Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot, the internationally famous detective and esteemed moustache-sporter, is recalled to London unexpectedly and so boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, the location of his most recent (successful, ovbs) case. The train is unusually crowded for the off season, but he manages to secure a berth with the assistance of his friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the train company.

Poirot observes (and silently judges) his fellow passengers over dinner on the first night, habitually noting their arrangement, demeanour and behaviour. An impressively ugly but intimidating older lady; an upright British Colonel type; a prim and pretty young governess; an unpleasant American and his younger travelling companion and valet; a meek Swedish missionary; a handsome young couple that look quite wealthy; a large Italian man; a dowdy German woman; a fussy middle aged American woman and a suspiciously nondescript Brit. During the journey, Poirot is approached by an unpleasant passenger whom he has observed being generally disagreeable, a brash and ruddy faced American called Mr. Ratchett. The businessman claims his life is in danger and requesting the services of Poirot to protect him from harm. Poirot, who does not like Mr. Ratchett's face declines the job, informing him honestly of his reasons.

During the night Poirot is disturbed by a scream and a stationary train. He emerges from his carriage and peers into the corridor and observes the conductor in conversation with a succession of other passengers and sees a woman retreating in a scarlet Kimono. The next day, he awakens to find that Ratchett is dead; stabbed 12 times in his sleep. Bouc suggests that Poirot solves the mystery and deduces who the murderer is, convinced he or she must still be on the snowed-in train. Poirot goes about interviewing the passengers and collecting evidence in order to mull it over in his "little grey cells".

This was a re-read for me, so the big reveal was already known- however I had forgotten the details, so it was still an immensely enjoyable read. I love Agatha Christie's sparseness, how composed her prose is and how rigidly plotted. There is not an ounce of fat to be trimmed from her narratives; everything is so tight and precise, nothing superfluous or overladen. 95% of the book is Poirot collecting evidence and thinking aloud, then he wraps up the solution in the dying pages, much to the characters' and readers' surprise. It is a meticulous process, as one shifty individual after another is brought before the detective to have their evidence picked apart with tweezers. Christie has a knack for making such far fetched motives and crimes seem totally reasonable, and it's a genuine pleasure to try and attempt to unravel the web of lies and all-too-convenient alibis.

Modern readers are sometimes uncomfortable with Christie's perceived xenophobia, occasional sexism and racism, which is evident in some of her characters (for example Bouc is convinced only an Itialian could stab with such fury and passion, which Poirot agrees with as a sentiment, if not as a solution, and that a woman would never be capable of such strength). You can't get away from the fact that this book was written in 1934, so there will be some sentiments expressed that would not be acceptable today...books are products of their time after all...but it's worth a read in spite of its flaws. Can you call it flaws if a book merely reflects contemporary attitudes? Either way, AC truly is the undisputed queen of the detective procedural, and it's a truly iconic story of things not being what they seem and the nature of injustice. The conclusion raises interesting questions about justice and revenge, and whether or not vengeance can sometimes be justified...

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