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murder on the orient express

23 july 2022

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most famous detective novels, partly thanks to two elaborate if mediocre films, partly because of its intricate situation and celebrated solution.

I had never read Murder on the Orient Express, despite seeing the movies, despite a long-standing fondness for Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. I found a movie-tie-in paperback from 2017 in a used-book shop in Trussville, Alabama this summer, and finished reading it on an express train from Berlin to Hamburg, last week. The journey passed without murder or other grisly incident.

(Spoilers ahead) I don't think that Murder on the Orient Express is one of the best Poirots. (My short list, not that I've read even most of them, would include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The A.B.C. Murders.) It's not that there are too many characters, or that the premise is incredibly contrived; those features come with the territory. It's more the bizarre situation in the novel: a murder brilliantly coordinated by twelve killers, operating as one hive mind, switches plans perfectly in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm. One impossible murder plot is hard enough to take; two in a seamless relay are a bit much and a bit bewildering to follow.

Another mark against Orient Express is its strange use of language. The characters, a mix of Americans and Europeans with a couple of English types thrown in, talk like no known humans. This is a constant problem with Hercule Poirot himself, of course, but when Poirot's impossible English exists in isolation, it can be elided and forgiven. In Orient Express, many of the characters are represented as speaking French, and they all sound like Poirot. Those who don't are Americans who don't sound much like Americans, down to the quirk of having them pronounce the name of the French capital as "Parrus" – as if British "Paris" sounded any more French than that.

The plan these weird speakers devise would have proceeded perfectly but for that sudden snowdrift; and even then, if Hercule Poirot hadn't shown up unannounced to become the extra passenger in the sealed car that was the scene of the crime and contains all the suspects. The presence of Poirot in the middle of the perfect murder scheme, though, is only as it should be. It is as if the meticulously-crafted vengeance wreaked by the killers positively cried out for a great detective who could unravel, and thus bear witness, to their machinations.

And then excuse them. The victim, after all, had it coming. He himself is a murderer, among the vilest in Christie's gallery of villains. As usual in a Poirot, the Belgian assembles all the suspects and explains how the murder was committed. Unusually for Poirot, he then immediately agrees to participate in a cover-up.

I can't remember how (or even if) this cover-up is delivered in Sidney Lumet's 1974 film. In Kenneth Branagh's 2017 version, the decision to suppress revelation of the group crime becomes a searing test of Poirot's conscience. To me, that ending was the weakest part of Branagh's otherwise OK picture. The novel ends briskly, almost perfunctory in its presentation of Poirot's acquiescence in the scheme. If the detective worries about abetting murder, he doesn't do it for longer than half a sentence. But in the 2017 film, Branagh seizes the moment to chew some of the snowy scenery, freighting the story with more moral lumber than it deserves.

Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express. 1934. NY: Morrow [HarperCollins], 2017.