When Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934, Agatha Christie is already the Queen of Crime. She was a literary phenomenon that has created one of the most enduring sleuths of all times, pedantic, vain Belgian Hercule Poirot, famous for his outsized moustache and his unparalleled use of the little grey cells. In the book, Christie combines her skills at a locked room mystery (in this case a locked train compartment, and a train stuck in the snow) with her love for travelling, and different cultures.
The book has never grown out of fashion since and is one of the most enduring of Christie’s whole canon.
It is also one of her most unusual works. At its heart is not the search for truth and justice alone, it also deals with miscarriage of justice, and its twist at the end is as ingenious as it is convincing.
Instead of enjoying a few days’ rest in Istanbul after the successful conclusion of a case, duty forces Hercule Poirot to return to England. To his dismay, he finds the first class on the Orient Express fully booked. It is only his friendship with the director of the company, Monsieur Bouc, that secures him a berth at all. ‘All the world has decided to travel today,’ says attendant Michel.
Poirot finds himself bored, uncomfortable and distinctly out of sorts. All he can do is read his Dickens and observe his fellow passengers. Yet when a wealthy American, Mr Ratchett, wants to hire him to protect him from being murdered, he declines: ‘I do not like your face.’ The man who repulses Poirot so much reminds him of a wild, savage animal – an instinct proven correct when the train gets stuck in the snow in the middle of the night, and Ratchett is found stabbed twelve times in his locked apartment the next morning.
A burnt letter fragment gives Poirot the deciding clue: Ratchett was an alias. The murdered man was a gangster called Cassetti, the mastermind behind the kidnapping and murder of little Daisy Armstrong, a tragedy that caused her mother to give birth to a stillborn child and die herself. Colonel Armstrong killed himself as a result, plus a wrongly accused maid threw herself out of the window. (The case is modelled on the infamous kidnapping case of the son of aviation pioneer and American hero Charles Lindbergh – a case that shocked the world as one of the first kidnapping cases).
In short, Cassetti has received his just deserts. Eager to assuage his boredom however, Poirot finds clues in abundance – a pipe-cleaner, a handkerchief, the scarlet kimono of an unknown woman he’d spied from a distance; plus a uniform button. What’s more they all point towards a nebulous figure: a small man with a high-pitched voice that Cassetti feared, according to his secretary.
But Poirot discards red herrings, searching for a connection to the Armstrong case, only to find too many suspects to his liking. Every single of the twelve passenger he interviews is discovered to have known and loved the family. ‘Impossible,’ he says. Yet a conspiracy is the only solution that makes sense of the facts. A self-appointed jury, carrying out a death sentence.
Conspiracies as such were nothing new to Agatha Christie’s writing, but in this case Hercule Poirot leaves it up to Bouc to decide which solution to present to the police: a cleverly planned act of revenge on a murderer who’d escaped the noose through bribes and tricks; or that nebulous figure who must have fled through a window after the deed, with the snow covering his footprints?
It’s obvious whose side the little Belgian is on, so his sympathy for the killing is what sets this book apart – for once, Poirot sides with people he’d normally bring to justice to restore balance and flatter his own vanity. It’s an ingenious book, with an intricate and yet simple plot, but it’s the emotional side displayed that makes Murder on the Orient Express stand out.
Kenneth Branagh is a Shakespearian actor and director of outstanding talent, so in the film version of Murder on the Orient Express he makes full use of the opulent period setting. The opening scenes take us to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1934, where Jews, Muslims and Christians pray, then lead us to a man who searches in vain for two perfectly symmetrical boiled breakfast eggs. In a just few moments, we’re introduced to the case that brought Poirot to the Near East (something only hinted at in the book), to his obsession with symmetry, as well as his impartiality with regards to the truth, when he uncovers the British commander as responsible for a theft an imam, a rabbi and a priest are suspected of.
Poirot, who intends to take a holiday, is recalled to England. His friend M Bouc, a hedonistic young man with a penchant for prostitute and idleness, secures him a berth on The Orient Express. The oriental opulence and visual of the train journey are magnificent, but the film is weakened by changes to the characters. Poirot, who in fine tradition of the hero’s journey, is reluctant to hunt for the murderer of the man whose face he did not like (a quote that is used in every film version), he has no ambivalence towards the then unknown killer. Point agonises several times over the photograph of a woman, which might have added the intended depth to the character had we but known more about the lady in question.
There’s also a laudable attempt into making the all-white cast a bit more diverse, when Miss Debenham’s love interest Arbuthnot (a Colonel in the book, a doctor in Branagh’s film) is shown to be BAME, of humble origin and a former protégé of his WWI commander Armstrong. This leads to faux racism by one of the passengers (who is hiding his identity as an American and private investigator behind the mask of an Austrian Aryan); plus the nervous state of the Countess Andrenyi, who turns out to be the aunt of Daisy Armstrong (but has become addicted to sedatives). These tweaks are supposed to add to the theatrical richness, but fall flat.
Another change is to plot: the train isn’t simply stuck, it is derailed and leaning precariously on an overbridge in the mountains (although not for long). Poirot and other passengers nip in and out for hot drinks and spot of interrogation. This leaves out most of the conclusions that Poirot forms in the book, aplus how he arrives at them, but at least the visuals add to that sense of isolation and danger. This sense is heightened for a few moments, when one of the passengers is stabbed non-fatally in the back, and Poirot is shot and wounded in a desperate effort to deflect his suspicion from one particular passenger.
In the end, Poirot also presents Bouc with the two solutions – a mysterious stranger who took his revenge and escaped, or a conspiracy to bring a man to justice who escaped it before – but he does it grudgingly, because it offends his sense of balance. The sympathy and human quality of the Poirot in the book has been lost. Indeed, the only character who has escaped changed but not diminished by Branagh’s tweaks, is the murder victim, played by Johnny Depp without the mannerisms most of his characters show. In an all-star cast, only he and Branagh are allowed to shine.
Although the film is a glittering spectacle for the eyes, down to the smallest detail – even the costume changes are meant to reveal the everchanging characters – the book wins. Branagh’s version is fun to watch, but he sacrifices not only the cerebral pleasure of Poirot’s sleuthing but Christie’s unusually layered character sketches for the whole cast. This means the satisfaction of Poirot’s heart and head working in tandem also fade.
There’s another movie version of the book, with a cast just as illustrious, that honours and respects the book in a way Branagh’s doesn’t. Murder on the Orient Express, filmed in 1974 by Sydney Lumet, has stayed faithful to the book all the way through, thus preserving the intricacy and allowing even the smallest character to take his or her rightful place on the train. Branagh has steered it off the tracks.
BIO: Carmen Radtke is a screenwriter and novelist. Her debut novel is The Case of the Missing Bride (Bloodhound Books), a historical mystery set on a ship en route from Australia to Canada.
She also writes under the pen name Caron Albright. A Matter of Love and Death, another historical mystery with a bit of romance added. Both are available now. Follow Carmen on Twitter: @CarmenRadtke1 and check out her website, HERE.