Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Warning: Damning Confession (for a bibliophile) Straight Ahead:

I... I have always felt that Agatha Christie's stories make better TV shows than they do books. I know! I'm sorry! Just typing those words is like a betrayal of everything I hold dear! Christie's books are very entertaining, and basic cultural literacy demands that you read at least a couple of 'em, but I can't help feeling that most of her characters are cartoons, their motivations are artificial, and the big reveals at the end of her novels end up being pretty cheesy. Her mysteries aren't bad, it's just that I prefer to watch most of them unfold on television, where the amusing actors and gorgeous period sets and costumes are there to distract me from those problematic little plot and style choices that annoy the hell out of me when I read her novels.

The one exception to this is Christie's most famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. By basing her story upon two actual events (the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1938 and an incident in 1929 when the Orient Express crossed into Turkey and was snowbound for six days) Murder on the Orient Express emphasizes Christie's strengths--her glib, entertaining style and skill for sketching memorable characters--and eliminates her weaknesses.

The characters in Murder on the Orient Express aren't actually more appealing than the ones in any of Christie's other books, but they certainly seem that way... mostly because there are so many of them that none of them have a chance to get really irritating. (I find it so much easier to enjoy a Hercule Poirot story when I'm not constantly having his adorably eccentric quirks shoved in my face.) Christie's style of characterization, which relies heavily on cartoonish idiosyncrasies, makes it easy to distinguish between the many, many characters in Murder on the Orient Express, while the sheer size of the cast ensures that we don't linger with any of her creations long enough to get twitchy-eyed over her fondness for assigning them a bunch of twee mannerisms.

Like all of Christie's murder mysteries, the plot of Murder on the Orient Express strains credulity (and that's being kind). I don't want to spoil the mystery for the six or so of you who don't already know who did it, but suffice to say this is not the kind of crime that happens in real life. But while readers may understand intellectually that the fictional murder is far-fetched, the heartbreaking and very real crime that inspired Murder on the Orient Express had such a huge, dramatic impact upon the culture of the times that Christie's novel manages to snowball that reaction into emotional credibility.

I realize that much of this review sounds like I'm damning Christie with faint praise, and that really isn't my intention. Much like Nora Roberts today, Agatha Christie was a popular author who produced an amazing volume of highly entertaining books. (And if our culture didn't have such a sexist, knee-jerk aversion to openly praising romance writing, I imagine that Nora Roberts's name would be linked with Christie's more often... but that's a bitchfest for another day, so I'll spare you further ranting.) I'm not Christie's biggest fan, but even I can see that there's a very good reason that PBS is still trotting out those awesome TV versions of her mysteries: she could write one hell of a detective story, and Murder on the Orient Express is clearly a Christie detective story at its very best.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


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