Sunday, February 09, 2014

Agatha Christie. Murder on the Calais Coach (1934) (Murder on the Orient Express)

     Agatha Christie. Murder on the Calais Coach (1934) This is Murder on the Orient Express, by which title it is now known even in the US of A. This copy is dated 1973, well before the Poirot movies and TV series, as well as a number of nostalgia videos about the great trains of the world, made Americans aware of the Orient Express.
     I reread it because a friend had sent us a video of the current Poirot version. The book is a straightforward puzzle, with minimal characterisation. Possibly inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, it deals with retribution: the acquitted murderer of a kidnapped child is killed by a dozen people involved in the case. Since the case is solved before the authorities arrive to rescue the snow-stranded train, Poirot has to decide whether to reveal his solution (to which the perpetrators confess, albeit indirectly), or whether to present the intended misleading solution that they had devised to hide their vengeance. Poirot leaves it up to the director of the Wagon Lits company, through whose good offices he had obtained a 1st class berth despite the (unusually) heavily booked train.
     The movie reinvented the story, taking Poirot’s well-known merciless judgement of murderers as a clue to his character. Even a horrible woman has a right to live, for example (Appointment with Death). Here, he has to wrestle with this principle, a character trait that is reinforced by depiction of his bedtime prayers, in which he thanks God for making him a Catholic. The allusion to the Pharisee in Luke is I think deliberate, especially since we also see the child killer at his prayers for forgiveness.
     But the jury of executioners has made up their minds: they will kill the man in such a way as to make it look like an attack from outside the train. It is only as their links to the murdered child are revealed that Poirot edges towards the truth, which brings with it an ethical dilemma: the child killer got off because he had connections with the Mob, who suborned the police, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge. Poirot does conceal the truth, but at great cost to himself. Ginger thought the movie somewhat melodramatic. But I think it was a well-done re-invention of the story, and a consistent extension of Poirot’s biography.
     The book is vintage if somewhat perfunctory puzzle crime fiction: **½ The movie is modern psychological crime fiction. ***

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