Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Facts (An Important Passenger on the Taurus Express) | Summary

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Summary

Two strangers are talking on a train platform in Aleppo, Syria. One is Lieutenant Dubosc, a young French lieutenant whose duty is to see off the other man. The other is Hercule Poirot, a short man with a lavish mustache waiting to board the 5:00 a.m. Taurus Express. Earlier the lieutenant had heard his general and Poirot bidding each other a fond farewell. The general had thanked Poirot profusely for his help, telling him how he had saved the "honor of the French Army" and "averted much bloodshed." Dubosc did not know what Poirot had done. However, he knew that during Poirot's week in Syria, one top-level officer had committed suicide and another had resigned, which had resulted in relieved faces and relaxed military precautions.

While waiting for the train to depart, the men make small talk. Poirot informs Dubosc of his plan to stay in Stamboul for a few days. Mary Debenham looks out the window of her sleeping compartment and sees Poirot, who has just removed his hat, exposing his egg-shaped head. She thinks he is the "sort of little man one could never take seriously."

Aboard the train, the wagon-lit (sleeping car) conductor shows Poirot to his sleeping compartment and says there are only two other passengers: Colonel Arbuthnot, an Englishman from India; and Mary Debenham, a young Englishwoman from Baghdad. Poirot sleeps for a while and then goes to the restaurant car for coffee. There he observes its sole other occupant, a tall, slim, dark, and poised woman around 28 years of age. He decides she "could take care of herself with perfect ease." After a while the train's third passenger enters. The colonel is tall, lean, and brown-skinned, with graying hair at the temples. The man and woman greet each other, and Arbuthnot asks Debenham if he can join her. She agrees, and they share a table without speaking much.

At lunch Arbuthnot and Debenham again share a table and a little more conversation. Both ignore Poirot. Poirot overhears Debenham tell Arbuthnot she had been a governess in Baghdad and is going straight on to England. He thinks Arbuthnot is romantically interested in Debenham, but she acts very cool. Poirot later hears them talking again in the corridor. They no longer sound like two people who have never met before. Debenham says she wishes she could enjoy the beauty of the passing scenery, while Arbuthnot expresses his wish that she "were out of all this." Debenham hushes him. Then he says he doesn't like her being a governess at the "beck and call of tyrannical mothers and their tiresome brats."

Around 11:30 p.m. the train stops at Konya. First the two English travelers, and then Poirot, get off the train to stretch their legs. Poirot overhears them talking on the platform. A less-cool Debenham tells Arbuthnot not to talk of something until "it's all over ... behind us." The next day, Debenham looks anxious and has dark circles under her eyes. Around 2:30 p.m. the train comes to a halt. Poirot overhears Debenham talking with the conductor about the unexpected stop. The conductor says that something under the dining car caught fire and the train will start again shortly. Debenham is concerned the delay will make her miss her boat connection to the Simplon Orient Express; the conductor admits it's possible. The train arrives at Haydapassar five minutes behind schedule, and the train passengers take a boat to Stamboul. After arriving Poirot goes straight to the Tokatlian Hotel.

Analysis

The novel's title foretells a murder. Christie expects the reader to act as an armchair detective, collect the facts, and solve the murder along with Hercule Poirot; this chapter provides many of the facts necessary to do just that. One of the reasons people like Christie's detective fiction is that they get to match wits with Poirot. Like Poirot, the reader must notice key facts and minor details, interpret them correctly, and identify any inconsistencies or incongruities to solve what seems to be an impossible-to-solve murder.

This chapter provides information about several characters essential to the murder investigation. Poirot is a former member of the Belgian military who just completed a high-level assignment involving the French military and possibly related to France's national security. Now he is looking forward to spending a few days as a tourist. He is not a commanding figure and is easily dismissed as inconsequential or ridiculous. He is pleasant, proper, and extremely polite, but he does not seek conversation or companionship with strangers. He is content to spend time by himself and is rather sedentary and inactive. He is a keen observer of people and likes to critique them and see what they are all about.

Mary Debenham is a young Englishwoman who was working as a governess in Baghdad. She is traveling by herself and presents herself as independent, competent, and self-assured. She appears to be cool and collected, but in private, she is anxious and unnerved. Something is gnawing away at her. Readers wonder: what is it?

Colonel Arbuthnot is an English colonel stationed in India. Tall and lean, he presents himself as a proper gentleman looking for a little company with an attractive woman he supposedly has just met on the train. His public conversations with Debenham are a sham, however; he clearly knows more about her than what a stranger would learn in one day. He is protective of Debenham and—like her—is concealing something.

Why do Debenham and Arbuthnot act as if they don't know each other? Why does Arbuthnot dislike Debenham working as a governess? What qualifies him to so freely express his opinion about her work? And why is Debenham so worried about being on time to meet the Simplon Orient Express? Poirot—and readers—will need to find answers to all these questions to solve the book's mystery.

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