CBR Bingo entry: Brain Candy
Back when I was in grade school, I devoured Agatha Christie novels. I didn’t keep track, but I bet I read a good third of the 66 detective novels she wrote in her lifetime, and I was firmly on Team Poirot. Sure, Miss Marple is a sweet old lady, but I preferred the peculiar Belgian detective who was forever getting mistaken for a Frenchman. Nevertheless, I’m not sure whether I ever read Murder on the Orient Express before now.
Normally I’m excellent at remembering what I’ve read, even if I’m sketchy on the details, but I’ll be honest, these mysteries tend to run together. When I was twelve I thought Christie’s novels were sheer brilliance. “How does she do it?” I’d wonder. “How does she make every one so different?!” I’m laughing now because, while the mysteries are fun, they aren’t exactly high-brow literature. I guess one of the reasons she was able to churn out so many novels is that she didn’t waste a lot of effort on character development.
I’m not bashing, mind you, I’m just explaining why I’m classifying this novel as brain candy. I still love Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous detectives in British literature (damn you, Sherlock Holmes!). He’s been portrayed on radio, stage, and screen by over 40 different actors, from Charles Laughton to Albert Finney to Peter Ustinov. In 2017, Kenneth Branagh released his own version of Murder on the Orient Express, casting himself as Poirot.
It was an exciting time in Hollywood for a young mustache looking for work.
So let’s get down to the plot. After wrapping up a case in Istanbul, Hercule Poirot is called back to London. He books passage on the Orient Express with the help of his friend and director of the line, M. Bouc, and soon encounters Samuel Edward Ratchett, an American who tries to hire Poirot to be his body guard. Ratchett thinks someone is out to kill him, but Poirot turns down the job saying that he does not like Ratchett’s face. Unsurprisingly, Ratchett is later found dead and Poirot is left to interrogate the cast of characters on the train to find the guilty party. We soon learn that Ratchett was in fact a man named Cassetti, a criminal who was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong, the 3-year-old daughter of a well-to-do family (inspired by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby). We also learn that multiple passengers on the train have some connection to the Armstrongs. I’ll stop here in case you don’t want to know the ending to an 84-year old mystery. I will say that it’s a brilliant ending, simply because in retrospect it’s so obvious.
One of the reasons I can’t be sure whether I’ve read the novel before is because I’m a huge fan of the 1974 film starring, among others, Albert Finney, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Holy crap, that’s a cast.
I’ve seen the movie so many times that the story has become part of my unconscious. I’m mildly curious about seeing the 2017 version, although in my opinion Branagh blew it by casting Johnny Depp as Ratchett, because honestly, who doesn’t want to kill Johnny Depp these days?
Part of what makes Murder on the Orient Express an ideal story for directors is that it’s almost a blank slate. I’ve mentioned that Christie spends very little time on characterization, which gives filmmakers abundant latitude for interpretation. Director Sidney Lumet was clearly having some fun with the character of Ratchett’s assistant Mr. McQueen, played by Anthony Perkins. While the novel does indicate that McQueen knew Mrs. Armstrong, Lumet and Perkins play up the character’s devotion to Mrs. Armstrong, who was “like a mother” to McQueen, a darkly funny allusion to Perkins’ Psycho role. In one scene in the film, he even refers to her as “Mother Armstrong.”
I can’t say there’s no characterization in this novel, because it does a passable job of perpetuating stereotypes. On learning that the murder weapon was a knife, M. Bouc enthusiastically opines that the murderer must be the Italian gentlemen, because the Italians love knives! Also, an expensive handkerchief must belong to Mrs. Hubbard, because Americans don’t care how much money they spend.
Overall, I was surprised to discover that Christie’s writing wasn’t as nuanced as I remembered it, but she was still damn good at spinning a yarn. Murder on the Orient Express is one of the classic mysteries of the English language (perhaps THE classic?) and something everybody should read once, even if you already know the ending. Now excuse me while I go ruin the ending to Citizen Kane for some first-year film students.