Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Ride on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," which was published 80 years ago today, wasn't the first Agatha Christie book I ever read.

But it was one of the first, and it remains one of the best.

(It was the first Agatha Christie novel–inspired movie I ever saw, and I was, in turn, inspired to read the book after I saw the movie.)

Its primary inspiration was the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son in the spring of 1933. When Christie wrote the novel, the case was very much in the news. In the hands of a talented writer, such a case provided the revenge motive for the murderers.

Christie also was influenced in "Murder on the Orient Express" by another real–life event — the winter of 1928–29, said to have been the harshest winter Europe had experienced in decades. Blizzards and gale–force winds hammered the continent for weeks. Transportation was brought to a virtual halt by all the snow and ice.

The Orient Express was sort of a land version of the Titanic. It boasted luxurious accommodations and was believed to be infallible so, in spite of warnings from stations all along the train's route, its owners unhesitatingly gave the go–ahead to proceed from Paris to Turkey in late January; it was hindered all the way by snow and ice on the tracks. It did make it across the Turkish border but was stopped by huge snowdrifts. The passengers were trapped for days before realizing that help was not on its way, and they tunneled their way out, then crossed the snowy Turkish countryside in search of food and a place to sleep until help did come for them.

This was fairly typical of Christie — she often used real events as the basis for her stories but rarely as well. She made some changes to the facts, enough to make it her own story, and then threw in her usual twists and turns, just to keep the reader guessing.

And there was plenty of guesswork for the reader in "Murder on the Orient Express." Each of the passengers aboard the Orient Express had some kind of connection to the Armstrong family, which had lost its little girl, Daisy, and then suffered additional tragedies as a result of the initial crime.

Poirot, who happened to be on board the train, conducted the investigation and concluded that there were two possible resolutions: either a stranger had entered the train while it was stopped by snowdrifts and committed the murder, or everyone on the train (with the exception of Poirot) had participated.

The former was too easy for Christie's creative mind, so, for one of the few times in her writing career, Christie took an option that would permit the guilty to escape justice. All of the passengers on the train (including the conductor) wanted vengeance, and Poirot, having solved the case, permitted them to have it. He told the authorities that he had concluded that a stranger was responsible for the murder.

It was an interesting twist on the usual formula for a Christie novel. More often than not, she arranged for the least likely suspect to be the actual guilty party.

I guess a least likely suspect would be hard to choose in this case. There were several plausible candidates.