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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on January 1, 1934 and in the U.S. by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year under the title of Murder in the Calais Coach. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the U.S. edition at $2.00. The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Explanation of the novel's title

The U.S. title of Murder in the Calais Coach was used to avoid confusion with the 1932 Graham Greene novel Stamboul Train which had been published in the U.S. as Orient Express.

Plot summary

Returning from an important case in Syria, Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year and Poirot is able to secure a place only with the help of his friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the company which operates the Express. When a Mr. Harris fails to show up, Poirot takes his place, to the surprise of his roommate Mr. MacQueen. However, on the second night, Poirot gets a compartment to himself.

On the second night out from Istanbul, near Belgrade at about twenty-three minutes before 1:00 am, Poirot wakes to the sound of a loud noise. It seems to come from the compartment next to his, which is occupied by Mr. Ratchett. When Poirot peeks out his door, he sees the conductor knock on Mr. Ratchett's door and ask if he is all right. Mr. Ratchett replies in French that he just had a nightmare, and the conductor moves on to answer a bell down the passage. Poirot decides to go back to bed but he is disturbed by the fact that the train is unusually still and his mouth is dry. As he lies awake, he hears Mrs. Hubbard ringing the bell urgently. When Poirot then rings the conductor for a glass of water, he learns that Mrs. Hubbard was afraid that someone had been in her compartment. He also learns that the train has stopped due to a snowstorm. Poirot dismisses the conductor and tries to go back to sleep, only to be wakened again by a thump on his door. This time when Poirot gets up and looks out of his compartment, the passage is completely silent, and he sees nothing except the back of a woman in a scarlet kimono retreating down the passage in the distance.

The next day he awakens to find that Mr. Ratchett is dead, having been stabbed twelve times in his sleep. However, the clues and circumstances are very mysterious. Some of the stab wounds are very deep and some are glancing blows. Furthermore, some of them appear to have been inflicted by a right-handed person and some by a left-handed person.

Poirot finds several more clues in the victim's cabin and on board the train, including a linen handkerchief with the letter "H" on it, a pipe cleaner, and a button from a conductor's uniform. All of these clues suggest that the murderer or murderers were somewhat sloppy. However, each clue seemingly points to different suspects, which suggests that some of the clues were planted.

By reconstructing some bits of a burned letter, Poirot soon discovers that Mr. Ratchett was a notorious fugitive from the U.S. named Cassetti. Some years earlier, Cassetti kidnapped three-year-old American heiress Daisy Armstrong. Though the Armstrong family paid a large ransom for Daisy's release, Cassetti murdered the little girl regardless and fled the country with the money. Daisy's mother, Sonia Armstrong, was pregnant when she heard of Daisy's death. The shock sent her into premature labor, and both she and the child died. Her husband, Colonel Armstrong, shot himself out of grief. Mrs. Armstrong's maid, Susanne, was suspected by the police, despite her protests. She threw herself out of a window of the Armstrong house and died after which she was proved innocent.

As the evidence mounts, it continues to point in wildly different directions and it appears that Poirot is being challenged by a master mind. A critical piece of missing evidence - the scarlet kimono worn the night of the murder by an unknown woman — turns up in Poirot's own luggage.

Poirot discovers that some of the passengers had connections to the victim, while others had connections to the Armstrong family.

  • MacQueen's father was the district attorney in charge of the Armstrong case.
  • Masterman was Colonel Armstrong's batman during the war and his valet in New York.
  • Pierre Michel was the father of Susanne, the maid driven to her death.
  • Miss Debenham was Mrs. Armstrong's secretary & Countess Andrenyi's governess.
  • Colonel Arbuthnot was Colonel Armstrong's brother officer and best friend.
  • Princess Dragomiroff was Mrs. Armstrong's godmother.
  • Countess Andrenyi was Mrs. Armstrong's sister.
  • Fraulein Schmidt was the Armstrong family's cook.
  • Mrs. Hubbard was Mrs. Armstrong's mother, the actress Linda Arden.
  • Foscarelli was the Armstrong family's chauffeur.
  • Hardman was a policeman who fell in love with Susanne.
  • Greta Ohlsson was Daisy Armstrong's nurse.

After meditating on the evidence for some time, Poirot assembles the thirteen suspects, plus M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine, in the restaurant car where he lays out two possible explanations of Ratchett's murder.

Poirot's first explanation is that a stranger entered the train during the previous stop at Vincovci, murdered Ratchett for reasons unknown, and escaped unnoticed. The crime occurred an hour earlier than everyone thought, because the victim and several others failed to note that the train had just crossed into a different time zone. The other noises heard by Poirot on the coach that evening were unrelated to the murder. However, Dr. Constantine says that Poirot must surely be aware that this explanation does not fully explain the circumstances of the case.

Poirot's second explanation is rather more sensational: All of the suspects are guilty. Poirot's suspicions are first piqued by the fact that each of these individuals are acquaintances of different European nationalities and/or ethnicities. Poirot reasons that this usually occurs with those who are connected to the United States of America, the “melting pot” where a Scotsman, may also be an acquaintance of an Italian and a German, all of different social classes and all at the same time. There was no other way the murder could have taken place, given the evidence. Poirot reveals that the other passengers were in fact relatives, servants, or friends of the Armstrong family, or had connections to the crime. All had been gravely affected by Daisy's murder and the consequences of the crime. They took it into their own hands to serve as Cassetti's executioners, to avenge a crime the law was unable to punish. Each of the suspects stabbed Ratchett once, so that no one could know who delivered the fatal blow. Twelve of the conspirators participated to allow for a "twelve-person jury", with only Countess Andrenyi not participating, as she (Daisy's aunt) would have been the most likely suspect. One extra berth was booked under a fictitious name - Harris (the cabin next to Ratchett was already reserved for a director of the company) so no one other than the conspirators and the victim would be on the train that night. The unexpected stoppage in the snowbank, and the fact that the carriage company had allowed the famous Poirot to take the cabin reserved for the fictitious person, caused complications to the conspirators that resulted in several crucial clues being left behind. As Poirot reveals the details of the elaborate plot, many of the suspects (among them Daisy's aunt) break down in tears.

Poirot agrees to let Dr. Constantine and M. Bouc decide which of his two theories is correct. After a brief pause, both state softly that the first explanation seems far the more plausible, and is the one they will give to the police when the freed train reaches the next station. His task completed, Poirot states he has "the honour to retire from the case." '

Characters in "Murder on the Orient Express"

The Victim:

  • Samuel Edward Ratchett, an unsavoury-looking man with a dark secret (Real name: Cassetti, a gangster).

The Suspects:

  • Hector Willard MacQueen, a tall, handsome, young American, the victim's secretary and translator.
  • Edward Henry Masterman, the victim's British valet.
  • Pierre Michel, the French conductor of the Calais coach.
  • Mary Hermione Debenham, a tall, dark, young British woman, working as a governess in Baghdad.
  • Colonel Arbuthnot, a tall British army officer returning from India.
  • Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, an elderly Russian Princess and grande dame''.
  • Hildegarde Schmidt, a middle-aged German woman, Princess Dragomiroff's lady's maid.
  • Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a tall, dark Hungarian diplomat with English manner and clothing, travelling to France.
  • Countess Elena Andrenyi, the Count's pale young wife (Formerly Helena Goldenberg, Linda Goldenberg's younger daughter).
  • Greta Ohlsson, a middle-aged blonde Swedish missionary returning home for a vacation (In reality, a former nurse).
  • Mrs. Caroline Martha Hubbard, a plump, elderly, very excitable American returning from a visit to her daughter, a teacher in Baghdad. (In reality, Linda Goldenberg, an actress under the name of Linda Arden).
  • Antonio Foscarelli, a portly and exuberant Italian businessman (In reality, a former chauffeur).
  • Cyrus Bethman Hardman, a large and gregarious American typewriter ribbon salesman (In reality, a former policeman).

The Investigators:

  • The Detective - Hercule Poirot
  • The Director - M. Bouc
  • The Doctor - Dr. Constantine

Literary significance and reception

The Times Literary Supplement of January 11, 1934 outlined the plot and concluded that "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.

In The New York Times Book Review of March 4, 1934, Isaac Anderson finished by saying, "The great Belgian' detective's guesses are more than shrewd; they are positively miraculous. 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?

The reviewer in The Guardian of January 12, 1934 stated that the murder would have been “perfect” had Poirot not been on the train and also overheard a conversation between Miss Devonham (sic) and Colonel Arbuthnot before he boarded, however, "'The little grey cells' worked admirably, and the solution surprised their owner as much as it may well surprise the reader, for the secret is well kept and the manner of the telling is in Mrs. Christie’s usual admirable manner.”

Robert Barnard: "The best of the railway stories. The Orient Express, snowed up in Yugoslavia, provides the ideal 'closed' set-up for a classic-style exercise in detection, as well as an excuse for an international cast-list. Contains my favourite line in all Christie: 'Poor creature, she's a Swede.' Impeccably clued, with a clever use of the Cyrillic alphabet (cf. The Double Clue). The solution raised the ire of Raymond Chandler, but won't bother anyone who doesn't insist his detective fiction mirror real-life crime.

References and Allusions

References to actual history, geography and current science

The Armstrong kidnapping case was based on the actual kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's son in 1932, just before the book was written. A maid employed by Mrs. Lindbergh's parents was suspected of involvement in the crime, and after being harshly interrogated by police, committed suicide.

Another, less-remembered, real-life event also helped inspire the novel. Agatha Christie first travelled on the Orient Express in the fall of 1928. Just a few months later, in February 1929, an Orient Express train was trapped by a blizzard near Cherkeskoy, Turkey, remaining marooned for six days.

Christie herself was involved in a similar incident in December 1931 when travelling back on the same train from accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan on an archaeological dig in Nineveh when the Orient Express service she was on was stuck for twenty-four hours however on this occasion due to rainfall, flooding and sections of the track being washed away, rather than snowfall. Her authorised biography quotes in full a letter she wrote back to her husband detailing the event, including descriptions of some of the people on board the train who influenced the plot and characters of the book, in particular an American lady, Mrs. Hilton, who was the inspiration for Mrs. Hubbard.

References in other works

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

The book was made into a 1974 movie starring Albert Finney, which is considered one of the most successful cinematic adaptations of Christie's work ever. Only minor changes were made for the film, including Masterman being named Beddoes, the dead maid being named Paulette instead of Susanne and M. Bouc became M. Bianchi.

Murder on the Orient Express (2001)

The novel was made into a made-for-television film which was first aired in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot.

PC adaptation

On November 21, 2006, The Adventure Company released a PC adaptation of the book. The game starred David Suchet as the voice of Hercule Poirot. However, the ending had been altered to create a fresh adaptation for people who had already read the book. Also, players play from the point of view of a blonde French (English educated) woman named Antoinette Marceau.

Graphic novel adaptation

Murder on the Orient Express was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on July 16, 2007, adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by Solidor (Jean-François Miniac) (ISBN 0-00-724658-7). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2003 under the title of Le Crime de L'Orient-Express.

Publishing history

  • 1934, Collins Crime Club (London), January 1, 1934, Hardcover, 256 pp
  • 1934, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1934, Hardcover, 302 pp
  • c.1934, Lawrence E. Spivak, Abridged edition, 126 pp
  • 1940, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, (Pocket number 79), 246 pp
  • 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 689), 222 pp
  • 1959, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
  • 1965, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 253 pp ISBN 0-70-890188-3
  • 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 254 pp
  • 1968, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 254 pp
  • 1978, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback
  • 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1934 UK first edition), September 4, 2006, Hardcover, 256 pp ISBN 0-00-723440-6

The book's first true publication was the US serialisation in six instalments in the Saturday Evening Post from September 30 (Volume 206, Number 14) to November 4, 1933 (Volume 206, Number 19) under the title Murder in the Calais Coach with illustrations by William C. Hoople.

The UK serialisation did not take place until after publication of the book version when the story appeared in three instalments in the Grand Magazine from March to May, 1934. This version was abridged from the version that had appeared in the book (losing some 25% of the text), was without chapter divisions and named the Russian Princess as Dragiloff instead of Dragomiroff.

Adverts in the back pages of the UK first editions of The Listerdale Mystery, Why Didn't They Ask Evans and Parker Pyne Investigates claimed that Murder on the Orient Express had proven to be Christie’s best-selling book to date and the best-selling book published in the Collins Crime Club series.

Book dedication

The dedication of the book reads:
"To M.E.L.M. Arpachiyah, 1933"

The subject of this dedication is Christie's second husband, Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan (1904-1978) and is one of four books dedicated to him, either singly or jointly, the others being The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Come Tell Me How You Live (1946) and Christie's final written work, Postern of Fate (1973).

Christie and Mallowan had been married after a short engagement on September 11, 1930, followed by a honeymoon in Italy. After his final seasons working on someone else’s dig (Reginald Campbell Thompson – see the dedication to Lord Edgware Dies), Max had raised the funds to lead an expedition of his own. With sponsorship from the Trustees of the British Museum and the British School of Archeology in Iraq, he set off in 1933 for a mound at Arpachiyah, north-west of Ninevah where "after several anxious weeks...considerable quantities of beautifully decorated pottery and figures came to the surface. A notable feature of this season is that for the first time, Christie, the rank amateur, assisted the professionals in their work. She was responsible for keeping written records and proved highly adept at assembling fragments of pottery into recognisable forms having first cleaned the items. As with her previous habit at Ninevah she also found the time to continue writing with this book and Why Didn't They Ask Evans and Unfinished Portrait being drafted at the dig(although a claim has been made that Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Hotel Hera Palace in Istanbul – see External Links below). Despite this success, after 1933 the Mallowans discontinued work in Iraq for many years due to a worsening politican situation and they moved on to Syria.

Dustjacket blurb

The blurb on the inside flap of the dustjacket of the first edition (which is also repeated opposite the title page) reads:

"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 the amazing resource of Agatha Christie."

References

External links

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