Murder on the Orient Express: A Comparison

One of the measures of a classic could be in its ability to be interpreted in different ways. The reason for a story’s endurance could be from an elasticity for an artist to stage it or convert it to another medium. Each generation has their Tarzan and Macbeth. It can also be seen in how two different directors, Sidney Lumet in 1974 and Kenneth Branagh today, each tackled Agatha Christie’s Murder on The Orient Express.

For those not familiar with the novel, I’ll do my best to give as little away as possible. Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot finds himself on the titular train leaving Istanbul, with passengers of various social class and nationalities. He is approached by a shady man, Rachet, who offers him a job to ferret out someone on the train who is leaving death threats to him. Poirot declines. the next morning a snowdrift blocks the train and Rachet is found dead, stabbed twelve times in his room. To keep the matter quiet the director of the train line asks Poirot to investigate. Early on he learns that Rachet was really Lanfranco Cassetti, the man responsible for the Armstrong kidnapping where a three year old heiress was abducted and murdered after the ransom was delivered. Poirot begins to find connections between the passengers and Cassetti to ferret out the culprit.

The reveal is one of the best known in mystery fiction. In fact, I knew it before reading the book. I was curious to discover what Poirot does with the information he has learned. It presents an interesting questions of justice and morality. Christie barely touches the moral quandary, with Poirot making an immediate judgment in the last line of the book, giving it a dark comic finale. The way the ending is treated in both films is where the main difference between them lies.

Sidney Lumet used the story to expand his pallet as a director. Known for gritty urban tales like The Pawnbroker and Serpico, he was looking for a “souffle” as he put it, something light, grand and classic. With Tony Walton’s costume and production design, he created classic look mirroring Hollywood’s golden age. In casting he used many stars associated with that era such as Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman who won an Academy Award for playing against type as the odd missionary. Richard Widmark draws back on his early hoodlum roles, playing Cossetti. Top names of the time Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York give more luster to the suspects with several theater pros like John Gielgud adding class. Lumet’s experience in early television comes into play as he brilliantly blocks the actors in he cramped space of the train cars without the use of false walls.

For Poirot, Lumet wanted the finest English actor he could get for the role. After offering the role to the more age appropriate Alec Guiness and Paul Scolfield, he went with Albert Finney. The actor played to the characters absurdities, yet this worked in making the audience believe in his extreme deduction skills.

It is slightly ironic with all the care in casting, Lumet decides not to begin with introducing us to the suspects and future victim like Christie. Instead, we get a depiction of the Armstrong kidnapping and its tragic fall out told in noir-ish flashes with just eerie music for sound. It is the darkest part of the film. In doing so, it allows us to understand both the motives of the suspects and the decision Poirot comes to about the fate of those involved with the murder, a decision that takes about as much time in Christie’s book. Because we have experienced the tragedy in the beginning, we can simply enjoy our favorite actors play out a drawing room style mystery, although, if intended or not there is a feeling of moral ambiguity because Lumet has each suspect toast the mastermind in the way of doing a curtain call.

Branagh brings more ambiguity and weight to the current version, while retaining the style. With the help of CGI he plays up the exotic nature and breadth of the locations the Orient Express travels through. Michael Green’s screenplay has even more snappy dialogue that hearkens back to the golden age. Unlike Lumet, he uses false walls and ceilings to allow more intricate camera work, such as an overhead shot when Casetti’s body is found. That said, he said he was drawn to the emotional weight that Christie suggests of how one horrible crime effects so many.

It is in the casting where he starts to show his motives. While he uses many name actors like Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz, they don’t have the wattage of Lumet’s ensemble. Many are known character actors, some of different ethnicities of the original character they are playing. Leslie Odom Jr. plays a composite of two.

All are impeccable. In a close up with a few lines, Willem Dafoe tells you everything you need to know about his heartbreaking motive. Branagh uses his experience as a stage director for great interaction. The best scenes are the ones that all the players share.

However, his main focus is on Poirot, and not simply because he is playing him. The opening scene is a mini-mystery in Istanbul that establishes the detective’s skills as well as his eccentricities by solving a theft that could start a religious war. He deftly apprehends the the fleeing criminal with little exertion, but much humor, with the use of his cane. However, before he gets on the train he explains to a local policeman that his deductive talent comes from wanting to see the world as it should be, allowing him to notice when something is askew. It’s great for being a detective, but a curse on the rest of his life. This sense of absolute challenges and plagues him all while bringing more suspense as to what we we learn at the the view of justice he decides on.

It is interesting that both Lumet and Branagh have adaptations as a major part of the directorial output and “Murder On The Orient Express” shows their different aesthetic and interests that both come out through the plot. Even though he was making his souffle, Lumet’s often used theme of an individual’s fight when institutions and systems fail. He said he could not have made Network if he didn’t do this film first. Branagh taps into his love of classic with heroes carrying emotional weight. Both do justice to Christie’s tale of justice by any means.

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MARK PRYOR JOINS MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION OF THE CRYPT THIEF

Our December Murder In The Afternoon Book Club discussion of Mark Pryor’s The Crypt Thief will be special in two ways. With it being our holiday discussion, we’ll be bringing treats to share. Also, Mark will be joining us in person.

The Crypt Thief is the second book to to feature Hugo Marston, head of security for our embassy in Paris. When the son of a senator is murdered at the Pare Lachaise cemetery along with the theft of some the bones from a famed dancer at the Moulin Rouge, Hugo is asked to investigate. Obvious clues lead to terrorism, but Hugo suspects something else.

The Crypt Thief is one of the creepiest books in the series with one of the best villains. it will give us a lot to talk to Mark about. We will be meeting Monday, December 18th, 1PM on the 3rd floor. Books are 10% off to those planning to attend.

UNHOLY CONNECTIONS: INTERVIEW WITH CON LEHANE

Con Lehane returns with his second mystery featuring crime fiction curator for the New York Public Library, Raymond Ambler. This time it is personal in many ways. A coworker has been killed and a Muslim scholar, who Ray’s possible love Adele may have feelings for, is the main suspect. Also, Raymond takes the files and letters from a former cop-turned-author that are about the decades old murder of a union boss that put a friend on death row. Everything is skillfully woven together with a very human feel and a lived-in look at New York.

472719MysteryPeople Scott: In Murder In the 42nd Street Library Raymond Ambler works with his co-workers as a team. With Murder In The Manuscript Room there is more friction between him and some of them. How did you end up taking that route?

Con Lehane: I never meant for the connections between Ambler and the other recurring characters, including Adele Morgan, Ambler’s fellow worker and attractive female friend, to lack tension. I didn’t know what was going to happen between Ambler and Adele after the first book. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them now after the second book. Both Adele and homicide detective Mike Cosgrove have larger roles in Murder in the Manuscript Room  than they did in Murder at the 42nd Street Library. This is partly because I purposely chose a structure of alternating points of view—Ambler-Adele-Ambler-Cosgrove-Ambler-Adele and so on. Partly, things change between characters because the characters aren’t static. They’re dynamic and I don’t always know what’s going to happen with them until it happens. This might be a dumb way to write a mystery. But it’s how I write, certainly in the first draft. I have to have characters interacting with one another to move the story along. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a general idea of what the story is; more, it means I’m not sure what each character might do until they do it. If they go too far afield, I can get them back on track when I revise. So I don’t know that the friction served a higher purpose; it was what the story called for.

MPS: The book has two mysteries that play off one another. How did you deal with that challenge?

vCL: What I knew when I started the book was that Paul Higgins would be a former handler of snitches for the NYPD and a sort of amateur crime writer who wrote thrillers based on his experiences. I also knew there would be an Arab Muslim doing research in the library’s holdings of ancient Oriental manuscript collection and an undercover operative monitoring him and his research. The rest of the story—including a second mystery having to do with the murder of an African-American union leader in New York CIty’s garment trucking industry thirty years earlier—developed as I wrote the book. I can tell you where in my memory a couple of the strains of the story came from. First, I knew a guy—someone I liked a lot when I met him and still do like—who’d worked undercover in a number of capacities as an FBI agent and wrote a book about his experiences, hence Higgins. Next, years ago when I worked as a union organizer, I was offered a job working for an African-American guy, a truck driver, who created a rank-and-file union movement to try to take his union away from the gangsters who’d taken it over. (you can read something about the gangsters in the industry here if you’d like). To clarify, gangster-domination of trucking unions, including the Teamsters union, was an adjunct to gangster control of the industry the truck drivers were part of and the companies they dealt with. You hear a lot about gangster-dominated unions, not so much gangster-run companies. They went hand-in-hand. The third piece of this was an idea of undercover work and the use of informants that bothered me. An informant was usually an acquaintance, often a friend, who was caught at something and offered the choice of spying on you or going to jail himself (there are others who informed strictly for money). Undercover operatives—law enforcement who go undercover—were folks who joined your organization, or gang or whatever, and became your friend for the purpose of betraying you. This was often a dangerous thing for the operative to do and the folks you became friends with often were doing nasty things to other people. Nonetheless, the idea of making friends with someone in order to betray them always struck me as filled with moral ambiguity. The final piece was the growth of private security agencies, which have literally (and I use the term advisedly) become larger than the armies of most countries and what that means to the future. All of this is a kind of underpinning to the story that unfolded as I wrote it.

MPS: You touch on the plight of the working class in the book as in others. What makes that a theme worth returning to for you?

CL: This answer is related to my answer to the last question. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you’d see an unholy connection between the NYPD brass, a private security agency, and Wall Street. At the moment, their enemy is a fringe element of Islam. But the net they cast is wide enough to include anyone who gets in their way. There’s another piece to the murder of the garment truckers union leader. I hint that the reason he was killed had to do with efforts to stop a group that wanted to create a national transportation union—workers in air, rail, truck, anything that moves people or goods in one union. This would be a strong vehicle for workers demanding better wages, shorter hours, health insurance, pensions. It would have changed the power dynamics in politics dramatically. Various groups and persons were in favor of this—including the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. The power structure—Wall Street, the banks, and their elected-official supporters—were very much opposed. The subversive idea lurking in my subconscious was how far would the power structure and the law enforcement arm of the power structure go to stop it. Suffice it to say, any group that remotely threatens the current political-economic power structure is infiltrated and spied on. There’s a little twist at the end of the book that  was inspired by the Whitey Bulger case in Boston where different law enforcement agencies had informers in different gangs working at cross purposes, so in the end the gangsters were handling the law enforcement agents, rather than vice-versa. Again, this is fiction. I’m not writing true crime.

MPS: What is the the biggest asset Raymond has as a sleuth?

CL: I like to think that he sees things that others don’t see, and can draw inferences from what he sees that others aren’t able to draw. I also like to believe what distinguishes Ambler is that which distinguished Georges Simenon and his Detective Chief Inspector Maigret: “My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in some points … ‘understand and judge not.’

MPS: One of the things I enjoy about the series is that Raymond works with a group of friends. What does an ensemble cast of amateur sleuths allow you to do?

CL: I really like the idea of the ensemble. If the series continues—the Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise—I’m looking forward to each of the recurring characters—Adele, Mike Cosgrove, Ambler’s boss, the defrocked Jesuit, Harry Larkin, Ambler’s son, and certainly McNulty the bartender, perhaps others—having a chance to play larger or smaller roles in different books giving me a chance to develop them, add dimensions. I hadn’t thought of that when I began this series. The fact that each of them has come alive—at least for me—presents an opportunity for the series to go on and on.

MPS: Do you have any idea what is in store next for Raymond Ambler?

I know that in the next book McNulty, I’m sorry to say, is in big trouble. Big big trouble.

 

NOT SUCH A TOUGH GUY PRIVATE EYE : INTERVIEW WITH MATT COYLE

Matt Coyle brings that classic trope of the tarnished knight/errant private eye to his Rick Cahill series. In the latest book Blood Truth, things get even more emotional than usual when an old flame hires him to follow her possibly cheating husband and he discovers an envelope full of cash and a safe deposit key in his father’s safe. One leads to the murder case that ruined his father, the other to a body in a car trunk. Before Matt joins us for a panel discussion on December 7th with Con Lehane and David Eric Tomlinson, he took some questions from us about the new book and the emotional journey of his hero.

41rq-ux6bul-_ux250_MysteryPeople Scott: What made this the book for Rick to go into his father’s past?

Matt Coyle: I’m not a great planner, so I can’t say this was always going to be the book that solved the mystery of Rick’s father. However, his father’s fall from grace has been a continuing thread, one of the dark clouds hanging Rick’s head since the first book Yesterday’s Echo. I go by my gut a lot and the father story felt right here. The writing and the emotion of Blood Truth was made all the more poignant when my father died suddenly three months before I began writing it. I’d already settled on the story before my he passed, but obviously, his passing made the book more personal than all the other books I’d written.

MPS: What does Moira provide for him other than a partner?

9781608092871MC: Moira is a PI like Rick, except better at it. I introduced her in the second book, Night Tremors. She was in a few scenes and in the next book, Dark Fissures, she had a very small part. I needed her for an early scene in Blood Truth and then she was supposed to go away. But she didn’t. She forced her way into the story and gave the book much more depth and meaning than it would otherwise have had.

Moira gives Rick balance. She looks at all sides while Rick may only see three. In Blood Truth, she is really the conscience of the book. But, her most important contribution to Rick is her friendship. Rick has an ex-girlfriend and an ex-partner, but he had no real friends until Moira showed up. She tries to keep Rick in line and gets angry with him, but she never fails him.

MPS: You really tap into that classic mood of a private eye novel. Who would you consider major influences in the genre?

MC: For me it all starts with Raymond Chandler. I read him as a kid. Of course, I loved the writing and the language, but what first grabbed me was Philip Marlowe. He lived by his own code. He did what he knew to be the right thing even when it pitted him against the police or more powerful entities. I’m a big fan of Ross Macdonald, too. Through Lew Archer, he examined all levels of society just by following clues. Contemporary private eye influences are Robert Crais and Walter Mosley.   

MPS: Besides familiarity, what makes La Jolla a strong setting for the series?

MC: In the first draft of what became my first book, I fictionalized La Jolla. My brother-in-law read it and told me people like reading about real places, so I went with the real town and just fictionalized the police force and a couple other things. Best advice I ever received. La Jolla is a little slice of coastal paradise and is known as a vacation destination around the world. Thus, it attracts a wide variety of people and a lot of wealth. But even wealthy people have problems. They just have money to try to cover them up. When I’m writing about La Jolla, I sometimes think of the opening scene from the movie Blue Velvet with the wide swath of a perfectly manicured lawn…and the dark beetles churning underground. Sometimes paradise is only skin deep.

MPS: The book moves along through many well crafted reveals and reversals that all have a natural feel. How much do you plan out a novel?

MC: Thank you. As mentioned above, I’m not much of a planner. I don’t outline. I start with character and try to find the right catalyst that will move the plot forward and also reveal character. I try to find a case that will force Rick to become emotionally invested. The story really builds around that. I try not to force the plot and let the reveals and plot twists flow up from my subconscious. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I try to let the story come to me instead of chasing it. Sometimes an idea will bubble up in a sentence and I’ll drop it in a scene and I don’t really know what it means. Sometimes it can lead to a whole new angle on the story and other times it’s nothing. I call that dropping anchors. Sometimes, I have to go back and pull up the anchors, but, more often, they stay and improve the story and lead me to the deeper meaning. I know, weird.

MPS: This book I felt Rick came to terms with a lot of the things he was dealing with in the previous books. Do you have a new direction planned for him?

MC: I wish I could tell you I have his whole character arc planned out, but I don’t. He will be carrying a little less baggage than before, but he’s not going to all of a sudden have his life together. Plus, in book five, the one I’m writing now, he’ll have to deal with something that flares up in Blood Truth. However, I do see his relationship with Moira growing and the potential for happiness somewhere down that dark lonely road.

 

MYSTERY WITHIN PROPHECY: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ERIC TOMLINSON

David Eric Tomlinson’s The Midnight Man is a unique mystery that covers almost seventy-five years on Choctaw reservation and how a past crime haunts another. David will be joining us December 7th for a signing and discussion with Matt Coyle and Con Lehane. We caught up with him to discuss the book and how the culture he wrote about had an effect on the story.

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MysteryPeople Scott: The backdrop of the story is the Choctaw Nation. What did you want the reader to know about the people?

David Eric Tomlinson: The Choctaw were one of the first civilized tribes to embrace the English language and legal system, in an effort to fight the systematic oppression of the conquering Americans. They studied the treaties they’d signed, and began to argue the finer points of the language in court, often with success. This was a double-edged strategy, though, because by embracing English, some felt that the Choctaw culture and language were gradually being lost.

9781507201091I was also fascinated by the Choctaw tradition of storytelling. It involves manipulating point-of-view to frame a prophecy from some past moment in history. The prophecy then looks forward … from THEN, to NOW … and in this way, reconciles the past with the present. In many ways, this structure influenced what I was trying to do in The Midnight Man … I stepped back to the mid 1990s, and told a forward-looking prophecy to the Oklahoma City bombing.

MPS: How did you manage the multiple points of view?

DET: I spent about a year outlining this book, weaving the various characters into and around one another’s lives. In the end, I wound up rewriting it five times. Multiple storylines and characters were eliminated. But at heart, this is a very simple story: every character has an arc, and everyone eventually realizes they cannot achieve it on their own. To get there, each has to ask for help … and be willing to give it.
MPS: Another backdrop is the nineties, particularly during the O.J. trial. How did that period serve you?

DET: The 90s served as a mirror to today. Back then, we had a new form of communication (the Internet), a grassroots conservative wave sweeping across the country (the Republican revolution), the beginnings of reality TV (Court TV, which was constantly streaming the OJ Simpson trial), violent separatist militias (The Michigan Militia, Koresh’s group in Waco), and right-wing radio jockeys / politicians using language to demonize and label their opponents (Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich).

Consider where we are today. Over time, these forces have become even more divisive. Now we have Twitter and the Bundy Brothers, Make America Great Again and Fake News.

This novel tries to show that political language, by forcing people to choose one side of a wedge issue, inhibits actual communication. Real communication requires empathy, vulnerability, and understanding. It requires being open to changing your mind, or yourself … something all of these characters are struggling to do, some with more success than others.

MPS: What was the biggest thing you leaned about dealing with a time period many of the readers have lived through?

DET: I think the biggest struggle for me was in seeing, on the one hand, how far we MIGHT have come since then – in terms of integrating more diverse racial, sexual, or political views into mainstream American life – and in how short we’ve actually fallen of that promise. This last year has revealed just how powerful and entrenched racism and bigotry are in our politics and culture.

The past is a road map to the present moment. Looking back at the mid 1990s, you can see how we arrived at this uniquely frightening moment in American history. The seeds were all there.

MPS: Family is a major part of the story. What did you want to explore with it?

DET: Family serves as a metaphor for the opposite of this divisive political rhetoric swirling around us every day. Also as a metaphor for teamwork. For various reasons, there’s a lot of basketball in this book. And like a basketball team, there are 5 characters in the novel. Over time, each overcomes his own biases, regrets, and fears, and they help one another evolve into better versions of themselves. It’s a kind of post-racial family unit. This all happens during the course of a capital murder trail, and in the year preceding the tragedy of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But I wanted to show that tragedy – on a personal level – doesn’t have to be inevitable. Hope is possible.

MPS: What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

DET: Right now I’m on the second draft of a novel about an Army veteran who runs a suicide hotline for other vets. I guess you could call it literary suspense. It’s an important and very personal story, and I’m hoping to share more news about it soon!

 

Review: Blood Truth by Matt Coyle

Our review of December’s Pick Of The Month: Blood Truth by Matt Coyle:

Matt Coyle understands mood and emotion is essential to a private eye novel. While delivering and engaging plot with plenty of action, his main ambition is getting into the head and heart of his tarnished knight Rick Cahill. In his latest, Blood Truth, it’s all personal.

Cahill has two cases that haunt him better than any ghost. An old flame he still carries a torch for hires him to follow her husband to see if he is cheating. Also, while at his family’s home, he discovers a hidden safe. Inside are a pistol with two missing bullets, fifteen thousand in cash, and a safe deposit key, all connected to an unsolved murder that resulted in his father’s dismissal from the police. The case for the old flame leads to a body in a car trunk.

Both mysteries dovetail beautifully into one another. Coyle executes the reveals and reversals that pilot the story like a master craftsman. Both involve moral decisions and preconceptions Cahill must face along with the danger as he deals with his father’s sins and lost love, all with a dangling possibility of healing if everything is solved.

Like Reed Farrel Coleman, Matt Coyle is able to tap into that classic melancholy of the private detective. He realizes a true hard boiled hero isn’t completely tough. It’s those vulnerabilities that draw us in as he struggles with his soul. For Coyle, it’s not what lurks down those mean streets that pose the greatest threat for our hero, it’s the loneliness one has walking down them.

Q&A with Layton Green, author of Written In Blood

Here’s our Q&A with Layton Author, author of our Pick Of The Month, Written in Blood

MysteryPeople Scott: What I really loved about Written In Blood was how Preach’s personal life dovetailed perfectly with the mystery story. Was there any kind of advance planning in the process to pull this off?

Layton Green: My first editor told me to “always make it personal.” Since then, I’ve tried to heed that advice and blend the private lives of my protagonists with the crime, in some way. I agree that when there is a personal stake in the outcome above and beyond the job, the tension is usually heightened.

MPS: Many writers say they avoid dealing with religion and faith, yet some of the best crime novels and television episodes deal with it. What did you want to explore with that part of Preach’s struggle?

LG: To me, no matter the genre, the best novels deal with the tough questions in life, as well as the quotidian details. It doesn’t have to be overt, but as a reader, I want to know what my fictional heroes think about life and death, and good versus evil, and the meaning of it all (as well as their favorite drink). I decided to use Preach’s past lives as a way to explore those topics.

MPS: Kirby is a wonderful supporting character. Is there a way he came into being with the traits he has?

LG: Thanks! Hmm, you know, I don’t actually know from what void he sprang. I was just trying to make him real, and a reflection of his circumstances and his society. I liked him, too.

MPS: There are literary references in the story, many serving as clues. Was there anything you had to keep in mind when using them?

LG: I definitely did my research on this one, as I didn’t want to misstep and use a false reference.

I reread all the books and hit the commentaries, as well as trying to explore them in a novel manner. It was really fun to tie them all together, and I enjoyed the research into the “lineage” of detective fiction. Oh, and I consulted an intellectual property law professor. He says I’m good to go.

MPS: What did the setting of Creekville, North Carolina provide for you?

LG: The whole enchilada! The setting is loosely based on a real town in the Triangle that has many similarities to the one in the book. I fictionalized it so I could take liberties as needed, but the general vibe of the town, the extreme liberalism and quirky nature, are all there. I was fascinated to see the interplay between the progressive culture and the conservative bastions of the Old South. After a few weeks, I knew I wanted to write about that clash.

MPS: Some of the suspects are writers and not very likable. Were you making any comment on your profession?

LG: Not consciously. Just telling the truth, or part of it. There are many sides to a truth . . . and we crime writers tend to focus on the dark ones.