Literature / Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, or Murder in the Calais Coach, is an Agatha Christie detective fiction murder mystery first published in 1934.

Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is ready to return from a case in Syria when he is snowbound on the Orient Express. He is disturbed in his sleep by dead quiet and a passing figure in a red kimono, and when he awakes, the contemptible Samuel Ratchett is found having been stabbed 12 times to death. Poirot discovers he was actually a notorious American gangster, who had kidnapped and murdered a three-year-old heiress. The mystery begins to unravel as he discovers that the passengers have connections to the murdered man and the family of the child that man murdered.

A film adaptation was made in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring an All-Star Cast. It was adapted again as a Made-for-TV Movie in 2001, and once more in 2010 for Poirot. Recently Sir Kenneth Branagh has been announced as directing a new adaptation as well as playing Poirot himself.

Warning: many unmarked spoilers are below as the plot is well known.

This story provides examples of the following:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: In the original novel and most adaptations, Poirot rather cavalierly lets the murderers go free, but in the 1974 film and especially the 2010 Poirot versions, he is deeply conflicted before finally making the choice.
  • Adult Fear: The first few minutes of the movie - and the motive for Ratchett's murder - are horrifying on their own, but they might be especially hard on parents.
  • And I Must Scream: In the 2010 version, Franco Cassetti was drugged into immobility, and was conscious through every single stab, but unable to move. He deserved every minute of it.
  • And This Is For...: in the 1974 version, each of the murderers announce the name of the person they lost as they take their turns stabbing Cassetti
  • Artistic Title: The 1974 film opens with a montage sequence by Richard Williams depicting the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong via various Spinning Papers.
  • Asshole Victim: Ratchett's portrayed as a terrible man, so there isn't much sympathy when he is killed. We find out that he's so deserving of his fate that Poirot eventually lets his murderers go. This trope is exaggerated here.
  • Awful Truth: Poirot in the 1974 and 2010 adaptations.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Zigzagged. It depends on your definitions of "bad guy" and "win".
  • Beware the Nice Ones: the Armstrong family and household are all very decent, good people who go to great lengths to bring Ratchet to justice.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The passage of Goethe read by the Princess' maid in the 1974 film is from "Kennst Du das Land" and contains the line "What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?"
  • Bittersweet Ending: While the murderers do get off scot-free, that's because even Poirot agrees that Ratchett's crime against the Armstrong family (who they all had connections to) had been paid back justly, with interest.
  • Busman's Holiday
  • The Butler Did It: He was one of the people who did it, that is. Also spoken word-for-word, but as part of a Running Gag by the line owner always implicating the most recent interviewee.
  • Clock Discrepancy: The broken watch also appears - and Poirot points out that the killer wants him to think that the murder happened at that time.
  • Closed Circle: Not only are they on a train, but trapped in a snowdrift.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Subverted twice in the 1974 version by both Beddoes (intentionally) and Foscarelli. Hilarity Ensues for Poirot.
    Foscarelli: "Hey, what are you reading, Mr. Beddoes?"
    Beddoes: "Love's Captive, by Mrs Arabella Richardson."
    Foscarelli: "Is it about sex?"
    Beddoes: "No, it's about 10.30, Mr. Foscarelli."
  • Darker and Edgier: The 2010 adaptation, in spades.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Colonel Arbuthnot smokes a pipe.
  • Downer Beginning: DAISY FOUND SLAIN.
  • Eagleland: The portrayal of the U.S. makes it obvious that Christie didn't know very much about it. For example, Poirot says that it is "obvious" that the Hungarian ambassador stationed in Washington D.C. must have been acquainted with the Armstrongs, a prominent family from Chicago.
    • Caroline Hubbard embodies this whenever the opportunity presents itself. Then again, it's all an act.
    • The Americans are also referred to as subjects rather than citizens. Of course, it is Poirot and Bouc doing this, and they might not consider the distinction to be important.
      • The French translation corrects this.
  • Enclosed Space: Being snowed in was the only reason the crime wasn't a total success.
  • Everybody Did It: Former Trope Namer.
  • Everybody Smokes: Mentioned a lot, as a pipe-cleaner and used matches are among the clues found in the victim's cabin, so Poirot asks about suspects' smoking habits.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Deconstructed. Many murder mysteries set up the plot so that every character had a motive; but why would someone be in a situation where everyone in the vicinity has a motive to kill them? If the whole situation is the result of a conspiracy plotted by all the people with a motive to bring the victim among them.
    • The trope plays pretty much straight too. The only characters who are not suspects are Poirot himself, who was hearing some of the key events of the murder taking place and was asleep through others; and M. Bouc (Signor Bianchi in the 1974 film) and Dr. Constantine, who were incapable of being in the place of the murder at the time of the murder. In the 2010 adaptation, even the latter is one of the killers.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: In the 2010 adaptation, the train's generator fails soon after it runs into the snowdrift, so everything gets progressively colder and darker as Poirot comes closer to the truth. In the novel, the victim's compartment was cold because the window was left open.
  • Foreshadowing: The 1974 film has a couple of implications that Poirot recognized Mrs. Hubbard as Linda Arden from the very beginning. He quotes Greta Garbo when they first meet, admits he saw the actress perform twice as Lady Macbeth to the Princess, and in one scene pointedly thanks her for "playing your part". He even paraphrases her lines as Lady Macbeth when she shows up with the dagger.
    Poirot: Why did you take this dagger from the place?
    • When Ratchett first speaks to Poirot, he claims that he has enemies. Poirot notes that a man in a position to have enemies is unlikely to have only one. The Reveal is that there was indeed not "only one" killer.
  • From a Certain Point of View: How Princess Natalia Dragomiroff explains everything.
  • Funetik Aksent: Mrs. Hubbard, the Amurrican headed to Parrus.
  • Genre Savvy: Poirot notes in the novel, after dusting the crime scene for fingerprints, that he doesn't expect such a search to tell him anything—no criminal would be that stupid, nowadays, what with the overabundance of mysteries where fingerprints are plot points.
  • Good Is Not Soft: The Armstrong family and household was very loving and loyal. Cassetti paid a heavy price for what he did to them.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: One of the trademarks of Christie film adaptations.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Though all the passengers played a part in the murder (such that no-one knows who really struck the killing blow), Linda asks Poirot to just punish her and let the others go free, though it means she must suffer alone.
  • Just Train Wrong: The book cover used for the page image seems to feature a London and North Eastern Railway B1, which, if you couldn't tell, belongs in the United Kingdom and not the normal treading ground of the real Orient Express. A more recent book cover went one further and featured a photograph of a Canadian steam locomotive.
    • Film adaptations are notoriously guilty of this. The 1974 adaptation featured a French steam locomotive (on a train snowbound in Yugoslavia) and a Pullman lounge car, which the real Orient Express never featured. Similarly, the 2010 adaptation was filmed in the UK with a series of Wagon-Lits Pullman lounge cars and a British steam locomotive.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: One clue Poirot notices is that the victim was stabbed by both a right handed and left handed person.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The story's dramatic crux. Was it right for the twelve to kill a clearly guilty murderer, given that he'd already bribed society's court system to ignore his crimes? Eventually, Poirot chooses Good.
  • Let Off by the Detective: With the victim being an Asshole Victim of the highest order, Poirot rationalises that his murder meant justice was done. Although he reveals the murder conspiracy, he also offers an "out" by coming up with a plausible enough explanation involving an unknown assassin that doesn't incriminate the guilty parties. Those in authority accept this explanation rather than go through the political, legal, and publicity nightmare of prosecuting twelve people (some of whom are wealthy and powerful) for the murder of said Asshole Victim of the highest order. In the 1974 and 2010 versions he only does so after an immense amount of soul-searching, and even then it's clear from his expression that he's not sure if he's done the right thing.
  • Mama Bear: The real mastermind of the affair was Linda Arden, a.k.a Mrs. Hubbard, who did it to avenge her daughter and granddaughter.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam
  • Motor Mouth: Mrs. Hubbard. Poirot is exasperated by her nonstop chatter, and has to beg her to keep her testimony brief.
  • Multinational Cast: A French train crew, plus a few English, some Americans (one Italian-born), a Swede, a German, a Russian princess, and a Hungarian diplomatic couple, plus a Greek doctor and a Belgian detective. And every nationality but the last two conspired in the killing.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hinted at by Poirot who is not exactly happy with his Sadistic Choice.
  • Nice Guy: M. Bouc/Signor Bianchi. He was generous enough to offer Poirot a free first class ticket.
  • Occam's Razor: Poirot opts for the simpler explanation, knowing it's also the false one.
  • Off on a Technicality: How Ratchett managed to walk free after the killing of Daisy Armstrong. He still recognised that the public would have torn him apart the moment he left court, hence why he fled America and changed his name.
  • One Degree of Separation: The passengers all are closely connected.
  • Orient Express: Obviously.
  • Orgy of Evidence: Not only are there a dozen suspects with a connection to the victim, but there are also a misplaced match, a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief, a button from a railway worker's uniform, a watch broken at entirely the wrong time, and sightings of a woman in a red kimono. Poirot, to his credit, dismisses most of these fairly quickly as Red Herrings.
    Poirot: "There are too many clu-ues in this room."
  • Papa Wolf: One of the murderers was the conductor Pierre Michel, the father of the Armstrong family maid who hanged herself (in the 2010 adaptation; the novel says she killed herself by jumping off the window and falling to her death) after being accused of the crime.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The victim had been guilty of the kidnapping and murder of a small child years before. Poirot finds the man is so deserving of his murder that he decides not to turn the murderer over to the police, and even offers them a theory of how the murderer escaped the train that is as plausible as it is false.
  • Pinkerton Detective: Cyrus Hardman in the 1974 film version. The original novel has him employed by McNeil's.
  • Poirot Speak
  • Pretty in Mink: The 1974 film had a few furs, and even the 2001 adaptation had a fur stole at the end.
  • Proper Lady: Mary Debenham.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Monsieur Bouc/Signor Bianchi. In the book and the 1974 and 2010 versions, he was the one who suggested letting the passengers off the hook, since their victim was truly deserving.
  • Red Herring: Literally referred to by Poirot during The Reveal : He points out that the Mafia member and the red kimono were just "red herrings to confuse and deceive him", and even describes the night of the murder as the "night of the red herrings". See Orgy of Evidence.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Poirot never does figure out who wore the scarlet kimono. He deduces its owner is the Countess, but he also concludes she never left her compartment, so somebody must've borrowed it in order to lay that false trail.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The kidnapping and murder of heiress Daisy Armstrong is very much based on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.
  • Running Gag: "He/she did it!" after Poirot has interviewed one of the suspects.
  • Sand In My Eyes: The reaction that the snow was dazzling a suspect's eyes actually turns out to be a clue.
  • Scenery Porn: The 1974 film has lots of this.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Poirot refuses thousands of dollars to help Ratchett, sensing he is a a very shady character. It proves to have been in his best interest to have done so.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: While in other versions Cassetti merely escaped from the law, in the 2010 version, Cassetti used his mafia and political connections to avoid prosecution.
  • Seamless Spontaneous Lie: Everyone on the train was a part of the murder. They had to make up several lies to throw Poirot off their trail. This was something like a dozen people. That kept up a lie under the scrutiny of Poirot. On a snowbound train in the middle of nowhere.
    • Though not so much spontaneous, as they intentionally planned their stories so that pretty much everyone had an alibi with someone who would have no reason to lie about it (who would suspect Arbuthnot and Macqueen to be in it together, or Mrs. Hubbard and Greta, or Foscarelli and Masterman). And the stories do have flaws, just not immediately obvious ones.
  • Sherlock Scan: An odd example - Poirot is somehow able to intuit that a suspect previously worked as a cook thanks to his "nose for fine dining." In the 2010 adaptation, the clue is instead that he overheard them giving detailed instructions to the waiter when ordering dinner.
  • Snowed-In
  • Spanner in the Works: Monsieur Bouc / Signor Bianchi threw the whole plot off balance with a simple act of generosity to one of the world's finest detectives.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: In the '74 film, Ratchett takes the opportunity of the train entering a tunnel (and thus becoming dark) to leave unobserved after Poirot refuses his offer.
  • Sympathetic Murderer
  • Thriller on the Express: Trope Namer, along with the numerous examples that use the title format for a reference.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: Cyrus Hardman explains to Poirot that he is a private detective and therefore has a fake passport. However, he conveniently avoids to say that he also used to be a cop and was involved in the investigation of the Armstrong case.
  • Unusual Euphemism: In the 1974 movie, when asking Poirot for help, Poirot asks Ratchet what business he was involved with.
    Ratchet: Baby food.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Not completely unwitting, since Cassetti obviously meant to do great harm by his kidnapping of Daisy, but killing her (and pretending she was still alive to get the ransom money) led to a whole slew of From Bad to Worse occurrences in and around the family—the revelation that Daisy was already dead caused her mother to have a miscarriage and die, her father then killed himself, and the innocent family maid also killed herself when accused of the crime. Generally, the entire family and everyone connected to them had their lives ruined by this one act, and it is this as much as what happened to Daisy herself that motivated the murderers in their quest for justice.
  • Villainous Breakdown: In the 2010 adaptation, Cassetti/Ratchett becomes increasingly unhinged as he realizes the people looking for retribution are on the train and starts praying to God for forgiveness.
  • What You Are in the Dark: In the 2010 adaptations, when Poirot discovers that all his fellow passengers were the killers, he initially plans to turn them into the Yugoslavian police, regardless of how monstrous the victim was. Problem is, he and the train manager are the only witnesses and they are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Arbuthnot actually draws his gun on Poirot, until the rest of them realize that would make them like Cassetti. He lets them go anyways, but at the cost of his faith in God, as he tries in vain to hold onto his Catholic rosary as he walks away.
    • In the 1974 film, he has a similar crisis of faith, and even though the suspects are willing to accept the consequences of their actions - the man was dead, they didn't care about their fate afterward. Poirot decides to go with the simpler, false explanation, but is visibly shaken.
      Bianchi: Hercule. I thank you.
      Poirot: My friend. Now I must go and wrestle with my report to the police and with my conscience.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: The train was full of passengers who had reason to off the victim. And all of them did.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: A train full of them, no less. They've all suffered for years because of Cassetti/Ratchett, which only went From Bad to Worse when he got Off on a Technicality. After that, you really can't blame them.
  • You Never Asked: The solution to the mysterious handkerchief with a Н on it. It involves the Cyrillic alphabet and Princess Dragomiroff's first name.
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go: Cassetti kills three-year-old Daisy just after the ransom had been paid and flees the country. He gets what he deserves.
  • Zig-Zagging Trope: The Bad Guy Wins. Trust us, the "bad guy" and "wins" parts are tossed every which way.

Alternative Title(s): Murder On The Orient Express