When Agatha Christie brings her A game, I get why she is considered the grand doyenne of Golden Age Mystery. There’s a tone of great assurance in her stories, no sense of hurry as the crime and cast of characters are paraded in front of the readers. Detective Hercule Poirot, one of her two iconic detectives, is unruffled at all times, a seemingly buffoonish old man with the uncanny ability to make suspects buckle under scrutiny. Although her works courted controversy in her time, Christie never used gore or on-page violence. There were, after all, Post-Victorian sensibilities to consider.
Murder on the Orient Express creates the template for a very particular puzzle: the alibi conundrum. Poirot is on board the famed Orient Express for a trans-continental trip when a heavy snowstorm leaves the train stranded in the middle of the Balkans. The grave inconvenience takes on a more grisly dimension when an American millionaire named Ratchett is discovered stabbed to death in his cabin.
Christie deftly uses the device of isolating a crime scene, the ice storm ensuring that the criminal is trapped inside the train like everyone else. Poirot finds telling evidence in the nature of the stab wounds, and uncovers the dead man’s secret past, a history that has proven fatal for him. Interviews with the train’s occupants reveal inconsistencies, and yet no one emerges as the definitive culprit. It is up to Poirot’s brilliant intellect to sort through the suspicious alibis and false clues to come up with the correct interpretation.
A comment in an article from The Guardian characterized Christie’s books as “the literary equivalent of sudoku” and I can’t help but agree. I don’t read Golden Age stories expecting to find nuanced, fleshed-out characters. They are mere parts of the mystery’s architecture, designed to mislead the reader and confound their expectations. In this way, Murder on the Orient Express is a definitive success. I admired the clever set pieces, and marveled at the detail Christie wielded in order to make the plot work. My copy even helpfully provided a diagram of the car and the different cabins to orient the reader.
A happy exception to the flat characters of the Golden Age, at least in my opinion, is Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. By sheer accrual of the little personality traits Sayers endowed him over the years, Wimsey emerges as a fully formed character in his own right. As much as he’s likeable, I don’t think Hercule Poirot is as rounded a character. I can see though why he and the novels about him are still fiercely loved by Christie fans.
Elements from Orient Express have been used and overused by other novels and tv shows through the years, which can make a reader feel that the plot twists are not fresh at all. Despite the age and ubiquity, however, this one was still a pleasure to read.