I have no idea why, but I had a hankering for classic whodunnits this past fortnight. Maybe it’s because I’m editing a thriller, and a crime mystery is a nice adjacent genre without being too much the same. Because I’d seen the new Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express earlier this year (not at all motivated by certain small persons’s obsession with trains in this household), I gravitated to Agatha Cristie - not just one, but perhaps three of her most famous Hercule Poirot novels: Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Death on the Nile.
That’s the order in which I read them this time, but not the order in the Hercule Poirot novels - Roger Ackroyd is the earliest (#3 - 1926), then Orient Express (#8 - 1934), then Death on the Nile (#15 - 1937). Note in these numbers I neglect the short story collection and adapted play that sometimes have the books at #4, #10 and #17. Such the confusion.
I’ve read Orient Express before, but not for several years, since I was working on The Horseman (which has a crime subplot and a character obsessed with Christie, and who lends the book to the heroine). I’m sure Agatha Christie is a favourite homage for novelists - I still remember Kate Morton’s The Shifting Fog hinging around a character who was devoted to Christie novels, and a mistruth she tells as a result.
But I digress!
All three novels are masterful stories that are tight and engaging, despite a huge number of the scenes being simply people in a room talking to each other. Hercule Poirot’s personality carries a great deal of the page traction - he is a classic iconic character, one whose defining feature is their collected and unchanging ideosyncratic behaviours, a personality that confers particular advantage in resolving the situation of the story. Much of the tension and the reading pleasure comes from Poirot’s theory testing, running the crime through our eyes in different forms, while as the reader you try to remember little details and ask if they fit.
I read all three novels in under two weeks, a herculean (no pun intended) feat for me, even in Audiobook, so that’s a testament to their aweseomness. And it’s a testment to Christie that the books withstand early correct presumptions of the ending - I have an annoying habit (very mild superpower??) of anticipating twist endings. I worked out The Usual Suspects in the first twenty minutes, and I had my murderer sussed in both Nile and Roger Ackroyd early in the piece, the latter a book made famous for its resolution. I had the same suspicion of the ending when I saw Orient in film. But this minor annoying superpower of seeing-it-coming doesn’t dampen the experience.
Mysteries are more about how the discovery is made, as they are about the revelation. This is why the personality of the investigator matters so much - Poirot’s mind and affectations are a spectacle to watch at work. Anyone who reads romance knows this is true - knowing the ending is not the point; it’s how we arrive at that ending, the pleasure of seeing how it all unfolds, how the character will overcome the obstacles in their way to arrive at “the end”.
I recommend all three novels (if I was being tortured with promise of a mock cream donut, I’d rate Orient my fave, closely followed by Roger Ackroyd and then Nile, but there’s nothing in it). Agatha Christie is an eduring and celebrated novelist for a good reason, and for work published now up to 90 years ago (staggering!) the stories still feel fresh. Kenneth Branagh’s audio narration of Orient is wonderful. He was criticised for making Poirot less perculiar in the film than in previous adaptations, but I found I could move between different incarnations of Poirot without being bothered (I listened to the narrations by Hugh Fraser for Roger Ackroyd and David Suchet for Nile). I read that Kenneth Branagh will be releasing a new adaptation of Death on the Nile in 2019. All Christie, all the time.
Click on below for the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express if you haven’t seen it yet. The cinematography is breathtaking. I so want to go on the orient express - though with less murder would be grand. Links also to all three novels on Goodreads.