“At half an hour after midnight, we ran into the snowdrift. No one can have left the train since then.” Monsieur Bouc said solemnly, “The murderer is with us–on the train now…”
A snowbound train. A man lying dead in his compartment. Thirteen suspects, thirteen alibis, and clues that each seem to point to a different killer. Hercule Poirot has never been so close to murder before. As he faces the most baffling case of his career, Poirot must decide what it really means for justice to be served.
After eighty-six years, millions of copies sold, and multiple film and television adaptations, what more is left to say about Murder on the Orient Express? Everything Agatha Christie does best is right here, including one of the most iconic solutions of all time. It is simply a masterpiece, not only within Christie’s formidable body of work, but as a cornerstone of the entire mystery genre. Here are just a few of the things that keep me coming back to Murder on the Orient Express time after time. (Though I have tried to avoid spoilers, except where clearly marked, passengers board at their own risk.)
It’s an irresistible setup for a crime. On his way back to England after clearing up “a little affair in Syria,” Poirot attempts to reserve a compartment on the Orient Express. However, the train is fully booked–strange, considering that it’s the dead of winter. Only the intervention of company director Monsieur Bouc manages to squeeze Poirot in.
The following night, as the train lies still, trapped in the Balkans by heavy snow, the passenger in the next compartment is stabbed to death. Cut off from the outside world, it is up to Poirot to solve the crime before the killer strikes again.
Trains are a popular setting for golden-age mysteries, but it’s rare for the train itself to play such an integral role in the crime. Not only is this is a murder that could not have happened anywhere else, committing a murder on a train requires nerves of steel. The killer must spend several days living alongside both the victim and a dozen witnesses, not to mention committing and covering up a murder in close quarters with very little privacy. The schedule and layout of the train, the random nature of its passengers–all of this is embedded into the very fabric of the crime.
“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities of all ages. For three days, these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”
“And yet,” said Poirot, “suppose an accident […] Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together–by death.”
Ratchett must be one of the most despicable victims of all time. Even before Poirot learns about his past, which Ratchett has excellent reason to hide, it’s clear this man is no good. Before boarding the train, he tries to hire Poirot to protect him from threats against his life. Poirot refuses, saying, “Frankly, Monsieur, I do not like your face.” Later, he elaborates: “I could not rid myself of the impression that evil had passed me by very close.”
All his life, Ratchett has trampled over others to get what he wants, using any weapon at his disposal–money, threats, even violence. In retrospect, Ratchett’s fear during the last few days of his life feels like justice served as he slowly realizes that safety is the one thing money can’t buy.
If there is one drawback to Murder on the Orient Express, it is the sheer number of suspects. Though Christie handles her large cast well, moving through the interviews that make up the central section of the book surprisingly briskly, it’s impossible to keep track of this many potential killers. Though we get do get a few glimpses into their thoughts here and there, for the most part the suspects remain just as mysterious as the murder itself.
That being said, one of Christie’s greatest gifts is her ability to evoke a real, recognizable person with just a few neat strokes. The Princess Dragomiroff, for example, is “one of the ugliest old ladies [Poirot] had ever seen. It was an ugliness of distinction–it fascinated rather than repelled.” Ratchett’s air of being a “respectable American gentleman” only makes him all the more threatening, as if “through the bars, the wild animal looks out.”
Christie also excels at exploring the ways in which strangers view each other through the lenses of stereotypes, and how a clever person can manipulate that tendency to hide their true nature. Monsieur Bouc’s repeated insistence that the Italian-American passenger Foscarelli must be guilty, as a stabbing points to a fiery Latin nature, is presented as comedy, but Christie skillfully leads the reader to draw conclusions about all of the suspects based upon their outward appearances. Mrs. Hubbard seems like the typical pushy American tourist, Colonel Arbuthnot is a soldier with a stiff upper lip, Masterman is the portrait of a stuffy English valet. Or, at least, they all look that way.
Gender and class come into play as well. Everyone accepts that Countess Andrenyi is a delicate young lady who cannot be questioned without the protection of her husband. Likewise, no one questions Princess Dragomiroff’s right to have her own way in everything. She looks and behaves like an aristocrat, so everyone treats her as such. When Colonel Arbuthnot insists that governess Mary Debenham could not have committed the murder, as she is “pukka sahib,” Poirot and one of his sidekicks, Dr. Constantine, share a telling exchange.
“What,” asked Dr. Constantine with interest, “is pukka sahib?”
“It means,” said Poirot, “that Miss Debenham’s father and brothers were at the same kind of school as Colonel Arbuthnot.”
“Oh!” said Dr. Constantine, disappointed. “Then it has nothing to do with the crime at all.”
“Exactly,” said Poirot.
In countless other mysteries of the era, it would have had everything to do with the crime. An attractive young woman from the right kind of background would never even be considered as a suspect. Here, however, everyone is fair game.
The crime scene seems, at first glance, like a detective’s dream, offering up an astonishing array of clues. There is the body itself. Its many stab wounds suggest a crime of passion, but upon closer examination that theory becomes murkier. Ratchett’s watch has stopped, which would seem to fix the time of death–except that he was heard speaking to the conductor an hour later. A woman’s handkerchief, a man’s pipe cleaner, a button, a strange man and woman wandering the corridors (or maybe they are the same person).
Aside from these obvious pieces of physical evidence, Christie is also playing a larger game. Murder on the Orient Express is impeccably constructed. The solution is so powerful not only because it is surprising, but also because, once it is revealed, it feels so inevitable. The foundation has been laid perfectly, with real clues seamlessly sprinkled in among false ones. The moment Poirot lays out his theory, everything suddenly clicks. That is what makes Orient Express so so compulsively re-readable. The ending is presented less as a shocking twist than as a moment of discovery, a wonderful secret between Christie and her readers.
Poirot is at the top of his game here. His fussiness and vanity provide moments of comic relief, even as his powers of observation are at their sharpest throughout. The reader gets to see what Poirot is experiencing throughout the novel (without, of course, being privy to what goes on inside those little gray cells). His ego may be slightly bruised by the knowledge that a murder was being committed in the next compartment while he slept, but that is easily brushed away in the face of such a meaty intellectual puzzle.
What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is a matter of the intellect.
Poirot’s attitude toward the crime, which he views as a marvelous riddle, is especially notable. There is no sense of a serious moral dilemma here. Instead, he is excited by the prospect of an exercise in pure detection, especially as it starts seeming more and more likely that his outrageous theory of the crime may be the real solution. Most intriguingly, Christie begins laying the groundwork early on for Poirot’s ultimate choice. Far from making a difficult decision on the spot, he calmly carries out a course of action he has already decided upon.
Do you love lists and diagrams? Orient Express has ’em. There is a map of the train car (with everyone’s berths marked), there are dossiers on all the passengers, there are lists of questions that must be answered in order to solve the crime. All of the little bits of ephemera that are so pleasing to a puzzle-lover are present and accounted for.
I was eleven years old when I read Murder on the Orient Express. It was either the first or second Christie novel I read (Death on the Nile being the other contender) and it has shaped my reading ever since. Over the years, I’ve read it dozens of times. As a result, there are certain details that are burned into my brain forever.
For my money, the most mysterious scene in the entire book takes place when Poirot reconstructs the charred fragment of a letter found in Ratchett’s compartment. Searching the passengers’ baggage for an old-fashioned hatbox, he removes “humps of wire netting.” With these, “a small spirit stove,” and curling tongs (“I use them for the moustaches”), Poirot carries out the following operation:
He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper onto one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp […] The metal began to glow. Suddenly, he saw faint indications of letters. Words formed themselves slowly–words of fire.
Okay, but…how? What is even happening here? As a kid, I thought this might be one of those things that would make more sense after I became an adult and was setting pieces of wire netting on fire all the time myself, but it’s still inexplicable.
There are countless other moments that I look forward to every time I read, watching for them like landmarks along a familiar route, half afraid that they might have changed since the last time I passed through these parts. Mrs. Hubbard’s sponge-bag, for instance. As a young reader, I could only assume that this was a bag made entirely of sponges, and it fascinated me. (How anticlimactic to learn years later that a sponge-bag is simply a waterproof toiletry bag.)
Another minor pleasure, but one I always enjoy, is the description of all the ladies’ dressing gowns, from Greta Ohlsson’s sensible wool to Countess Andrenyi’s glamorous “corn-colored chiffon” negligee. Best of all, of course, is the scarlet kimono embroidered with dragons, glimpsed briefly by Poirot on the night of the crime, which inspires him to root through all the women’s nightclothes in the first place.
The Solution (includes spoilers)
One of the greatest solutions of all time, or the greatest solution of all time? Murder on the Orient Express may be a victim of its own success, as its astonishing twist has seeped into popular culture. Luckily, there is more to this ending than the element of surprise. The construction of the novel is flawless, as Christie juggles an astonishing number of clues and suspects with ease. It’s exhilarating to watch how it all comes together so perfectly at the end, even if you’ve seen it before.
Recent adaptations have tended to focus on the more thoughtful aspects of the solution, the questions of fair play and justice that arise. But what struck me most on this reread is how much fun Christie is having upending the conventions of the golden-age detective novel. After all, if an author can construct a mystery plot and rewrite it when things go wrong, why can’t her characters? Elaborate murder schemes are nothing new, but this has the feel of a full-on dramatic production. At times Poirot’s account of the crime sounds like a murderous version of a door-slamming farce, with suspects popping in and out of their compartments all night. This is one mystery I would love to read an inverted version of, as there is so much going on behind the scenes.
The denouement also underscores the basic artificiality of the genre as a whole. A self-proclaimed “great detective” tries to fit number of disparate elements into a single pattern. This, he says, is the truth, the only possible solution. Almost from the beginning, golden-age authors have gleefully chipped away at this infallibility, but rarely do they go as far as Christie does here. Poirot presents two solutions derived from the same evidence. One, he believes, is false. The other is true. He knows that whichever solution is put forth by the brilliant Hercule Poirot will be accepted as correct. Poirot’s choice will depend on whether his ultimate allegiance is to the law, or justice.
This raises a fundamental question: Can we trust our detectives? Readers are willing to accept some secrecy from a detective, on the assumption that all will be revealed at the end. What if it isn’t? What if Poirot had simply presented his false solution without ever sharing the real one? If Poirot can lie to the world, not with the mental agony depicted by David Suchet on television, but as easily as he does in the novel, then nothing is stopping him from lying to the reader at any time. Here, we are let in on the secret, but we can no longer feel certain this will always be the case.
It is ironic, yet somehow also quite fitting, that the two best-known mysteries of the golden age, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None are also two of the most atypical. Anyone new to mystery reading is likely to begin with one of these, the famous titles, the ones that are available everywhere. While it could be argued that the “best” mystery novels are actually the worst place for a beginner to start, since they are least representative of the average detective story, I can think of no better way to begin a lifelong journey than by going first-class. Murder on the Orient Express is simply the best the genre has to offer, precisely because it shows how much is possible. It immerses readers in a world where the truth is complicated, evidence can lie as easily as a person can, and absolutely anything can happen.
When I was twelve, I got to the final pages of this book and dropped it on the floor in profound surprise at its revelation. It became the moment by which I measured the success or failure of every other mystery I ever read.
Reading this book, I was paying more attention to how the story is told, how the author fools the reader until the very end. The fact that I could enjoy it so much, even though I knew the ending, speaks to how well Christie tells a story and entertains us.
Superbly written and with excellent characterization. A highly entertaining read and a good example of ‘fair play’ in my view.
I love the atmosphere and world Christie creates. I love Poirot’s investigation, now spotting more of the subtleties and verbal clues that I missed on first reading it. I found new layers to many of the characters. They are more than character types.
This legendary classic shows Christie at the top of her powers.
I remember being amazed by the solution the first time I read it. Christie certainly knows how to surprise and mystify. Express is one of the Christie novels that I can read over and over. It doesn’t matter that it is one of the “big” Christie stories–one that once you’ve read it, you’re not likely to forget the solution. There are always new bits and pieces to notice and think about.
Murder on the Orient Express (also published as Murder on the Calais Coach) is available in paperback, ebook, and audio formats from HarperCollins.