The 1934 classic is a lesson in how to make the highly unlikely both entertaining and plausible. 3/5 stars.
It’s happened to us all. You’re on a luxury sleeper train travelling across Europe. One night the train gets stuck in a snow drift and someone gets murdered. All the passengers but one in that carriage are suspects. And, as luck would have it, the odd one out is Hercule Poirot, Belgian master detective. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
I think most people know, in general, “whodunnit” in the case of Murder on the Orient Express. But if they can remember all the ins and outs then they have a far better memory than I do. The devil is most definitely in the detail in this surprisingly short tale (only 250 pages). The sheer number of passengers/suspects means it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, diverting our minds from asking questions such as: “Really?!”, “Would that ever happen in a million years?” and “Would even Sherlock Holmes be able to make such accurate intuitive leaps?”
The story is extremely economical. The focus is on short, snappy descriptions and lots of dialogue. In fact, I think what most impressed me was how Christie managed to reveal a lot about her characters through what they said.
Like me, other British readers of a certain age may also find it impossible to read any of the Poirot mysteries without picturing David Suchet twirling his moustache:
Although thankfully this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story! And I thought the best part was the ending where, in a formula which has become an English murder mystery classic, Poirot gathers all the suspects together to reveal all.
So why didn’t I give Murder on the Orient Express more stars? Firstly, because I found the book too economical. I could have done with more build-up before the murder, more descriptions of the fabulous train, the countryside it passed through and the atmosphere when stuck in the snow drift, and also more information about each of the characters. Secondly, although it was probably “acceptable” in 1934 and the character interactions would have appeared less believable to contemporary readers without it, the casual racism and sexism thrown about all over the place got on my nerves. Finally because the person who gets bumped off is quickly identified as a nasty piece of work (not a spoiler – you find this out very early on), it’s difficult to care about who killed them and why. And that’s a problem if you want your readers to stick with you while your detective uses his “little grey cells” to figure all that out.
A fun, quick read and most definitely a piece of its period. I’d love to see someone do a modern adaptation – taking the same premise, but changing the setting, back story etc. And I’m looking forward to reading more Christie in future!