A ride on the Orient Express

I suppose it was inevitable that I would read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” this month, even though it meant interrupting my usual October habit of reading ghost tales and horror stories.

I tried reading Christie long ago, but found the stories lacking. At the time, I preferred detectives who kicked in doors and dodged bullets, or who carefully reconstructed the chains of logic that led to their inescapable conclusions. I don’t actually recall which Christie books I read, but I distinctly recall thinking that her detectives made some logical leaps. After a couple of tries, I avoided further encounters of the Christie kind for the rest of my life. Until now.

Kismet made its first move when we saw the trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming movie based on the book. I like Branagh’s films, the cast is wonderful and it promises to be an excellent actors’ showpiece. Count me in. Having seen the trailer, I thought it might be a good idea to read the book. It is, after all, considered a classic of the mystery genre. I also am very interested in seeing how film directors adapt books to the screen. The mediums of book and film are extraordinarily different, and turning a beloved book into a movie is, in my opinion, a daunting task. So, I made a note to keep my eyes out for a copy and to try to read it before the film came out.

Fate stepped in again shortly after that. A reader of my own mystery novel, “The Bloody Black Flag,” described it as “ like ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ but with pirates.” I pretty much had to give the book a try after that.

To seal the deal, Fate made me the winner of a copy of “Orient Express” from a blog giveaway. When the universe sticks something under your nose that many times, it probably means you should take a look.

So, I read it. And the verdict is … decidedly mixed.

From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a fine book, very atmospheric. I enjoyed reading it, liked the characters and enjoyed the plot. The ending is neat, with a decided twist, and I certainly see why this is a much-beloved book.

I was somewhat underwhelmed, however, by the mystery elements. I will try to explain without spoilers, for if there is a hell, it must contain an especially tormenting section for people who spoil murder mysteries.

First of all, the first big clue in the case is unraveling the identity of the man who was murdered aboard the European train. Christie’s eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, does this thanks to a scrap of paper someone burned at the crime scene. It contains, of course, a handful of words that were not destroyed. That tiny phrase, and a bit of testimony from some unreliable witnesses, at all Poirot needed to identify the murder victim — and that identity is crucial to solving the crime.

The problem for me is that Poirot leaps to a conclusion early on — and I can think of at least two other quite plausible conclusions based upon that scrap of evidence. Poirot merely asserts his deduction, without explaining the logical chain that led him to it. Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe or Ellery Queen would have connected those dots. Not so, Hercule Poirot.

This realization, of course, made me question every other bit of evidence, and, frankly, some of Poirot’s deductions based on those were rather tenuous as well. I like a murder mystery that puts all the clues out there for me to examine, so I have a chance to solve the puzzle. In this book, Christie held back on a couple of things and I felt a bit cheated.

I also think the murder itself is something of a logistical challenge.

So, the book is a fun read, but I did not have a fair chance to solve the puzzle. I am glad I read it, but I probably will not see out more of Christie’s work (unless Branagh tackles “And Then There Were None” or some other Christie novel, and someone compares my book to it, and I win a free copy.

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