel but it deserves its reputation as a classic.
Hercule Poirot arrives at his hotel in Istanbul where he receives an urgent telegram that suggests he needs to return to England immediately. Poirot decides to book passage on the Orient Express, a train line that spans Europe, and asks the hotel desk to make arrangements. Unfortunately the first and second class compartments are fully booked but his friend, Monsieur Bouc, is a director at the railway and is able to intervene and secure him a berth when a passenger does not show up for their reservation.
At dinner Poirot is approached by Ratchett, an American businessman, who wants to hire him. He tells Poirot that he has received death threats and wants Poirot to sniff out the responsible party. He declines the commission however, telling Ratchett that he does not like his face. Poirot retires to his berth and tries to sleep, only to be woken in the early hours by a series of noises in the corridor.
Meanwhile weather conditions outside the train seem to be worsening and before long the train has come to a halt, trapped in a snowbank. Then Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment, his body have been stabbed twelve times. Bouc implores Poirot to carry out an investigation while the train is halted in the hope that they can present their findings to the Yugoslav police at the next station and avoid further delays.
It is a curious thought that this is one of just a handful of mystery titles I could write about that I can reasonably expect anyone reading this post to have experienced in some form. Even if you haven’t actually read or watched a version of this story, even if you do not like mystery fiction, there is still a very good chance that you will know some elements of the general setup and perhaps its solution.
Though I suspect anyone reading this blogpost will already know most of this book’s secrets, I will still do my best to avoid providing spoilers. I would suggest though that if you haven’t read this book yet and you have any sort of interest in mystery fiction that you should seek it out while you remain unspoiled – if you can preserve and experience the surprise of its ending then I think you owe it to yourself to do so while you still can.
So, why do I think Murder on the Orient Express became regarded as one of Christie’s best stories? I think the answer to that begins with its setup. This was not the first Christie story to be based around a train but I think it is much more successful than the previous one because the train itself, its features and internal space and geography feel more important to the crime and the detection of the killer. The use of a snowdrift to shape the geography of the crime is also very clever, avoiding the problem of a train’s accessibility as customers move on and off and making it into a very effective closed circle.
Another reason I think the setup to this story is effective is that unusually we have a victim who expects the murder. The question of who the victim is and why they have attracted enemies is an interesting one and here, as in The Murder on the Links, Christie opts to take inspiration from a famous real-life crime. The answers to those questions are effective, both in establishing Ratchett as a character but also in providing a credible motive for his murder.
There is one other aspect of the setup that I think works particularly well – Poirot is on the scene from the very start of the case. As he is also travelling on that train, he is able to observe the suspects’ behavior prior to the crime and has already noticed some things about them prior to being aware of the death threats or the murder itself. This is not only an economical choice in terms of the narrative, allowing the sleuth to notice some key points and relationships organically rather than having them explained to them, it also adds some excitement in the idea that the crime has been committed in the presence of the detective – an idea used very effectively in Peril at End House and which Christie frequently returns to in subsequent Poirot adventures.
Christie also creates an interesting mix of suspects to consider from a variety of different backgrounds. One of the initial challenges is understanding why any of this multinational cast, all apparently unknown to Ratchett, would have motive to kill him at all. In the course of his investigation, Poirot will turn up multiple possible killers and uncovers lots of secrets.
This brings me however to the thing I like least about the book – the lengthy succession of interviews. In practice the detection process in mystery novels often boils down to a series of interviews but these are often broken up, differentiated or disguised by moving them to different locations or requiring a little effort on the part of the detective to track the interviewee down. Here however it is presented as a succession of interviews and while many of the disclosures made are interesting, the structure that information is delivered through can feel a little limited and repetitive.
[To digress – it is that same succession of interviews that makes this book such a popular choice for adaptation. You have twelve really good single scenes of about the same length – ideal for bringing in a group of A list actors for just a short filming period.]
And yet while I think the somewhat flat presentation of the interviews can be disappointing, I find it only elevates the puzzle itself. It takes confidence in the ingenuity of your solution to risk stripping everything back and place so much testimony side by side to really highlight the contradictions between them. In doing this we also see Poirot’s brilliance as he pieces the puzzle together, using logic to resolve the differences and problems in the accounts and come up with the book’s memorable solution (or, more accurately, solutions).
Which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. When I first read this I disagreed with the way the case is resolved and the resolution of a central theme of the novel but returning to the book itself I find that I feel differently about that ending. Perhaps I am reading this section of the book slightly differently – my views on the themes discussed haven’t shifted so it must be the way I am interpreting the material itself.
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Revisiting this with the knowledge of the solution, I was impressed by how well it was set up and clued and I think it manages to be surprising without feeling gimmicky. I probably enjoyed it more on revisiting it than I did on my first reading. Certainly I can understand why this story remains one of Christie’s most popular, even though I prefer some of Poirot’s other cases in terms of the interest of their initial scenarios.
Brad at AhSweetMystery has written extensively about this book. Two of the highlights are this post in which he discusses it in the context of Christie’s output in the 1930s and this discussion of the book, what it means to him and its adaptations.
Kate at CrossExaminingCrime shares eleven things she finds interesting about the book.
Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery similarly found that they enjoyed this more on revisiting it – perhaps this is a story that is more enjoyable if you ignore its reputation.
Christian at Mysteries Short and Sweet covered this as part of his Christie at 100 series and gave this a glowing review. One of my favorite things about this series of reviews is looking at the various covers that have appeared on Swedish editions and seeing how different publishers have interpreted the book.
Bev at My Reader’s Block discusses the importance of this book to their becoming a mystery reader and many of the adaptations.
Dead Yesterday also shares some personal experiences of the book and how it shaped their reading. There are some spoilers but they are clearly labeled and avoidable.
Countdown John shares his notes on this book including research of some of the references contained in the book.
Nick at The Grandest Game in the World calls this a masterpiece and provides some interesting contemporary reviews.
Jose at A Crime Is Afoot describes the book as a classic and gives it his highest recommendation.