Study Guide

Murder on the Orient Express Analysis

  • Tone

    Steady, Logical, Suspenseful

    What happens next? We'd really like to know. The tone of Christie's writing is steady and even as the facts unfold and we are always given all of the particulars in a methodical and orderly manner – just as Poirot himself would have it. Details are related in an unhurried and reasonable way.

  • Genre

    Detective Fiction, Murder Mystery

    One of the granddaddies of the genre, Murder on the Orient Express helped to define the murder mystery whodunit genre. Agatha Christie was a pro at the formulas and conventions of writing this kind of book, and wrote one after another from 1920 until 1976. You can see her influence in the work of later mystery fiction authors, like Patricia Highsmith and P.D. James.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Most of Agatha Christie's titles are descriptive advertisements of the plot: Murder on the Links, for example, is about murder on a golf course. Seems pretty straightforward, right? That's because these novels are tied to a distinct genre (mystery) with a set of conventions (plot = murder). The publisher and author want these books to appeal to a mass commercial audience, and part of doing that is making sure that the buyer knows up front what he or she is getting.

    Interesting note: Christie's novel was originally titled Murder in the Calais Coach when released in America, so as not to be confused with a Graham Greene novel with a similar title (and plot). We guess stories about murders on the Orient Express were pretty big during this time period.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "Justitia fiat, ruat coelum!" Or, "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!" Some smart Latin-speaking person probably said that. But is justice done in the conclusion of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express?

    When the novel ends, Poirot offers us, the readers, two possible solutions to the murder mystery. They are:

    Option #1: An intruder entered the train and murdered Mr. Ratchett.

    Option #2: Nearly everyone on the train conspired to murder Mr. Ratchett/Cassetti in order to bring him to justice for the murder of Daisy Armstrong.

    Asked to serve as judges of the matter, M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine pick Option #1. Yes, it is clear to them that the truth is actually Option #2, but in this case, the version of events that they will offer to the police is Poirot's first solution. In other words, they decide that Ratchett's death was not murder, but a case of justice served.

    So, what do you think? Was justice served? Which solution would you have picked?

  • Setting

    The Simplon Orient Express

    Believe it or not, the Simplon Orient Express was – and still is – an actual train line that Agatha Christie herself rode.

    Why does Christie use this train as the setting of her story? Well, we've come up with a few reasons why it fits.

    First of all, the train passes through several different countries. That makes it an international train – and the passengers are entirely international, too.

    Second, the train is an invention of the modern age. This makes it a perfect place to dramatize ideas about modern justice (which is exactly what the book does).

    Third, it's a small, confined place where everyone is stuck together. That means that the murderers, the victim, and the investigators are all thrown together. No one can really skip town, which makes for a fun and suspenseful read.

    Finally, the train itself is split up into first and second classes. The separation makes us keenly aware of the passengers' social standing and place in the world – key factors to solving the mystery.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    While you may not be able to figure out the whodunit, you'll have no problem reading Agatha Christie's classic Murder on the Orient Express. The prose is clean and simple, and the novel is broken up into three handy-dandy sections: in Part 1 the facts are sorted out, in Part 2 the evidence is collected and reviewed, and in Part 3 we get Poirot's analysis of the case. Use the novel as your personal casebook; most editions even include a diagram of the train.

    However, you might want to take this opportunity to brush up on your geography. Checking out a map will help you track the train's route from Syria to Belgrade and beyond. The novel also includes a smattering of conversational French, so a phrasebook may be just the thing if you're an aspiring sleuth – or if you find yourself hanging on Poirot's every word.

  • Writing Style

    Clear

    Just the facts, ma'am. With such a confusing plot, Christie is always sure to give us all of the particulars in a straightforward manner. We are even provided with lists and maps when needed.

  • The Number Twelve

    Let's review: there are twelve stab wounds on the victim and twelve people on the jury. A coincidence, dear Shmooper? We think not. Take it from Poirot:

    "I remembered a remark of Colonel Arbuthnot's about trial by jury. A jury is composed of twelve people – there were twelve passengers – Ratchett was stabbed twelve times." (3.9.58)

    The number links the passengers on the train with the idea that they are acting as a jury (and judge, and executioner) bringing a murder to justice instead of simply killing out of revenge. As Poirot tells us:

    "Ratchett had escaped justice in America. There was no question as to his guilt. I visualized a self-appointed jury of twelve people who condemned him to death and were forced by exigencies of the case to be their own executioners. And immediately, on that assumption, the whole case fell into beautiful shining order." (3.9.59)

    As Poirot suggests, the notion that the passengers are a jury of twelve does offer the simplest solution to the case.

  • Train

    The Simplon Orient Express moves across the European continent, and as it does, it acts as a kind of courtroom that's not tied to any specific country or place, but rather to all places. It's a place where it's normal to see people of all nationalities and backgrounds, so it's a perfect place for a crime such as Ratchett's murder.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Omniscient

    Rather than being a character in the story, the narrator is an omniscient third-person voice. The narrator is fairly unobtrusive and sticks to giving us the facts. The narrator also gives us multiple points of view and switches between, for example, the point of view of Poirot, and the point of view of other characters, such as Mary Debenham.

    How would this story be different if it were told by Poirot? What if it was told by M. Bouc, Poirot's sidekick, like how Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes stories?

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Poirot finishes a case in Syria and boards a train to Stanboul. Suspicious activity commences.

      Our setting (a train) is introduced, along with our most important character: famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. In this section, we get a sense of the strength of Poirot's reputation and the logic of his methods (observation, reason, etc.). We'll see his powers in action a little bit later. We also meet Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, whose odd behavior on the train platform foreshadows the strange events to come.

      Conflict

      Poirot boards the Simplon Orient Express along with an incredibly diverse cast of characters. Mr. Ratchett is murdered.

      The basic premise of any mystery novel can be summed up with one word: Whodunit? The second stage of the novel sets up the conditions that lead us to this question. The nasty Mr. Ratchett is stabbed twelve times in his bed, and as there are no police on board, Poirot is asked to take the case. The hunt for clues – and the murderer – begins.

      Complication

      Conflicting evidence is presented by the train passengers. It's all just a little too perfect, n'est-ce pas?

      Poirot collects evidence and interviews the train passengers. The problem is that absolutely nothing adds up. Some of the clues appear to be planted, the time of the murder cannot be determined, and we hear tell of a mysterious, dark, womanish man. In the murder novel business, we would say that "the plot thickens."

      Climax

      Poirot uses his little grey cells and hits upon the solution to the crime. He must gather evidence to support his hypothesis.

      In the climax of the novel, we get to see Poirot's logic and deduction skills in action. We know he's got it all figured out in his head, but we watch him actually returning to each passenger and confronting them with the truth: that is, that they're all connected to the Armstrong family. This section of the novel takes its sweet time, which, fortunately, allows those of us who are still trying to catch up with Poirot's thinking to try to figure out the solution for ourselves.

      Suspense

      Poirot exposes the passengers one by one.

      As the plot unravels, the suspense builds. Suspicion is cast from one passenger to the next and eventually to all of them. Though we know who is involved, we still may not have put all of the pieces together. For that, we'll have to wait for the next section.

      Denouement

      Poirot offers two conclusions to the case.

      For those of you who have no idea what's going on, the denouement of the novel offers sweet, sweet relief. Poirot offers readers two scenarios: one which is obviously false, and another which has the ring of truth to it. The analysis hits each aspect of the case point by point, allowing readers to stand back and admire Christie's intricately woven plot. Poirot delivers this section theatrically and with great flourish, as we get a sense of what a great detective he – and in turn Christie – is.

      Conclusion

      Justice is served.

      M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine are asked to act as judges. They must pick the correct solution offered by Poirot. The novel's tension between justice and revenge is resolved here, at least partially, when the two men determine that the death of Ratchett was a case of serving justice, rather than a case of murder.