Agatha Christie wrote what is probably the most famous murder mystery book ever in her 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. Hercule Poirot wants to take the famous train, Orient Express, from Istanbul to London, but in an unusual situation, all the berths have been taken. However, Poirot runs into an old friend, Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits, which owned and operated the Orient Express until its closure in 2009. Monsieur Bouc assures Poirot he will secure him a space and gives Poirot the berth of a man who has not shown up on time. Thus, Poirot begins a journey that will lead to not only his most celebrated case but also potentially his strangest one.
In this full train, Poirot notices a man whose appearance repulses him as that of a potential criminal. When Mr. Ratchett approaches Poirot to ask him to protect him against enemies he has made as an American businessman, Poirot refuses, saying, “I do not like your face!”
That night, Poirot goes to bed and is awakened during the night with bells going off from the various rooms. One person asks for water. Mr. Ratchett explains in good French that he had hit the bell by mistake. And the voluble American Mrs. Hubbard rings incessantly, energetically complaining to the conductor that a man is in her room. However, when Pierre Michel examines the room, no one lurks anywhere. In the midst of the energy inside the train car, outside becomes completely still, as the train has hit a snow drift and can’t continue until someone comes to dig them out.
The next morning, Monsieur Bouc summons Poirot for help because during the night, someone has stabbed Ratchett a dozen times! Dr. Constantine, a Greek doctor staying in the next coach with Bouc, has examined the wounds with great confusion. Some are deep, while some are shallow. Some were clearly made with the right hand while one was clearly made with the left. And some wounds seem to have been inflicted after death. In his examination of the room, Poirot finds a scrap of paper that Ratchett had clearly tried to burn but not quite finished. With this, Poirot discovers the true identity of Ratchett.
He is really the dastardly Cassetti, who had caused a great tragedy in America by kidnapping a young child, Daisy Armstrong, and killing her before collecting the large ransom her family paid to Cassetti. The shock of all this sent her pregnant mother into premature labor, during which she and the baby died. In addition, in horror over having lost his family, Daisy’s father, Colonel Armstrong, shot himself. To compound the tragedy, Daisy’s nursemaid, suspected of the crime, threw herself out of a window before being exonerated completely. Cassetti had been arrested, but through corruption he got off, despite his guilt being 100% certain.
This new development changes the course of the investigation, causing Poirot to seek out anyone on the train with a connection to the Armstrong family’s tragedy. Clues keep dropping in on him left and right, many seeming to be red herrings planted to confuse Poirot. The detective eventually sorts through all the details to get to the truth in a big shocking ending.
From its publication, this book was received with awe. As Wikipedia quotes from the The New York Times Book Review of March 1934:
“The great Belgian detective’s guesses are more than shrewd; they are positively miraculous. Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing for the time being, and what more than that can a mystery addict desire?”
It is hard to explain properly what makes Murder on the Orient Express a great book without giving away its surprise ending, for it is the ingenious conclusion that makes this book so especially memorable.
Having a full train allows Christie to create plenty of memorable characters, which she does with flair, making them enjoyably diverse in national heritage and personality. For example, we meet the stuffy British colonel, the ebullient Italian car salesman, the snobbish Russian princess, and the effusive American mother whose sentences all begin with “My daughter says.” While not known for having strong character development in her books, Christie does give her characters in this one depth and makes the reader feel more invested in the outcome of the case.
The book is narrated on Audible by David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot in the TV series of movies. Known as a great character actor so good that most viewers wouldn’t recognize him as Hercule Poirot if they saw him out of costume, Suchet was the perfect choice of narrator for this book, especially showing great skill at handling the wide varieties of accents that appear in this book: British, American, Belgium, Italian, Russian, Hungarian, Swedish, French, and Turkish. Suchet really makes this book come alive even more than the great plot and characters already do.
Even though mystery critics identify other books by Agatha Christie as greater than this one, Murder on the Orient Express shows such creativity that it connects strongly with everyone who reads it. It is greatly deserving of its 5 star rating!
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