by Agatha Christie
Berkley, 2000 (originally published in 1933)
Hooray, another conquest in our quest to read a bunch of Golden Age mystery novels! I am not doing so well with this quest; fishy is doing much better, but here, finally, is another one (the first, and only other, one I have read was Strong Poison, though I think The Big Sleep almost counts too; it's the right era, and a backlash against the original, tidy British cozies). Agatha Christie is such a giant of the mystery world, and still so very popular. I feel that reading at least one book by her is part of my ongoing quest to be a better librarian. And so we picked, with some help, the famous Murder on the Orient Express. Trains! Blizzards! Murder most foul!
Murder most incredibly complicated, more like. Let's see. The incomparable Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London after an unspecified but clearly successful investigation for the French army in Syria. He had intended to take the train to Stamboul and be a tourist for a couple days before continuing on, but an urgent telegram from London reaches him in Stamboul when they arrive, and he manages to squeeze passage on the remarkably full sleeping car, the Stamboul-Calais coach, thanks to his dear friendship with M. Bouc, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. And on the second night out, in the midst of a blizzard as the train is stopped by snow on the tracks, the inevitable happens: the man in the cabin next to M. Poirot is brutally murdered, stabbed twelve times, sometime between midnight and two in the morning.
It is inevitable because it is a mystery novel, of course, and Poirot knows it. In discussion with his friend M. Bouc:
"Ah!" he sighed. "If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene." He waved a hand.
"It is an idea, that," said Poirot.
"Ah, you agree? It has not been done, I think? And yet -- it lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never perhaps to see each other again."
"And yet," said Poirot, "suppose an accident --"
"Ah, no, my friend --"
"From your point of view it would be regrettable, I agree. But nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together -- by death."
This is even before one of the characters petitions Poirot for help, in fear of his life. It made me laugh. I could almost hear the "dunh dunh duuuunh" after it. One cannot help but suspect that the little Belgian has good reason for his morbid speculation, though, if he keeps stumbling upon corpses all over the place. He can't even get away from murder when he's on a completely closed coach in the middle of a blizzard in the hinterlands of Europe.
We have here an archetypal cozy murder mystery: the victim no one much misses, the completely fantastic and impossibly complicated crime, and the completely closed circle of suspects, nearly all of whom seem to have secrets and be hiding some dastardly motive, the incomparable detective who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The thing is, though I think Christie tries at least a bit, none of the characters are very likable. None of them, save the victim, are terribly dislikable either. They're just there, pieces of a puzzle for Hercule Poirot to manipulate and fiddle with until they slot into their proper places. And herein lies my biggest problem with this novel.
Now, don't get me wrong. I quite enjoyed it. It's a great puzzle. I was always on the verge of feeling I might have it, only to have Poirot poke a hole in my theory (as he does with the theories of his Watsons, M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine.) There were a few things I cottoned on to, and I think if I'd been more interested in reading the thing as a logic puzzle, as I am sure many Christie readers were/are wont to do, I could have taken notes and figured things out. I think this is Christie's attraction. It's quite fiendishly ingenious, and the solution is very neat and completely preposterous. Twisted, yet it emerges in such a way as to make perfect sense. So, very fun.
Fun, but not emotionally engaging, really. Poirot just doesn't have the attraction for me of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Brother Cadfael. The Holmes comparison is apt, because both are geniuses, and kind of unknowable in their genius. It's also unfair, because I've read so much Holmes and this is the first Poirot novel I've read.
The other problem I had was I was particularly excited to have a go at Murder on the Orient Express for reasons of setting. I have a rather romantic fascination with train travel, particularly back when train travel was the luxurious way to get around. I had a hard time, here, feeling the setting. There wasn't enough description, and I am not as familiar with the sleeper coaches of international trains as I perhaps wish I was. Even the snow and cold felt perfunctory, despite playing a critical role in the story. That said, I could see reading this book in the dead of winter with the snow flying thick in the air, and feeling a little more attached to where the action is taking place. I know there are movie depictions of this story; I'm pretty tempted, in this case, to have a watch, because I think this story is well-suited to that medium.
Emotional attachment to character isn't always a prerequisite for me to enjoy a book, and this is evidence. I enjoyed myself, but I am left feeling a little bit... unsatisfied. I do understand what people see in her work. I could definitely see reading more Agatha Christie myself. Next time, I'll be a little more prepared for the cardboard characters, and I will enjoy the story for what it is: a puzzle set out very skillfully in novel form.