Murder on the Orient Express: A Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Agatha Christie
304 pp. Paperback $9.99
Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Most viewers of the new Kenneth Branagh film version of Murder on the Orient Express will already know "who done it," as well as how and why. Still, at least a few people, mainly young, will be encountering this genre classic for the first time, and old Agatha Christie fans, such as myself, shouldn't reveal what movie posters would call its Shocking Ending.
The overall plot, though, is utterly simple: On the luxurious Istanbul-to-Calais express, a passenger is found stabbed to death, and detective Hercule Poirot, through the exercise of his "little grey cells," solves the crime. Virtually everything occurs over just two days, mainly after the train grinds to a halt because of heavy snow. It sounds unexceptional. So why is it so enthralling to read?
First off, Christie's prose is lean and brisk, not so much witty as amused, or intrigued, by the curious ways of human beings. Her vain, fastidious hero is - according to one young woman - "a ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously." Only in the 2010 David Suchet film version is the novel reinterpreted as a Dostoevskyan psychodrama in which a spiritually racked Poirot faces moral dilemmas concerning God and justice.
By contrast, the book merely aims to surprise and delight. We meet a wide range of characters: the secretive Ratchett, who seems to exude pure evil; imperious Russian Princess Dragomiroff; governess Mary Debenham, "the kind of young woman who could take care of herself with perfect ease wherever she went" (a favorite Christie type); the loudmouthed American Mrs. Hubbard, and half a dozen others.
Having watched trailers for the new film and studied its cast list, I can tell that Branagh - who plays a dramatically mustachioed Poirot - has enlarged the scope of the novel and slightly rejiggered its characters. Like the gorgeous 1974 screen version starring Albert Finney, Sean Connery, and Ingrid Bergman, this Orient Express is partly an excuse for today's big-name Hollywood stars to dress up, look fabulous, and chew the scenery. This playful approach works especially well for this deeply theatrical novel.
Poirot's final revelations, with all suspects assembled in the dining car, may strike some readers as almost fantastical. Who cares? In classic mysteries, dazzle is what counts. And in the end, Murder on the Orient Express demonstrates, somewhat paradoxically, the formidable power of love and grief, coupled with unwavering purpose and mutual trust.
Dirda reviews for the Washington Post, where this review first appeared.