Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 1, Chapter 3 : The Facts (Poirot Refuses a Case) | Summary

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Summary

As Hercule Poirot nears the end of a lunch with M. Bouc in the restaurant car, Bouc waxes philosophical about the romance of train travel, which brings a diverse group of people together in close quarters for a short time period. At the end of the shared journey, they go their several ways, most likely to never see each other again. Poirot speculates an accident could change things; all the passengers could then be linked by death.

Poirot studies the other passengers in the restaurant car. At one table are "a big, swarthy Italian"—who is later revealed to be Antonio Foscarelli; "a spare, neat Englishman" who has the expression of a well-trained, disapproving servant—later identified as Edward Masterman; and "a big American in a loud suit"—later identified as Cyrus Hardman. At a small table an ugly old lady with a "yellow, toad-like face" dines alone. Opulently adorned in pearls, rings, a sable coat, and an expensive black hat, she gives orders in a "courteous, but completely autocratic tone" to her attendant. Bouc identifies the woman as Princess Dragomiroff, a very wealthy Russian.

Mary Debenham is sitting with a "tall middle-aged woman" with a sheeplike face—later identified as Greta Ohlsson—and a "stout, pleasant-faced elderly" American woman who talks nonstop, later identified as Mrs. Hubbard. Colonel Arbuthnot sits alone, watching Debenham. At the opposite end of the restaurant car are a middle-aged German woman with a "broad expressionless face"—later identified as Hildegarde Schmidt—and a large man in his 30s with a mustache accompanied by a young, beautiful woman, age 20 or so, wearing a chic hat and tight-fitting coat and skirt—later identified as Count and Countess Andrenyi. Bouc tells Poirot they are married and he thinks they are part of the Hungarian embassy. Hector MacQueen and Samuel Ratchett are dining together, and Poirot again notes Ratchett's "small, cruel eyes" and the "false benevolence of the brow."

When Bouc leaves, he invites Poirot to come by his compartment later. Everyone else leaves, too, until only Poirot, Ratchett, and MacQueen remain. After Ratchett gets up, he stops by Poirot's table and offers him a job. He explains he is being threatened and is willing to pay Poirot big money. Poirot declines the assignment, saying he has sufficient money for his needs and desires and only takes cases of interest to him. Ratchett asks if $20,000 will interest him, and Poirot again turns him down. Ratchett demands to know why. Poirot tells him, "I do not like your face" and leaves the restaurant car.

Analysis

Christie uses stereotypical characters, with specific traits associated with the characters' nationalities. Her usage may reflect the strong nationalism that existed between World War I and World War II, but it clearly serves Christie's purpose by allowing her to take advantage of prevalent stereotypes based on nationality, age, and social class to create characters readers can readily understand without using great detail. To a contemporary reader, her descriptions often have offensive labels, but they allow Poirot to note each person's nationality as if it reveals insights about their character.

More details are provided to support a concealed relationship between Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham. Poirot speculates as to why they did not sit together in the dining car and concludes perhaps Mary needs to have a flawless reputation because of her occupation as a governess. Not only is Christie developing these two characters a little more fully, but she is creating misdirection. Poirot, like any other observer, has breached the realm of what can be known. He can only speculate. Making assumptions of this type is integral to Poirot as a detective and enables him to make leaps of logic beyond physical, or tangible, evidence. But like any real-life detective, readers need to watch for speculation and closely follow it. Guesswork may help unravel the clues and identify the perpetuator, or it may be a false lead directing the reader down the wrong path.

The setting descriptions are as minimal as the character descriptions, if not more so. Christie says the restaurant car has tables, and that's all she says about it. She intentionally refrains from providing details about its appearance so readers will focus on its function. It serves only as a place where the characters come together.

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