THE BOOK Fontana, 1966 pp 191
A typical Tom Adams cover featuring items found in the murdered man’s carriage, with a map of Macedonia in the background. The orange line shows the Orient Express’s route through the towns of Vinkovci and Brod.
It is dedicated to “M.E.L.M, Arpachiyah 1953” – the year is a misprint. The initials are those of Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, Agatha Christie’s second husband, who had organised a dig at Tell Arpachiyah (Nineveh) the year before the book was written (i.e. in 1933). They would have travelled out and back by the Orient Express.
Travelling back from Istanbul, Poirot manages to secure the last first-class berth on the Calais coach of the Orient Express, much to the consternation of some of his fellow-passengers, who had booked the carriage in the name of ‘Mr Harris’1.
One of the passengers, named Ratchett, tries to secure Poirot’s services to protect him while on board, but Poirot refuses. During the night, Ratchett is stabbed to death.
The train had come to a standstill, caught in a snow-drift somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod. It becomes apparent that the murderer must still be on the train, and the M Bouc, director of the line, implores Poirot to work out what happened and have a solution to place before the police when they come on board.
It is a pretty obvious title but still a good one, one that entices a reader to find out more. Murder on a train or a plane, when there is not obvious means of immediate escape for either the murderer or potential victim, is always a good plot device, but also The Orient Express was the glamour means of travel in the early 20th century and had an amazing history.2
Also, the title scans: just add the word ‘The’ to the beginning and see what a difference it makes.
The nature of the story is such that its range of characters covers a wide variety of nationalities and social positions, from Russian Princess Dragomiroff to Italian chauffeur Foscarelli via Hungarian diplomat Andrenyi. The victim is possibly the nastiest person to appear anywhere in the Christie canon: the kidnapper and murderer of Daisy Armstrong, a two-year old girl. He displays no hint of humanity or remorse in his brief appearance in the book.
There are 12 equal suspects to investigate, and each is given a chapter to themselves as they are interviewed. They are somewhat stereotypical, but then each of them is playing a part. The star part is taken by the American matron Mrs Hubbard, who is given the opportunity to decry everything and comes to dominate the story.
Everything described in the book is as observed by Poirot. The other characters do not talk to each other, apart from one exchange between Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, and even that is overheard by Poirot.
There is not a single person on the train (including Poirot and the director of the Orient Express line) that believes in the sanctity of the legal justice system, whether in the US or Europe; Ratchett had previously been arrested for Daisy’s murder, but managed to use his wealth and underworld contacts to bribe his way out, and everyone knew it.
The Yugoslavian police are not to be trusted either, apparently, which is why Poirot is urged to come up with a(ny) solution before the snow clears and the train arrives at Brod.
Here, Poirot and M Bouc discuss Mr Ratchett, presumably talking in French, translated for us by the author. People on the train (apart from the victim) seem to have a wonderful command of languages, especially Poirot, who conducts interviews in English, French and German.
“And yet he looked altogether of the most respectable”.
“Précisément! The body – the cage – is everything of the most respectable – but through the bars, the wild animal looks out”.
Poirot turns down a client:
“What’s wrong with my proposition?”
Poirot rose. “If you will forgive me for being personal – I do not like your face, Mr Ratchett.” And with that he left the restaurant car.
It is extremely unusual for Poirot to be so directly rude to another character in these books.
Mrs Hubbard vents her opinion on everything un-American, from dinars to Turkish cuisine. Here, she is upset at the train becoming stuck in a snow-drift:
“What country is this anyway?” demanded Mrs Hubbard tearfully.
On being told it was Yugoslavia, she said: “Oh! One of those Balkan things. What can you expect?”
Here she explains Greta Ohlsson to Poirot (in Robert Barnard’s favourite line in all Agatha Christie) 3:
“Poor creature, she’s a Swede.”
Poor Greta Ohlsson is later referred to as ‘that Swedish creature’, and described by Mary Debenham as ‘a sheep’, one that ‘gets anxious and bleats’. This is all for show – in actuality, all the other characters are very protective of her.
There is much discussion about which nationalities have a predilection for stabbing and which ones do not (“The English – they do not stab”). One of the main clues is sneaked in beautifully around a dismissive remark about the knife-happy natives of Corsica and Sicily:
“In fact, Colonel Arbuthnot, you prefer law and order to private vengeance?”
“Well, you can’t go about having blood feuds and stabbing each other like the Corsicans and the Mafia,” said the Colonel. “Say what you like, trial by a jury is a sound system.”
He has a funny way of showing it …
SWIGATHA RATING 9/10
This is one of the very best swigathas but not quite top-drawer. It has a brilliant setting (Agatha Christie was always at her best when writing about what she knew, and she used to travel on the Orient Express en route to the Middle East with her husband) and a cast of colourful characters, all playing their part with gusto.
The unity-of-time-and-place element, however, gives little room for plot development. The bulk of Part 2 of the book consists of twelve consecutive chapters of interviews, followed by a (necessary) summary of those interviews.
These chapters never drag, though, and the solution is another of her stone-cold classics, and totally original. On re-reading it I felt that it should be obvious to any first-time reader whodunit by half-way through, but the vast majority will not get it.
This is one to curl up with in front of a blazing fire.
WHERE IT LED
Poirot was by now huge business. In the following four years, no fewer that nine full-length Poirot novels and a collection of medium-sized stories (Murder in the Mews) were written and published.
Many (all) of these are absolute classics of the genre.
There have been six cinema adaptations so far (in English, German and Japanese)4 with the most recent being a Hollywood version released in November 2017; that was the one with the ballet-dancing, kick-boxing Count Andrenyi.
The British film released in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, was very much more respectful of the plot and atmosphere of the book. It is an enjoyably cosy all-star romp that featured a stunning performance by the 38-year-old Albert Finney as Poirot. It had a great theme tune by Richard Rodney Bennett, great sets and a cast who seemed to be enjoying their (minor) roles enormously: they add a lot to their characters, so much so that Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the ‘Swedish creature’. For a while, it was the top-grossing British film of all time.
The 2010 film for ITV’s Poirot series was careful to distinguish itself from the film. It thus turned Ratchett into a man feeling scared and remorseful, and emphasised Poirot’s struggle with his Catholic conscience as he considers the right solution.
This programme is much darker in all senses than the 1974 film. The killing of Ratchett is sadistically carried out: he is deliberately kept semi-doped and powerless so that he can witness his own murder.
Poirot is threatened by the passengers; this is no cosy carriage. The train’s services deteriorate, the water freezes in the pipes and the passengers sit around in a half-light wondering what will happen to them.
Normally I am sceptical when the screenplay takes so many liberties with the spirit and tenor of the original, but in this case the disapproval of mob-justice, rather than the approval of it implied in the book, adds a new dimension.
Even so, I prefer the Finney version by a mile.
1 When he hears this, Poirot says: A name of good omen, Harris. I read my Dickens. He will not arrive. Poirot is referring to Mrs Gamp’s imaginary friend Harris, from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.
2 One of its first-class carriages was de-trained and used for the German surrender at Versailles at the end of WW1. Thus, when France surrendered to Hitler in 1940, the latter insisted on the ceremony being conducted in the same carriage. When it became apparent Germany was going to be defeated, Hitler ordered the carriage to be destroyed (it wasn’t).
3 As referenced by his book Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive
4 Mark Aldridge, Agatha Christie on Screen