There’s nothing like a good ol’ fashion mystery novel to get you out of a reading slump, and no one knows mystery better than Dame Agatha Christie. Known as the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie has written over 60 detective novels and is responsible for iconic detectives such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
One of her most famous novels that has been adapted for the big and small screens as well as for the stage, Murder on the Orient Express features the sly and cunning detective Hercule Poirot. Having just solved a case in Syria, Poirot decides to stay a few days in Istanbul to enjoy the city. However, upon his arrival in Istanbul, he receives a message that his presence is required on an ongoing case back in London. His vacation cut short unexpectedly, Poirot tries to get a reservation on the next train bound for London – the Orient Express. Poirot is told that the first class compartments for the next trip is fully booked, which was uncharacteristic for that time of the year. Fortunately, Poirot runs into his good friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the train company, who helps get him a compartment on the departing train.
On the first night of the journey, M. Bouc and Poirot notice the very diverse group of passengers aboard the first class train car, ranging from the young to the old, from the lower class to the upper class, and of different nationalities or countries of origin. On board along with Poirot and M. Bouc were an elderly Russian Princess and her lady’s maid, a young British nanny, a British military officer, an American woman, a Swedish missionary, an Italian–American Salesman, an American man, a Hungarian couple, and an American philanthropist, his valet, and his secretary.
At the start of their journey, Hercule Poirot gets propositioned by the American philanthropist, Mr. Ratchett, who recognizes him as the world famous detective. He tells Poirot that he has been receiving death threats and fears for his life and is willing to pay Poirot an exuberant amount of money to protect him from his enemies. However, Poirot turns down the job offer on grounds that he (Poirot) does not like Mr. Ratchett’s face.
On the second night of their journey, the train suddenly comes to a stop somewhere in Yugoslavia owing to heavy snow drifts. Poirot hears some disruptive noises during the night, which proved to be harmless after some cursory investigation. He sleeps through the night but in the morning learns that the American philanthropist, Mr. Ratchett, had been murdered during the night.
M. Bouc appeals to Hercule Poirot to help solve the case of the murdered American before the Yugoslavian police, who are reputed for being difficult to deal with, arrive at the scene. Poirot agrees to help solve the mystery, intrigued by the circumstances of the unique case. After evaluating the facts and clues, he comes to the conclusion that Mr. Ratchett was killed sometime between midnight and 2am after the train had stopped because of the snow drifts. Mr. Ratchett had been stabbed to death no more than 12 times. Hercule determined that owing to the condition of the train, it was impossible for the murdered to have left the train and concluded that the murderer was still in their midst among the 12 passengers.
Hercule interviews the 12 passengers one by one as well as the train conductors to look for clues and to determine which of them may have some motive for killing the wealthy American. Armed with the scant clues available and the information he gathered from the passengers, Hercule Poirot uses his sharp mind and keen observation skills to try to solve the seemingly inexplicable mystery.
Murder on the Orient Express is a classic whodunnit detective story, a sort of locked room mystery (except involving a trapped train), full of odd, colorful characters, suspicious and innocent alike. It’s a straightforward novel that goes directly to the heart of the plot. By carefully introducing each character and laying out their stories for Poirot to listen to, Agatha Christie drops subtle clues here and there, which observant readers can catch alongside detective Poirot.
This is just my second Agatha Christie novel and my first Hercule Poirot mystery. Set and published in the 1930s, some words and phrases used by the author seem a bit outdated and there exists many stereotypical ideas on foreign cultures that sometimes come across as discriminatory or prejudiced. However, the novel is fast paced and intriguing, and though it may seem predictable at times owing to our overexposure to CSI/forensic television shows, bear in mind that it was published over 80 years ago and may have been one of the first of its kind.
Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – Agatha Christie
Berkley Books; 322 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3/5