Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Course Hero, "Murder on the Orient Express Study Guide," August 31, 2017, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Murder-on-the-Orient-Express/.

Murder on the Orient Express | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: The Facts

Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian police detective, has just finished an important assignment for the French government in Syria. He leaves Aleppo, Syria, aboard the Taurus Express for his return to Europe, with a layover in Stamboul (modern-day Istanbul), where he plans to spend a few days vacationing. During the trip, Poirot observes the only other passengers on the train, Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, in the dining car. They appear not to know each other, though they are sharing a table. Yet later that night, when the train stops at Konya, Poirot overhears them conversing as if they are closely acquainted. Debenham is anxious about something and warns Arbuthnot not to speak about it until later, when it is over.

After the train arrives in Stamboul, Poirot checks into the Tokatlian Hotel, where he receives a message informing him he needs to return immediately. He books passage on the Orient Express, which is fully booked—unusual for that time of year. On the first day of the three-day journey, another passenger, Samuel Ratchett, approaches Poirot and says he is being threatened. He wants to hire Poirot as a detective, but Poirot declines the assignment.

On the second night of the journey, Poirot awakens to a sound in the compartment next door and a bell ringing for the conductor. Noises keep him awake for some time, and he even peeks out his door. Eventually he falls asleep again. When he wakes up the next morning, the train is at a standstill, and he sees snowdrifts outside his window. The train is stuck in a snowbank in Yugoslavia (now Croatia), far from any village or city.

Later that morning Poirot learns Ratchett was murdered during the night. Poirot accompanies M. Bouc, the director of the railway company, and Dr. Constantine, the train's physician, to Ratchett's compartment and observes the body. Ratchett has been stabbed multiple times. After learning when Ratchett was last seen alive, the men determine the murderer must be on the train; no one could have boarded or departed because the train is stuck in the snow. Bouc persuades Poirot to investigate the crime because there are no police officers aboard the train and none can easily get to it because of the storm.

Poirot begins his investigation by interviewing Hector MacQueen, whom he saw dining with Ratchett. MacQueen claims he was Ratchett's personal secretary, and he describes the previous evening. Poirot, Bouc, and Constantine then return to the crime scene. There they find several tangible clues, including a charred note mentioning the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping and murder. Poirot deduces Ratchett's real identity: he was Cassetti, the leader of the gang responsible for Daisy Armstrong's death. An American, Cassetti was acquitted by a jury and left the United States to travel in Europe and the East.

Part 2: The Evidence

Accompanied by Bouc and Constantine, Poirot gathers evidence by interviewing Pierre Michel, the conductor in the first- and second-class compartment; the other conductors; and all the passengers. The investigators learn about a mysterious conductor wearing a brown uniform and a woman wearing a scarlet kimono. Unable to match these descriptions with any of the known passengers, they search for the uniform and kimono and find them in Poirot's and another passenger's luggage.

The evidence at first indicates the passengers and conductors could not have committed the crime. Everyone has an alibi for the period in which the crime most likely occurred. No one appears to have a motive. Only two people have any association with the murder victim. Poirot believes MacQueen, the murdered man's employee, has no murderous animosity toward his employer, even though he did not like him. The only passenger with a known association with the Armstrong family is Princess Dragomiroff, who was good friends with the slain child's grandmother. Yet she has an ironclad alibi and is a frail woman unlikely to possess the physical strength necessary to inflict the wounds that killed Ratchett/Cassetti.

Part 3: Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks

Poirot solves the crime by examining the evidence, using logic to interpret the clues, and conducting experiments to test his theories about what happened and how. He then calls for all the passengers to assemble. Pierre Michel, the train conductor, joins them. Poirot then gives two possible solutions to the crime. In one solution a stranger entered the train at one of the stops, stabbed Ratchett, and exited shortly before the train stopped due to the snowstorm. This is a possibility because the crime occurred earlier than the investigators first thought. In the second solution a group of 12 people associated with the Armstrong family—personal friends, employees, or relatives—decided to act as a self-appointed jury and execute Ratchett because they believed the court system had failed to serve justice.

After Poirot presents the two solutions, Princess Dragomiroff admits to making a mistake when planting evidence to mislead investigators, and she says the court's failure to hold Ratchett responsible upset her and others related to Daisy Armstrong. A large group of them were at the trial, including Michel, father of the Armstrongs' nursemaid, Susanne, who committed suicide after Daisy's kidnapping; Colonel Arbuthnot, the best friend of Daisy's father, Colonel Armstrong; Mary Debenham, the Armstrongs' governess; Antonio Foscarelli, the Armstrongs' chauffeur; and Hector MacQueen, who was in love with Sonia Armstrong, Daisy's mother. MacQueen explained how the court was paid off to acquit Ratchett. The group then decided to carry out Ratchett's punishment themselves. They arranged for Ratchett to hire Edward Masterman as his valet and Hector MacQueen as his personal secretary. MacQueen arranged a journey on the Orient Express when Michel was scheduled to work, and the group took it from there; each of the 12 stabbed Ratchett once.

After Dragomiroff confirms what happened, Poirot asks Bouc and Constantine to choose the correct solution. Both select the first solution, in which an unknown stranger entered the train. They let the murderers go free, and Poirot closes the case.

Murder on the Orient Express Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Poirot travels to London aboard the Orient Express.

Rising Action

2 Poirot awakens to a mysterious sound in the night.

3 A passenger claims a stranger is in her compartment.

4 The train gets stuck in a snowbank.

Climax

5 Samuel Ratchett's murdered body is found.

Falling Action

6 Poirot investigates the murder and presents two solutions.

Resolution

7 The agreed-upon solution allows the killers to go free.

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