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Murder on the Orient Express | Context

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Golden Age of Detective Fiction

The golden age of detective fiction, which peaked during the 1920s and 1930s, produced classic murder mysteries, many of them by British authors. Unlike many other kinds of literature, golden age detective novels don't aspire to art or fine literary style. Instead they are a unique form of entertainment allowing readers to solve—or try to solve—the novel's mystery along with the detective. Golden age mysteries are distinct from the standard mystery in several ways.

Plot

The central mystery of the plot is plausible. It has nothing to do with supernatural forces or otherworldly elements. Unlike contemporary psychological thrillers and suspense novels, the classic detective novel has no thrilling action. The plot consists of a series of events leading up to the murder, the discovery of the murder, and the investigation. The murder usually happens near the beginning of the story, as in Ratchett's death early in Murder on the Orient Express. The bulk of the plot concerns gathering evidence and interpreting it to solve the murder.

The plot is highly crafted and features clues mystifying both the detective and readers. The murderer may be the most or least obvious suspect. The reader, like the story's detective, must use reasoning skills to solve the puzzle. The more complex or challenging the puzzle, the more popular the novel. In Murder on the Orient Express, the plot features a twist few readers may anticipate, yet one that perfectly explains all the clues leading up to it.

Conflict

Solving the conflict or the seemingly perfect and impossible-to-solve crime is the whole focus of a golden age detective novel. The characters exist only as props for the puzzle. The author does not invite the reader to identify with the characters or to have strong feelings about them. For this reason Christie does not flesh out her characters. She does not provide detailed descriptions of their appearances or personalities. Instead she presents them as stereotypical characters—types everyone has met. For example, Mrs. Hubbard is—or presents herself as—a familiar type, a self-centered person with a loud mouth.

Another cardinal rule of golden age detective fiction, one faithfully followed by Christie, is to avoid depicting violence. The crime is not described; it remains "off stage"—something happens but is not recounted in real time, as in Ratchett's killing in Murder on the Orient Express. There are no gory descriptions of the victim's body or crime scene. Golden age novels offer only the most necessary and sanitized details to show a crime has taken place.

Characters

The murder victims often are criminals—such as Ratchett, who is guilty of kidnapping and murder—or possess flaws making them unsympathetic and preventing the reader from liking or identifying with them. Again this keeps the focus on solving the crime rather than rooting for or against a specific character.

The detectives in golden age novels in general are arbiters of good and evil. Thanks to their superior intellect and morality, they can uncover the truth and discern the appropriate punishment. Christie's Hercule Poirot is a prime example of this: he is brilliant at detecting and has a profound sense of right and wrong, one that does not necessarily follow the letter of the law. In Murder on the Orient Express, he condones a crime he considers just.

Resolution

After a preponderance of clues and a lot of misdirection, the solution fully explains how the crime occurred and ties together all the clues without leaving any loose ends. And most of all, the crime's solution is fair, meaning the author provides all the facts necessary for the reader to solve the mystery. The novel's detective cannot use knowledge or information the reader doesn't have. These unique characteristics, or rules, set the standard for the detective genre and Agatha Christie's writing.

Real-Life Influences

The Orient Express

The Orient Express was the name of three trains traveling a route between England and Istanbul, Turkey. In 1872 Georges Nagelmackers founded a train company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, providing luxury service between the Middle East and Europe. It became the preferred mode of travel for royalty and wealthy individuals. The company later added routes to Venice, Italy, and other destinations.

Christie traveled on the Orient Express several times, but her decision to use it as the setting for Murder on the Orient Express has more to do with trains in general than with specifics of this particular line. Christie wanted to create a self-contained environment in which the murderer and suspects exist. A train, particularly one stuck in a snowstorm, is particularly suited to the purpose. No one can get on or off, so the plot does not need to consider external events or characters. Christie keeps details about the Orient Express to a minimum. She provides no descriptions of the coaches or compartments other than generic details to be found on any train. She refers to places along the route primarily to show the train's isolation when it is caught in the snowstorm. Using a well-known and highly desirable train lends glamour to the characters and setting, but keeping details about the setting to a minimum makes readers focus on the crime.

1929 Snowstorm

On January 29, 1929, the real Orient Express left Paris, France, for Baghdad, Iraq. Its passengers included diplomats, businessmen, Jesuit priests, an opium smuggler, the private secretary to the British ambassador to Turkey, and a high-strung Austrian woman traveling alone. Snow fell as the train crossed central Europe. At Venice, Italy, the Wagons-Lits office received a telegram saying the temperature had dropped below zero to nearly 40 degrees Celsius in Romania. The Wagons-Lits staff assumed this was a typo, and the train continued. At Budapest the chef de train called Paris about the severe weather report and was told to continue the journey. After the train crossed into Turkey, a stationmaster notified the Orient Express crew that the tracks were covered with snow. The train kept moving despite the warning. Near the village of Cherkes Keui, a few miles beyond the border with Turkey, the train got stuck in the snow and finally stopped.

The snowstorm lasted three days, and strong winds buried some of the cars in snowdrifts. A group of passengers and crew spent two days tunneling through the snow to a nearby village in search of help. The villagers were hostile and distrustful of the strangers and sold them one chicken for the chef de train's spare change. The group returned to the Orient Express, got money from the passengers, and returned to the village, where they finally got supplies at highly inflated prices. After 10 days, rescuers dug out the Orient Express, and it resumed its journey.

News of the Orient Express's stranding generated headlines around the world. Christie used the incident to create a similar stranding in Murder on the Orient Express. She modeled several characters after those traveling aboard the stranded train, including a Hungarian diplomat, several salespeople, and a woman claiming to be a missionary. She also created an overly anxious female passenger traveling alone: Mrs. Hubbard.

Lindbergh Kidnapping and Murder

In another historical event, American aviator Charles Lindbergh became internationally famous when he flew his plane, Spirit of St. Louis, from New York City, New York, to Paris, France, on May 20 and 21, 1927. It was the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next few years he stayed in the spotlight as he made flights throughout Europe and North America. He married Anne Morrow, a senator's daughter who later became a well-known author, and they had a son, Charles Augustus Jr. On March 1, 1932, 20-month-old Charles was kidnapped from his nursery in the family's New Jersey home. A ransom note was found on the nursery's windowsill. A series of 12 additional ransom notes followed over the next month. Lindbergh's lawyer delivered the ransom to a stranger on April 2, but the child was not returned. His body was found on May 12, 1932, partially buried in a shallow grave near a highway less than five miles from the Lindberghs' home. He was apparently killed by a blow to the head shortly after his kidnapping.

The case gained front-page national and international headlines and became known as the "crime of the century." It resulted in a global outpouring of sympathy for the Lindbergh family and calls for the perpetrators' capture and prosecution. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) led the investigation, which included a myriad of false leads from publicity seekers, fraudsters, and the misinformed. Finally Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the crime in September 1934. He was convicted of murder in 1935 and put to death the following year. The crime so shocked the public that the government made kidnapping a federal offense.

Daisy Armstrong's fictional kidnapping in Murder on the Orient Express bears striking similarities to the Lindbergh case. Daisy was three; the Lindbergh baby was almost two. Both had wealthy parents who were celebrities or from a celebrity family. Both victims were killed shortly after they were kidnapped, although the kidnappers continued to make ransom requests and collect them after the children's death. The victims' bodies were found weeks or months after they were kidnapped and killed. And in both cases a family employee killed herself after being questioned by the police. Violet Sharp, a maid for the Lindberghs, swallowed poison to avoid questioning, and in Christie's novel, the Armstrongs' nursemaid throws herself out a window. But the cases differ in several ways, too. Hauptmann, the Lindbergh kidnapper, was found guilty during his trial and sentenced to death. Cassetti, who uses the alias Samuel Ratchett, is tried for his crimes and acquitted.

Hercule Poirot

In her autobiography Agatha Christie describes how she created detective Hercule Poirot, the central character for her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). At the time, British novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories were very popular. Christie was a fan, but for her own books she wanted a detective very different from Doyle's brilliant inspector, Sherlock Holmes.

Hercule Poirot is a retired Belgian police officer. This choice may have been influenced by a group of Belgian refugees living in Torquay, Christie's hometown, when she started writing her novel. While many British people at the time considered themselves superior to people of other nationalities, the Belgian war refugees had generated considerable sympathy, so a Belgian detective would be an acceptable figure to British readers.

Poirot appears in 33 of Christie's novels. His status as a retired police officer, especially one who was the star of the Belgian force, indicates his superior detecting skills and ample crime-solving experience. Because he is no longer associated with an official law enforcement agency, he has the autonomy and freedom to choose his cases and his methods, some of which are unorthodox.

He is described as a seemingly harmless individual, one who appears rather comical and insignificant. He is short and has an egg-shaped head and a twirling mustache. He is eccentric and prone to odd phrases. But his appearance is deceiving. He is a master at logic and reasoning and uses his brain's "gray cells" to make deductions and solve crimes. Because of his benign appearance, others sometimes view him as inconsequential, which keeps them off guard and helps him solve the crime. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, Mary Debenham dismisses him as inconsequential when she observes him on the train platform. Both she and Colonel Arbuthnot are unconcerned about his presence in the dining car, seeing him as a piece of the scenery. After Poirot figures out several passengers' true identities, Cyrus Hartman compliments him for his deductive skills, noting, "No one would believe it to look at you." Those who know Poirot, however—including the criminals he pursues—never underestimate him.

Poirot is fascinated with observing people and human nature. He uses basic psychological concepts to profile people and understand who they are and what motivates them. When he talks to them, he always pays heed to revealing slips of the tongue and the inconsistencies, which often provide clues to help him solve a case. Extremely methodical, he is unwilling to draw conclusions until he carefully examines and interprets every shred of evidence. To Poirot, discovering the truth is more important than closing a case, so he never rushes to judgment.

A firm believer in law and justice, Poirot usually turns over criminals to the authorities. But in rare cases, including Murder on the Orient Express, he decides justice is best served by allowing the murderer or murderers to go free. This reflects Poirot's belief in an absolute truth, or morality, which transcends the limitations of justice imposed by a country's laws.

Hercule Poirot is one of the most famous detectives in detective fiction. Christie finally kills him off in Curtain: Poirot's Last Case (1975), which returns him to the country-house setting of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel in which he appears. After Poirot's fictional death, several newspapers published his obituary, indicating just how endearing and well known the character had become to the reading public.

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