Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot #9)

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Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot #9) Mystery & Suspense

3 out of 5 stars

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On a three-day journey through the snowbound Balkan hills, Hercule Poirot must weed through an array of international suspects to find the passenger who murdered a gangster on the Orient Express.

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  • Whose Handkerchief Is This?

    3 out of 5

    Written by , Posted on at 12:04:07 PM

    Since I read this book years ago, I remember the final denouement, the revelation of the solution to this gruesome crime with its plethora of seemingly random and unrelated clues. The mystery having been dispensed with from the start, all that was left was to focus on the execution of the story. At first glance, Agatha Christie’s novel appears to come up short. There is little or no interaction among the various characters on the train. There are 12 passengers, holed up for at least three days because of a massive snowfall that stalls the train. Most of their talk isn’t with each other but with a selected few. The brunt of ongoing conversation lies among M. Hercule Poirot, famous international detective; M. Bouc, an acquaintance, a fellow Belgian and director of the Compagnie International des Wagons Lits and Dr. Constantine, the man who examines the corpse of Mr. Samuel Ratchett. The rest of the passengers are shuffled in and out of M. Poirot’s presence as he interrogates them about the criminal, their identities and their movements during the night of the crime. There are nationalist clichés thrown left and right: Americans are brash, energetic but ignorant; British people are reserved and stuffy; Italians are violent, passionate and prone to carrying knives, etc. A German woman speaks of a loathsome crime committed in America with the observation that something so heinous could never happen in Germany. (Before you scoff, I remind you this book was first published in 1934, eight years before the historical beginnings of WWII.) In this story, there are three figures of towering importance: the dead man, whose presence continues to resonate even after his demise, the little girl he murdered years ago and Hercule Poirot himself. Time and again, this soft-spoken man holds center stage, pointing out relevant clues to the other clueless men in his temporary triumvirate. M. Bosc and Dr. Constantine are both intelligent men but they are blinkered by their respective professions. A glimpse into their internal dialogue provides amusing insights as to where their true interests lie. Since these men are the only ones with whom the novel spends any real time, it has a very stagy quality. But that’s the point. The crime scene has been staged. Almost everyone is acting a part and no one is quite who s/he seems to be; even the dead man is operating under an alias. It’s only near the end that these broad strokes of character get peeled away to reveal something what is real underneath their façades. The novel’s true power lies in the mystery itself as Hercules attempts to untangle the clues sprinkled obligingly or him like breadcrumbs in the snow and the individual dialogue as each suspect speaks with him and the others. In spite of the no doubt claustrophobic atmosphere of the coach, sealed as it is from the other coaches and the outside world, you don’t get the proper sense of people being trapped. No one complains about being kept waiting in the snow in a small space for three whole days. There’s also another point, one that the might Hercule fails to notice in his talk about psychology. Any other group of people trapped in an enclosed area with a potential murderer among them would be tense with suspicion, wired with fear and hostile enough to point fingers at other people or resent being made to seem a suspect. There is none of that here (perhaps the most telling clue about the identity of the killer) yet M. Poirot doesn’t notice it. Each suspect has an alibi not only for himself or herself but for other people on the train. Odd, no? This novel is the very symbol of the mystery novel, one that focuses more on crime itself than the suspects involved in it. It still remains a classic of mystery writing but one that isn’t quite so good when it comes to the human element.