Pleasures of the Orient Express

I recently discovered a considerable, if old-fashioned, pleasure: spending an evening reading an entire Agatha Christie novel. I’d always heard that Murder on the Orient Express had been intended as a single evening’s entertainment, but I’d always read Mrs. Christie (somehow that suits her more than “Dame Agatha”) the way I suppose most people read her: a few chapters here, a few chapters there…and you’re done with the book in a week or so.

It’s rather a different experience to take a seat in one’s armchair early in the evening, crack open a fresh book, and, surrounded by quiet, read the entire novel, taking a break for dinner a third of the way through. (Sitting down to read a whole novel right after dinner strikes me as an invitation to falling asleep. If you wait to eat until you’ve gotten to the body, you’re far more likely to remain awake to find out who’d done it.)

Stretched out to 250-odd generously leaded pages in the Harper/Collins editions, Mrs. Christie’s novels take perhaps four hours to read, and send you off to bed around Midnight thoroughly satisfied with the solution to the murder of the corpse you’d discovered three hours previously. Not every solution in every novel is brilliant, but you cannot fault Mrs. Christie for dangling loose ends. Her plots are always very tidily sewn up, and you aren’t going to find yourself unable to fall asleep because of some nagging unresolved detail. (You see here also the pitfalls of reading a mystery in fits and bursts: you may be kept awake trying to figure out the identity of the murderer.) Indeed, the dénouement of a skillfully plotted (and Mrs. Christie’s plots are always skillful) mystery novel should induce sleep restful enough to compensate for the extra half-hour you had to stay up to finish the book.

Why have we lost sight of this (all things considered) gentle means of entertaining ourselves? The chief culprit is, of course, television, which has been for over 50 years the chief source of in-home evening entertainment. It’s not called “prime time” for nothing. The eight channels of my youth have been succeeded by myriads upon myriads of channels, and those by myriads upon myriads of other electronic diversions, so that the low-tech set-up of you, an armchair, a lamp, your reading glasses (if required) and a slim volume of entertainment literature must seem unlikely indeed.

I also hasten to add that I do mean a slim volume. A book. The paper, ink and glue kind. While electronic versions of Mrs. Christie’s novels are easily procured (indeed, the first iPads came with a free copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles), usually more economically than print versions, using an e-reader is denying yourself an important part of the experience. Holding a paperback open with the first and fifth fingers of your non-dominant hand (and eventually getting a cramp) is how murder mysteries were intended to be read. More importantly, the physical book in your hand makes you aware of your progress, as page after page shifts from right to left. It is, I believe, important in reading one of Mrs. Christie’s novels to see and feel how much further there is to go. It helps you to judge your bedtime (“only that much left? I can make it to the end before it gets too late”), and it keeps you aware of how much more evidence remains to be heard. When the pages held by your thumb begin seriously to dwindle (and, off-balance, the pages start to slip out annoyingly from behind your pinky), you know the dénouement will soon be upon you. That’s the signal for you to enter your final guess as to who the culprit is, and triggers an eager twinge of anticipatory adrenaline as M. Poirot requests that the principals be gathered to hear his solution.

So you can get the book for under a buck for your Kindle. Kindle, Schmindle. Not knowing (let alone feeling) how much is left to go sucks a good deal of the fun and excitement from the mystery-reading experience. Mrs. Christie, remember, fully expected you to be holding the book while you were reading it.

Consuming the whole book in one evening offers numerous advantages, not the least of which is that you have an easier time remembering who’s who. Pick a mystery up every 36 hours, and you’re going to find yourself having difficulty recalling which one is the retired Indian Army colonel and whether it’s Mrs. Allerton or Mrs. Otterbourne who’s the eccentric woman in the turban. I mean no disrespect to Mrs. Christie’s plots when I say that, with breaks in concentration, your brain may start interpolating clues from Murder on the Orient Express into The Mystery of the Blue Train. Read your novel all at once and all the material gets funneled into the same quick-recall part of your brain, allowing you properly to attempt to solve the puzzle, to say nothing of fully appreciating Miss Marple’s solution when you get to it.

Although inexpensive remainders are cursed with $3.99 in shipping fees, I highly recommend acquiring one of Mrs. Christie’s novels, and then spending an evening with it. My guess is that the next morning will find your browsing the other tempting titles on offer by Amazon’s affiliated remainder booksellers.

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  1. […] Perhaps the moral of this particular story is that The Lady in the Lake and The ABC Murders belong on the page, not on the screen. Although there are a few Chandler movies that are watchable (stay tuned for a post about Murder, My Sweet), and the Sidney Lumet Murder on the Orient Express remains one of my favorite movies of all time, both Chandler and Christie are authors who are best as authors. They are both a joy to read. While this is so obviously the case with Chandler and Marlowe’s uniquely brilliant handling of the English language, it is also true of Mrs. Christie, however much simpler her prose style may be. She remains one of the greatest storytellers in the history of world literature, and one’s time would be far better spent with The ABC Murders than watching the dreadful mess that is The Alphabet Murders. The 90 minutes wasted watching the movie could be far better invested in starting a book that can be finished in the space of a restful evening. […]

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