November 5, 2012

I hate cozy mysteries. I don’t care who poisoned Lord Dalrymple, and it doesn’t matter to me how ingeniously Detective Chief Inspector St. John Woolybottom cracks the case. If a mystery contains a map of a manor house or an elaborate timeline of each suspect’s movements before and after the power went out, I will put it aside and reach for a thriller with some teeth. Chandler, Hammett, Crumley, Cain—these are the men I will take to my desert island. Dorothy L. Sayers can stay home and suck an egg.

But something has always appealed to me about Agatha Christie. I read And Then There Were None in middle school, staying up late at night and finding it made me very afraid of the dark. As tedious as clockwork mysteries are, she is regarded as the best, and The Best is always appealing. After years of ragging on manor house mysteries, I’m writing a play that parodies the form, and I’ve found that orchestrating a large cast of characters—giving everyone a motive, an alibi and a secret—is trickier than it looks. What, I wondered, might Christie have to teach me?

Perhaps it’s a credit to Murder on the Orient Express that it took about 150 pages to become stultifying. The early chapters flew by in a haze of Eastern atmosphere, as the initially delightful Hercule Poirot and his international cast of suspects maneuvered around each other in the romantically cramped confines of the Stamboul-Calais coach. A body appears, and the moments after its discovery are tantalizing, as Poirot and his assistants discover clues and begin forming a theory about who, in the snowbound train, is the killer.

And then, like the train it takes place on, the novel crashes headfirst into a snowbank. Compare Christie’s masterpiece to the structure of a Philip Marlowe novel. Once he takes a case, Chandler’s hero basically wanders around Los Angeles, getting beat up and finding corpses until he knows exactly what happens—a nonsensical method that is nevertheless great fun. Hercule Poirot’s approach is, on the surface, more realistic. He speaks to each of the suspects in turn, asking the same questions and marking down their answers. When he’s finished with the first round of interviews, he does it two more times.

This takes 200 pages.

Along the way, Poirot considers various Clues. A dropped handkerchief, a lost button, a broken pocket watch. Each one, he muses, could be a real clue, or could have been left deliberately, with an eye to confounding the investigation—an observation he repeats a lot. He does quite a bit of mulling about national tendencies, psychology and deduction—a tiresome exercise at which Poirot out-pedants Sherlock Holmes. As an example, consider this passage, where Poirot explains how he realized that the mysterious Miss Debenham was once governess to Countess Andrenyi.

“Yes,” [said Poirot's dimwitted assistant,] “but the Countess Andrenyi described a totally different person.”

“Exactly. A tall, middle-aged woman with red hair—in fact, the exact opposite in every respect of Miss Debenham, so much so as to be quite remarkable. But then she had to invent a name quickly, and there it was that the unconscious association of ideas gave her away. She said Miss Freebody, you remember.”

“Yes?”

Eh bien, you may not know it, but there is a shop in London that was called, until recently, Debenham & Freebody. With the name Debenham running in her head, the Countess clutches at another name quickly, and the first that comes is Freebody. Naturally I understood immediately.”

It was about this point that I started cursing.

In the end—and boy, am I happy to spoil this for you—Poirot reaches the ingenious conclusion that everything he learned—motives, clues, secrets—was all an elaborate ruse set up by the passengers to confound him. In fact, they all came on board the train with murder on their minds, planning to avenge a heinous crime that occurred a few years earlier. Their victim, whom they were all connected to, recognized none of them, and the passengers did a near-flawless job of hiding their true identities. This is presented as though it were a criminal masterstroke and not, perhaps, the dumbest possible way to kill someone. Poirot’s unraveling of their byzantine scheme is his masterstroke. That it took him 200 pages to work out that everyone was lying about everything, and all of the passengers knew each other—well, let’s just say I wasn’t impressed.

It reminded me of the end of A Shot In The Dark, when Clouseau attempts a brilliant statement of his findings, and finds that he is completely wrong—that every suspect committed at least one murder, each for completely different reasons than he thought. Clouseau is played for laughs. Poirot is just as stupid.

Comments >
The Bullet Holiday Gift Guide