Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: a #bookreview of Murder on the Orient Express

Content Warnings: a very stab-y murder and negative assumptions about people from other countries (such as Italians always stab people when they commit murder).

I did it.

My first Agatha Christie novel.

Okay, so my book club picked Murder on the Orient Express with the desire to possibly see the new Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh film version together. I don’t like mysteries and/or detective stories and here’s why: I’m not smart enough.

You ever try to use spatial reasoning, say, like trying to make origami following drawn instructions?

origami

Or plugging your USB cable into the computer in the right direction? Well, my detective skills are about as lousy.

USB

Detective/mystery authors love to put in as many twists and red herrings as possible so that I can’t follow who did what or why. And if I don’t know, I’m not going to keep reading. Do you have that friend who keeps asking why something happened during a movie you’re both watching for the first time? That’s me.

plot twist.gif

Murder on the Orient Express stars the famous Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who travels the globe (I think) to solve mysteries. In this book, the 10th starring him, Poirot is in Aleppo and headed to Istanbul when he receives an urgent call to head back to London. The news is unexpected (especially to me, since I don’t know what’s in London), but it does cause him to conveniently end up on a certain train where a horrible man no one will miss is murdered in the middle of the night while the train is stuck in the snow in a remote — and super freezing — location. No one could have gotten on or off the train. That makes the suspect list 12 passengers long.

So, I wasn’t sure about this whole Agatha Christie thing, despite all the bloggers’ amazing words about her novels — and devotion to Christie’s many detectives… Poirot, Miss Marple, the other ones. I checked to see if I should watch the new film first, or just read the book. Everyone said read the book first. So I watched the film. Michelle Pfeiffer, god rest her amazing Catwoman character, was a terrible choice for Mrs. Hubbard. She wasn’t frantic and shouty enough.

catwoman.gif
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns.

In a fit of angst, I checked to see if my library had an audio book version of Murder on the Orient Express. There were two versions: one read by Sir Branagh himself, and one read by Dan Stevens. I chose Dan Stevens, whom I had never heard of. Stevens’s voice acting was breathtaking. Each of the 12 passengers on the train, plus Hercule Poirot, Monsieur Bouc, a doctor, and some train staff get unique voices. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have liked the novel at all had I not heard the French, British, American, and Swedish accents. I’ll listen to anything read by Dan Stevens from now on. You can hear a sample online.

dan stevens
Dan Stevens

The plot avoided what I hated: twisty turns designed only to deceive. Poirot is a methodical detective, one who does each step in order. While I could easily follow along with the plot, I also felt like the book took forever. First we get the circumstances that get Poirot onto the train. Then the murder. Then question each of the 12 passengers. Then go through and search the luggage of each of the 12 passengers. Then talk to half the passengers again. Finally, the big reveal. Each scene during which Poirot talks to a character is a chapter of its own, so the book is speedy, and if you like short chapters so you can stop and go easily, Murder on the Orient Express is for you. I usually listened to one chapter each night before bed.

Although Agatha Christie kept it simple and straightforward, I also wasn’t drawn in. The may be due to my mistake of watching the over-dramatic film version (ugh) and thus knowing the ending. Or, it’s possible that I really, really don’t like mysteries. I do enjoy reading other people’s excitement when they read mysteries; I experience the happiness vicariously.

Thanks for that!

dan stevens gif.gif
While writing this review I learned Dan Stevens played the beast in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. Also some British stuff, like Downton Abbey?
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41 comments

  1. Well, now we have to watch the old BBC version of the movie. We keeping hearing that it is the best one, so we may need to make a library run this week.

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    • Good idea! I can’t remember who said to watch the old on….maybe a thread on Fiction Fan’s blog? The woman said she refused to see the newest version because she loved the actor in the old one so much.

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  2. Thanks for your review! Obviously I love this book (one of the few mysteries that I’ve reread a few times), but I can understand you not being particularly engrossed. I don’t stress too much about trying to solve the mystery when I read Christie novels–I am happy to potter along doing my best and enjoy watching the process unfold, and I guess right about 20% of the time–but she is not the best writer outside of the cleverness of her puzzles, so if those aren’t a draw in themselves, I can totally see that this wouldn’t be for you!

    If you do want to watch a better adaptation, I recommend the David Suchet version. He starred in adaptations of all of the Poirot novels and short stories over the course of about 25 years, and by the time they filmed Orient Express he really had the part perfected to a T. I haven’t seen the new film and have no especially strong desire to do so, because his is too wonderful.

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    • My husband says he never tries to solve the mystery either… I wonder if it’s less that I want to solve them and more that I don’t know what’s happening, so my English degree brain kicks in and says, “reread the passage until you get it.” Well, that doesn’t work! 😅

      I’m going to see if my library has the film version you mentioned. I don’t recommend the new one. I felt like most characters were cast poorly, even if I love the actor. Even Judy Dench seemed wrong for the princess, though I love her work in other films.

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  3. Ah! I love Agatha Christie, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Orient Express movie/Kenneth Branagh/the mustache (the scenery was gorgeous though). You should read An Appointment with Death if you decide to read another Agatha Christie- I think it does a really good job of drawing the reader in through the interesting characters.

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  4. Have to say that even though everyone goes on about Orient being Christie’s best work, I’ve always felt rather meh about it. Personally, I love some of her stand-alone novels – ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’ is SO funny, and ‘The Pale Horse’ has some fantastic twists. ‘Sleeping Murder’ is probably my favorite Miss Marple story, and I LOVE Tommy and Tuppence, who only starred in a few books (starting with ‘The Secret Adversary’). ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ may be my favorite Poirot.

    Anyway, point being, I do love Christie, but definitely think that her books can be hit or miss. I personally think that her earlier works are her stronger ones – a lot of her writing in the 60’s got kind of rambly and not as concise. But even if you don’t really care for mysteries all that much, so many of her books are just plain good stories, and well worth the effort.

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  5. I’m not an Agatha Christie fan, her writing is too mannered for me, and her detective fiction seems always to depend on a situation where the suspects are held together artificially for a number of days. I listen to lots of British and American detective stories and while I might sometimes guess whodunnit I never bother to work through the clues or even think much at all while the story progresses.

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    • I was just telling another reader that my husband doesn’t try to figure out the solution, and he seems much happier. For me, the anxiety is too much. For instance, in The Blue Castle, at the very end, a new character is mentioned as if he had always been in the story. I felt like I forgot some pivotal person! Because I was reading an ebook, I searched for the name. It was no where else in the novel. Come to find out, this random person is the main character in a different nice by the same author. It’s as if she wrote do much that she forgot who did what! Meanwhile, I felt stupid. That’s how I feel about mysteries: like I just missed something. Murder on the Orient Express didn’t do that to me, but still.

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  6. Well, I’m glad you didn’t hate it at least! (And isn’t Dan Stevens rather… *swoons*) Honestly, I know it has a great reputation and all, but I’ve never thought this was one of Christie’s absolute best – I think it’s famous because of the solution rather than the story. Please read Death on the Nile. Please! And then watch the film of it with Peter Ustinov and Mia Farrow. BUT DO NOT WATCH THE FILM FIRST!!! Or I shall haunt you in years to come… 😱

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  7. Yes, reading the book first is always a good idea, which I did when I read this one. I was a bit disappointed by the movie, especially with the over-dramatization parts. It was a bit silly actually, towards the end I thought.

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  8. Dan Stevens is one of my favorite narrators for audiobooks, but until just now, I never realized that he was the guy from Downton Abbey. I add my voice to FictionFan’s recommendation of Death on the Nile. And she’s right, DON’T watch the movie first!!

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  9. So delighted for you at the very least to discover Dan Stevens (Downton seasons 1 and 2 are divine) :D. I think I read a hundred Agatha Christie novels one year in high school – they blur together and have many dated (at best) characterizations, but she did write a satisfying mystery! I don’t think I can bear to see the film and be disappointed….

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    • I wouldn’t. I’m not a Christie fan and even I could tell the actors were all wrong. Most people I know had a Stephen King obsession in high school. I don’t remember reading much in high school 😬 I should check out Downton Abbey at my library; everyone loves it.

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  10. I’m not a big mystery fan, either, and I’m not really sure why. I think for me I just don’t like to not know. I prefer fiction that tells us what has happened and then examines how everything got to that point. However, I’m also well aware that I haven’t read enough mysteries to really know for sure.
    My daughter is planning to read Agatha Christie – it’ll be interesting to see what she thinks of it. Her usual genre is sci-fi/fantasy.

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  11. To paraphrase you, “Everyone said read the book first, so I watched the movie.” You are quite the contrarian, my friend. I can’t say I was enthralled with the book either. Unlike you, I love a good twisty mystery. While I certainly didn’t guess the culprit, I also wasn’t picking up on the clues. I’m not sure if I just wasn’t smart enough, or if the clues are less noticeable/relevant in this day and age. Great review, I quite enjoy the use of pictures, otherwise, I never would have realized that Dan Stevens is Matthew Crawley 💖

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    • Is Matthew Crowley from Downton Abbey? Also, I thought you were really into thrillers! I guess those have a mystery element but lack the detective. I still need to read The Ice Twins; one kid is dead, but which one?!

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  12. First of all– it took me this long to realize you redesigned your blog again! I really REALLY like it. It’s clean and crisp and easy to read. I love the color scheme and how simple it is to find relevant information. Second of all– do you often use GIFs in your reviews? This is an exciting change! I am not a huge fan of them often, but I think it worked really well in this particular review. Nicely done!!

    I am hit-or-miss with mysteries. My mother LOVES them. Neither of us could really get into Christie’s writing style, however. I enjoy them, particularly when I see the stage productions, but I don’t seek them out often. There is too much detail. Plus, I almost ALWAYS figure it out before halfway and I get bored. The only Christie I didn’t figure out before the end was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It would probably infuriate you. Don’t read it. 😉

    Is your book club going to see the film?

    YES ON DAN STEVENS. He is one of my favorite audiobook narrators. He and John Keating and Jim Dale. They all do some great voices and wonderful accents. I listened to Dan Steven read Roald Dahl’s Boy and fell completely in love. I am waiting for his reading of Frankenstein to come in from the library. I’ve heard great things. Do you have other favorite audiobook narrators I should be looking out for?

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    • I changed my blog design because I realized the “jacket” I had didn’t support widgets on the sides of the home page. I don’t often use gifs, but I did for Murder On the Orient Express and my year end post because the gifs really helped me express myself with a bit of humor. I don’t normally try to be terribly funny in reviews. I can think of any other favorite audio book narrators. There needs to be a clear, crisp voice at a reasonable pace with good production quality. The more voices they can do, the better.

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      • It’s amazing how important our blog themes are. I have thought a few times about changing my theme so I could have some additional features, but it’s so complicated… I don’t know if it’s worth it. I’m not tech-saavy nor motivated enough to learn all the details to make it less complicated. O_o

        I like the switch to gifs in order to bring out your sense of humor. It’s okay that you’re not lighthearted and funny all the time. 😉 I like your reviews just as they are. In fact, it’s the informative, professional, and thoughtful nature of your reviews which really draws me in. But it’s fun to mix it up sometimes. XD

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  13. I’m glad you tried to read a Christie novel! I haven’t read this one of hers yet – I think I’ve completed through book 6 of the Poirot series, and I’m a stickler about reading mysteries in order. So, one day I’ll get to this one! Hopefully somewhat soon 🙂 You brought up a good point about Christie – about how she’s very straightforward. She really was a master at writing mysteries!

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