Susan Vaughan here. Seeing Kenneth Branagh’s new film version of Murder on the Orient Express prompted me to reread Agatha Christie’s original 1934 novel. For the uninitiated, the story as written and the 2017 film are both set aboard the Orient Express luxury train traveling from Istanbul to Calais in January of about 1934.
For the uninitiated, it’s a tale of thirteen strangers who, along with our detective, awaken to find that an avalanche has derailed their train and one of their fellow passengers has been murdered. Novels and films must by their nature present the same stories differently, but I wondered just how differently. I promise not to reveal any secrets of either, no spoilers here, so if you haven’t read the novel or seen any of the four other iterations of Murder, feel free to keep reading.
First, a little about the author. Born in 1890 in Torquay, England, Agatha Miller took her husband’s name when she married. Her first published book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920. The story introduced Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous fictional detectives ever. In 1926, after Christie’s mother had recently died, her husband confessed to having an affair. She then provided the world with a real mystery by disappearing. Her car was found abandoned, police in four counties searched for her, and a newspaper offered a reward for information. Eleven days later, she was located at a hotel in Harrogate under a fictitious name. Critics claimed it was a publicity stunt, but stress seems more likely the cause, according to others. The couple divorced, and she later married an archaeology professor, with whom she traveled on several expeditions.
Agatha Christie published sixty-six or seventy detective novels (depending on the source; I didn’t count), 150 short stories, two romance novels, two poetry collections, several plays, and her autobiography. Some of her books feature other sleuths, but her most famous are Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Her play The Mousetrap opened in 1952 and holds the record for the longest unbroken run in a London theater. She is the most widely published author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. In 1971, she was honored by being made a Dame of the British Empire.
According to reviews I read, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was inspired by her trip aboard the luxury train in 1928. The original passenger train traveled in 1882 between Paris and Vienna and extended to Constantinople in 1889. By the 1930’s the Orient Express was famous for its cuisine and luxury accommodations.
Murder on the Orient Express is Christie’s most well-known Hercule Poirot mystery, partly because Poirot himself is such a fascinating character. I learned in my reread of the novel that he’d been the “star of the Belgian Police Force.” Dapper, and beyond his insight and attention to telling details in his observations of and conclusions about suspects, he’s fastidious about his person, notably “les moustaches.” His idiosyncrasies might be attributed today to obsessive-compulsive tendencies, most of which appear to be useful in his detecting.
The other reason, I believe, is that the story has been adapted for the stage, film, and television. The first film (1974) won awards and starred Albert Finney as Poirot, Lauren Bacall, and Ingrid Bergman. Each version is indeed an adaptation, some I doubt Dame Agatha would approve of. One of the aspects of the novel that doesn’t make it easily to film is Poirot’s method. In the novel, he observes and questions and then elicits reactions from his friend M. Bouc, a director of the railroad company, and others, while he preens his moustaches and murmurs. The lively dialog and touches of humor keep the pacing going, but in a film it would slow the pacing as much as the snowstorm slows the train and make the film too long.
I do believe Dame Agatha would approve of the current Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh’s version adheres largely to the original plot, but doesn’t let the viewer in on the detective’s process to the same extent as the book. In my view, Branagh sacrificed those details in favor of richer characterization. Branagh himself inhabits Hercule Poirot as deeply and expertly as he does all his roles. The cast is more ethnically diverse than any previous version, possibly tailored for today’s audience as well as to suit the actors.
One last tidbit about Hercule Poirot. Christie became tired of the character and wrote Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in the early 1940’s and stored it in a bank vault. She’d intended it to be released after her death, but she was persuaded to release it in 1975, shortly before her death in 1976. When Poirot died in Curtain, he became the only fictional character to have an obituary in the New York Times.
If you have something to add about Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie or her other novels, I hope you’ll leave a comment.