Nicole Tracy | Literary Columnist
If one picks up the novel, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and reads the back cover, the following words are your introduction into possibly the greatest “whodunit” mystery novel of all time: “Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.
Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.”
Hercule Poirot gets called back to London, so he takes the Simplon Orient Express. For the time of year, it’s surprising the number of people who are on the train. While on the train, someone murders Samuels Edward Ratchett. Before his untimely death, the victim asked Poirot to work for him because someone wants to kill him. Although Ratchett looks cultured, his eyes give away the evil that lurks within, so the detective turns him down. Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lit, and a friend of Poirot, appoints him to solve the case. Because of heavy snowfall, the train is stuck for an undetermined period of time, so no passengers are able to get on or off.
After examining the body, Dr . Constantine finds something odd – the force of the 12 stab wounds are not equal, indicating that a man and a woman committed the crime, one of which is left-handed. The doctor estimates that Ratchett died before 2:00 a.m, and when he examines the body again in Poirot’s presence they find a stopped watch, in the victim’s pocket, which suggests that he died at 1:45 a.m.
The detective figures out that Ratchett is an alias for Cassetti, who kidnapped and killed a little girl, Daisy Armstrong, before he and his gang received the ransom. Ratchett changed his name and left the United States. Daisy’s death impacts her mother, father and nanny. After finding the clue, Poirot deduces that it is a revenge killing, so the murderer is related to the Armstrongs.
The detective requests passenger tickets and passports. He interviews the 12 passengers and records his notes and thoughts after each interview. After the interviews, Poirot reviews his notes, constructs a timeline for when events occur, and is left with more questions than answers. Some of the information makes no sense to Poirot. For instance, the maid says she saw a conductor, but it isn’t any of the three that are working on the train. Her description of the fourth conductor matches the description of the man Ratchett claims was after him. The only person who discloses that she knew the Armstrong is Princess Dragomiroff.
Even when Poirot interviews the passengers again, and searches their luggage, it is still not clear to him who committed the crime. He remembers a comment M. Bouc made earlier that it is very unusual for people from so many different economic and social classes to be traveling together, and the wheels start to turn, allowing him to eventually figure things out, interpreting the information and solving the case.
Author Christie’s dialogue in the story is absolutely flawless; it flows in the natural style of conversation, particularly multi-lingual ones. Her books were written in a time when the middle- and upper-class English had, and may still have, a rudimentary understanding of French so no translations were made in the story. The humor is light and skillful in it’s usage.
The characters, Poirot particularly, are fascinating representatives of certain classes of the time period. Clues are deftly placed and it such fun to watch Poirot engage his “little gray cells.”
As far as mysteries go, this might be the quintessential one that defines the genre. One can’t go wrong with picking up this story.
Murder on the Orient Express is available at the Howard County Public Library. Copies are limited, so if it is unavailable, ask at the front desk to be put on a waiting list for it.