Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
Review for the Past Offences 1934 challenge
According to Martin Edward’s Golden Age of Murder (which I’ve just reviewed), Agatha Christie once found herself on the Orient Express surrounded by minor European royalty, rich Americans, missionaries and others. When the train was stuck in a snowdrift, she had an opportunity to observe her fellow passengers.
She was fond of the Orient Express: after the break-up of her marriage she travelled many times to the Near East, falling in love with cities like Baghdad and becoming fascinated by archaeological digs. On one of them she met her second husband, Max Mallowan. (And as Martin Edwards points out, she later got her revenge on Katherine Woolley, the selfish, domineering queen bee wife of the head of the expedition, who – apart from making everyone’s lives a misery for miles around – refused to let Christie join Max on the dig after they were married. Christie paints a vivid picture of her in Murder in Mesopotamia, though I don’t agree that the narrator, Nurse Leatheran, is a portrait of Christie herself. Christie had been a nurse, so the background rings true, but Nurse L is brisk and down-to-earth, and the distant past leaves her cold. We hope she eventually finds happiness with one of the dig’s bright young men.)
Back to the Orient Express. I love the book, but also enjoy listening to the BBC dramatised version with John Moffatt as Poirot. (The Albert Finney all-star film version left ME cold.)
Poirot is at the Tokatlian Hotel, waiting to board the Orient Express back to London. He observes some of his fellow passengers. Among them are:
Mr Ratchett, an American with his secretary, Hector McQueen
Edward Masterman, Ratchett’s rather fey English valet, who has a taste for romantic novels with titles like “Love’s Captive”
Mary Debenham, a “lady”
Colonel Arbuthnot, a “pukka sahib”
Mrs Hubbard, a typically fussy American tourist who doesn’t trust anything about “abroad”
Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary who chums up with Mrs Hubbard
Princess Dragomiroff, an elderly Russian
Hildegarde Schmidt, her apparently dim-witted maid
The Count and Countess Andrenyi, a young Hungarian couple
Cyrus Hardman, a brash American salesman
Also on the train are:
Pierre Michel, the conductor
M. Bouc, the director of the wagons-lits who also happens to be aboard
A mysterious woman who flits about the corridors in a red silk kimono, and a small man with high voice – are they the same person?
Yes, the first-class coach gets stuck in a snow drift, and Ratchett is found dead in his compartment with multiple stab wounds. Mrs Hubbard throws hysterics, the Princess calls for mineral water, and M. Bouc begs Poirot to hold an inquiry. Clues abound, including a lace handkerchief, a uniform button, and a half-burned piece of paper which Poirot reconstructs using an old-fashioned hat box.
Who can have done the deed? Ratchett was a gangster who went in fear of his life, reveals McQueen. One by one the passengers tell their stories, and Poirot quizzes them about their dressing gowns. Are any of them what they seem? Piece by piece the truth is revealed, and finally aeroplanes are spotted – help is on its way! Poirot sees that justice is done, and the passengers all continue their journey to London. It's one of Christie's cleverest puzzles.
And it's set neither in a country house nor in a cosy village full of thatched cottages, please note. The characters are seen from outside: all we know about them is what they tell us, and what they reveal by their accents, manners, clothes and luggage. Is this what people mean when they call her characters "cardboard"? We are only privy to Poirot's thoughts, usually when he reveals them to a Watson figure, in this case M. Bouc.
“About Miss Debenham," said Colonel Arbuthnot rather awkwardly. "You can take it from me that she's all right. She's a pukka sahib."
"What," asked Dr. Constantine with interest, "does a pukka sahib mean?"
"It means," said Poirot, "that Miss Debenham's father and brothers were at the same kind of school as Colonel Arbuthnot was."
"Oh!" said Dr. Constantine, disappointed. "Then it has nothing to do with the crime at all."
"Exactly," said Poirot.”
More mystery here.