Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 1, Chapter 2 : The Facts (The Tokatlian Hotel) | Summary

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Summary

Hercule Poirot books a room at the Tokatlian Hotel and finds letters and telegrams waiting for him. One informs him he needs to return to London immediately due to an unexpected change in one of his cases. He cancels his room, books first-class sleeping accommodations on the Simplon Orient train departing at 9:00 p.m., and then goes to eat in the hotel's restaurant. There he encounters M. Bouc, a Belgian man who is the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and a longtime acquaintance. They talk briefly, and Poirot then dines alone. While eating, he observes two Americans at a nearby table. One is a "likable-looking young man of thirty." The other is a man between 60 and 70 years old with small, deep-set eyes and "a strange malevolence, and unnatural tensity" in his glance. His voice has a "queer, soft, dangerous quality."

Poirot sees Bouc again and asks what he thinks of the two men. Bouc says the younger man seems agreeable but he doesn't care for the older one. Poirot shares his impressions: when the older man passed him earlier, he felt the man was like a "wild animal" and evil had crossed his path.

Poirot can't get a first-class sleeping accommodation because they are all booked. Bouc tells him not to worry; he can have the No. 16 compartment, which is always kept empty. When Bouc and Poirot board the train, Bouc asks the wagon-lit conductor to put Poirot in the No. 16 compartment. The conductor informs him it is already taken and there are no vacancies except for one in which the passenger has not yet arrived. Poirot takes the available berth, No. 7, in a second-class compartment, and goes to it. He discovers he will be sharing the compartment with the young American he had seen in the restaurant, Hector MacQueen. The wagon-lit conductor hoists Poirot's suitcases onto the overhead racks. MacQueen and Poirot talk briefly as the train departs the station on its three-day journey.

Analysis

In Christie's works every fact and detail matter, but the significance of each is not readily apparent. Instead the narrator reveals details in a seemingly inconsequential manner, almost as asides. For example, when Hercule Poirot and M. Bouc meet in the restaurant, the narrator describes Bouc and casually mentions he has known the "former star of the Belgian Police Force" for many years. This provides valuable information about Poirot. He is a former law enforcement officer, is retired from the police force, was in a high-level position, and has earned an excellent reputation. Poirot is still working—he just completed a case in Syria and is needed on another one in London—but his current position has not yet been revealed.

Despite the importance of details, the narrator gives minimal descriptions of the characters. A few details are provided about their physical appearances, with the focus on the characters' type. For example, Hector MacQueen is described as a "likable-looking guy." Christie does not flesh out the physical description of characters the way many authors do. Readers do not know his hair, eye, or skin color. Based on these details, it is hard to picture him. Readers can fill in what this means based on their own perceptions of a "likable-looking guy."

It is also hard to picture Samuel Ratchett other than in the most generic way. But the narrator does provide details about his personality and the image he presents. He has "the bland aspect of a philanthropist" and appears to have a benevolent personality, yet his smiling mouth and crafty eyes do not match. Poirot perceives him as akin to a wild animal, while Bouc considers him a respectable American gentleman. Based on these descriptions, it is easier to imagine Ratchett as a man who puts on a good front and passes himself off as respectable but is not what he seems. There is something shady about him, something only the most astute observer, such as Poirot, catches.

Other facts reveal all is not what it seems on the train. The concierge informs Poirot it will be no trouble for him to book a sleeper because the trains are usually empty at this time of year. Yet the train is fully booked, including the compartment held back in reserve. Is this a coincidence, something of no significance, or is it important? If the latter, what does it mean? Who are the travelers, and why are there so many of them on this train in the off-season?

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