I’ve never been much of a murder mystery fan, and so had never read perhaps the most famous one of all, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (published 1934, 287 pages). But two things occurred that led me to the book: the recent movie version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh (which I have not seen yet); and the fact that the main character in the story I’m writing reads it, which means that I had better read it as well.
Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is heading home after a case in Syria on the Orient Express. He meets his friend Monsieur Bouc, the director of the train line; and characteristically notices and studies the various passengers with whom he finds himself. One of the passengers, a Mr. Ratchett from America, approaches him and asks him to take on his case–he’s a businessman with many enemies, and feels that his life has been threatened. Poirot refuses the case, on the grounds that he doesn’t like his face; he feels somehow that Ratchett is evil.
That night, the train gets stuck in a snow drift somewhere in Yugoslavia, and Ratchett is found dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times. It becomes the task of Poirot to solve the case, without any outside help; he must use his brains to find the killer. He is aided by Monsieur Bouc and another friend, Dr. Constantine, though they hardly seem to help at all; they act more as foils to Poirot, guided only by emotion and assumptions rather than deductive reasoning. He sets to interviewing all the passengers, who include a rather diverse cross section of people, to try to piece together the events of the night and come to a rational conclusion.
Not being particularly familiar with the conventions of murder mysteries, I was surprised by the simple format of the book: Part 1, The Facts; Part 2, The Evidence; Part 3, Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks. But the case is hardly simple. In fact, the conflicting evidence and puzzling facts that don’t quite fit together make it seem an impossible case to solve. However, Poirot seems to have quite an extraordinary brain, making dazzling leaps of connection that at first I found rather unbelievable. I suppose if I’d been a fan of the Hercule Poirot series, I would have been more familiar with his character and talents, and would more easily have accepted his brilliant deductions.
As it was, I found the mystery entertaining, and the answer to the proverbial question of Who dunnit? surprising and rather clever. I don’t see myself reading any more Agatha Christie, or murder mysteries in general, but at least now I can more easily understand my character’s experience of reading the book. And I will certainly check out Branagh’s film version when I can, and don’t feel it will be spoiled at all by knowing the ending. The fun will be seeing all these interesting characters come alive on screen through some pretty fantastic actors (Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfieffer, among others), though I think they’ve been slightly altered or changed. That’s okay. There’s still nothing like a good mystery to hold you captive for awhile, and this one definitely fits the bill.