Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February's Book: Murder on the Orient Express

Happy Leap Day 2017!

I mean, Happy March 1st...

Speaking of being late to the party:

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Mystery (1934 - 137 pp.)

This is yet another of those books that has been read, reviewed and studied so many times I will focus on my personal experience with it, as well as try to bring up a couple angles I do not usually see. First, though, I have to consider what Murder on the Orient Express isn't. It isn't a police procedural. If it were, Hercule Poirot would be the worst police officer ever for many reasons.* It isn't noir.** It isn't Sherlock Holmes, as much as Holmes understandably influenced it.

Murder on the Orient Express ends is so old it's become mysterious again. For those who haven't read it, the premise is this: 16 passengers are in a train car from Istanbul ("Stamboul") to Paris. On the second night of the journey, somewhere in what once was Yugoslavia, the train is trapped in a snowdrift. It is then that one of the passengers on the train car is murdered. Our daring protagonist Hercule Poirot, with the aid of a Wagon Lit conductor and a doctor, must figure out who committed the murder.

Murder on the Orient Express is essentially two things: an inspiration for mystery dinner theatre, and a precursor to whodunit-style logic puzzles.

The logic falls apart for the benefit of the theatrics. Poirot sometimes misses clues that are plainly obvious, such as in certain omissions in the Ten Questions he asks based on the evidence. (106) At other times, his guesswork is so outlandish it leads to conclusions a reader could not possibly reach. (132) This removes the suspension of disbelief, making it appear less like Poirot is brilliant and more like Christie needed to get to the end of the book.

Almost as outlandishly, the women's nightgowns are discussed often, including during Poirot's luggage searches. Poirot notes that "I suspect it is the property of Countess Andrenyi, since her luggage contained only a chiffon negligee so elaborate as to be rather a teagown than a dressing-gown" (135) in front of the entire train car, yet the Countess doesn't bat an eye. Christie delivers the dramatic proclamations and garish outfits that would be fitting for a stage, which would probably make such revealing statements more interesting.

Christie's strongest suit is her language. She shows this right from the beginning, as in the introductions of Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham:
The Colonel, Hercule Poirot noticed, accompanied her back to her compartment. Later they passed through the magnificent scenery of the Taurus. As they looked down towards the Cilician Gates, standing in the corridor side by side, a sigh came suddenly from the girl. Poirot was standing near them and heard her murmur: 
“It’s so beautiful! I wish—I wish—” (10)
The setting is enchanting, Debenham's awed reaction conveys the scene's grandeur, and the dialogue is crisp. Dialogue is a strength that Christie maintains throughout the book, including in the lengthy conversations between Poirot and Dr Constantine.

This linguistic gift continues in her character descriptions. Her description of Princess Dragomiroff is at once hideous, mysterious and hilarious: "Her small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once." (62) The Count Andrenyi's more imposing manner is equally apparent: "There was no doubt that he was a fine-looking man seen face to face. He was at least six feet in height, with broad shoulders and slender hips. He was dressed in very well-cut English tweeds and might have been taken for an Englishman had it not been for the length of his moustache and something in the line of the cheekbone." (65) His character is the one that calls Christie's Sherlock Holmes influence to mind, from the tweeds to the inexplicable something calculating about him.

In both the time period and the genre, writing mechanics looked much different from the way they do now. An example is Christie's copious use of adverbs. Those atrocious, abolishment-worthy, overused, "shoot on sight"(!!!), "dumping ground" adverbs. (Yes, I know there's a debate. I'm firmly on the pro-adverb side.) In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie ends a word in "ly" 1044 times.** Subtracting words like "reply", and adding those sneaky non-ly adverbs, is probably a wash, so let's say she uses 1044 adverbs in a 137-page book. Removing the six pages of front matter and contents, leaving us at 131, that's approximately 7.97 adverbs per page. I shudder to think of what would happen to Christie at a writing workshop now. Yet... her writing doesn't suffer for it. That might be an interesting blog entry for a writing advice site.

The diagram of the train car is a fun addition. (42) I referred back to it quite a few times while reminding myself who stayed in which room. A zoomed-in diagram showing the inside of a room would have been good too.

NOTE: In my ebook, there is a massive list of Agatha Christie novels "Coming Soon". (2) I felt like I was reading it in 1934, if ebooks had been a thing back then.

FURTHER NOTE: I read Murder on the Orient Express largely on the TTC. Not exactly the Orient Express, but, like Christie's characters, I did experience a train delay.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*Improperly handling evidence, (90) harassing witnesses, (79-80) conducting warrantless searches, (89) telling his theory of the case to the entire traincar, (134-136) and - of course - doing all of this apparently unarmed and with no backup. (28)

**Oddly, only one precedes a semicolon: "'Do not distress yourself,' said the latter kindly; 'I cannot see that there has been any negligence on your part.'" (45) All other similar phraseologies place a colon after the offending "ly".