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.
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.