Hercule Poirot begins the book by traveling on a train from French Syria to Istanbul. The year, never mentioned, is somewhere around 1930. The train, a slowish journey. It is winter, the train is chilly, and there are few passengers. An English Colonel from India and an English governess from Iraq were also on board. They appeared to not know each other, yet perhaps they did. They were observed discussing something during a stop. Then, during a short delay, the woman was quite distressed, insisting that she must catch the train at Istanbul. It was needless; the train arrived at Istanbul with only a slight delay.
At the hotel he found two things: an American guest who he felt was actually evil, and a telegram saying that he was needed back on a case in England. Disappointing, as Poirot was looking forward to exploring the sights. Although it was winter and travelers were generally few, the Orient Express was pretty near fully booked (including the sleeper that the conductor reserved, ... for a price), and Poirot had to go second class for a day.
His friend, the president of the train company, was also on the train, and they had a meal in the dining car. It turned out that the Colonel and the governess were also on this train, along with the evil man Poirot had encountered. There were various sundry others, including a loud American salesman, a very ugly Russian princess, a non-stop talking American woman, and a Hungarian countess and his young and very attractive wife. The next day Poirot is moved to a first-class sleeper, which happens to be next to the evil man. More people-watching occurs, the talkative American woman says sheisscaredoftheevilmanandherdaughtersayssheisintuitivebutsheisanywaysheisworriedandhopesitwillbeasafejourney, and the day closes.
At 1:15, Poirot is awakened by a groan in the sleeper next to him. He looks out his door, whereupon the conductor knocks on the door of the sleeper next to him, and the person inside says “it’s nothing, my fault” in very good French. Shortly afterwards, the talkative lady calls the conductor and insists there is a man in her sleeper, and an argument ensues. As he looks out his door again he sees a woman in a dressing gown with a red dragon on it. The conductor returns with the water that Poirot asked for, informing him that the train was stuck in snow somewhere in Jugoslavia. The next morning the president of the railway line asks for his help—the passenger Poirot sensed was evil was murdered. The window in the murdered man’s sleeper (the one next to Poirot and also next to the lady) was open, the man was stabbed twelve times, and his watch was broken saying 1:15. The doctor on board said that the stabbings were very interesting: some were very deep and others very weakly delivered, and some could not have been delivered by a right handed person. Further investigation showed that the man had been drugged, and that his name was the name of an American murderer in a well-known case, who had kidnapped a child and killed her, but had not been convicted by the jury in what many considered was an afront to justice.
Poirot, the president of the line, and the doctor commandeer the dining car. Since the train was stuck in snow, and the coach had been locked after dinner, the murderer must have been one of the passengers on that coach. They interviewed the passengers one by one. More facts emerged, more personalities examined. Each person is, of course, a little suspicious, yet it is hard to think they did it. Some people are not who they seem. The loud American salesman turns out to be a New York detective, hired by the deceased to protect him. Poirot asks each woman if they have have a dressing gown with a red dragon on it, and they do not, yet when he returns to his sleeper to retrieve something, it is lying there, neatly folded.
Unlike Sherlock Holmes, a strictly facts person, Poirot was a personality person—a person will not act contrary to their personality. The stiff British Colonel would not stab someone twelve times, for instance. The governess, despite being panicked about a little delay on the previous train, now appears worried but not terribly so, even at the prospect of being stuck several days. After interviewing the passengers for information, he then re-interviews some. In this second stage of the investigation he starts investigating oddities. A richly embroidered lady’s handkerchief from Paris was found with an H, yet none of the passengers ladies claimed it (even with Poirot being very tricky). The passport of the Hungarian countess had a convenient blob of grease that could be used to change “Helena” into “Elena”, and they eventually admitted it was altered.
In the third stage of the investigation, Poirot has formed a possible theory, but he has no hard evidence for it. He calls back some of the passengers, and begins with a bit of a guess, informing them that they were a specific member of the household of the American girl who was murdered. Poirot stated that generally the guilty will admit to the truth when presented with it, if only out of shock. A remarkable number of people from the household were on the train. But, none of them seemed like they could have done it.
Finally, his theory formed, Poirot assembles all the passengers in the car. He has two theories which he presents to everyone and requests that the president of the line make the judgement. The first theory has a little trouble fitting the facts, but is believable. The second, fits the facts very well, but left the president and doctor feeling that the first theory had a certain satisfaction that the second did not, and they decide to tell the Jugoslavian police the first theory.
I heard a sermon once that explained mystery novels (although it was not attempting to). In talking about some verses the Apostle Paul wrote about the mysteries that angels long to look in to, the speaker defined “mystery” as “something that is hidden.” Hitherto I had attempted to guess the killer, never with success. This time, I went along for the ride, although I had my suspicions. The ending is, as the book jacket advertised, very clever. Also very satisfying. I did have a brief flash of intuition where I guess the right answer, but did not dwell on it—perhaps it is the same intuition that Poirot harnesses. Is it possible to arrive at the conclusion from the facts? In retrospect, it seems like it, yet it would be no more than an informed guess, because some points have been hidden and are only brought up as Poirot expounds his theory that were not presented.
Poirot comes across as a man of similar stature to Sherlock Holmes, yet very different. Where Sherlock Holmes is cold and rational, Poirot seems warm and personal. Holmes gathers facts, making a personal inquiry, and not infrequently a burglary in order to get all the facts. Poirot, too, gathers facts, but the facts he is most concerned with are the behaviors and inconsistencies of people. Poirot is not above a little burglary too, but it is the burglary of leading people into a trap: asking if the lady had dropped her handkerchief (now in his hand) as she left to exit; asking about cooking to lady’s maid, who says that all her mistresses have found her cooking excellent, despite the fact that lady’s maid’s aren’t generally called on to cook; commenting on the attraction of foreign women to a detective he suspects may be in love with a French lady from the former household.
Christie, the power behind Poirot, is a keen observer of human nature, which she expresses elegantly in her writing. Some important observations are repeated (even if readers like me don’t pay attention to them), but many points are quietly dropped in as an offhand comment, yet turn out to be important. The characterization, too, is excellent. While one does not expect characters to grow and develop over the course of a mystery investigation, the characters do grow and develop in richness of personality and you get to know them better. Even as their history is revealed, their personality becomes more real, believable, relateable, and likable. Murder on the Orient Express is almost a study on personality, much as a artist sketches objects with different shades. Yet, it was clearly designed as an intricate mystery, a process that needed to be done artfully to allow all characters to come under suspicion without revealing the mystery but yet giving enough information for the reader to feel like they could know, if only they were Poirot. This is definitely an example of the high art of mystery.