Published on New Years Day 1934 ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is one of Agatha Christie’s best known works. It has been adapted for the radio three times, there are now two feature film versions plus three television adaptations and even a first person computer game. It has been referenced in everything from ‘Doctor Who’ to ‘Muppet’s Tonight’ and is one of the most widely read books of the c20.
By the time that she came to write ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Christie’s reputation as a writer was cemented and each of her novels were eagerly anticipated and sure to become best sellers. Her private life was much improved from when she had been writing ‘The Mystery of The Blue Train’
While travelling in the Middle East and viewing archeological digs Christie had met Max Mallowan, an expert in ancient Middle Eastern history. They married after a short romance in 1930, and when Max started his own dig in Nineveh Christie was able to participate, firstly by organising notes and paperwork but also with a talent for piecing together the broken pottery that was found.
Often Christie would have to travel back to London from the dig site, and would travel on the Taurus Express to Istanbul and the Orient Express to Calais. At the time this was by far the quickest way to make the journey.
These real life journeys helped to inspire the novel. The majority of which takes place on a train that is stranded due to a snow drift blocking the track. This was based on a real event where an Orient Express train was marooned for six days due to a snowdrift in Turkey. Christie herself was not aboard that train.
However in December 1931 Christie was on board when an Orient Express train was stopped for over 24 hours due to heavy rain washing away part of the track. When she arrived in London she wrote of the experience to Mallowan who was digging in Nineveh, detailing the rough outline of a plot and describing her fellow passengers some of whom would go on to inspire characters in the novel.
The basic plot is simple. A man is murdered in his sleep, due to the snow the train is both stopped and no one can enter or leave the sleeping carriage or the adjacent Pullman car. Poirot is there by a quirk of fate and eventually pulls apart everyone’s story and solves the mystery.
Yet at the heart of the story is misdirection. Poirot has to put together pieces that seem to contradict each other but he, of course, does so. Yet even he at the end decides that discretion is the better part of valour and doesn’t reveal the solution to the police once the train is able to make it to Paris.
Here Poirot is much less his normal exuberant self, he is weary. He has been in Aleppo working on a case, we don’t know what exactly, for the French Army and before boarding the Orient Express he travels to Istanbul on the Taurus Express. He had hoped for some time to enjoy the city but is called back to London by an urgent telegram.
This Poirot is both tired and more world weary. His usual hope and faith in humanity has been dented in Aleppo and the events on the Orient Express do nothing to restore them.
This weariness transfers into the way that ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ has been adapted over the years. The 1974 film saw Albert Finney as Poirot. Surrounded by and all star cast Finney gives a good performance as the little Belgian. The 2017 version again sees and all star cast with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. This deviates from the plot somewhat and Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot’s famous moustaches seems to have come straight from a comedy western.
On TV there was a modernised adaptation in 2001 starring Alfred Molina as Poirot, although this deviated extensively from the plot and transplanted a romance sub plot for Poirot from ‘The Big Four.’
ITV’s version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ starring David Suchet was produced in 2010. Rather than compete with the opulence and visuals of the 1974 film the atmosphere was more tense. There is a real sense of the freezing temperature and a feeling of cabin fever while Suchet, who had been playing Poirot for over two decades at this point, puts in one of his darker performances.
In 2015 Fuji Television in Japan released a version set on a train travelling across Japan in 1938.
Agatha Christie was never one to sit back on her success and her next train novel, 1936’s ‘The A.B.C. Murders’, is a good case in point, she mixes first and third person point of view and creates a plot that is in effect the inverse of that of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.