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It's winter, and we're in Syria on a train platform. A young French lieutenant by the name of Dubosc is making small talk with a "distinguished stranger" (1.1.3).
What's the significance of this stranger? We're so glad you asked.
Here's what we know: apparently the lieutenant's general had been growing antsy, but then a Belgian stranger showed up from England. An officer killed himself and another quit. Then things got better, and the General eased up.
It turns out that the mysterious Belgian stranger is none other than the famous detective Hercule Poirot. He solved the case that had been bothering the general.
The case is over now, though, and Poirot and the lieutenant are stuck making awkward small talk on the platform. Poirot mentions that he'll be visiting Stamboul (modern-day Istanbul) on his train ride home, to play tourist for a few days.
The narration shifts and suddenly we're with Mary Debenham, a woman traveling from Baghdad, who is inside the train that's alongside the platform. Her window is right above Poirot and the lieutenant. It's hot in the train, so she opens the window.
Mary watches the conductor approach the men and she sizes up Poirot, thinking he is a "ridiculous-looking little man" with an "egg-shaped head" (1.1.28). Cheeky.
Poirot and the awkward lieutenant exchange goodbyes, and Poirot boards the train.
The conductor takes Poirot to his compartment. He happens to mention that there aren't many people traveling this time of year – just the English lady (Mary, who we met a moment ago) and a Colonel from India.
Poirot asks for a Perrier (he's Belgian) and then goes to sleep. When he wakes up, it's 9:30 in the morning. He goes to the dining car for some coffee.
Poirot is a master of observation. In the dining car, he passes the time by watching the other occupant of the dining car, Mary Debenham.
Poirot notices that she is in her late 20s and has an air of "cool efficiency" about her (1.1.44). She's a nice young woman, though not a bombshell by any means.
Another person, Colonel Arbuthnot, enters the car. He greets Mary, and asks if he can sit with her. The two don't seem to notice Poirot. They're not all that chatty, either.
At lunch, Poirot again sees Mary and the Colonel sitting together. He eavesdrops on their conversation: she was a governess in Baghdad, and he was in Punjab. They discover a mutual friend. They are both going straight past Stamboul on the same route.
Poirot notices the Colonel may be "susceptible" to Mary's charms (1.1.68).
Poirot observes the two later on in the day. He hears Mary comment on the beauty of the scenery and say that she wishes she could enjoy it.
Colonel Arbuthnot says that he wishes Mary were "out of all this" (1.1.75). Interesting. Aren't they supposed to be strangers?
The pair exchanges a few more odd remarks, and Poirot thinks he's seen an "odd little comedy" (1.1.81). He's not going to forget about this.
Later, on a station break in Konya, Turkey, Poirot again overhears a conversation between the Mary and the Colonel. Mary's voice is filled with emotion. She says they should not talk about this now, but later, "when it's behind us" (1.1.88).
Poirot thinks this is all "curious" indeed (1.1.91). We do, too.
The next day, a fire catches under the dining car, and the train halts. Mary happens upon Poirot and is seriously distressed. She says she cannot miss her connection on the Simplon Orient Express. Her hands tremble.
Again, Poirot thinks this is odd for someone who was so cool and collected before.
The train arrives at Haydapassar Station and Poirot departs for the Tokatlian Hotel, where he plans to stay while seeing the sites in Stamboul.