In celebration of Halloween, we chose a classic mystery by Agatha Christie for October's co-review. I can't think of any authors who have been more prolific than Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime who helped shape the modern mystery. Her classic who-done-its often include a brilliant yet unassuming private detective whose keen powers of observation and deduction culminate in a surprise conclusion where the murderer is revealed to the astonishment of all. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's pretty much your standard murder mystery template. But unlike Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Christie's work doesn't center around any single character, though she does have a couple of favorites who get a lot of air time.
Murder on the Orient Express features Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. When a passenger train gets stranded in a snowbank in Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is murdered in the middle of the night. Knowing the murderer must still be on board, the railway director entreats his friend Poirot (who happens to be traveling on the same train) to solve the crime. The majority of the novel consists of the various passengers offering alibis and evidence while Poirot sorts through the confusing mess to uncover the truth. It is a puzzle of logic and deduction for the reader as well since reserving the great unveiling for the end gives us a chance to develop our own theories along the way. And be forewarned that since this is a co-review, we can't promise not to give away any spoilers!
Caren: It's been many years since I've read an Agatha Christie novel, so it was fun to go back and revisit one of the classics. The most obvious difference from modern mysteries was the absence of action, violence, and nail-biting suspense. Instead, it was all about laying the information out for the reader to sort through and see if we could figure it out on our own. We weren't allowed much access into Poirot's mind so we had to rely on our own powers of deduction. But I have to admit that I didn't even bother trying to figure it out myself. I knew there would be an unexpected twist at the end, so I just decided to take the lazy route and wait for Poirot to spell it out for me. What about you, Jenny? Did any of the characters seem more suspicious to you than the others?
Jenny: No, in fact I kept thinking how strange it was that everyone was so devoid of suspicion. Of course, you realize why at the end and it starts to come together as more and more characters have a link to the Armstrong kidnapping/murder. Very different from modern mysteries. The other big difference I saw was the stereotypes that were used, like "women are hysterical" or "Italians like to stab with knives". Those kinds of statements in modern novels would be used to show how non-politically correct a character was. In Orient, they came across as completely normal. It was interesting to me to see how much our society has changed just from what we can read in a mystery novel.
The way the book was organized was very interesting. The crime section was first, then the testimony of each passenger, then the re-examination of evidence and testimony, then the grand unveiling. I would be interested to see if that's how all of Christie's novels are written. You can't beat Poirot for cleverness though. That guy has it together.
Caren: It's been a while, but I don't think Christie employs this same format in all of her novels. Some of them have multiple murders with suspense building the entire time, if I remember right. But they all include the grand unveiling at the end.
Good point on the stereotypes. Definitely written in a different time! There were some other things too that didn't fit with a contemporary audience. Some of the clues Poirot picked up on meant nothing to me -- like when he identified Miss Debenham as having spent some time in America because she referred to a telephone call as "long-distance." There were also times that Christie deliberately withheld information from us, and I thought that was a little unfair. For instance, the detail about the bolts on the even numbered rooms being in a different location than the odd numbered rooms. I don't mind if I'm not as smart as the guy solving the crime, but I do think it's only fair that I get the same information he does. Or at least a hint.
I had a hard time believing that these people were all capable of murder. It made for a good story, but it was hard to imagine some of them actually being able to stab another person. That's just so brutal, and they didn't seem twisted enough by revenge to be capable of it. But maybe I'm just looking at it through contemporary mystery eyes again.
What did you think of them all getting away with it in the end?
Jenny: Oh no, I agree with you on that point. I hardly think every single one of the characters capable of stabbing someone. And you're talking about people who were involved in the Armstrong household, not direct relatives or people I would think could hang onto that kind of fury and be part of such a nefarious plot. I think Christie probably thought it would make a good story and show off Poirot's skills and didn't think too hard about their motivation.
I have a hard time with endings like this. My innate sense of justice feels annoyed when people get away with murder (pun intended). Did Ratchett/Cassetti deserve to die? Yeah, probably, but it wasn't those people's jobs to carry out his sentence. Now they have to carry around what they did and know that they got away with it. I couldn't live like that.
All that said, this book isn't a moral thinker. It was written as a romp and that's what it is. See the famous Poirot solve a murder case while stranded on a train! See Poirot use his powers of deduction to discover the hidden identities of possible murderers! I think I prefer a protagonist that isn't quite so infallible. Now that I think about it, though, we are a product of our generation and the literature and entertainment of our time. I bet in the 30's (when I think this book was published) this was exactly what people wanted to read. Otherwise Christie wouldn't have been the best at what she did.
Caren: Yes, it's a fun romp, but I do think that Christie was also trying to nag our moral conscience. From what I remember, she has quite a few novels that deal with uncomfortable ethical dilemmas like this. But I agree with you, it's not so well-developed that I'll be losing any sleep over it. Still, it's nice to know that even something written that long enough and filled with cultural references of the time can still hold some appeal today. It might not get your palms sweating and your heart racing, but it's still a fun murder mystery without the side effect of nightmares afterward. Which, in my opinion, makes it great for young teens who are getting introduced to the mystery genre but are still too young for the intensity of contemporary writers.