Murder On The Orient Express


Call me Hercule Poirot because I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out who killed Mr. Ratchett.

Right now I’m about 200 pages into Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and, despite the fact that this book would never make it onto the bestseller lists if it were published for the first time today, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.  Go ahead and strip away the extra words!  Delete the fluffy paragraphs!  Scratch the flashbacks and backstory!  Pare the story down to its naked bones, present it as it is (a closed circuit murder mystery), and charge forward at the fastest pace possible.

Reading this amazing Agatha Christie novel has got me to thinking about how much fiction has changed in the last 80 years.  While I’m loving the book, and Agatha Christie is certainly a literary treasure, I can’t help but think about the fact that Murder on the Orient Express would not succeed in today’s book market.  The book is a pure plot vehicle without any of the extra frills that make today’s novels great.  Sure, the characters are defined well on the surface – they’re the best 2D characters I’ve read in a while – but what are their motivations, their backstories, the things that make them tick?  All of that is left out.

Not to say that that’s a bad thing.  Leaving out some of the extra crap serves this book well.  Christie presents the story exactly as she intended it – a murder mystery – and the entire goal is to figure out whodunnit.  How exciting!  You get to rip through 53,000 words (so short!) in one or two sittings and simply enjoy her masterful puzzle.

For writers I think there’s an added bonus, in that it teaches us about how to drive a book forward using just one aspect of our arsenal – plot.  It’s like a writing 101 book that teaches you the different elements one by one. 

If you want to learn characterization, or theme, or-setting-or-dialogue-or-whatever, look elsewhere.  But if you want to just focus on plot today look no further than this book.  As the story peels itself open, every layer advances the murder mystery without any extra or wasted words.

Still, though, if this was presented to an editor today they would probably say something along the lines of: “Great mystery.  Love the Plot.  But this is just the skeleton!  You have to really flesh all this out for it to be a truly great book.”

But here we are, 80 years later, still reading and enjoying Agatha Christie’s novels (And Then There Were None, anybody?).  It makes you wonder if there is still a place for these short hyper-focused-on-one-element stories in today’s reading culture.

I guess the classics are classics for a reason (I’m kind of stretching the definition of classics here to encompass all books pre-1950), though I have to admit that my repertoire is a little lacking in this area.

What are some good books you’d recommend to a friend that would fall under the ‘Classics’ category?  Which is your favorite?  Which do you think we could learn the most from?

18 comments on “Murder On The Orient Express”

  1. Funny you bring this up as I just watched the most recent movie. I think it’s important that it’s just a skeleton to save us for all those big reveals at the end, leading us to what really happened!
    I haven’t read it yet, but now that I’ve watched the movie I will be adding some of her works to my “to read” list!

  2. I can’t even imagine how slow the book is, I never made it past the first twenty minutes of the movie!
    I may have a touch of ADD 🙂

  3. Hi Dave! Alice thinks you’ve hit on a very intriguing question here! Why do we seek only the “well-rounded novel” these days, even when the masterworks of yesterday – like this Agatha Christie’s skeletal whodunnit – provide us enjoyment without any pretensions of being fully rounded? Good writing is good writing, after all. Are we doing more harm than good by demanding certain standards from every aspect of our novels, in a rather formulaic fashion? Involving plot? Check. Deep characters? Check. Rich descriptions? Check. Beautiful language? Check.

    Of course, I know that the market is the market, and that it never hurts to excel in every category, but sometimes I wonder. Has the novel become a bit too restrictive? Relatedly, what do you think about the budding rise of the novella?

    Also, sorry if this is too much gushing for a first comment! 😀

    1. Not at all, I love hearing your thoughts, and I totally agree! I do think books in general have changed for the better – I love that most ‘good’ books have to excel in each of these categories – but it certainly crowds out those specific types of books that can be enjoyed simply because they are so single-minded in what they’re trying to accomplish.

      I personally am all in for the novella. On the one hand, I love long books because I get really attached to characters and stories, but novellas are great given how busy people are these days (and how short their attention spans are). It would be a shame if the novella ended up overtaking the novel in 100 years or something because there is something to be said about books forcing people to slow down and really focus on something for an extended period of time, since that act is rarer and rarer in everyday society today.

      1. It sure will be interesting to see what happens! I believe the novel is too entrenched as a literary form for the novella to overtake it any time soon, but it’s an intriguing prospect. I mean, the modern novel has been around for just, what, a couple of hundred years? And before that, poetry was what you read. 🙂 So, we never know what ends up being on top in the future! As an aside, do you read any poetry?

      2. I read a lot for class in college and I loved it, but I don’t find myself reading it for pleasure recently. I did read the Iliad and a couple of older longer form works back in the day for fun. What is the breakdown of what you read?

      3. Alice approves. 🙂 I think poetry excels in teaching brevity and unpredictability, which are great skills for a prose writer. Still, like you, I can’t boast of having read much poetry recently. 🙁

        I have an on-off affair with non-fiction books. Recently, I brushed up on my Moomins. And right now, I’m doing a bit of reading on Renaissance artists – Bruegel, Dürer. Eclectic, I guess? 😀

      4. Definitely eclectic! And you’re right – poetry teaches and artistry to words and helps you understand how being economical with them is sometimes the best way to be

  4. So interesting… but what I’ve noticed is that our attention spans are so short nowadays I fear that we’ll put down ANY book that isn’t short. Sometimes I get so bored with all the fluff (I won’t mention any particular book, but we could all mention five) and just think “enough, get to it already”… But I wonder if that has more to do with my short attention span or really the author just going on and on with way too much imagery, detail and such. I think we need both. Books of all types and better attention spans… I love that you read that book! Too cool. I might have to pick it up at as well. Thanks.

    1. Totally agree – there are so many good books where I find myself wishing it had 100 pages less of fluff, but then again I wonder if the fluff provides the setting and atmosphere that makes the book great? I don’t know, it’s tough to decide. But I guess that’s why there are so many different lengths out there. 250 is too short for me, but 600 is sometimes too long (except possibly in fantasy or sci fi)… I personally love 350-500.

  5. The Great Gatsby is a book I return to every few years. I remember it as the first classic I really enjoyed, so re-reading it is a bit nostalgic for me. Don’t you think it sad that Fitzgerald died believing it was a failure?!

    1. I haven’t read it in a long time – probably worth a revisit. And yes, very sad! He had such little success while alive compared to what happened after he died – it’s a shame he never knew how much people enjoyed his writing

  6. I actually played Agatha Christie in a comedy/spoof play of her and I still haven’t read any of her books. I know she’s a classic, but she, as a writer, never called out to me much. Probably because I’ve only ever read a few murder mysteries and I never got very into that genre. Your post did make me wonder if a lot of people nowadays would just have skeleton-like manuscripts focusing more on their strengths if they weren’t worried about marketing.

    A classic I think I would recommend to someone, and this is a bit of a pretentious choice but bear with me, is Catcher in the Rye. I think it’s because I grew up thinking that to be a great writer you had to have Ray-Bradbury-esque type of descriptions and I couldn’t do that. I was always more interested in characterization and voice, which in turn is probably why I became better at it, because as a total ENFP I was obsessed with a character’s motivation, especially to do bad things. And finally, I read Catcher in the Rye, and found that Holden Caulfield, who’s is a properly famous fictional character is one of the most unlikeable characters ever, and you still feel kind of bad for him. I mean, it’s what I do a lot of now, take unlikeable characters and give them a voice that makes people both hate the person but still evoke some sort of emotion.

    1. I actually haven’t read Catcher in the Rye since 8th grade when it was required reading, so this makes me wonder if I would like it if I read it for pleasure now. Obviously I hated almost any book I was ‘forced’ to read. But it being such a classic means that it must be kinda-okay, right?

      And I’m actually totally with you on the motivation thing – I think peoples’ motivations to do things is what made me want to be a writer in the first place. If you don’t understand and somehow show the motivation of each character in your book, you’re missing out on one of the most important things in writing. People do things for a reason, even bad guys, and sometimes its the motivation of the antagonists that is the most interesting part of the book. I’ve always wanted to write a series where the protagonist is actually (or turns into) the villain, but you still find yourself rooting for him/her because you understand his/her motivations so well. Every villain is the hero of their own story (cliche but whatever)

  7. I mean, to be fair, I read Catcher in the Rye voluntarily so I’m one of the few people that isn’t predisposed to hate that book. And that’s great, you could come up with the next Walter White! I myself like slippery slope kind of villains.

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