Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is one of her greatest novels. Nearly eighty years later, it’s still worth reading.
It’s also an instructive book to writers. Her first two books that I annotated, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and “The Secret Adversary,” each required several hundred footnotes. There were historical events to explain, unfamiliar words in several languages to translate, and plenty of moments that were drawn from Christie’s life.
(These books are still available from Peschel Press. Click on the links above to learn more. OK, back to “Orient Express.”)
The annotations to “Orient Express” show just how little needs to be explained: a few place names, snippets of French and Italian, a mention of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, references to Euclid and British society in the Middle East. That’s about it. With book after book, Christie pared away the references, focusing on the people moments and the pursuit of the killer. She eliminates as much of the background as possible, which would grow stale and forgotten over time. What’s left is eternally fresh and readable.
Other worthwhile links:
* The Wikipedia page for the novel.
* Wikipedia’s disambiguation page with links to “Murder on the Orient Express” and its many other versions.
* The Celebrity Kidnap that Inspired Christie: From the Mirror
* The TV Tropes page on the novel (warning: time suck)
* News from 2015 about the Kenneth Branagh version.
Dedication: To M.E.L.M. / Arpachiyah, 1933
Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, Christie’s second husband (1904-1978). Arpachiyah was the site of an archaeological dig several miles northeast of Nineveh in Iraq. Christie wrote “Orient Express” there, in addition to her other duties of keeping records of the dig, and cleaning, assembling and drawing pottery fragments. In 1933, they had been married for three years.
- 1 CHAPTER 1
- 2 CHAPTER 2
- 3 CHAPTER 3
- 4 CHAPTER 4
- 5 CHAPTER 5
- 6 CHAPTER 6
- 7 CHAPTER 7
- 8 CHAPTER 8
- 9 CHAPTER 1
- 10 CHAPTER 3
- 11 CHAPTER 4
- 12 CHAPTER 5
- 13 CHAPTER 6
- 14 CHAPTER 7
- 15 CHAPTER 8
- 16 CHAPTER 10
- 17 CHAPTER 12
- 18 CHAPTER 13
- 19 CHAPTER 14
- 20 CHAPTER 15
- 21 CHAPTER 1
- 22 CHAPTER 2
- 23 CHAPTER 3
- 24 CHAPTER 4
- 25 CHAPTER 5
- 26 CHAPTER 7
- 27 CHAPTER 8
An Important Passenger on the Taurus Express
Aleppo: The largest city in Syria, located 193 miles northwest of the capital Damascus. Even during the days of the Ottoman Empire, it was a large city (third in population after Istanbul and Cairo). It was a strategic trading post and crossroads city since the days when the Silk Road connected Europe and China.
Taurus Express: The overnight train that operated between Istanbul and Baghdad, although between 1930 and 1940, passengers were transported by motor coach between Nusaybin and Kirkuk. It was operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which also operated the Orient Express.
Stamboul: A variant name for Istanbul. The city as a whole was called in the West Constantinople, with Stamboul referring to the central part of the city from the Byzantine Empire Era.
comme ça: “Like this.” If a Frenchman is asked how he is and he replies “comme ci, comme ça,” the literal translation is “like this, like that,” but the meaning is “so-so.”
La Sainte Sophie: Now called the Hagia Sophia (from the Greek for “Holy Wisdom”), the Sancta Sophia was a Byzantine-era Greek Orthodox cathedral that was built in 537. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 and remained one until 1931. It was reopened as a museum under the Republic of Turkey’s first president, Kemal Ataturk, in 1935. With its large copper dome and four spires, it is known as one of the great examples of Byzantine architecture.
Kirkuk: A city in Iraq, located 150 miles north of Baghdad.
Mosul: A city in Iraq, located 250 miles northwest of Baghdad, and 93 miles northwest of Kirkuk. Christie’s husband, Max, was doing excavations at this time at Tell Arpachiyah, outside Mosul, so she knew the area well.
Wagon Lit: A shortened form of the company’s name, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, or the “International Sleeping-Car Company.” Founded in 1872, the company provided luxury railway service throughout Europe. It expanded into providing luxury hotels in major European cities, and became so successful that it monopolized railway travel for international travellers. In the late 1920s, it expanded service into Middle Eastern cities such as Baghdad, Cairo and Tehran along lines such as the Taurus Express mentioned earlier in the book. The company, known informally as CIWL, is still in operation today.
En voiture, Monsieur: Literally, “the car, sir.” In essence, the conductor is indicating that it is time to board the train.
Voila: “There you are” or “There it is”.
valise: The French word for suitcase, a type of luggage that is usually flat, rectangular and built with a carrying handle.
Perrier: The brand name for bottled mineral water taken from a spring in southern France. It is named for Dr. Louis Perrier, who bought the spring in 1898. He operated a spa there and bottled the water for sale. It was bought by Englishman St. John Harmsworth, who promoted it as the champagne of mineral water. It is now owned by the Nestlé Corporation.
jolie femme: “Pretty woman.”
Punjab: A region consisting today of parts of eastern Pakistan and northern India. The word means “five rivers” and refers to the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas tributaries of the Indus River.
Cilician Gates: A pass through the Taurus Mountains in south-central Turkey.
Konya: A city in south-central Turkey.
galoshes: A French word for rubber boots that are slipped over shoes to protect them from water or mud. The word might have come from the Latin word for shoe (gallica) which was a type of clog that raised the wearer’s feet above the mud.
Haydapassar: A neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Galata Bridge: A bridge that spans the Golden Horn, an inlet that forms a harbor that divides Istanbul. A succession of bridges have been built here, including one proposed (but never built) by Leonardo da Vinci that would have been the longest in the world at the time. The one Poirot crossed was the fourth one, built in 1912. It was damaged by a fire in 1992 and replaced with the current model.
Tokatlian Hotel: One of two European-style luxury hotels built by Mgirdiç Tokatliyan in Istanbul. Among its guests were Kemal Ataturk, Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky (and, of course, Hercule Poirot!).
The Tokatlian Hotel
voilà ce qui est embêtant: “This is annoying.”
mon vieux: “My old friend.”
en brosse: “Like a brush,” that is, very short.
Lausanne: A city in the western part of Switzerland, near the French border.
malevolence: Displaying hatred or evil. From the Latin malevolens for “to wish ill.”
tensity: The state of being tense.
empressement: An old word from the 1700s meaning a demonstration of warmth or cordiality.
slip coach: A British term for a rail car that is uncoupled from the train while it is in motion and slowed with a hand brake. This allows passengers to disembark from a station without the main showing down and losing time by making so many stops.
I read my Dickens. M. Harris, he will not arrive: A reference to Sarah Gamp, the alcoholic nurse in “Martin Chuzzlewit,” who quotes Mrs. Harris in support of all of her opinions. In reality, Dickens writes, Mrs. Harris was “a phantom of Mrs Gamp’s brain … created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects, and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature.”
tout à fait au bout: “After you.”
Je crois que vous avez un erreur: Again, “I think you have made a mistake.”
en voiture: “On the car,” or more colloquially, “All aboard!”
Poirot Refuses a Case
Balzac: The French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was renowned for his realist novels and short stories. His La Comedie Humanie depicted French society after the fall of Napoleon in 91 novels and short stories.
linked together — by death: Some of us are made to adopt the dull tone of an assistant professor of literature at a junior college, but I do want to point out that this was a pretty cool use of foreshadowing by Christie. She gets little credit for her skill as a writer, but I think that’s because her success has created an image in the minds of people who haven’t read her that she’s a great plotter, but not a good writer.
commercial traveler: A.k.a. a traveling salesman.
sable coat: The sable is a small, four-footed animal found in eastern Russia, Mongolia, China, North and South Korea and Japan. Its fur is highly valued, even today.toque: Now known most popularly as headgear worn by Canadians and chefs, in the 1930s it was a small brimless hat.
autocratic tone: Characteristic of a despotic ruler or dictator. From the Greek autokratēs for “sole ruler.”
indolent: Inclined toward laziness. From the Latin indolens for “insensitive to pain.”
elle est jolie — et chic: “She is beautiful — and fashionable.”
Evian or Vichy: Two brands of bottled water similar to Perrier.
Dinars or something: A dinar is the name of a currency. Dinars were used in Yugoslavia up until 2003, and are also in use in Serbia, Macedonia, Jordan, Iraq and others.
caprices: A sudden change in mood or behavior. From the Italian capriccio for “head with the hair standing on end,” meaning a sudden movement associated with horror.
A Cry in the Night
Smyrna: Turkey’s third-largest city. It is a port located on the western end overlooking the Aegean Sea. It carried the same name as the ancient city (which it surrounds) until 1930 when it was changed to Izmir.
grips: A small suitcase. The word is American in origin when it was called a “gripsack.” Although slang dictionaries quote an origin from 1879, it appears in “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln” (1863), in which Lincoln tells the story about nearly losing copies of his inaugural address in his gripsack at a Harrisburg, Pa., train station.
communicating door: A door which links two rooms, as opposed to a door that opens onto a hallway. Communicating doors are frequently found on passenger trains and hotel rooms. In “The Complete, Annotated Secret Adversary,” Tommy Beresford makes use of one to spy on the villains conspiring to bring down Britain.
your policy in India: India had been under British rule effectively since 1848 when Lord Dalhousie was appointed governor general of the East India Company. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857 was suppressed, Britain assumed direct control of the country. After World War I, in which a million Indians served, there were attempts at reforming the system, soon to be overshadowed by calls for independence.
Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompe: “It is nothing. I was mistaken.”
Bien, Monsieur: “Very good, sir.”
voluble: Characterized by ready or rapid speech.
Bonne nuit: Good night.
De l’eau minerale, s’il vous plait: A mineral water, if you please.
Vincovci and Brod: Vincovci is a city in the eastern edge of what is now Croatia. Brod is a town in the northern part of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bon soir: Good evening.
kimono: A full-length robe, a traditional Japanese garment, meaning literally “a thing to wear.”
Vous etes un directeur de la ligne, je crois, Monsieur. Vous pouvez nous dire: You are a line manager, I believe, sir. Can you tell us ?”
chef de train: Conductor.
Yugoslavia: After World War I, Yugoslavia was created from territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbia and Montenegro. The name was a combination of the Slavic words “jug” (south) and “slaveni” (Slavs). The country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941 and liberated in 1944. The country was held together for another six decades until Serbia and Montenegro seceded in 2006 and Kosovo in 2008.
etait terrible: It was terrible!
antecedents: Significant events and traits of a person’s earlier life.
bona fides: Evidence that confirms their testimony.
C’est entendu: I understood.
Qu’est ce qu’il y a … Pourquoi: What is there? . . . why?”
only I always thought it was a woman’s dressmaker. This is one of the many “no respect” moments that Poirot must endure if he wants to catch the criminal. But before we reach the conclusion, he will experience the pleasure — as will the reader — of showing that the brilliant Belgian is not a man to be trifled with.
Que pensez vous de ca? What do you think of that?
Ah! c’est rigolo, tout ca! All this is very amusing.
Cambric: A fine, dense cloth used for linens, handkerchiefs, and shirts. It is named for the Cambrai region of France, where it was originally made.Curling tongs: A tool designed to change the shape of hair using heat. It consists of a clamp used to crimp hair, or curl it by winding the strands around the tongs.
The Armstrong Kidnapping Case
V.C.: A recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in battle.
Innocent of any complicity in the crime: Christie based the Daisy Armstrong case on the notorious kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. in 1932. On March 1, someone climbed a ladder to the second floor of the famed aviator’s house in a remote part of East Amwell, N.J., and made off with the 20-month-old toddler. The child’s body was found 11 days later near the home, dead of a massive skull fracture. Two years later, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested and convicted in the case and executed. As in the Armstrong case, the Lindbergh nurse, Betty Gow, was suspected of playing a role in the kidnapping, although no evidence exists connecting her to the crime.
Rentes: Annuties. In other words, the dividends paid on his investments.
Quel animal: What an animal!
Tout de meme: All the same.
Apres vous … Mais non, apres vous: After you . . . Oh, no, after you!
The Evidence of the Wagon Lit Conductor
Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompe: It’s nothing. I’m wrong.
Vincovci: A city in the eastern edge of what is now Croatia, as mentioned above.
The Evidence of the Valet
Clerkenwell: An area of central London in the borough of Islington.
Grosvenor Square: A high-end residential area in London’s Mayfair district.
Gaspers: Not just a cigarette, but a high-tar version, such as Woodbines or Gauloise. American versions would be Newport 100s and Camels.
The Evidence of the American Lady
Glauber’s salts: A processed form of sodium sulfate used as a laxative.
fallals: A fancy ornament, especially in dress. From the French word falbala, for “trimming” or “flounce.”
The Evidence of the Swedish Lady
Dressing-gown of Jaeger material: A woolen fabric promoted by German Dr. Gustav Jaeger (1832-1917), who rejected plant-fibre clothing in favor of wearing animal-based fabrics close to the skin. He inspired a line of clothing named for him. An early advocate of Jaeger clothing was George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).
Pale mauve abba: Abba or aba, in this instance, is Arabic for a loose, robe-like dressing-gown
The Evidence of the Russian Princess
Avenue Kleber: One of the twelve avenues leading out from the Arc de Triomphe. It is in the 16th arrondissement, considered one of the wealthiest and most cultured of Paris’ districts.
The Evidence of Count and Countess Andrenyi
Picquet: A card game in which two players, using a special 32-card deck, attempt to take the most tricks in a deal. It is commonly called piquet today.
Trional: A fast-acting sedative developed in 1888.
Mon vieux: A more familiar version of “friend,” such as “pal.”
The Evidence of Colonel Arbuthnot
P&O boat: The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a shipping company founded in 1837.
Jackanapes: An impudent or conceited person or child. From Jack Napes, the nickname for William de la Pole (1396-1450). At the time, “Jack of Naples” was a slang word for a monkey, which were imported from the island and exhibited in England. It was applied to the powerful nobleman because his grandfather became the 1st Earl of Suffolk because his wool business helped finance King Edward III, making him an upstart among those who had been aristocrats for far longer.
Ur of the Chaldees: An ancient city in southern Mesopotamia, now southeast Iraq, and one of several possible birthplaces of the Patriarch Abraham. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the site from 1922 to 1934 with the help of his assistant, Max Mallowan, who married Christie in 1932.
Three days in Baghdad with the A.O.C.: Air Officer Commanding, the top RAF officer in the region.
The thing had a sinister look — like a detective story: One of Christie’s narrative tricks to compare situations to fiction.
She’s a pukka sahib: Pukka means first class or genuine, from the Hindi pakk? for “ripe” or “substantial.” Sahib in this case means friend (it could also mean gentleman), from the Arabic s?hib for “friend or lord.”
The Evidence of the Italian
Ca se voit: So I see.
Long-headed crime: Having unusual foresight. The word has been in use since the 1700s, so it is probably an attempt to connect the size of one’s head with wisdom or intelligence.
The Evidence of the German Lady’s-Maid
sang-froid: Extremely self-possessed or calm under stress. From the French word for cold blood.
extra rug: In this case, it refers to a blanket used to cover your lap and legs to keep warm.
cambric: A thin linen fabric.
Summary of the Passengers’ Evidence
The impossible cannot have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances: A sly spin on Sherlock Holmes’ dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
mon vieux: “My old friend.”
bona fides: Evidence that confirms their testimony.
Sponge-bag: A toilet bag. In other words, a small bag, usually zippered, used to hold items used in the bathroom during a journey.
The Evidence of the Weapon
Encore un peu: A little more.
Perhaps this is only medical: Alcohol, particularly brandy, was valued as a medicine and a stimulant, although alcohol was later discovered to work as a depressive. The British Pharmacopoeia of 1907 said a dose of alcohol “increases the output of blood from the heart, and slightly raises blood pressure. … Its action may be due either to a direct stimulant effect on cardiac muscle, or to the fact that it affords a readily assimilable source of energy.”
Mais il n’y a rien a voir: There is nothing you can do.
those great shuffling things over your shoes: Etiquette when visiting a mosque requires that shoes be removed or covered before entering.
French Messagerie boat: A French merchant shipping company founded in 1851 and now called, after a merger, Compagnie Générale Maritime (CGM). In the Middle East, ships called at Malta, Alexandria, Port Said, Beirut, Syria, Smyrna, and Constantinople.
American Express: In 1915, the company established a travel division, including an agency to assist tourists.
The Evidence of the Passengers’ Luggage
tout de meme … It is not dans son caractere: All the same . . . It is not in his character.
c’est impayable: This is priceless.
canaille: a commoner. From the Italian canaglia for “pack of dogs.”
Vous etes bien amiable: You are very kind.
Diable!: The Devil! Expressed as a curse word.
sal ammoniac: An old-fashioned word for ammonium chloride, a white crystalline salt. Its strong smell is used to arouse a fainting person. From the Latin sal ammoniacus for “salt of Ammon.”
Qui s’excuse s’accuse: He who excuses himself accuses himself.
portmanteau: A portmanteau is known in England as a suitcase. As we see, Poirot meant to refer to a trunk call. Whether deliberate or not, his mangling of the language encourages the suspects to think less of him and reveal themselves more.
Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks
Which of Them?
Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompe: It’s nothing. I’m wrong.
Precis: A summary that gives the important parts.
Didactically: Spoken with the intention to teach.
(it seems impossible that it can be anybody — which is absurd) As our old friend Euclid says: Probably a reference to quod erat demonstrandum, Latin for “which had been demonstrated.” The phrase is used at the end of a geometry proof to signal the completion of the chain of logic leading to the conclusion. Poirot is speaking ironically, since an examination of the clues had left them to conclude that nobody murdered the victim.
Certain Suggestive Points
The elucidation of crime is your metier: Possessed of the natural ability to do well. Elucidation: The ability to explain something to make it clearer.
Recalling his thoughts from certain pornographic details: This is mentioned here only to highlight the fact that Christie has a better understanding of male psychology than she is credited by critics.
Premier Service. Le diner est servi. Premier diner — First Service: The attendant is announcing that dinner is served for premier service passengers. First Service: Because there are more passengers than seats in the dining car, dinner is served several times.
The Grease Spot on a Hungarian Passport
monogrammed square: A design of one or more letters, in this case stitched into the fabric.
The Christian Name of Princess Dragomiroff
Christian name: The first name, also called the given name, because it is given to the infant at a baptism.
Grand Seigneur manner: Acting like a man accustomed to being obeyed. From the French for “great lord.” An example can be found in “A College Girl” (1914) by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (1857-1917):
Darsie entirely forgot the wave of depression which had threatened to upset her composure a few minutes before, forgot for the time being the suspense and danger of the earlier afternoon.
Some one else, it appeared, however, was more remindful, for when she prepared to depart the dog-cart stood at the door, and Ralph announced in his most grand seigneur manner–
“We’re going to drive you back, don’t you know! Too awfully fagging to bicycle on a hot afternoon. Put on your hats, girls, and hurry up.”
The girls obediently flew upstairs, and Darsie’s protestation of “My bicycle!” was silenced with a word.
The Identity of Mary Debenham
Mon cher, vous êtes épatant . . . C’est formidable: My dear, you are amazing . . . It is wonderful.
Debenham & Freebody: Debenhams is a department store chain with sites in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark. It began in 1813 when William Debenham and William Clark became partners in Clark & Debenham. In 1851, it became Debenham & Freebody when Clement Freebody became a partner. It became Debenhams Ltd. in 1905.
Further Surprising Revelations
Per Dio: “For God.” Probably an attempt at “For God’s sake . . .”
roman policier: A French word for “whodunit” or detective story. From un roman for “novel” and policier for “police officer.”
C’est rigolo: “It is funny.”
If you’re here, it’s clear that you’re as much an Agatha Christie fan as I am! Why not check out my special “Complete, Annotated” editions of her first two novels? They come with the complete text as Christie wrote them, with hundreds of footnotes highlighting obscure words, historical figures, and other little-known facts about her times, plus entertaining essays that reveal “the history behind the mystery.” Once again, you can give the Christie fans in your life “a Christie for Christmas” (or birthday, anniversary, or Shrove Tuesday). Click on the covers or the links below! They are: