Monday, 28 September 2009

Murder On The Orient Express (1934)

PLOT: Seriously - have you not seen the film? Businessman found dead on famous train.

Is this the most famous Christie because of the film? It certainly has to have one of the best plots or plot twists.

But it also works on several other levels. The setting is fabulously exciting, and the snowdrift strands the suspects strangely outside time. The feeling is that the murder has placed everyone beyond the world, and they can't be reached until Poirot has solved the crime. Which makes it sound like Donnie Darko, but still...

Christie has gathered together a wild variety of exciting characters as suspects. Death On The Nile will see an even wilder bunch of travellers, but we've still got everything from Russian Princesses to Indian Colonels, all drawn remarkably vividly and somehow fitted into the world's most famous train.

The book's only problem is THAT film. The film is so memorable, the denoument so striking that, wonderful as the book is, it's a bit of a plod.

Other twist novels repay re-reading just to see what's going on. But this one somehow fails as the enormity of what Christie is doing hangs over it like a flashing neon sign saying "Get On With It!".

It rewards perseverance, however, as the subtle knitting of the wool that's being pulled over Poirot's eyes becomes more apparent - sometimes in lines of dialogue so thunderingly obvious you wish you could slap the Belgian for not solving the crime at once... and sometimes in details so gently subtle that you praise Poirot for picking up on them.

The curiosity of the book is that the solution is so ingenious that it is merely Poirot's presence that solves the crime. It would be impossible otherwise... and yet Poirot himself makes some remarkable leaps.

For instance, in a room full of dummy clues he somehow seizes on the one real one and uses it to unpick the case by a bizarre series of flea-like intellectual leaps. As a reader you do sometimes feel like crying "oh, come on now", such as when he unmasks someone as a secret cook.

Poirot is at his most admirably ludicrous in this book. When asked "Do you belong to the United Nations?" he responds "No, I belong to the world." And so it goes on - this remarkable character carefully concealing any impossible leaps of logic under those brilliantly waxed moustaches.

Poirot again acts almost as an agent of fate. When he turns down Mr Ratchett's offer of work ("I do not like your face"), the millionaire's fate is sealed, just as happens to Linnet in Death On The Nile. The difference between the books is that in Death On The Nile, Poirot wants justice. In this book the detective is simply consumed by solving the puzzle - justice comes second to proving his own brilliance.

It's also a remarkable book in that, complex as it is, Christie is able to withhold the solution until a mere five pages from the end with Poirot's genre-tipping exclamation of "This is extraordinary - They cannot..."

And, once Christie has torn up the rule book, she jumps very neatly on the pieces with a final twist that is as morally satisfying as it is unusual, both for Christie and for the golden age of crime. "I have the honour to retire from the case..." remarks Poirot, as though he senses this is his finest hour.

NEXT: Bridget Jones meets James Bond in They Came To Baghdad.

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