The Express d’Orient takes a tortuous route and the train is notorious for running into bad weather. In the old days, it took three days to wind across Europe, from Istanbul to Paris, passing through Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland.
When Lady Mallowan, then 41, boarded the train in December 1931, she wasn’t unfamiliar with the route or the hazards on its course. Months after her first ride in 1928, a storm near Cherkeskoy in Turkey had left the train stranded for six days. This time, as she headed back to Europe from a site in Nineveh in Iraq, having spent a few days with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, the train ran into a blizzard that washed away sections of the track, leaving it marooned for nearly a day, one biography of Lady Mallowan recalls.
What brings the account of the transcontinental railroad journey back into the limelight nearly 80 years after that day-long blizzard is a mysterious killing on the train. Somewhere near Belgrade, Samuel Edward Ratchett was found dead in his compartment with 12 knife wounds. Or at least, that was the tale spun in her 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express by Lady Mallowan—whom the world knows better as Agatha Christie.
The book (her fourteenth) went on to be hailed as a landmark, while the writer was enshrined as a certified master of the crime fiction genre. Since then, her books have sold near four billion copies, and are surpassed only by the Bible.
It isn’t easy to identify the source of Christie’s enduring appeal. While most of her books are set in the English countryside, with commonplace and identifiable characters involved in plots that are actually plausible, they’re also nearly devoid of gore or sexuality. Perhaps the absence of elements that have become essential in the world of murder mysteries takes Christie’s readers back to a gentler time, when even violent death could be an understated affair.
The immense popularity of her novels may also have something to do with her endearingly quirky detectives Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. Miss Marple is a prim and elderly English spinster who is frequently depicted as knitting or gardening. In 12 of Christie’s novels, Miss Marple uses her astute knowledge of the quirks and failings of human nature to solve cases that left the police baffled. The Belgian detective Poirot, on the other hand, was strongly influenced by Sherlock Holmes. In her autobiography, Christie admitted: “I was still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition—eccentric detective, stooge assistant, with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Japp.”
In an interview with the BBC in 1955, Christie denied that she employed a single method to create her characters and plots. She had written close to 50 by then, at the pace of up to three novels every year. Between 1920 and 1976, when she died, she wrote 80 novels and 160 short stories. “I type my own drafts on an ancient faithful machine I’ve owned for years,” she told the interviewer. “There’s nothing like boredom to make you write.”
It’s clear that boredom is an emotion that has yet to be associated with Murder on the Orient Express. The novel went on to be adapted into at least two film versions, a graphic novel, and even a computer game of the same name. No wonder HarperCollins has decided to republish it in India this fortnight.
HarperCollins released Murder on the Orient Express (Rs150) in January as part of its Chills and Thrills festival, a month-long promotion of the works of such mystery and thriller writers as Alistair MacLean, Sydney Sheldon and Michael Crichton in bookstores across India.