Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Time on to-read: Oh, forever
Reason for not picking up: I kind of felt like I’d picked it up in bits and pieces by cultural osmosis already. Kind of like even if you’ve never read Hamlet you know that there’s a prince who can’t make a decision, a reason to make Oedipal jokes, and a pile of bodies at the end, you know?
Reason for finally picking up: I found it during a bookshelf rearrangement and I was going on an eight-hour train ride the next day! It was clearly fate!
Verdict: No regrets!
I read a lot of classics, for sure. But they tend to be Classics with a Very Definite Capital C. I’ve only realized just recently that I have sort of failed at reading more modern genre classics. Like, for someone who reads as much high fantasy as I do, it took me a decade to read the entirety of LOTR and even longer to read The Last Unicorn and The Time Machine. I still haven’t read LeGuin which has to consign me to sci-fi hell forever. I don’t know why this is the case- I read a ton of old and dated fiction books and only catch up on the new ones later (oh hey, purpose of this blog!), but my genre reading is usually recent stuff. I just got into mysteries for the first time as an adult though (thank you, Tana French and Kate Atkinson!), so I don’t make that same weird oversight this time. I’m re-listening to old Holmes stories on audio (I deeply recommend the BBC radio drama versions!) and recently read a Dorothy Sayers for a start.
Murder on the Orient Express seemed like a great place to continue the trend. For those who have hidden under the hole I have been in for years, Murder on the Orient Express takes place in the 1930s on a train heading from Istanbul to Calais. It begins as an innocent journey home for our erstwhile hero Hercule Poirot, at this point in his series a famous gentleman detective whose name is known across Europe. But of course we know it won’t stay that way- as their train becomes snowbound in the mountains of the Balkans, a man is murdered. A man who had told Poirot not a day beforehand that he feared for his life, and a man who could only have been murdered by someone on the train. (DUN DUN DUN and dramatic, rapid close up heavily implied by every use of italics, by the way!) Poirot is asked to investigate, and the drama really begins!
Of course it all seems very campy in 2016. The chapters are written for gasp and awe, for clues turning up and sentences worded just so for our lead to pounce on and make much of while lesser minds sit in stupefication. There are vampy ladies and spider-in-a-web ladies, colorful characters with fake accents and fake passports, still-waters-run-deep dark horses and seemingly-guilty red herring characters who could never have done it. I expected this- but what I did not expect is that Christie was in on the joke! She was recognizing all these tropes and calling herself out on it, even before some of these things were fully tropes yet! She has Poirot going around meta-commenting on what would happen “if this were a crime novel” (and then sometimes it does!). Her chapter and section titles themselves strip down the pretense of magic and story and show the workmanlike nature of many mystery stories (“Part I: The Facts”, “Part II: The Evidence”, “Part III: Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks”). And of course the solution, which I won’t reveal for the few people who don’t know it, is another expression of the prevalence of the mystery narrative in popular culture at the time, and how people create and participate in stories based on the models given to them. But there’s never a sense that Christie is sneering at the genre, which is always the danger of this sort of thing. She gives us the atmosphere and characters we want so basically that they’re almost archetypes and very much enjoys doing it, no matter how deep her insight into the genre is.
(It reminded me very much of the attitude the Tonys have had on Broadway the last few years, actually, as they celebrate the year in live theatre- they’ve deconstructed and commented on and made fun of the medium (and especially the musical) from every possible angle, and offered highly self-aware enjoyment of a highly visibly fake product and you know what- people still come back for the sequins and high-kicks and the same Phantom ballads anyway. And, at bottom, even these high sophisticates twisting cleverly and ironically around the form love it too- so let’s all make fun of it as much as we want, but there’s too much love to kill the genre, no matter what we do. You’re not going to make people have whatever better taste you think they should have, so you might as well enjoy those sequins. YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO.)
I also liked Poirot. There is a danger that some readers may find him fussy or pretentious, but I liked him because of those flaws. Too many authors these days are afraid to make their protagonist ridiculous in any way (especially in genre stories). Their flaws tend to be tragic or comic in an obvious slap-stick way that makes you feel bad for him. Poirot is a little bit irritating and pompous in a not at all admirable way, and I thought that was great. So many smart people I know are like that.
The atmosphere is also pretty great. The way that it is set up is that a succession of people come to see Poirot to give their stories about where they were when the guy is murdered. This helps to create a sense of ongoing palpable tension as the reader imagines all these people waiting their turn and talking about it after they’ve gone in with each other- the possible murderer always sitting in their midst. And of course, the snowbound train creates a sense of these people living in a separate world, where normal laws cannot apply, and things that would seem surreal anywhere else suddenly seem perfectly reasonable.
Flaws of the book. Well, the biggest one is the super active and noticeable racism on the part of many of the characters- which I suppose is unsurprising in a book with an international cast written in the 1930s. It’s super in your face, though. You can’t ignore it even if you want to. People are seriously trying to solve the case by saying, “Well, Italians are all passionate and would all make knife strokes like this, so its definitely him!”. Granted, a lot of Poirot’s dialogue and the ultimate solution acts as a rebuke to this so I don’t think its mostly Christie’s position. But not all of it, I don’t think. I mean, that’s what happens with dated books, but FYI, y’all. Also, some of Poirot’s method relies on “psychology,” which differentiates him from Holmes, for sure- some of it is valid, some of it feels like magic deus ex machina insights, and some is just a little bit racist. Towards the end especially his intuitive leaps start to get a bit much, like not even Christie could figure out how he knew that one. Unsatisfying.
But I read this in one afternoon- it perfectly filled an eight-hour train ride, spaced out between naps and scenery watching. A great afternoon’s entertainment that I can’t imagine, overall, that you’d regret.