Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Murder on the Orient Express

Go To

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.

The Films of the Book:

Warning: Many unmarked spoilers are below, as the plot is extremely well known.

The story provides examples of the following:

  • Acquitted Too Late: The Armstrong's maid was suspected of being involved in the kidnapping of Daisy and Driven to Suicide by this. Only afterwards was it officially proven that she wasn't involved. note  Indeed, several of the people involved in Ratchett's execution are avenging her just as much as Daisy.
  • Adult Fear:
    • The first few passages of the story — and the motive for Ratchett's murder — are horrifying on their own, but they might be especially hard on parents.
    • Advertisement:
    • Being stranded in the middle of nowhere because of copious snow fall with a bunch of strangers that are getting antsy because of said stranding.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: The sisters Helena and Sonia Goldenberg, as well as their mother, who uses a stage name. Poirot briefly speculates on this.
  • 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.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Zigzagged. It depends, to a large degree, 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 Ratchett to justice.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While the murderers do get off scot-free, that's because even Poirot agrees that Ratchett's crime against the Armstrong family (whom the killers all had connections to) had been paid back justly, with interest.
  • Brutal Honesty: Poirot gets bad vibes from Ratchett immediately — something about the nasty look on his face and his eyes. He opts not to take Ratchett's case, and when Ratchett demands an explanation, he answers bluntly, "I do not like your face."
  • Busman's Holiday: What's Poirot doing on his vacation? Investigating a murder.
  • 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.
    • Averted in the case of the maid who was suspected in Daisy's kidnapping, but proven innocent.
  • 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. At one point he also proposes the possibility that it's showing the right time, but the owner hadn't accounted for the fact that the train had crossed a time zone earlier.
  • Closed Circle: Not only are they on a train, but trapped in a snowdrift.
  • 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, so it's reasonable to assume they might not be aware of the distinction or consider it 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: Everyone on the train except the detectives is part of an elaborate conspiracy to execute the victim. The original idea was to provide themselves with an interlocking net of alibis, such that guilt could never settle on any one of them and it would be assumed that someone from outside the trainnote  did it. If it hadn't been for a Closed Circle snowdrift cutting off the hypothetical murderer's escape, it might have worked. Moreover, the presence of all the suspects is a clue in itself: the murder takes place during a "dead season" for the railway, and yet every berth in the sleeping car is occupied.
  • 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? It makes sense 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 and Dr. Constantine, who were incapable of being in the place of the murder at the time of the murder.
    • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: Poirot and the French Lieutenant talk about how cold it is, and later Monsieur Bouc recollects being snowbound in a train. Guess what happens next...
  • 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 sloppy, 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.
  • 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. He just lets everybody get off scot-free instead.
  • 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 later book cover went one further and featured a photograph of a Canadian steam locomotive.
    • The 2001 film version didn't even bother using Wagon-Lits carriages, instead using a train of British Pullman lounge cars. Ironically, one of them, named "Ibis", was used as a dining car on the Simplon-Orient-Express (the Orient Express Poirot travels on) between Paris and Venice for a couple of years in the 20s.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: One clue Dr. Constantine notices is that the victim was stabbed by both a right handed and left handed person.
  • 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.
  • 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: All of the suspects conspired together to murder the victim.
  • Metaphorical Truth: How Princess Natalia Dragomiroff explains everything.
  • 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 Wagon-Lits Company director. 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. It didn't work, as the friends and family of the victims track him down and kill him.
  • 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 clues in this room."
  • Papa Wolf: One of the murderers was the conductor Pierre Michel, the father of the Armstrong family maid who committed suicide by jumping out of the window 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.
  • Please Select New City Name: The train departs Istanbul, but MacQueen calls it Constantinople.
  • Pretty in Mink: The 2001 film adaptation had a fur stole at the end.note 
  • Proper Lady: Mary Debenham.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Monsieur Bouc/Signor Bianchi. 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.
  • Retcon: The late Colonel Armstrong's first name is alternately given as Toby, Robert, and John depending on the adaptation.
  • 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.
    • Most adaptations have Mary Debenham be the one to don the kimono.
  • 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.
  • 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'm Doing What's Right!: Poirot figures out that all of the suspects are in fact complicit in Cassetti's murder. However, rather than turn them in, he sympathizes with their motivations and decides to cover up their involvement, claiming an unknown third party snuck onto the train and murdered Cassetti.
  • 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 — especially — Foscarelli and Masterman, who pretend to actively dislike each other to suggest that neither would cover for the other one). 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."
  • Snowed-In: The train is stuck on the tracks because the mountain passes are blocked with snow.
  • Spanner in the Works: Multiple.
    • Monsieur Bouc / Signor Bianchi threw the whole plot off balance with a simple act of generosity to one of the world's finest detectives.
    • Even more than that. Poirot never meant to be on that train to begin with, having intended to spend a few days sightseeing around Istanbul first, but receives a telegram urging him to come back to London immediately.
    • The snowdrift essentially locks all the suspects on the train, while also giving time for Poirot to investigate and come to the correct conclusion.
  • Spill Stain Sabotage: Countess Andrenyi purposefully spills grease on her passport to obscure her Christian name.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Basically everyone who's not Poirot or Rachett is one of these. They've all witnessed the tragedy wrought by Rachett/Cassetti's kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, and they're seeking to bring him to justice after he got Off on a Technicality.
  • Thriller on the Express: Trope Namer, along with the numerous examples that use the title format for a reference.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The story's dramatic crux. Was it right for the twelve to kill a clearly guilty murderer — whose crime also caused the deaths of three other people and ruined the lives of all his killers — given that he'd already bribed society's court system to ignore his crimes? Eventually, Poirot chooses Good.
  • True Companions: All of the murderers are united under the shared trauma of Daisy's murder at the hands of Cassetti and the subsequent fallout, and take great measures to ensure that none of them receive any undue suspicion over the others. For example, they all stab Cassetti a single time to demonstrate that they are all equally complicit in his death and no one would know who actually dealt the fatal blow. When Poirot finally figures out the case, Mrs. Hubbard is the first to volunteer to take all of the blame in return for the others going free.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: The murder victim was a horrible person, and investigating the crime just leads to how he'd done something to gain the enmity of almost everyone on the train. Which is why they all conspired together to murder him.
  • 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 any of 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 lives to regret his actions, but not for long.
  • Zig-Zagging Trope: The Bad Guy Wins. Trust us, the "bad guy" and "wins" parts are tossed every which way. Cassetti was the bad guy who won in the backstory, when he got Daisy's ransom and killed her anyway. In the main story, the murderers get away with everything... but given that their victim was the aforementioned Cassetti and they were the ones whose lives he ruined, him living to get off the train could be considered 'the bad guy winning'.

Alternative Title(s): Murder On The Orient Express


Example of: