One of Christie’s most beloved and famous novels, Murder on the Orient Express is top-tier Dame Agatha, so effortlessly readable I finished most of it while taking a very long bath. It’s also something of a favourite for big-screen adaptation, as evidenced by the recent star-studded version with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot, though I haven’t seen either that or the 1974 adaptation.
The plot is extremely simple and the whole story is wrapped up over what’s barely a couple of days. Christie arranged the novel into three acts, almost like a stage play. Act One: after successfully solving a delicate case in Syria, Hercule Poirot boards the luxurious Orient Express train, which is uncharacteristically full for this time of year. When he wakes up in the morning, Poirot is made aware of two things: the train has been stopped in its tracks by heavy snow somewhere in Yugoslavia, and one of the passengers in the adjoining compartment has been found stabbed to death.
Because of the snowdrift and the timing of the murder, it’s clear that the culprit must be one of the other twelve passengers travelling in the coach. After a rather too convenient lucky find, it’s discovered that the murdered man, who had previously given Poirot bad vibes, was a criminal mastermind behind a well-known kidnapping and murder of a child in the United States a few years ago. It’s pretty safe to assume that whoever committed the crime (or did the world a favour, depending on your view) must be somehow connected to this past tragedy. There’s also an array of various clues and puzzling incidents for the investigators to mull over. Which clues are genuine and which were planted by the murderer in order to confuse them? Who was the lady in a flashy scarlet kimono seen passing through the coach on the night of the crime?
The story then moves on to Act Two, where, one by one, Poirot interviews the passengers, a varied and international bunch of characters (you can see why this dialogue-heavy novel feels like an irresistible excuse for a big cast to dress up and have fun). Poirot being Poirot, he of course zeroes in on the details the lesser mortals would have missed, and by the end of Act Three he delivers a startling solution that ends the novel in a rather powerful and emotional way.
Though the claustrophobic setting of the train trapped in snow is naturally compelling, Christie is not particularly interested in the mood or atmospherics. Nor is she interested in digging deep inside her characters’ psyche. What makes this mystery novel great is its sheer lean, brisk efficiency and the way it builds towards its unforgettable conclusion with no unnecessary fat or distractions – like watching an intricate puzzle put together bit by bit.