With the release of a new film version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ a look back at Agatha Christies other train capers. Although trains were a common theme in Christie’s work there are four books that feature them in the plot. ‘…Orient Express’, ‘The ABC Murder’s’ for Poirot and ‘4:50 from Paddington’ for Miss Marple, but starting with the first train novel, Poirot’s ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train.”
The novel actually borrows a plot from an earlier Poirot short story ‘The Plymouth Express’. This was not uncommon for Christie to do, and other novels grow out of shorts. ‘The Plymouth Express’ was collected in ‘Poirot’s Early Cases.’
Perhaps the reason for the recycling here is that ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’ was written quickly in less than ideal circumstances. In 1926 Christie’s husband, Archie, was having an affair asked her for a divorce, her mother passed away and she had what we would now call a breakdown and disappeared for 10 days.
The effect of all this left a lasting psychological scar on Christie, and in 1927 she found herself in need of funds. Turning to writing while staying with a friend in the Canary Islands Christie put together ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train.’ It was not a good experience and she later commented that she loathed the novel.
It was the stress of writing ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’ that inspired Christie in the early days of World War 2 to write the Miss Marple novel ‘Sleeping Murder’ and place it in a bank vault so that she would always have a book ready in case she needed one. Later in WW2 ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Final Case’ was likewise written and placed in a vault this time until after Agatha Christie’s death in 1976.
For all the trials and tribulations of it’s writing ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’ is actually a good read. It is a more classic Poirot adventure than his previous outing, ‘The Big Four’. That novel reads more like a prototype for James Bond than what you might expect from Christie.
In this novel Poirot’s eccentricities are toned down somewhat, he becomes a more believable character. Even his ego seems more in check here, he doesn’t need to boast of his intellect as his reputation has preceded him. Also for the first time Poirot is joined by Georges his Valet, Georges would appear in Poirot novels till the end. Another debuting character is Mr Goby who also appears in ‘After the Funeral’ and ‘Third Girl’ Goby is employed by Poirot to get information he himself can’t. A mysterious character and perhaps the only other investigator Poirot considers an equal.
The other debut in this novel is the village of St. Mary Mead. Later the home of Miss Marple but here the home of Miss Grey. Although it is unclear if this is the same village or weather Christie just liked the name.
Plot wise it is both simple and complex. A woman is killed on the titular Blue Train, the sleeper from Calais to Nice. A priceless ruby she had in her lock box was stolen and eventually Poirot is persuaded to come out of retirement and takes on the case, all the while picking apart all of the secrets that even the most innocuous character is hiding.
Unlike ‘…Orient Express’ the action isn’t restricted to the train, it has a wider range to it. There is also some social commentary about the unfairness of British divorce law with regard to women.
By the time the novel was published Christie’s own divorce was finalised, she gained custody of her daughter and the right to use the name Christie for her writing, but not much else. Late in 1928 Agatha Christie decided to leave London, at Victoria Station she was able to buy a through ticket to Baghdad, starting her journey on The Golden Arrow to Dover picking up the Orient Express in Calais then the Taurus Express in Istanbul.
‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’ was filmed as part of ITV’s ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’ series in 2006. Here Poirot was played by David Suchet. While faithful to the story the TV film expands on some elements, although neither Georges or Goby appear. Suchet also played Poirot in ITV’s 1991 adaptation of ‘The Plymouth Express’.
While ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’ is far from the best Agatha Christie novel it isn’t that bad. It is a return to form after the diversion of ‘The Big Four’ and the characters have a realness to them, something that would be a driving force in later Christie novels. It was also the first time Christie gave the little Belgian a rest. Apart from the Stage play ‘Black Coffee’ and a couple of short stories Poirot’s next novel is ‘Peril at End House’ in 1932. Two years after that Poirot would board ‘…Orient Express’ for the next train adventure.