Murder on the Orient Express is Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit novel featuring popular moustached detective David Suchet.
I’ve never been interested in detective novels. Just the mention of “Agatha Christie” conjures memories of Sunday evenings watching sepia tone television programmes with my nan in an attempt to fend off the impending doom of school the next morning.
I only decided to pick this up after one of my favourite authors, Hugh Howey, cited crime fiction as a strong influence in much of his science-fiction writing.
So, how is it?
I love Christie’s deliberately sparse and clinical writing style; it perfectly fits with Poirot’s needle point attention to detail and ability to isolate otherwise innocuous plot points.
From the way the chapters are neatly split up into individual case studies of characters to the tight descriptions of locations, actions, and characters, it feels as though every word has been carefully laid down on the page with tweezers, each one existing for a specific purpose, to either lead you down a dead end, or to drop a clue deftly at your feet without you spotting it.
The writing reminds me somewhat of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden — using short clipped sentences, words no longer than five letters, and an apparent distain for women — sorry, that last one’s just Steinbeck.
Christie is able to do that thing which I envy: drop in a simple short sentence, which in any other context would be dull and lifeless, but have it bubble up in the imagination in just the right way as to describe bring a scene or character to life.
I don’t understand how it’s done, it’s just magic.
In Murder on the Orient Express there is a murder on the Orient Express, which is a train on which there is a murder. Everyone’s heard of the book, seen the film, or watched the TV series. It’s basic stuff.
No, the real clever stuff is in Agatha Christies gentle weaving of small plot details throughout the story, some obvious, others seemingly unimportant, which are weaved together into a complex story of murder, revenge, and moustaches.
And there are a lot of moustaches in the novel which Christie takes almost fetishistic pleasure in describing. Each to their own, I suppose.
I won’t spoil anything here, suffice to say a murder occurs and Poirot (feebly assisted by Monsieur Bouc and a doctor whose name currently escapes me) solves the crime. Toward the end of the novel there are some pretty great twists, and one in particular which left me feeling that the apparently square, law-abiding Poirot has an extremely dark side which…well, just read the book.
Did I like it?
I enjoyed the style of writing and the character of Poirot more than the actual whodunit part of the novel. The story clips along at a great pace, and many of the chapters are only a couple of pages long, but I never felt truly gripped by the unfolding revelations. The structure of the novel is unique, and works well with the building block style story crafted by Christie.
But while I found the conclusion surprising, I didn’t completely buy the explanation. I can’t help but feel that the story becomes too reliant on coincidence and reveals which were never really earned even if they were explained.
As the reader I feel there should be a point where, if I’m clever enough — and maybe there’s the problem — I should be able to piece the rest of the mystery together myself. But towards the end of the novel there are reveals which are so out of left field that you could never sleuth them out yourself.
It’s a great read but I won’t be visiting Agatha Christie again for a while.