Poirot is returning from the Middle East and faces the prospect of travelling in an ordinary carriage until M. Bouc, an old friend and director of the Orient Express, insists that he can have the second-class berth of a passenger who has not arrived.
During the journey he is asked for protection from a rich American, Samuel Ratchett, but he declines to help as he dislikes the man’s face.
The next day he wakes to find that the train is snowbound and that Ratchett’s fears were well founded – he has been stabbed to death in the night. A scrap of paper reveals his criminal past and a strong motive for murder.
Without the resources of the police to check his fellow travellers’ bona fides all that Poirot can do is interview each of them in turn and then sit back and sift the truth from the lies until he proposes two very different solutions and is up to the reader to decide which one is correct.
Due to two all-star film adaptations and the central premise, this is almost certainly Christie’s most famous novel and is still worth reading, even if you know what is going to happen.
Recurring character development
Has just completed a case that has saved the honour of the French Army and averted much bloodshed. This was done for a General who had once saved his life.
Mary Debenham believes that his moustaches are enormous – a fact noted during discussions of Kenneth Branagh’s choice of facial hair in the 2017 film version.
Is returning to London to continue working on the Kassner Case which has developed as he had predicted.
Has made enough money to only take cases that interest him.
Needs to smoke whilst he reflects on the evidence.
Signs of the Times
Poirot begins his journey on the “Taurus Express” from Aleppo to Constantinople/Istanbul. Run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the service began in 1930 and started in Baghdad, although until 1940 the stage from Kirkuk to Nusaybin was by motor coach. It is now only an internal overnight service from Eskisehir and Adana.
The Orient Express was a luxury train service which originated in 1882 with a round trip from Paris to Vienna. The Simplon-Orient Express used by Poirot ran from Istanbul (also known by Westerners as Stamboul) to Calais via Sofia, Belgrade, Venice, Milan, the Simplon Tunnel, Lausanne, and Paris. The service declined due to the advent of high speed trains with the final service in 2009 being just Strasbourg to Vienna.
The Armstrong Kidnapping is modelled on the real-life Lindbergh Kidnapping of 1932 where the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was abducted and murdered.
Mrs Hubbard’s handbag contains a packet of Glauber’s salts which are a type of laxative.
Princess Dragomiroff refers to Linda Arden playing Magda. That would be in Hermann Sudermann’s play “Heimat” (1893) translated into English as “Magda” (1896). The role was taken by prominent actresses of the time such as Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell.
Arbuthnot and MacQueen discuss international affairs including Stalin’s Five Year Plan. The Soviet Union ran a number of centralised economic Five Year Plans, initially to speed up the country’s industrialisation. The first plan ran from 1928-1932 and the second 1933-1937.
All the male passengers of the Istanbul-Calais coach are smokers with the possible exception of MacQueen.
Debenham & Freebody was a department store in Wigmore Street, London and was part of what is now Debenhams plc.
Hardman plans to take any remaining whisky back to America in a bottle labelled hair wash. Prohibition of alcohol was in force in the USA from January 1920 to December 1933. The novel was published in January 1934.
References to previous works
Poirot says that based on his reading of Dickens, Mr Harris will not arrive. Hastings alluded to the non-existent Mrs Harris in “Peril at End House”.
Pierre Michel was also the name of the conductor in “The Mystery of the Blue Train” but Poirot makes no reference to his presence at the scene of two murders so maybe they are not the same man.
Vintage Reading Challenge
The murder takes place on a train so fulfils “Where – on a mode of transportation”.
The One Where (Almost) Everyone Did It! I can’t remember what I thought on first reading this but I can imagine it was something along the lines of “normally Poirot goes round explaining why each person has a motive for the murder but each of them is then innocent until we finally get to the killer. Therefore each time someone is revealed to have a connection to the Armstrong household it can’t be them. Therefore it must be someone else with for an entirely different reason.”
Even though the coincidence of all these people being on the train is astounding, I would have allowed for this because there are always coincidences in detective fiction and in Christie in particular there are often false identities. Although the evidence of the stab wounds implies two killers, the reader is unlikely to extrapolate to twelve killers, even though we know that is the exact number of wounds – this has been partially hidden as initially Dr Constantine talks of being stabbed ten, twelve, fifteen times.
The main question is whether Poirot could have got to the truth without the scrap of paper referring to Daisy Armstrong. He would have had to go about his investigation very differently but he still knew that Ratchett had taken a sleeping draught despite having a gun under his pillow – implicating MacQueen or Masterman – that Hardman’s story of being hired by Ratchett was fishy given that Ratchett had tried to hire him and that Mary Debenham had previously been concerned about being late but was so no longer.
The other point of interest is that in the book Poirot has no scruples in letting the killers go free but in both the David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh adaptations – particularly the former – he feels that he is being forced into a cover-up and that the passengers should not have taken the law into their own hands. I think this comes from judging the past with a modern viewpoint as in the UK the death penalty was abolished over fifty years ago and in that case by carrying out their sentence the group would have exceeded what the law would have prescribed had Ratchett been found guilty. I assume that readers of the time would have had no complaint with Ratchett receiving his just deserts – nor I guess would most modern readers.