Rating: 4 out of five
Year of Publication: 1934
Motive for Murder: Revenge/Hatred
On board of The Simplon Orient Express a mature plot begins to take place. The Istanbul-Calais coach is unusually full in winter. Thirteen people from different nationalities enter and one passenger gets on at the last minute.
The journey goes well amidst the snowfall until it leaves Belgrade on the second night. Leaving Vincovi before midnight, at quarter past the train comes to a halt. The snowdrift ahead makes the track impassable.
At twenty-three minutes past one, Hercule Poirot is awakened by the lack of motion of the train. To the Wagon Lit conductor he enquires a bottle of water and is about to get back to sleep when he hears something heavy has fallen with a thud against the door. Having opened his compartment’s door and looked out, he sees to his right down the corridor a woman wearing a scarlet kimono retreating away.
The next day after breakfast, M. Bouc, a director at Campaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits who happens to be in another coach, asks his Belgian friend to see him. ‘What has occurred?’ he asks. ‘…a passenger lies dead in his berth – stabbed.’
The night before Samuel Ratchett offered Poirot a handsome amount of money for his service. ‘My life has been threatened,’ Ratchett says. The other responds,’If you will forgive me for being personal – I do not like your face, M. Ratchett.’
Twelve stabbing wounds in Ratchett’s body. The missing button of the Wagon Lit conductor. A bloody dagger found in a passenger’s sponge bag.
Of the thirteen passengers in the coach, who has murdered the American man?
The most famous book of Christie’s, the 10th Poirot’s novel is admired by many fans owing to the setting and the nature of the crime. In the former Yugoslavia the heavy snowfall has altered everything. What is more, the unprecedented appearance of a little man with an egg-shaped head whom replaces a passenger who does not turn up. Having got off the Taurus Express at Istanbul, Hercule Poirot would have expected to spend three days at the heart of the former Ottoman Empire when an important telegram was received in the hotel, requiring his presence in London in his earliest convenience.
In the First Class compartment he is next to Rachett. Convenient or coincidence? What is more interesting is his declining £20,000 in fee from the American man. And apparently it is not because of the man’s face, but something more profound. On setting his eyes on Ratchett, to his friend M. Bouc he says, ‘I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal – an animal savage, but savage! You understand –had passed me by.’
A tiny scrap of paper discovered in Ratchett’s compartment leads to Poirot’s knowledge about other death threat letters the deceased has received. At any rate it clarifies Ratchett’s identity. For he was Casetti, who kidnapped a three-year-old Daisy Armstrong in the USA and killed her afterwards whilst asking the ransom money to her family (see Clues).
Somehow he escaped justice in the country What circumstances that rendered the twelve jurors the non-guilty verdict? I was hoping there would have been an explanation about it. Did the defendant have a deal with the authority? For I recall Louise Leidner, who reports her first husband to the Intelligence in the later novel Murder In Mesopotamia. As she receives the death threats, the shadow of her past doing resurges. She may not say anything about the old sin to Poirot , but it is then elaborated in the end as to the motive of the murderer.
Be that as it may, there are similarities between Ratchett and Mrs. Leidner’s killing. The revenge/hatred motive is ingrained in the mind of the perpetrators. It is also an ultimate revenge; life for life for little Daisy. I wonder, however, how much it would have meant for the murderers after Ratchett eventually dies. For neither the little girl nor her parents could have been alive again.
What does the killing suggests is the meticulous plan on the part of the mastermind. On the one hand, there is not an iota of sympathy for the victim, for he is a wicked man deemed such punishment. On the other, the ‘execution-style’ killing is required to ascertain that ‘justice’ is witnessed by everybody concerned.
What is most fascinating to my mind is the different kinds of stabbing wounds; two or three forceful and fatal ones whilst the rest seem to have been done reluctantly after the body has had no longer life in him. What can Poirot deduce from them? One person who caused the death and others who then came in to witness and each gave a ‘symbolic’ stab. Frankly speaking, I shuddered to think about it.
Ratchett gets his due whilst his murderers get away. In the end Poirot offers two ways of looking at the case and the decision as to which version that would be presented to the Yugoslavian police is in the hands of M. Bouc. With the company’s reputation is at stake, he must choose what benefits everyone. Has he decided right, do you think, considering the deceased is an evil?
I am intrigued that the popularity of the book may sum up the public’s feelings about the agreed version of the murder. Nonetheless I disagree. Although the solution answers my present astonishment towards the ending of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. I tell you later why.
It helps to have read Cards On The Table beforehand. For I understand what has become of the dagger. Poirot shows it to Anne Meredith, one of the suspects in the stabbing of Mr. Shaitana, when she visits his house with her friend Rhoda Dawes. Apparently M. Bouc has given it as a ‘gift’ besides ‘a token of gratitude,’ ie. a handsome fee on behalf of the company.
Lastly, it fascinates me that Christie has somehow confused The Orient Express with The Simplon Orient Express. As I looked up the history of the former, Compaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits concurs with the Orient Express’s owner. Nevertheless the story is set in the Simplon Orient Express, which is an entirely different train. The following paragraph, quoted from the website, may clarify the matter:
Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ isn’t set on the Orient Express, it’s set on the Simplon Orient Express. By the 1920s and 30s there were a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lits company trains with ‘Orient Express’ as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself. The Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l’Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens. In the 1920s and 30s the Simplon Orient Express linked Calais, Paris and Istanbul every day, whereas the (plain) Orient Express only carried Paris-Istanbul cars three times a week, although both Orient and Simplon Orient would have been one combined train east of Belgrade.
On 12 December 2009, EuroNight train number 469 ‘Orient Express’ left Strasbourg on its final overnight run to Vienna. On 13th December it disappeared from Europe’s timetable after 126 years.
As far as I am concerned, this is the only case in which Poirot relies heavily on his imagination under an extraordinary circumstances solved within twenty-four hours. Who can match Poirot but Holmes?
In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to the remake of 1974’s film of the book. Would it be the one who stars as Colonel Arbuthnot better than Sean Connery? I very much doubt it. 🙂
-M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine decide to take on the first solution: the killer gets on the train on the second night after leaving Istanbul. Approximately when it stops at Belgrade or Vincovci (Vicevi, a town in modern Serbia) as the door is left open. He wears a suit of Wagon Lit uniform on top of his clothes and has a pass key which allows him access to Casetti’s compartment. The victim has been drugged so he would not have heard a stranger came in. After the stabbing the killer leaves through the communicating door leading to Mrs. Hubbard’s and puts the murder weapon into her sponge bag. He takes off the uniform and gets off the train the same way.
– Mr. Harris, the passenger who does not turn up, is a decoy
– A missing button of a Wagon Lit conductor is found in Mrs. Hubbard’s room
– The uniform is placed on the luggage of Schmidt
– An expensive handkerchief with initial ‘H’ is at Casetti’s room
– The scarlet kimono is folded neatly and put in Poirot’s room
– Ratchett does not speak French
– The grease on the passport of Countess Andrenyi’s; on her first name ‘Elena’
– Countess Andrenyi is innocent
– ‘A man with womanish voice’ is said to have dressed as a Wagon Lit conductor
Cast of Characters:
Passengers in Istanbul – Calais coach:
Count and Countess Andrenyi (Hungarians)
Antonio Foscarelli (Italian, a car salesman)
Colonel Arbuthnot (coming from India)
Caroline Hubbard (American)
Cyrus Hardman (a type-writing ribbon salesman)
Princess Dragomiroff (Russian, an aristocrat)
Edward Masterman (English, Ratchett’s valet)
Greta Ohlsson (Swedish)
Hector MacQueen (American, Ratchett’s secretary)
Hildegarde Schmidt (German, Princess Dragomiroff’s maid)
Mary Debenham (a governess travelling from Baghdad)
Samuel Ratchett (the victim)
From the Athens coach:
– M. Bouc (a director at the Compagnie Internationale de Wagon Lits)
– Dr. Constantine
-Pierre Michel, the Wagon Lit conductor
The Most Fascinating Character: Countess Andrenyi (Helena Maria)
‘Is it possible, Mademoiselle, that you did not recognize in the Countess Andrenyi Mrs. Armstrong’s young sister whom you taught in New York?’ asks Poirot to Mary Debenham.
She replies that she has not realised who the Countess was. ‘I noticed her clothes more than her face,’ she reasons. Indeed? Bearing in mind that she only has not seen her for three years, it amazes me that she should not have noticed something about her ex-charge. Particularly that Debenham was in employ by Sonia Armstrong as a secretary and apparently lived under the same roof.
By the same token, the Countess ought to have understood who Miss Debenham was. Apparently she knows and does her best to conceal the other woman’s real identity, having invented the name ‘Miss Freebody’ when enquired by Poirot (Debenham and Freebody is a long-standing clothing shop in Central London).
The grease on her passport is the doing of her husband when the news reached him that a luxurious handkerchief with initial ‘H’ had been found at the crime scene. With an intention to shelter his wife he lies during the interview that her first name is ‘Elena’ instead of Helena. Nonetheless, he solemnly swears to Poirot that his wife never left her compartment on the night of the murder.
Linda Arden’s younger daughter is a poor rich girl like Iris Marle (Sparkling Cyanide). At the time of the kidnapping, she might have been too small to understand hatred and sorrow, but profound sadness at the deaths of an idolised niece Daisy and an elder sister Sonia. Her mother’s deep sentiment towards bringing Ratchett to justice does not seem to affect Helena.
I bow to Christie for her; that her innocence preserved and she sounds to bear no grudge to Ratchett. Perhaps, there is an iota of sympathy for him after all.
About the Armstrongs’s case (summarised by Poirot):
‘Colonel Armstrong was an Englishman – a V.C. [Victoria Cross]. He was half American, as his mother was a daughter of W.K. Van der Halt, the Wall Street millionaire. He married the daughter of Linda Arden, the most famous tragic American actress of her day. They lived in America and had one child – a girl – whom they idolized. When she was three years old she was kidnapped, an an impossibly high sum demanded as the price of her return. I will not weary you with all the intricacies that followed. I will come to the moment, when, after having paid over the enormous sum of two-hundred-thousand dollars, the child’s dead body was discovered, it having been dead at least a fortnight. Public indignation rose to fever point. And there was worse to follow. Following the shock of the discovery, she gave birth to a dead child born prematurely, and herself died. Her broken-hearted husband shot himself.’
-Count Andrenyi: ‘Consider my position. Do you think I could stand the thought of my wife dragged through a sordid police case. She was innocent, I knew it, but what she said was true – because of her connection with the Armstrong family she would have been immediately suspected. She would have been questioned – arrested, perhaps. Since some evil chance had taken us on the same train as this man Ratchett, there was, I felt sure, but one thing for it. I admit, Monsieur, that I lied to you – all, that is, save in one thing. My wife never left her compartment last night.’
– H. MacQueen’s (HM) query to Poirot:
HM: ‘If I’m not being unduly curious, just how did you figure this out? Casetti’s identity, I mean.’
P: ‘By a fragment of a letter found in his compartment.’
HM: ‘But surely – I mean- that was rather careless of the old man?’
P: ‘That depends on the point of view.’