Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (spoiler-free review)

Ever since the Orient Express left Stamboul, the threat of a blizzard has been building. While crossing Yugoslavia, the train finally grinds to a halt in the early hours of the morning. It is caught in a deep snowdrift with no means of calling for help. The train’s staff and passengers are trapped until someone can come to rescue them.

Murder on the Orient Express

One passenger, however, is beyond rescue. The occupant of compartment 12 has been murdered in horrific circumstances during the night, and the murderer must still be aboard the train.

Coincidentally, Hercule Poirot is also aboard, having been returning from a delicate task he has been performing in Syria. Commissioned to investigate, Poirot finds himself up against one of the most fiendishly complicated plots that even he has ever encountered.

“Ah! quel animal!’ M. Bouc’s tone was redolent of heart-felt disgust. ‘I cannot regret that he is dead—not at all!’

‘I agree with you.’

Tout de même, it is not necessary that he should be killed on the Orient Express. There are other places.’

Having grown up in an era of three (and later four-)-channel TV, I had seen the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express several times. It used to be on TV almost as much as Spartacus and Ben-Hur. The problem is, that [no spoilers, I promise] just like in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, once you know the murderer in this story, you can never forget it.

As a result, I had read almost every other crime novel by Christie before I finally decided to pick up Murder on The Orient Express. What a treat! Even knowing the conclusion, this is a masterpiece of plotting. It’s a constant game between author and reader, with the author almost always coming out on top.

Everything has meaning. Every small detail, every chance remark, every random element. The only clues that are not clues are the most obvious ones. As we reach the denouement, more and more mysteries are resolved, so the story is not just about ‘whodunit’, but also about how, when and why Poirot gets sidetracked during his investigation.

It is also a marvel of economy. Christie spares us long descriptions of the dining car and the sumptuous meals, the uniforms of the staff and the wooden corridors of the train. She leaves the reader to imagine all of that, while she gets on with the serious business of wrapping us all in knots.

The train itself serves to immerse us in a high-class world, separated by the broad mass of humanity by wealth and privilege as much as by the abominable weather. The passengers are forced to spend their time in their little compartments with the thick snow creeping up outside.

Poirot himself can draw on no resources expect his own deductive powers, whilst up against an opponent that is several moves ahead in a game that has begun many years before.

Despite the fact that the solution is completely preposterous, Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps one of the very best Agatha Christie novels. Even innocuous details like a letter on a handkerchief serve to show Christie’s stealthy ways of bamboozling her hapless readers. It is an ideal starting point to begin exploring the casebook of M. Poirot, particularly for anyone lucky enough not to know the solution already.

21 responses to “Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (spoiler-free review)

  1. This is an absolute classic! Like you, I have seen various televised versions of this (David Suchet’s Poirot being my favourite), but even with the advance knowledge of the conclusion, the book is still an absolute delight. Wonderful review – it has inspired me to dig out my copy and indulge once again 😀

    • Thank you! I’m moving onto Death on the Nile now myself. I can remember Peter Ustinov in the film version of that one, but I can’t remember the killer so it’ll be like new for me.
      Funnily enough, even though I now love Suchet’s version of Poirot, I didn’t like it in the beginning because his moustaches were too small. Christie always makes it clear that Poirot’s moustaches (always plural) were large impressive things.

      • Hugh Fraser!! I had the biggest crush on him when I was little. He was Wellington in Sharpe, as well. Poirot remains one of my favourite television programmes of all time – beautifully written, excellent actors and of course great stories. They don’t make ’em like that anymore!

      • Ah yes! Old Hastings was always rather fond of women with auburn hair I remember too, with much ribbing from Poirot.
        They don’t make them like they used to. Remember Joan Hickson as Miss Marple too? She was absolutely perfect for the role.

      • He was indeed! He had a bit of a weakness for the ladies anyway, but the flame haired ones really excited him.
        Joan Hickson was the definitive Marple, for me. It is interesting to watch the re-runs now and spot actors when they were very young and before they were famous. I saw one with an embryonic Martin Freeman as a butler, he only had about two lines.

  2. I know the plot of course, having seen the movie and probably having read the book (it’s hard now to recall, I read a lot of Christie as an adolescent so surely read this but the movie’s overwritten it if so). It would be fun to read it without knowing whodunnit.

    I rather like “long descriptions of the dining car and the sumptuous meals, the uniforms of the staff and the wooden corridors of the train”. Well, perhaps not long, but more than it sounds like you get. There is such a thing as too much efficiency, though Christie’s reputation and lasting appeal rather shows that she knew what she was doing.

    Will you read more of her classics do you think?

    • I also read loads of her books as a teenager, but back then I almost never guessed whodunit. Now I think I’m a bit sharper but she can still fox me most of the time.
      I picked this one up as well as The Mystery of the Blue Train as a light holiday read, and I loved them both. They’re perfect after being zoned out on the beach. I’m definitely going to revisit a few more now – except for the Tommy and Tuppence stories. I hate those ones because the characters are just annoying meddlers, and Tuppence is such a dated nickname!

  3. Four channels and live Chess, those were epic days and of course the drama involving the airing of channel five seems so alien to kids now. They will never know the joys of realising there is nothing on and going and doing something else.

    MotOE is a classic and you’re right the solution is barmy but I didn’t see it coming and it is well worked, I haven’t read the book yet but it is on the list just for the sheer joy of seeing how well it is put together.

    • I have about a hundred channels on my TV and I still get the sense that there is nothing on!
      I also remember when they didn’t have all day programming so you’d turn the TV on in the morning and just see static on every channel. I definitely watched the static more than once…

  4. I remember you lending me The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when we were at school. I was stunned when the murderer was revealed. I used to watch Miss Marple with my mum and later graduated to David Suchet’s Poirot. My mum also went through a stage of buying me Agatha Christie novels from car boot sales and I’d get one in the post now and then – it was great fun.

    • Hi Al! You know the annoying thing is that I gave away loads of Agatha Christie books to the charity shop a year or so ago, and now I’m buying them all again. I just forgot to use those little grey cells…

  5. My husband and I call rainy Sundays Poirot weather. We have all the Suchet series and pick one whose ending we forget. I love googling the film sites and the differences from the novels.

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