Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:
- Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie
- Drury Lane’s Last Case by Ellery Queen
This month’s picks benefited from a pleasant coincidence: both books were published in 1933.
The watchword of Orient Express was “contemplation.” The murder, as the title suggests, is committed on a train. First, the clues. Every person on the train must be interviewed! And each interview will constitute one chapter.
- The Evidence of the Secretary
- The evidence of the Valet
- The Evidence of the American Lady
- The Evidence of the Swedish Lady
- The Evidence of the Russian Princess
There are twelve people on this train, mon ami, and Hercule Poirot interviews each. He particularly concerns himself with the place of origin of his suspects, reasoning that different countries produce different kinds of people, predisposed toward different styles of crime. For instance, the Italian passenger’s likelihood of committing the murder is discussed as follows:
He has been a long time in America,” said M. Bouc, “and he is an Italian, and Italians use the knife! And they are great liars! I do not like Italians.”
Ca se voit,” said Poirot with a smile. “Well, it may be that you are right, but I will point out to you, my friend, that there is absolutely no evidence against the man.”
“And what about psychology? Do not Italians stab?”
“Assuredly,” said Poirot. “Especially in the heat of a quarrel. But this—this is a different kind of crime. I have the little idea, my friend, that this is a crime very carefully planned and staged. It is a far-sighted, long-headed crime. It is not—how shall I express it?—a Latin crime.”
This is a representative instance of a kind of stereotyping that Orient really goes in for. And it disturbed me, especially considering that the book came out squarely in the inter-war period, to see such poor chauvinisms intermixed so thoughtlessly with other forensics.
But let us return to “Contemplation.” Orient Express is divided into three parts. Part I is “The Facts,” Part II is “The Evidence,” and the final part, Part III, has one of the greatest names of any Part III I’ve ever encountered:
Part III: Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks
Poirot produces a summary of all the evidence, and all of the questions that needed answering. He draws a sketch of the train carriage, with each passenger labelled in their correct position. I’m glad I didn’t stop and try to put everything together, mon ami, because when Poirot finally announces his conclusion it turns out he was considering some pieces of evidence to which we readers did not have access.
It was nonetheless a satisfying read, and so intricately plotted as to leave me wondering about Christie’s writing process. Fortunately, because Agatha Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time (she’s in the Guiness Book of World Records, apparently) plenty has been said about her method.
She started with the murder, and plotted that. Then she collected the characters surrounding it. Then she plotted the investigation, including clues and red herrings. It’s said that her notebooks are quite disorganized, mixed in with shopping lists, her daughter’s penmanship exercises, etc. The result: a successful blend of amusing characters, murder, mystery, and of course the pulse-speeding CONTEMPLATION when Poirot sits back and thinks!
- - -
While Poirot is busy contemplating, Queen’s characters in Last Case are persistently struck by a very different sort of quiescence. You’ve seen the technique of using three dashes to indicate to a reader that there’s a change of scene, like the three I used above to signal the introduction of this new topic.
In Last Case this technique has another use, which is to create a narrative beat when something truly amazing happens. It seems like all of the characters in such cases briefly enter a fugue state during which they’re so overcome with the amazing excitement of whatever just transpired that they can’t continue the scene. Then they get over it and the book moves on as if nothing happened. Here’s one of the best of examples:
“The matter, my dear Choate,” said the old gentleman calmly, “is that one of the volumes which originally lay in this case has been stolen!”- - -
“Stolen!” they cried simultaneously; and Dr. Choate took a step forward…
This shows the essential ingredient of Last Case: beguilement. The book bludgeons the reader into insensibility with a ceaseless attack of amazing developments—gunshots, car chases, coincidences, and anagrams.
His emotions were raw and spontaneous, like the leaping juice of a squeezed lemon.
The buses were vast gleaming machines decorated whimsically in a motif of pink and blue, like acromegalic infants primped out by a sentimental mother.
These excesses distract from the fact that the book is rife with implausibility, even at the metafictional level: there never was such a person as Ellery Queen. Ellery was the pseudonym of two cousins, Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky. Furthermore, this novel was originally published under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross, and was later repseudonymed to the more well known Ellery Queen (constituting my first opportunity in life to use the term “repseudonymed.”)
The deft sleight of hand of Last Case seems like a good counterpart to Poirot’s flawed contemplations. I’d like to see a book that pits the two against one another. It would be called The Fallacious Investigator and the Untrustworthy Magician. And it would be written under a repseudonym.