Feeling disappointed after watching the new blockbuster of Mark Gordon? The movie adaption with the same name consists of many fantasies and modifications to the original book for sake of better adapting with modern audiences; however, it unintentionally worsens the masterpiece released a century ago.
The detective novel “Murder on the Orient Express” by Dame Agatha Christie is one of the most excellent masterpieces in the career of this English female writer. The story is set on the magnificent Orient Express train of the 1930s where murder is executed and coincidentally the renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on board. This sixteenth fictional work of Christie was created from her own experiences and perspectives gained from expedition trips around the world with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930.
“Murder on the Orient Express” coincides with Poirot’s travel from Istanbul to London, after taking the Taurus Express from Aleppo. From the hotel of Tokatlian, he books a first-class compartment on the Simplon Orient-Express train; however, the train was unusually fully-booked. It is only until the intervention of his old friend, Monsieur Bouc, who is “a Belgian […] director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (International Sleeping-Car Company)” that Poirot achieves a second-class compartment where he shared the berth with Hector Macqueen. He then gets accustomed to onboard passengers and bumped into Samuel Ratchett, who offers Hercule twenty-thousand dollars in exchange for his protection from the potential murderer. With his sensitive sense, Poirot supposes Ratchett is an evil man and therefore, refuses his offer with the reason that ‘“I do not like your face.”’ On the second night of the itinerary, after two additional coaches were installed, M. Bouc moves to the extra coach and spares the first-class compartment, which is next to Ratchett and Mrs. Hubard’s one, for Poirot. Later that night, the train is stopped due to a snowbank in Vincovi, and the detective is constantly awoken by unusual noise and Ratchett’s cry. The next morning, it is revealed that Ratchett was murdered last night and that the murderer(s) are still on board. After being insisted by Bouc, Hercule Poirot accepts to investigate the case. He then examines the corpse of the late Ratchett along with Doctor Constantine and founds various pieces of evidence left in the room: a burned paper with the remaining name “Armstrong,” an embroidered handkerchief with the initial “H,” a pipe cleaner, a match unidentical to the ones used by Ratchett. From there, he deducts that Ratchett’s actual identity is Cassetti, who operated a shocking kidnap of Daisy Armstrong years before the storyline of the novel. Casetti ransomed the wealthy Armstrong family but eventually killed the poor little girl anyways. The incidents affected dozens of people with the climax are the bitter suicides of the girl’s parents and the maid. Poirot gradually interviews everyone in the train, reveals their true identity that is related to the Armstrongs, and supposes two solutions: either the train was broken into by a stranger who killed Mr. Ratchett or every single passenger on the train, except him, Dr. Constantine and Monsieur Bouc, are involved in the murder. He then persuaded Bouc and Constantine to report the local police the first solution.
“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.”
The fiction is meticulously crafted by Dame Agatha Christie with a convincing storyline, interesting details, and acute use of words to comprehensively illustrate the whole crime scene in front of the readers’ eyes. Among all her literary devices and an excellent plot, I appreciate some of the foundational dialogues that seemingly illustrated insights into the personalities and motives of the character. On the first day of the train, the dialogue between Ratchett and Poirot greatly exposed the true characteristics of them. When Mr. Ratchett offers twenty thousand dollars for protection and gets rejected, he angrily asked ‘“What’s wrong with my proposition?”’, unexpected to receive an unexpected response from Hercule Poirot – ‘“I do not like your face.’” This illustrated the strong sensitivity of a great detective who has solved thousands of mysterious cases. His sixth sense tells Poirot that Ratchett is an evil man, despite his appearance as a benevolent wealthy person. This greatly incorporates with his initial impression about Ratchett when discussing with Monsieur Bouc earlier: “‘When he passed me in the restaurant,’” Poirot said at last, “‘I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal-an animal savage, but savage! you understand-had passed me by.’” Although they were discussing the looks of various people on board, including Princess Dragomiroff who M. Bouc describes as ‘“Ugly as sin but she makes herself felt”’, only Ratchett receives such a thorough observation and mocking description as a “savage animal.” By introducing these two details, Christie has successfully hinted to observant readers the sign of evilness since the very beginning of the story.
The other detail I greatly enjoyed is how well-crafted the details of the passengers’ evidence and mutual alibis are. All the passengers being interviewed distracted the detective by introducing irrelevant pieces of data and even created false conflicts between them using racist ideas. A great illustration is Macqueen’s testimonies: “‘That oughtn’t to be difficult. He’s a Britisher and, as he calls it, he ‘keeps to himself.’ He has a low opinion of Americans and no opinion at all of any other nationality.”’ As the story is set in the early half of the 20th century, ideas of racism and stereotypes are still highly existed. Being aware of this fact, Hector Macqueen, an American, described his relationship with the Englishman colleague Masterman as intense and unfriendly due to racial conflicts, even though both of them actually conspired with Mrs. Hubbard (Linda Arden), who lost her daughter, son-in-law and grandson after the incident, to get them employed by Cassetti. The languages and attitudes of Macqueen distracted the readers from suspecting that both of the servers of Ratchett involved in this conspiracy, which would greatly intensify the unexpectedness of the conclusion of Hercule Poirot at the end of the story.
However, there is something that I dislike about the book. One of them is the lengthy and inefficient interviews of Mr. Poirot, which took more than 200 pages among the total of 336 pages. I acknowledge the significance of this part in opening the bottleneck of the story; however, many questions are being asked identically, without much modifications among interviewees and are done by two rounds for each person. This initially fascinates the readers when the truth is gradually exposed; however, the rate becomes a bit too slow and increases the boredom in the middle of the story. Furthermore, some details that Poirot’ deductions about the motives and tendencies of the suspects based on were extremely vague. A great illustration for that is his confrontation with Mary Debenham. He accuses Mary has lied to him and exposes his awareness that Miss Debenham was actually the tutor of Daisy Armstrong and that she must recognize Countess Andrenyi who Poirot believed to be Daisy’s older sister. It is revealed later that Poirot’s pure prediction of Mary’s true identity is greatly unfirm. He explained to Bouc that he developed his suspicion towards Mary when Andrenyi described the physical look of Daisy’s tutor as ‘“[a] tall middle-aged woman with red hair’”, which is ‘“… the exact opposite in every respect of Miss Debenham, so much so as to be quite remarkable’”. This deduction is still very convincing and coherent until the part where Debenham’s name is introduced. Poirot argued that Andrenyi invented a fake name that is “Miss Freebody” to cover Mary’s identity and that ‘“there is a shop in London that was called until recently Debenham & Freebody”’. Therefore, ‘“[w]ith the name Debenham running in her head, the Countess clutches at another name quickly, and the first that comes is Freebody.’” The whole process of processing that data and the perception of Poirot about the name is over-fictional and unrealistic. It is impossible that just from the name of a random shop and the very normal name of a low-profile character that Poirot can spot the irregularities and reveal the whole conspiracy. This development greatly contrasts with meticulously crafted details earlier and suggested that Poirot’s deductions are just wild guesses and break the consistency of his image as a rational and logical detective.
In conclusion, despite some flaws in the rationality and foundations of Poirot’s deductions, the almost meticulous storyline with detailed mental states and physical looks of the characters, along with an unexpected ending and interesting usage of third-party storytelling made “Murder on the Orient Express” unarguably one of the best detective fiction of Agatha Christie in particular and the 20th Century in general. I do recommend readers from all ages and walks of life to devour this book because not only does it perfectly represent a climax in the art of detective fiction but also it is among one of rare 20th-century works whose characters are diverse in range, consisting of various social positions, ages, nationalities, and races.
Le Dong Hai “DoHa” Nguyen
Great review. I must read the original book after watching the film. Was thinking that the film is a masterpiece, turn out the book is better!
Insightful article as always, DoHa! I love how you mention the cultural aspects of the novel. This was indeed revolutionary during Agatha Christie’s times.