Murder on the Orient Express is one of the Hercule Poirot stories written by Agatha Christie. It was published by Collins Crime Club in the UK in 1934. It was said that Agatha Christie based the plot on the Lindbergh kidnapping and her own experiences on board the Orient Express.
The Orient Express was a luxury long-distance passenger train that used to ply the route from Istanbul to London and was managed by the Wagons-Lits. It had first-class coaches that had a single bed or two-bed compartments and a restaurant coach where passengers dine. The Wagons-Lits conductors were uniformed and could act as butlers or concierges during the long trip.
Before I proceed, you might have seen the 2017 film adaptation, or if not, I’m warning you that there might be a spoiler ahead.
The story starts with Hercule Poirot arriving at the hotel in Istanbul after a case when he receives a telegram asking him to go to London immediately. So he asks the hotel’s concierge to book him, first-class, on the Orient Express that night.
The first class was fully booked but with the help of Poirot’s friend and fellow passenger Monsieur Bouc, the director of the Wagons-Lits, he was able to board the train. It was Monsieur Bouc who offered his first-class coach to Poirot and Bouc went to second class.
At the restaurant coach, Edward Ratchett, an American millionaire, recognized Poirot. He wanted to hire Poirot because of the death threats he had been receiving but Poirot refused.
That night, Poirot was awakened by a cry from Ratchett’s compartment next door. Wagons-Lits conductor Pierre Michel knocks on Ratchett’s door, but a voice replied in French.
Then the American widow Mrs. Caroline Hubbard rings the bell and tells Michel that a man passed through her room.
When Poirot rings the bell for water, Michel informs him that the train stopped and is stuck in a snowdrift between Vincovci (Croatia) and Brod (Bosnia).
That night, too, Poirot observes a woman in a red kimono walking away from him.
The next morning, Monsieur Bouc informs Poirot that Ratchett was found dead. He introduced Dr. Constantine whom he met in the second class suite.
The three of them inspected the body and Dr. Constantine estimated the time of death between twelve midnight and two o’clock. The body was stabbed, but a few wounds show no blood meaning that the victim was already dead when stabbed. This made Poirot think that there are two murderers, probably a woman who could not stab Ratchett forcefully.
Ratchett’s body has twelve stab wounds and the compartment’s window had been left open, giving the impression that the murderer might have escaped. But with the snowdrift, this could be impossible.
A handkerchief with the initial “H”, a pipe cleaner, a flat match different from the ones Ratchett used, and a charred piece of paper with “member Daisy Armstrong” written on it was found on the crime scene. Also, Ratchett’s watch was dented and stopped at 1:15.
With these clues, Poirot started investigating, since there is no police authority on board. Monsieur Bouc and Dr. Constantine assisted him with the investigations.
As it turns out, Ratchett was John Cassetti in real life. He was involved in the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping and murder case and was acquitted in court due to technicality. He left the United States and assumed a new identity, traveling around the world as a businessman with his American secretary Hector MacQueen and English valet Henry Masterman.
So Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of passengers aboard the Orient Express before the murderer decides to strike again.
The story is another example of a closed setting where a crime is committed and everyone is a suspect. Through interviews when unexpected comments become clues and correlated with each other’s statements and last night’s actions, Poirot was able to establish a timeline but was still confused if the murder is committed by a single person or multiple persons.
In the end, Poirot offered two solutions as he reveals the truth to the passengers. The first solution offers a single murderer who escaped during the snowdrift. The second solution, which Poirot suggests is most likely, offers that all 12 passengers took revenge in their own hands against Ratchett.
During the uncovering of the truth, the story shows that each passenger is somehow connected (directly or indirectly) to the Armstrong kidnapping. It seems too much of a coincidence. The mastermind admitted to Poirot and praised him for being so brilliant to uncover everything.
However, Poirot concludes that justice is impossible and has to live with a lie and imbalance from then on. It prompted me to think about how could he just resign from the case and move on to the next.
It disturbs the values of truth and justice. The passengers are lying either to hide something or to protect someone. But putting the matters of justice into their own hands is different and should not be justified. The end does not justify the means.
Also, the late introduction of Dr. Constantine in the story bothered me a bit. Although it is understandable because Bouc was in the second-class suite and the crime was revealed the next morning.
It is understandable, too, that this was written in the 1930s when stereotypes, tropes, and coincidences are “excused”. But Agatha Christie still keeps the readers guessing whodunnit which makes it an exciting page-turner.
For these reasons, I’m going to rate it 4 out of 5 stars.