Mystery train

Murder on the Orient Express · Agatha Christie · 1934
Harper Collins, 2017 · 267 pages, paperback

A wealthy man of dubious morals is found stabbed to death the night after he discloses to detective Hercule Poirot that he fears for his life. Snowdrifts have caught the Orient Express en route between stations. No footprints in the snow: the murderer must still be aboard, and it’s Poirot’s job to find out who it is. It’s classic whodunit style.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a swift and formulaic mystery: One by one Poirot takes down the alibis of 12 passengers. A flurry of activity on board between midnight and 2 a.m. and every passenger has a sound alibi.

It’s an entanglement of who conversed with whom (and at what time exactly?) and when did the maid see her mistress? Or the Swedish lady ask for an aspirin? Do you smoke a pipe, Colonel, or would you prefer a cigarette? We expect that the information will all come together, that Poirot will sit back and think and astound us with parsing all of these stories into something comprehensible. And then there’s the added thrill of wondering whether we can figure it out, too.

That Christie never gives us the information we really need and, by extension, doesn’t give us the chance for solving the case is, therefore, frustrating.

With a dozen alibis, a dead body and the murder weapon at our disposal, along with the helping hand of Hercule Poirot, consulting detective, Murder on the Orient Express should have been a mystery whose solution revealed itself by degrees and which we could have had a hope in solving alongside Poirot.

Instead the solution hinges on clues we’re not made party to until after Poirot has told us who done it. All we get as readers is the briefest of briefings, and even this doesn’t touch on the intricacies we would need to know in order to solve the case.

Withholding important information from the reader doesn’t have to be a fault in and of itself – Arthur Conan Doyle was able to do this effectively in the majority of his Sherlock Holmes stories as well as in each of his novels. The difference here is that Christie relied on this method entirely and didn’t come out with it until the last moment – a hasty, tenuous ending, reasoned through a variety of coincidences. Lazy, really.

The ending is almost a cop-out; too convenient and therefore unsatisfying, as if Christie got tired of the 12 alibis she had to write for this novel and slapped a slip-shod ending onto it.

And where was Monsieur le detective, Hercule Poirot? Bodily he was present, yes, but as a protagonist, no.

Whodunits are traditionally plot-driven, but for a mystery with an eight-novel franchise behind it (when it was first published; the mustachioed Belgian detective would come to solve 37 mysteries in all), it’s a bit of a let-down to find Poirot given only the once-over by his creator, given no prelude of humanizing backstory or even indulged with the tiniest of allusions to a life before this novel.

But Christie did fine work with her other characters. Each of the passengers, in temperament, dress and personality, is very real. They’re characters that avoid being characters even when cast in the classic roles of the whodunit genre (maid, colonel, valet, etc…). The trainmaster, too – Monsieur Bouc – is charming in his skepticism and prejudices alike.

It’s these characters that make the novel enjoyable despite its failings. That and the fact that by novel’s end Christie has given us a bit to chew on: how justice is served, through what avenues and with what consequences. It’s a mild injection of philosophy that brings the book up a notch.

Murder on the Orient Express · Agatha Christie · 1934
Harper Collins, 2017 · 267 pages, paperback

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