Monday, 21 September 2009

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

PLOT: Divorse! Diamonds! and Dead Heiresses on the Blue Train to Nice.

James: Written when Christie was going through her divorce, this book suffers as a consequence. It's not that it's bad, but that the events were perhaps preying on her mind.

On the one hand it's a dry run for Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile - glamourous setting, a background of intrigue, a doomed millionaire, suspicious supporting artists... and yet...

At heart it's a tale of two heiresses. There's Ruth Van Alden the tough woman of the world. And then there's Katherine Grey (note the name) - the dull one. Is Christie working out her complicated feelings towards her first husband through these two women?

Poor Ruth has been trapped in a messy marriage with a philandering husband and is trying to escape for a little happiness. Of course, she is one of Christie's doomed heiresses, and she won't trouble us for longer than to convince us of her flaws.

By contrast, Katherine has come into some money and is learning how to live. She's almost impossibly saintly and forms an instant rapport with Poirot over romans policier, as he calls them. She's striving to fit into international society but her heart belongs in... St Mary Mead!

St Mary Mead is another strange trace element in the book, which takes a while to get going and then goes all over the place. We open with mysterious jewel thieves and international assassins. Then we've Ruth's domestic drama, then St Mary Mead and the questions over Katherine's inheritance, then the Blue Train and then it's villas and hotels and police stations and beaches and Moonbase Alpha.

Murder on the Orient Express makes much more use of the single setting of the train and the restrained approach makes it a claustrophobic book, whereas Mystery Of The Blue Train plays out rather like a holiday novel with a bit of crime nibbling at the edges.

Similarly, Death On The Nile does all its set up in the first chapter and dumps us straight in Egypt, compared to Blue Train's hundred pages of set up before "And then the train started."

It's full of loose ends, or ideas that will be made more of in later books. The double-whammy of jewel theft and heiress slaying will reoccur in Death On The Nile, but this time as part of a triple twist.

When we next see St Mary Mead, there will be no mention of inquistive Katherine Grey, nor of her old lady friend Amelia Viner, who has a sharp understanding of human nature and a wicked intelligence... but we can see where this one is going. We'll even see Poirot taking on another female sidekick who is an Agatha Christie figure, but we'll have to wait a while for that.

This is nowhere near as bad a book as Christie makes out. Written at a time when she was having understandable trouble trusting men, it does have a strangely dual approach to them. The main suspect is a no-good toy boy who is undeniably attractive - and he's by no means the worst man in the book.

Poirot himself does all right here (even getting the attentions of a lady). He is on fine form, but sadly missing the narrative skills of Hastings, all pomposity without the leavening that Hastings provieds. He's really just there to solve the mystery. He doesn't feel like a super brain with the wings of fate beating at his shoulder. He's simply the world's greatest detective.

NEXT: Shall we have another go at that? It's Murder On The Orient Express

1 comment:

  1. Although Christie described Katherine Grey as saintly, she comes off as slightly sardonic and amused by the chaos that seemed to permeate the other characters around her.

    Frankly, it is a pretty decent novel. I do wish that Christie had allowed the setting to remain in Nice. As for the lack of Hastings . . . I did not miss him. I have always considered Hastings to be overrated, anyway.