Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: UK: Collins, January 1934; USA: Dodd Mead, February 1934, as Murder on the Calais Coach

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This legendary classic shows Christie at the top of her powers. The ingredients, as rich and rare as saffron, include the glamorous setting of the Orient Express (the simple words “The Orient Express had started on its three-days’ journey across Europe” cast a glamor); the splendid gallery of gargoyles, including an ugly Russian Princess and her German maid, a pair of Hungarian aristocrats, a Swedish missionary, and an American matron, are all splendidly observed; the monstrous victim, an American gangster responsible for the Armstrong tragedy (based on the Lindbergh kidnapping case); Poirot’s masterly detection (his search of the victim’s room, the serial interviewing, and the serial unmasking of the Armstrong connections); and the final revelation of a solution utterly surprising yet not straining belief too much, and which could not be improved upon. Masterpiece.

Blurb (UK)

The famous Orient Express, thundering along on its three days’ journey across Europe, came to a sudden stop in the night.  Snowdrifts blocked the line at a desolate spot somewhere in the Balkans.  Everything was deathly quiet.  “Decidedly I suffer from the nerves,” murmured Hercule Poirot, and fell asleep again.  He awoke to find himself very much wanted.  For in the night murder had been committed.

Mr. Ratchett, an American millionaire, was found lying dead in his berth—stabbed.  The untrodden snow around the train proved that the murderer was still on board.  Poirot investigates.  He lies back and thinks—with his little grey cells…

Murder on the Orient Express must rank as one of the most ingenious stories ever devised.  The solution is brilliant.  One can but admire again the amazing resource of Agatha Christie.

Blurb (US)

Christie - Murder on the Orient Express US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

High in the mountains of Jugo-Slavia, the Orient Express, speeding northward, was halted by heavy storms and huge snow-drifts.  One compartment of the Calais coach, which by curious coincidence was full despite an off season, was occupied by Hercule Poirot.  In another lay the body of a murdered man!

That particular coach was shut off from the rest of the train.  There had been no stops since the victim, a certain wealthy American who went by the name of Ratchett, had last been seen alive.  There were no tracks in the snow.  Unquestionably, the murderer was still aboard – a member of the heterogeneous group that filled the coach.

And thus commences a case that will take a place second to none in the annals of fictional crime.  With Murder in the Calais Coach, Agatha Christie has matched her world-famous Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Here is the redoubtable Poirot at his best; a galaxy of characters, every one of which is a masterpiece of shrewd depiction – humorous, satirical, charming and sympathetic; a plot absolutely unique in conception and execution.  On every score of entertaining reading, this book is supreme, which is, perhaps, extravagant praise for a mystery story; but if ever there was one deserving of it, it is Murder in the Calais Coach.  And the one author capable of creating such an ideal mystery is, of course, Agatha Christie.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 7th January 1934): SNOWSTORM – CRIME ON CLASSICAL LINES

Writing last week, with a mind dulled, no doubt, by the influence of turkey and plum-pudding, I forgot to utter those pious hopes for twelve packed months of clotted crime which would have been appropriate to New Year’s Eve.  It is, however, not too late, especially as Mrs. Agatha Christie has given a noble start to 1934 with a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the purest classical lines.  Murder on the Orient Express is divided into three parts: in the first, we are given the facts; in the second, the evidence; in the third, Hercule Poirot sits back and thinks and produces the solution from his little grey cells.

Moreover, the problem is of the perfect “closed circle” type, the entire action being confined within the limits of a single coach on the “Orient Express”, with a snowdrift to cut out interference from the outside world, so that we are spared all the stereotyped police inquiries and uncatalogued suspects and allowed to concentrate upon the matter in hand.  Those who like to use their wits for the weighing of evidence will find the problem attractive and the solution satisfactory, while those who love Poirot will rejoice in the rich manifestations of his personality and in his shrewd observation of national character.  I have only one slight quarrel with his reasoning: the presence of a pipe-cleaner does not necessarily involve that of a pipe-smoker: I keep a bundle of them myself for my cigarette-holder.

Times Literary Supplement (11th January 1934): An American on the Orient Express recognises M. Hercule Poirot, and offers him a fabulous fee for protection against expected murder.  Poirot refuses because, as he tells the American, he dislikes his face.  The man is murdered when the train is snowbound and outside communication is impossible; and Poirot, satisfied that the murderer (or murderers) must be sought among the twelve (or thirteen) occupants of his own coach, sits back and employs the little grey cells.  The twelve oddly assorted suspects, of more than half as many nationalities, seem to have little in common but unimpeachable alibis: none of the women confess to the ownership of a particular dressing-gown which the detective himself saw disappearing down the corridor on the fatal night, but in due course this turns up—in Poirot’s own suitcase.  This and other mysteries completely baffle the doctor and railway director who assist in the investigation, but—need it be said?—the little grey cells solve once more the seemingly insoluble.  Mrs Christie makes an improbable tale very real, and keeps her readers enthralled and guessing to the end.

Sat R of Lit (3rd March 1934, 30w): Sauce piquante of super-deduction brilliantly disguises fact that dish itself is largely moonshine.

Books (Will Cuppy, 4th March 1934, 350w): One of Mrs. Christie’s charms is, of course, that she writes in the civilised manner, and that always helps.  Then, her mystery technique is nothing short of swell.  She’s probably the best suspicion scatterer and diverter in the business.  If you find your old friend, credibility, seeming to slip in the later stages of this exciting tale, don’t worry—for Mrs. Christie is working up to something most unusual by this very means.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 4th March 1934, 300w): Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing for the time being, and what more than that can a mystery addict desire?

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 17th March 1934, 140w): It is a long time since Mrs. Christie has written so good a book or one that moves so smoothly and entertainingly to its surprising conclusion.

Daily Herald (Roger Pippett): A brilliantly ingenious story.

Morning Post: In Poirot Mrs. Christie has created an extremely likeable and lively character, and his adventures are always welcome.

Woman’s Journal (Margaret Pope): Ingenuity at its height…the idea is utterly novel, the setting a model of realism, and the characters a versatile, attractive crew.

News Chronicle: A piece of classic workmanship…exquisite and wholly satisfying.

John o’ London’s Weekly: Poirot is at his best.

Daily Mail (Compton Mackenzie): Those who read their crime stories for the pleasure of attempting to solve the problem will find Murder on the Orient Express a capital example of its class.