Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 1, Chapter 5 : The Facts (The Crime) | Summary

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Summary

After being awakened by noises in the night, Hercule Poirot cannot fall back asleep. He hears someone moving about in the compartment next door and footsteps in the corridor. At 1:15 a.m. he is about to ring for Pierre Michel, the conductor, to ask for some mineral water when he hears the repeated tinkling of a bell. Then he hears an "insistent and voluble" Mrs. Hubbard conversing with the conductor—who tries to soothe her—for some time. After their conversation ends, Poirot rings for the conductor, who tells him Hubbard foolishly insists a man is in her compartment. The train has run into a snowdrift and cannot move.

Poirot is just drifting off to sleep when the sound of something heavy falling against his door wakes him. He jumps out of bed, opens the door, and looks around. No one is at his door, but a woman in a red kimono is walking down the corridor. A conductor doing paperwork is sitting at the other end of the corridor. Poirot figures he "suffers from the nerves" and falls back asleep.

When Poirot awakens in the morning, he looks out his window and sees snowbanks surrounding the still-stalled train. At 9:45 a.m. he goes to the restaurant car. All the passengers except Princess Dragomiroff, Count and Countess Andrenyi, Samuel Ratchett and his valet, Hector MacQueen, and Hildegarde Schmidt are present. People are engaging with each other and expressing their dismay at being stranded. Mrs. Hubbard is worried she will miss her boat connection in two days. Antonio Foscarelli, the Italian man, is concerned about being late for urgent business in Milan, and Greta Ohlsson, the Swedish lady, is upset because she has no way to tell her waiting sister and children she is delayed. Mary Debenham asks how long they will be stranded but expresses none of the "feverish anxiety" she displayed during the earlier delay on the Taurus Express. After Poirot tells her she is the only patient passenger, she shrugs and says, "What can one do?"

Later that morning a conductor asks Poirot to accompany him; M. Bouc wants to see him. The conductor takes Poirot to a second-class compartment occupied by Bouc, a blue-uniformed conductor, and Dr. Constantine. Bouc tells Poirot that Ratchett has been killed, stabbed while in his berth. He explains they are stranded in a snowstorm in Yugoslavia—present-day Vinkovci (Vincovci), Croatia, and Brod, in Bosnia and Herzegovina—and unlike the custom in most countries, the Yugoslavian police force has no representatives aboard the train. Bouc and Dr. Constantine communicate the known facts: Ratchett most likely died between midnight and two in the morning, he was known to be alive at 12:40 a.m. when he spoke to the conductor, and he was stabbed at least 10 times, possibly 15. The window in his compartment was open, and a security chain was fastened. His body was discovered around 11:00 a.m. by a conductor after the restaurant-car attendant went to ask if Ratchett wished to dine. The conductor unlocked the door after receiving no answer to several knocks and found the security chain on. Fearing Ratchett might be ill, he got the chef de train; when they broke the chain and entered, they found his lifeless body.

The chef de train declares the murderer is a woman, because "only a woman" would make multiple stabs, up to 15. Constantine questions his conclusion, saying at least one or two of the blows must have required great strength; they went right through the "hard belts of bone and muscle." Poirot puts an end to the chef de train's theory by informing the group that Ratchett had told him he was in great danger and feared for his life. However, Poirot acknowledges the murder was not a scientific crime and appears to have been done "very amateurishly." Bouc proposes the killer could be a large, common-looking American who wears terrible clothes and chews gum. The conductor refutes this theory, saying he had not seen such an American enter or leave Ratchett's compartment during the night.

Bouc asks Poirot to lead the investigation and solve the crime before the Yugoslavian police arrive; this will spare the train company and innocent passengers great annoyance. He appeals to Poirot's spirit as a detective, citing his reputation, detecting skills, and "little gray cells of the mind"; he also says the investigation will be an easy one. All Poirot has to do is "lie back and think" after he views the body, interviews the passengers, and examines the clues. Poirot accepts the challenge. He requests a blueprint of the Istanbul-Calais coach, the names of each compartment's occupants, and the passengers' tickets and passports. He only needs information about people on this car because the other carriages were locked after the previous night's dinner and the occupants could not have entered the Istanbul-Calais coach. Nor could the murderer have left the train, as it ran into the snowdrift shortly after midnight. Thus the murderer is on the train and shares the same coach as Poirot.

Analysis

Christie is starting to develop her characters a bit, though they will never rise above stereotypes. Cyrus Hardman, a loud, common fellow who dresses poorly and chews gum, represents the crass American. He may belong to the same class as others on the train, but he does not make any show of respectability. M. Bouc describes him as a common man, showing Bouc's generally low opinion of Americans—an opinion shared by many Europeans of the time. Bouc profiles Hardman as a possible murderer based simply on his nationality and personal traits.

The train is stuck in a snowdrift at a location between Vincovci and Brod, in Yugoslavia. At the time of the novel's setting, the Balkan region was highly unstable. European and American travelers often compared it to North America's Wild West during the westward expansion years. The environment right outside the train is dangerous and threatening, heightening the tension of being trapped inside. It is unruly and primitive and lacks the well-disciplined and competent police force of Great Britain and other Western countries. As a result, either the train company does not want the Yugoslavian police aboard, or there is no reputable Yugoslavian police force equipped to do the job. Bouc suggests the latter when he urges Poirot to investigate the crime to spare the train company and passengers "serious annoyances" if the Yugoslavian police investigate the murder.

The plot is fully introduced with the event of the murder; Poirot must now investigate and solve it. Although this is a simple plot, the complexity comes in gathering the clues and interpreting them correctly. There will be many false leads, overlooked clues, and misdirections. This murder is especially perplexing because it presents a so-called "locked-door mystery." The door was locked and chained, and no one could have left through a window because there are no footprints or other traces in the snow. It is also a contained-setting puzzle. As the murder took place on a train stuck in a snowstorm, the killer could not come from outside the train and must be aboard. Poirot will need to put all the pieces together to explain not only who committed the crime, but how it happened.

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