When arriving in Stamboul (aka Istanbul), M. Hercule Poirot receives a message from Scotland Yard to hurry back to London as there has been a break in an important case. The best way to get there is by the Orient Express, and his friend M. Bouc, who happens to own the company, acquires him the last available berth in one of the coaches.
As the train progresses and the snow falls, a double tragedy occurs. The train grinds to a halt, stopped in its tracks by a deluge of snow. And Mr Ratchett, an unpleasant American businessman is found in his cabin, stabbed over and over again. And because of the snow, the remaining passengers, along with Poirot, are trapped on the train with the murderer…
As I finally return to my Poirot Count-up, we find ourselves at easily the most well-known of his novels. Well, I presume cinema-goers are aware that the films are based on a book, anyway… And while reading this, I got to wondering – the solution to this book is so well-known, does anyone read it without being aware of it? I certainly had come across a mention of it prior to seeing the film – not sure I’ve seen it all the way through, come to think of it – and put off reading the book for a good while because of it. But when I asked my book group, some of them read it without knowing, so it does happen.
The reason I was pondering this because as I re-read it for this post, my third (at least) reading of the book, a couple of things struck me. First of all, the basic structure of the solution seemed obvious, based on the state of the body. Admittedly, I have hindsight in play here, and I’m assured that if you read it cold, it really isn’t. The second thing that struck me is that this is probably a terrible book to start reading Poirot with…
The problem is that this is almost all pure puzzle. The crime happens, Poirot interviews, ponders, interviews again, then reveals all. Trapping everyone in one location and giving us the sub-Hastings Bouc and Doctor Constantine for Poirot to ponder with makes it rather a dry read. The puzzle is marvellous, with the questioning peppered with clues and hints, although there are some near-psychic guesses from our Belgian ami on some, admittedly minor, points.
I’ve discussed in the previous posts the status of Poirot’s retirement. Here, he is called back to London to work on a case, although he seems to have given Scotland Yard some ideas and then wandered off to Aleppo, so if they were paying him, they probably should ask for a refund. So at this point, let’s assume he’s still retired but pops in to help out Japp and company on occasion.
One thing that occurs to me is that Christie doesn’t make much use of Poirot being made to have a second-class berth. Admittedly, a second-class berth on the Orient Express probably isn’t particularly uncomfortable, but it’s a far-cry from the fish-out-of-water comedy in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, which would have felt out of place here anyway.
Now I feel I should address something and that is one of the inspirations for the book – the Lindberg baby. I’ve mentioned before about how I really don’t like how Christie appropriated the story of Gene Tierney for The Mirror Crack’d, so what about in this case? Well, I think there’s a significant difference in the sense that this is a story about people reacting to the events, rather than the central players in the drama, but this was published about two years after the Lindbergh affair. I can’t seem to find anything about the reaction from people involved in that about the book – given the theme of the story, this is perhaps understandable. Perhaps.
I’ve been ranking these, so where should I put the book? Well, it’s an out and out classic and a masterpiece of plotting, but on the other hand, it’s not a lot of fun, is it? So, I’m going to squeeze it into the massive gulf between Peril At End House and Lord Edgware Dies, I think.
Ranking Poirot (So Far)
Glad to see PERIL is still holding its own – quite right!
PaEH is probably my favourite Poirot novel; really should reread it one of these days.
LikeLiked by 2 people
It holds a very special place in my heart – the first one I solved properly…
OK, that is definitely not the reason I like it especially 😁
I even spotted the bit about the names #smug
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think Dead Man’s Folly was the first Christie I cracked, some time in the 1980s …
I certainly was unaware of the solution before reading this, and was gobsmacked when I reached the end — but that was long before the 1974 movie, so there really wasn’t any source around for spoilers. (Or if there were, like Chandler’s snit, I didn’t encounter them.) That movie, by the way, launched the whole idea of the all-star Christie movie adaptation; oddly, nobody had tried such a thing before. And it’s still the best of them, I think, with a dream cast (with one exception).
The original American title, by the way, was Murder IN the Calais Coach.
Oops, I’ll change that. Thanks.
Was the exception Finney?
No, the exception was Lauren Bacall. SPOILERS AHEAD: Mrs. Hubbard is written as a dithery grandmotherly type, perhaps tiresome but in a familiarly homey way. And then it turns out that she’s the only passenger truly in disguise and she is in fact the First Lady of the American Stage, and has been carrying out a brilliant impersonation as a harmless old lady who’s hardly a suspect at all compared to all these eminent international travelers. Ideal casting at that date would have been someone like Helen Hayes (and indeed Hayes was originally cast, but withdrew and had to be replaced).
Such a characterization was not in Bacall’s wheelhouse, so she took the same lines and gave them a pushy coarse inflection. Which among other things made her an equal suspect to the others. And that whole characterization has infected every film or TV adaptation since. (Much like the mispronunciation of “Linnet” in the first Death on the Nile adaptation.) I still would like to see the Mrs. Hubbard that Christie wrote.
LikeLiked by 1 person
There are a few Christie novels where I think that the solution is so unusual that once you have read them or seen the movie/TV adaption you are unlikely to ever forget the solution even if not always exactly whodunnit. Murder on the Orient Express is one of these, together with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, and to a lesser extent The ABC Murders. I don’t know if Christie was always the first to come up with these particular solutions, but many of them have since been used so often as to almost become cliches (done to death so to speak).
LikeLiked by 1 person
Not sure how controversial an opinion this is, maybe it isn’t, but if I was doing a ranked Poirot list, Ackroyd wouldn’t have top place. I found Orient Express to be a much better read than Ackroyd when I re-read them. Of the top four in your list I would put Peril at End House first.
This is not one of my very favorite Poirots. Although I love the central idea, I don’t care for the way the solution was revealed. I feel it lessens some of the impact of the plot, but with so much to disclose I’m not certain exactly how it could have been done differently. I like the cluing. In general the earlier Poirots focus more on puzzle and cluing as compared to late ones.
I have a 1971 Tom Adams wraparound American edition titled Murder in the Calais Coach, but every other American edition I’ve seen is titled Murder on the Orient Express. I wonder if the change occurred with the 1974 film.
“I think there’s a significant difference in the sense that this is a story about people reacting to the events, rather than the central players in the drama, but this was published about two years after the Lindbergh affair . . . Christie evidently always said she knew nothing about Gene Tierney’s tragedy – which I don’t, for a moment, believe – and yet those events occurred nearly two decades before The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was published. I guess we could have a conversation about when accessing private real tragedies for drama becomes good to go. However, although the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped in 1932, the investigation was very much ongoing when Orient Express was published; Bruno Hauptmann didn’t even go to trial until 1935. I find Christie’s use of these events in a contemporary novel quite shocking, and she has about as much chance convincing me that she didn’t know about these events as you have of making me believe that Peril at End House is the best Poirot mystery. As you still have twenty-five Poirot novels and several short story collections in your wheelhouse, I won’t comment further on that.
Others have made a couple of points here: I totally agree with Rinaldo about Lauren Bacall! I remember thinking the same thing in 1974: why was she repeating The Big Sleep in her characterization??? I had not known until today that Helen Hayes had been cast and dropped out!! That would’ve been amazing! Thank you, Rinaldo!
Keith, Christie was rarely the first to come up with these solutions, (case in point: Roger Ackroyd), but she usually did it better (cases in point: Ackroyd and Crooked House). I don’t think that, at the time, anyone had done anything like MotOE, however!
Finally, regarding the title: I understand how U.S. publishers changed most of the titles they changed to include “murder” or “death” for bloodthirsty American audiences. The idea that we would be more attracted to “Calais Coach” than “Orient Express” makes absolutely no sense to me. I’m hoping that the Wikipedia explanation is correct: a 1932 novel by Graham Greene called Stamboul Train had been published in the U.S. as Orient Express, and publishers felt a change was needed to the Christie title to avoid confusion. Fortunately, time has passed and, with NONE of us having read or heard of Greene’s book, Christie’s was returned to its original, better, title.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Would she have been aware of the member of the household staff who killed herself? Presumably that was before 1935.
And no, Peril isn’t my favourite – my list has Ackroyd and Styles ahead of it – but there’s at least one that’s going to trump Ackroyd. Maybe two or three…
LikeLiked by 1 person
The Wikipedia explanation is surely true; it’s too silly to be made up! I know her US publishers were addicted to changing titles, but the Greene title doesn’t seem that similar, and either way it’s clear we’re on a train, so what has been gained? Sheer inertia probably kept the changed title in place until the 1974 movie and its tie-in reprints required a return to what it should have been called all along.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It is interesting to compare this with Death on the Nile. In both there is a massive coincidence of a similar sort. In this one it is a clue to the murder, but in Death on the Nile it is a genuine coincidence.