“And Then There Were None“, which I think is Agatha Christie’s best novel, was compelling for two reasons: first, it was a masterful locked-room mystery, which forces the reader to focus on a fixed cast of characters and to guess who might be guilty; and second, there was a great deal of tension – even if the deaths might seem inevitable – especially with the uncertainty over the order of the deaths. In this vein the eponymous “Murder on the Orient Express”, in which the murder suspects are all on board the Calais Coach of the Orient Express, hits the mark with its locked-room elements, but a straightforward plot means the elements of tension or suspense are not as remarkable.
The book is divided into three parts – “The Facts”, “The Evidence”, and “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Think” – and in fact Poirot’s investigation is methodical. Chronologically too, after the murder of Samuel Ratchett was quickly established, he interviewed all the passengers in the Calais Coach in the restaurant car and describing it was the “Court of Inquiry”. The purpose, he added: “Are these people whose evidence we have taken speaking the truth or lying? We have no means of finding out – except such means as we can devise – ourselves”. Through these interviews Poirot sought to identify the motive, alibi, evidence against him or her, and suspicious circumstances of the 13 suspects, which he also summarised before confronting a few of them for a second time.
In the words of the detective:
“If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, they usually admit it – often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce effect. That is the only way to conduct this case. I select each passenger in turn, consider their evidence and say to myself, ‘IF so and so is lying, on what point are they lying and what is the reason for the lie?’ And I answer if they are lying – if, you mark – it could only be for such a reason and on such a point”.
Even so, the ending reveals an interesting surprise, and given the background of the murder and the victim few would fault the final decisions made. There are enough clues and inconsistencies – often pointed out by Poirot – to keep the reader guessing, and the occasional revelation is often a welcome break from the interrogations and inspections. Further nitpicks related to how the book was structured are minor, and will not take much away from Christie’s narrative style, and the reader’s satisfaction at the resolution.