Saturday, November 13, 2010

Murder on the Orient Express

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime, 1934).

A couple of years ago, the BBC made a Doctor Who installment about Agatha Christie that I should have enjoyed a lot, but they botched the core out of it and so I only sort of liked it. The problem is that the episode's writer, Gareth Roberts, somehow concluded that the special "oomph" that made Christie such a terrific writer was that she understood human nature, pain and suffering so well.

I've read a couple of dozen Christie novels - they're low-key diversions, intermittently amusing - and I've never seen a lick of understanding about anything of the sort. Admittedly, modern Doctor Who goes so absurdly overboard with the "Gosh-wow! A historical celebrity! Brilliant!" gushing that it frequently stops feeling like Doctor Who and more like something brain-dead and American like The Time Tunnel, but praising Agatha Christie for insight into the human condition is just plain idiotic. If that is what the plot required, then the Doctor should have rustled up Carson McCullers or William Faulkner to solve the mystery. What Christie could have contributed to the fictional adventure was an understanding of plot contrivances and structure, and the Doctor should have asked for her assistance because nobody could get to the bottom of a bunch of carefully constructed hoo-ha better than her character, Hercule Poirot.

So Murder on the Orient Express was written in 1933 and instantly became the template for countless parodies and pastiches. This is a story where darn near everything that Poirot is told by his dozen suspects turns out to be carefully constructed hoo-ha. The polite little Belgian detective is more a bundle of identifiable character traits than a human being, and it all leads to a denouement so ridiculous that I didn't get a second's worth of "Aha!" before I pictured Raymond Chandler throwing the book against a wall.

I've always enjoyed Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence a little, but Poirot's ongoing popularity has always baffled me. Can you believe David Suchet is only seven away from a complete set of adaptations of all sixty-eleven of these stories? Yet I can see how stories like this were so successful. There's nothing in them about the human condition, and they feature no human beings within their pages, but they're undeniably clever. So are crossword puzzles. In the end, this is much more of a brain teaser than a book, and Poirot's priggishness makes him a far less amusing protagonist than Christie's other characters. I don't know that I'll return to her work any time soon.


Anonymous said...

That bothered me about The Wasp & The Unicorn too. But i have to admit I was impressed that the most wildly improbable part of MotOE turned out to be the entire point of the murder. Certainly, it worked better here than in most of her short stories...

Mirza Ghalib Shayari said...

Its Agatha Christie and what else one could look for.My first book of hers and a great one to start with.Kept me guessing like a detective.Book could be finished in one day and will keep u whole day intersting and eyes fixed to the pages.I am gonna try all her other books as welll