Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The January theme for the Read Christie 2020 challenge is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’. The challenge is hosted by agathachristie.com and their selection for this month was Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but that would be a re-read for me so I chose a different title from their list of alternative suggestions: Murder on the Orient Express!

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s best known books and has been adapted several times for television, film and stage, but this is precisely why I’ve been putting off reading it for so long – I already knew the solution to the mystery and thought that might affect my enjoyment of the book. Of course, no adaptation is going to be exactly the same as the written version, and once I started reading I could see that some parts of the story were familiar but not all of it.

At the beginning of the novel, Hercule Poirot is in Turkey when he receives a telegram requesting him to return to London. He attempts to book a first-class berth on the Orient Express which is leaving Istanbul that night, but is told that the train is unusually full. It is only with the assistance of Monsieur Bouc, the director of the railway company, who happens to be an old friend of Poirot’s, that he manages to obtain a space in a second-class compartment. Once on board the train, Poirot observes that his fellow passengers are a very diverse group of people of different nationalities, backgrounds and classes. Among them are an American businessman and his secretary, a Russian princess and her German maid, a British Colonel, a Hungarian Count and Countess and several others.

It is the American businessman, Mr Ratchett, who is found stabbed to death in his compartment just after the train comes to a stop in heavy snow near Vinkovci (in what was then part of Yugoslavia). It seems clear that the murderer must be one of the other passengers on the train, but which one? As Poirot begins to investigate, he uncovers clues that, rather than revealing the truth, seem to complicate things further – and the statements he takes from the passengers appear to contradict each other, making the situation even more confusing. Armed with only his ‘little grey cells’, can Poirot solve the mystery?

Yes, of course he can…and for once, so could I, thanks to already knowing the basic outline of the story before I began. It would certainly have been a better – or at least a different – experience to have read the book with no idea of who was responsible for the murder, but as that wasn’t possible, I still enjoyed watching Poirot sort through the evidence and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think Christie does give us all the information we need, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have been able to guess the solution anyway. Probably not, as I usually don’t.

As well as the mystery, I loved the atmosphere of the book and the claustrophobic feel Christie creates with the simple idea of a train stuck in snow and a murderer onboard. The characterisation is interesting too, although some of the assumptions made about the actions and behaviour of the various suspects based on their nationality feel very dated – for example, M. Bouc’s theory that the murderer must be Italian because the knife is an Italian weapon and Poirot’s reply that he disagrees because the careful, long-term planning requires an ‘Anglo-Saxon brain’. It seems that every passenger on the train has formed a stereotypical view of each of the others and this gives us some insights into attitudes of the time (the book was published in 1934).

Going back to the theme of this month’s Read Christie 2020, I wondered how this book in particular was one that had ‘changed Christie’s life’. Well, it seems that the Orient Express itself did, as she travelled on the train in 1928 to attend an archaeological dig in Syria and it was during this trip that she met the man who would become her second husband. That can certainly be considered a life-changing experience! Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to February’s selection.

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is one of the Christie novels I have been particularly looking forward to reading, as so many people list it amongst their favourites. I had hoped to read it last month as it was September’s selection for the 2019 Read Christie Challenge, but it ended up having to be an October read for me instead.

Published in 1942, Five Little Pigs is one of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, but it is slightly different from the others in that Poirot is trying to solve a crime which took place many years before the novel opens. Carla Lemarchant has received a letter from her mother, Caroline, who has died in prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband, Amyas Crale, sixteen years ago. In the letter, Caroline assures her daughter of her innocence – and because Carla knows that her mother was always a woman who told the truth, she believes her. Hoping to find out what really happened, Carla approaches Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate.

This is not Poirot’s usual sort of mystery – there is no active crime scene to visit and any evidence is likely to have been lost or destroyed long ago – but he agrees to Carla’s request. He begins by collecting statements from the five people who, other than Caroline, had been present on the day of the murder: the stockbroker Phillip Blake and his reclusive brother Meredith; Elsa Greer, with whom Amyas Crale was thought to be having an affair; the governess Cecelia Williams; and Caroline’s younger sister, Angela, who was just a teenager at the time. If Caroline was innocent, then one of these five must have been the murderer – but will it still be possible to identify the real culprit now that so much time has passed?

I can understand why Five Little Pigs is so highly regarded by Christie fans. The characterisation is excellent; the suspects are well drawn and have believable motives for wanting Amyas dead, and there is evidence of character development too, in the contrast between their present day selves and the people they had been sixteen years earlier. The structure is clever too – the statement each character writes is given in full and although I thought at first that I would find it repetitive reading about the same events five times in a row, that wasn’t really a problem. Each account of that fateful day is slightly different and each one makes us question what we were told in the previous one. It’s only once Poirot has all five accounts in front of him and has spoken to all five of the writers in person that he can piece everything together and solve the mystery.

I enjoyed this book but it hasn’t become a personal favourite and there are other Poirots I’ve liked more. The problem I had with this one was that, although I appreciated the structure and the characters, I didn’t find the mystery itself particularly imaginative or entertaining. I thought The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness both had better plots, to give two examples that I’ve read this year for the Read Christie challenge. Having just caught up with September’s book at the end of October, I am going to skip October’s book for the challenge (a new short story collection, The Last Séance) and will wait to see what November’s choice will be.

And if you’re wondering, the title of Five Little Pigs refers to the fact that the five suspects remind Poirot of the children’s rhyme, “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home; This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none; And this little piggy went ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home!”

This is book #6 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness (also published in the US as Poirot Loses a Client) was May’s selection for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge I’ve been taking part in this year. I missed last month’s because the chosen book – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – was one I’d read before and wasn’t ready to read again – but this one was new to me and sounded very appealing.

Published in 1937, Dumb Witness is one of several Christie novels which feature her famous detective Hercule Poirot and are narrated by his friend Captain Hastings. The novel opens with the family of old Emily Arundell gathering to celebrate the Easter weekend at her home, Littlegreen House, in the fictional village of Market Basing. Emily’s dog, Bob, is excited because there are more people to play his favourite game with him – bouncing his ball from the top of the stairs to the bottom. When Emily gets up during the night and falls down the stairs, however, it’s poor Bob who gets the blame. He must have left his ball there and his mistress didn’t see it in the dark; what other explanation could there be? And yet…

Surely — surely, she must be mistaken…One often had queer fancies after an event had happened. She tried — earnestly she tried — to recall the slippery roundness of Bob’s ball under her foot…
But she could recall nothing of the kind.
Instead —

Convinced that her fall was not an accident and not Bob’s fault, Emily writes to Hercule Poirot and hints that she would like him to investigate the ‘incident of the dog’s ball’, but by the time he receives the letter it’s too late. Emily Arundell is dead, presumably of natural causes. Studying the letter she sent him, Poirot is sure that it wasn’t a natural death at all so, with Hastings by his side, he sets off for Littlegreen House to prove that Miss Arundell has been murdered.

There is certainly no shortage of suspects. Her nieces and nephew and their partners are all in need of money for various reasons and could all have had an opportunity to carry out the murder, while the person who does actually benefit financially from her death – her companion, Miss Lawson – also has to be considered. Then there are the other servants at Littlegreen House, as well as two spiritualist women who claim to have seen a halo of light around Emily Arundell’s head. With her usual skill, Christie directs our suspicions first at one character, then at another, and although I kept thinking I had identified the culprit, I didn’t manage to guess the correct solution until just before it was revealed. However, I did still pick up on one or two important clues before Poirot did, so I don’t need to feel too ashamed!

I really enjoyed this particular Poirot novel; I usually do tend to enjoy the ones narrated by Hastings and I wish there had been a few more of them. The real star of this book, though, has to be Bob the dog! Although he is presumably the ‘dumb witness’ of the title, Christie gives him a personality of his own – and even some dialogue, of a sort. It’s little touches like this that made this book so entertaining. Now I’m wondering what the June choice for the challenge will be.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

When I read about the Read Christie 2019 Challenge hosted at www.agathachristie.com – the idea being to tick off twelve books from twelve different categories over the course of the year – I was immediately tempted to join in. I didn’t want to think of it as a challenge as such, or make a definite commitment, but I thought I could use the monthly prompts to get through some of the many Christies I still haven’t read. This month’s category is “a recent TV adaptation” and the suggested book is The ABC Murders. I had started to watch the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders which was shown at Christmas, but struggled to get into it, so I thought I would try the book instead. And what a great book it is!

The murder of Alice Ascher in her small tobacconist shop in the town of Andover seems as though it should be an easy one to solve. There is an obvious culprit – the woman’s drunken husband – and he would certainly have been the prime suspect, if not for a mysterious coincidence which happened just days before the murder. Hercule Poirot had received a typewritten letter signed simply A.B.C. and warning of a crime to be committed in Andover on that particular date – and beside the body of the dead woman was a copy of the ABC Railway Guide.

But this will not be the only murder to take place:

‘I admit,’ I said, ‘that a second murder in a book often cheers things up. If the murder happens in the first chapter, and you have to follow up everybody’s alibi until the last page but one – well, it does get a bit tedious.’

When a similar letter arrives soon afterwards giving advance warning of a second murder which will happen in Bexhill, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Poirot when the second victim has a name beginning with B and when another ABC Guide is found next to the body. Convinced now that the killer is following an alphabetical pattern, Poirot must uncover his or her identity before they get all the way to Z.

This is one of several Poirot novels narrated by Captain Hastings (although there are a few chapters written from the perspective of other characters). I always seem to enjoy the ones with Hastings, partly because he, like the reader, is often in the dark and needs Poirot to explain things to him, but also because I think Poirot having a friend to discuss things with gives these books a different dynamic to the ones where he is working entirely on his own amongst strangers. Sometimes Hastings can make an observation or suggestion which proves to be useful later on, as he does once or twice in this book. Inspector Crome is investigating too, and a ‘legion’ of the victims’ families and friends is also formed to see whether they can shed any light on the situation.

What makes this book so intriguing is that each of the murders which takes place seems unrelated to the others, apart from the ABC theme and the letters sent to Poirot. They each have a separate set of suspects, all with their own motives, but what Poirot needs to do is find something which links them all to one man or woman – the mysterious A.B.C. I found this a particularly clever Christie novel and didn’t come close to solving it. I allowed myself to be sent in completely the wrong direction by the red herrings and took everything at face value; in fact, for a long time I thought I was reading a different sort of mystery entirely.

I loved this one and I think I did the right thing in reading it before trying to watch the adaptation again. I’m planning to read another Christie novel in February, although I don’t know what it will be yet – I’m waiting to see what the chosen category will be for the next stage of the challenge.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

With this year’s R.I.P. Challenge rapidly coming to a close, I decided to squeeze an Agatha Christie novel in before the end of the month. Hallowe’en Party was one I hadn’t read before so I thought it would be a good choice for a late October read. As one of the final Poirot novels, published in 1969 towards the end of Christie’s career, I wasn’t expecting it to be one of her better books – and I don’t think it was – but I did still enjoy reading it.

At the beginning of the book, Mrs Drake is hosting a Halloween party for a group of teenagers. One of them, thirteen-year-old Joyce, who likes to be the centre of attention, tries to impress the others by insisting that she had once been a witness to a murder. Knowing Joyce’s reputation for telling lies, nobody believes her…but at the end of the party, she is found dead, drowned in the bucket of water which had been used for the traditional Halloween game of bobbing for apples. It seemed that somebody may have believed Joyce after all and has murdered her before she can say any more.

Among the adults helping out at the party is the crime novelist, Ariadne Oliver, who summons her old friend, Hercule Poirot, to the village, sure that he will be able to identify Joyce’s killer. But when Poirot arrives he quickly discovers that before he can begin to solve the mystery of Joyce’s death, there’s another murder to investigate first: the one which Joyce claimed to have witnessed and which someone was so desperate to cover up that they were prepared to kill again.

As I said, I found this an enjoyable Poirot novel but not a great one. The solution to the mystery didn’t seem as complex or original as some of the others and I found some of the characters hard to distinguish from each other. Having said that, I did guess who had committed the murders before the truth was revealed – although I have to confess my guess was just based on gut instinct and not because I’m a better detective than Poirot. There are some other surprises towards the end as well, although one particular revelation felt too far-fetched – it seemed to come out of nowhere with no real reason for it.

I enjoyed reading about the preparations for the party and the games that were played at it, but I was slightly disappointed that the Halloween theme didn’t continue after the first few chapters. The rest of the book could have been set at any time of the year, really. It’s still quite an atmospheric book, though; I particularly loved the descriptions of the ‘sunk garden’ in the quarry where some of the later scenes take place.

There’s not much more I can say about this book. It’s a good entry in the series, although not my favourite, and if you’re already a Poirot fan I’m sure you’ll find a lot to like – especially if you’ve read some of the earlier books featuring Ariadne Oliver. If you’re new to Poirot, I would probably recommend choosing a different one to start with.

I’m counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).

The 1947 Club: The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

1947-club-pink This week, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are hosting a 1947 Club. The idea is that we all read and review books which were published in 1947, forming an overview of the literary world in that particular year. Having enjoyed the books I read for the first two clubs – 1924 and 1938 – I’ve been looking forward to taking part in this one.

First, here are some reviews of 1947 novels previously posted on my blog:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

I can highly recommend all three of those – and I also enjoyed the book I chose to read for the club: Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules. I love Christie and as it’s been a while since I read one of her books, I was pleased to find that she’d had one published in 1947!

the-labours-of-hercules The Labours of Hercules begins with a foreword in which we learn that Hercule Poirot is planning to retire from crime-solving and devote himself to the growing of marrows. Before giving up detective work for good, he decides to take on twelve more cases, each inspired by one of the twelve Labours of Hercules from Greek mythology. This is in response to a friend who has pointed out that although Poirot may be Herculean by name, he is hardly Herculean by nature!

The foreword is followed by twelve stories, each one a complete mystery in itself. If you’re familiar with the original Labours of Hercules (Poirot himself admits to having no knowledge of the Classics and has to do some research before beginning his mission), you will know that the first one involves the slaying of the Nemean Lion. The ‘lion’ of Poirot’s first Labour is slightly less terrifying – a Pekinese dog stolen during a walk in the park – but it forms the basis of a case which is much more intriguing than it initially appears. The other stories in the book are also loosely related to the Labours but instead of tackling monsters and wild beasts, Poirot finds himself facing an assortment of thieves, drug dealers, kidnappers and murderers.

Until now, I have only read full-length Poirot novels and have avoided the short story collections as I often find short stories disappointing, lacking the depth and complexity I prefer in longer books. However, this particular collection is surprisingly satisfying; fun to read, nicely varied and with at least one clever twist in each story. I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but a few of my favourites were The Stymphalean Birds, in which Poirot attempts to rescue a British politician from the clutches of a pair of blackmailers, and The Cretan Bull, where a young woman seeks Poirot’s help after her fiancé ends their engagement because he fears he’s going insane. I also enjoyed The Erymanthian Boar, set in a hotel on top of a mountain in Switzerland to which Poirot has travelled in the hope of disturbing a rendezvous arranged by a dangerous Parisian gangster.

Poirot is very much alone throughout most of his adventures in this book. We don’t see anything of Captain Hastings, but other recurring characters from the series do make an appearance in some of the stories, including Chief Inspector Japp, Poirot’s valet, Georges, and his secretary, Miss Lemon (I loved her brief but hilarious role in the final story, The Capture of Cerberus, when Poirot asks her what she would do if a friend wanted to meet her in Hell).

Apart from one or two stories towards the end which I found slightly weaker than the others, I really enjoyed reading this collection. I’m sorry that I’m not going to have time to read anything else this week for the 1947 Club, but I’m pleased that the one book I have read proved to be such a good choice!

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirots Christmas I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas! Mine hasn’t been great, unfortunately. My grandfather, who is eighty-five, fell and broke his shoulder last week and has been in hospital over Christmas. Because of his age and poor general health, the doctors haven’t been able to say whether he will make a full recovery or when he might be able to go home. My grandmother, who also has health problems, can’t be left on her own so we are all helping out with taking care of her until we know what long-term arrangements will need to be made. As you can probably imagine, it’s been quite a stressful time and not conducive to writing good book reviews, so this is just a short post to record some thoughts on a recent Christmas-themed read.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a classic locked-room murder mystery which begins with an elderly millionaire, Simeon Lee, inviting various members of his family to spend Christmas with him at his home, Gorston Hall. The family are surprised and suspicious – they are not all on speaking terms and as they begin to gather at Simeon’s house tensions are running high. When the old man is found dead in a pool of blood in his locked bedroom on Christmas Eve, there is no shortage of suspects.

Who could the killer be? Could it be one of Simeon’s sons – the money-obsessed George, maybe, or Harry, who has been estranged from the rest of the family for many years – or one of their wives? What about Pilar Estravados, Simeon’s granddaughter, newly arrived from Spain? Or Stephen Farr, son of Simeon’s former business partner, who has come unexpectedly from South Africa? Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and as he begins to piece together what happened on the night of the murder, some family secrets are brought to light.

This is not very high on my list of favourite Agatha Christie novels, but I did enjoy it. As usual, I failed to solve the mystery before Poirot did and although there were a few times when I thought I’d figured it out, I never even came close to being correct! Despite the title, it’s not a particularly Christmassy book (Christmas Day passes almost without mention) but I found it fun, entertaining and quick to read, which is just what I was in the mood for. I was reminded of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, which is also set at Christmas and has a similar storyline.

With plenty of other unread Christie novels still to look forward to, I’m sure I’ll be reading more Poirot in 2016.