Murder On The Orient Express is probably the most famous book, starring possibly the second-most famous fictional detectives, written by probably the second-most famous Mystery writers, (Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle deny Poirot and Christie the top spots), but I still came into it knowing nothing beyond what can be easily surmised from the title. Boy was I in for a thrilling ride?
Was I the last person in the world that didn’t know whodunnit in this situation? Quite possibly, but even so, I’m going to try to keep spoilers as minimal as possible in this review, because the enjoyment I got out of reading the book was dependent on the mystery.
The general premise is that Poirot, while journeying from Istanbul to London aboard the titular train, finds himself investigating a murder which appears at first glance unsolvable. As the crime occurred in Yugoslavia he can (for some reason I assume contemporary readers would have known) rely on no help from the local police, so must use his own considerable talents (along with the slightly less considerable talents of the owner of the railway company and a doctor) to get to the bottom of it.
Despite the strength of the story and the mastery with which Christie unwrapped it, the best bit about reading the book was seeing where some of the mystery tropes that have become clichés originated. The most obvious is the “I’ve gathered you all here” reveal at the end, but we also have the “This isn’t the language I thought it was” and the “I’m going to interrogate you all one by one, complete with random interjections that happen to be clues and featuring multiple flashbacks”.
Although all of these tropes are now timeless, the book itself is very much of its time. Not so much in terms of the plot, but more Christie’s writing style. References to Istanbul as Stamboul or Constantinople, or to “Britishers” are all quite out of date as well as her ethnic profiling which we would now consider quite racist. It’s also blatantly obvious that for all her talent, she was basically clueless about the United States, both in terms of its geography and its citizen’s perceptions of themselves. At one point I found myself having to flick back through the book in outrage to find out when it was published when a German character stated, after Poirot has described a particularly violent prior case to her, that such brutality could never have occurred in Germany. As the book was published in early 1934, before the violence of the Nazis was little more than petty thuggery, this was forgivable.
All in all, Murder on the Orient Express was a surprisingly enjoyable read, and definitely worth checking out if you’ve not read it before, or seen any of the adaptations. I don’t know how much spoilers would ruin the experience though.