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.

50 Mystery Novels by Women Crime Writers, Read in a Year

  • Post by Molly Odintz

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start.

With my yearly New Year’s Resolutions, most of which I will never revisit, I usually come up some kind of reading project, based around genres, authors, or settings I’ve neglected. 2015’s goal? Best not mentioned, as I miserably failed in my efforts to complete it. 2016’s reading goal? Read fifty books by women, and if possible, fifty works of crime fiction by women; not just new releases, but also classic noir and domestic suspense. With the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s, we’ve entered a new era of publisher and reader support for crime fiction classics by women.

Many of the books below are part of the zeitgeist – you’ll see a lot of girls in the title. I’ve also tried to focus on reading some of their antecedents, and you’ll see works on the list from Dorothy Hughes, Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, and other classic women crime writers of mid-century America, plus a couple of golden age works from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. You won’t find many representatives of the tough second-wave protagonists of the 80s and 90s, or many works in translation – both areas, I’m sorry to admit, I neglected in the past year.

You will find quite a few books set in Texas, and some that have yet to be released; both quirks of a bookseller’s reading habits, as we tend to dive deep into the literature of our areas, and often receive early copies of upcoming releases.

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Letters to Santa: Agatha Christie

 

We continue to look at letters to Santa from some of our favorite crime fiction characters with notes from two of Agatha Christie’s most charming sleuths.

9780062074010My dearest Monsieur Santa,

I am writing to you on behalf of my employer, the esteemed London private investigator Hercule Poirot. What follows is a list of items he wishes to be delivered on the evening of 24 December:

  • Gentleman’s Finest brand moustache wax, shade “midnight”
  • Edouard Pinaud brand brilliantine hair tonic
  • Pouch of pipe tobacco from Huis Windels in Brussels
  • Black bowler from Bates of Jermyn Street

Respectfully yours,

Felicity Lemon

Secretary to Monsieur Hercule Poirot

Dear Santa,

I find myself in need of a few items that I haven’t been able to find in St. Mary Mead and am hoping you might see fit to gift them to me this Christmas.

First, I would like a new, higher-powered pair of binoculars as it’s becoming increasingly difficult to spot the local bird species (I’m not a young woman, you know).

I would also like some Irish wool in a medium shade of blue—enough to knit an afghan for my companion Cherry Baker. Some new knitting needles would be a treat as well.

Finally, I would like the latest version of “The Great British Gardening Guide” by Jenny Uglow.

Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Miss Jane Marple, St. Mary Mead

Among the many volumes featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot to be found on our shelves, we recommend Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories, and The 4:50 from Paddington

7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN by Patricia Highsmith

On Monday, October 5th, the 7% Solution Book Club meets to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train. November’s book is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie. As always, book club selections are 10% off at the registers in the month of their selection. 

  • Post by Molly

strangers on a trainPatricia Highsmith, in her long career, became one of the world’s most renowned crime novelists, and was one of the first women to be accepted into the mystery cannon as a master of psychological suspense. She has stayed in print continuously, when most of her female contemporaries had no hope of a classic reissue.

Her often-filmed Ripley stories catapulted her into long-lasting fame; yet even her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a classic noir by Hitchcock with a large following to this day. While many of the greatest mystery plots have been replicated often enough that it is difficult to notice the creativity of even the original, Highsmith’s unique simplicity of narrative, especially in her debut, stands alone, and feels as disturbingly plausible today as when it was first published.

Highsmith had many obsessions throughout her life, including at times, a preference for the company of snails over that of people. In her writings, she is fixated on obsession itself, and with the violence hidden within an ordinary individual, brought out by the repressive dysfunctions of a conservative society. She concerns herself with the point at which obsession becomes compulsion, and the moment when that compulsion becomes action. Highsmith’s style is almost synonymous with the definition of noir; her novels are characterized by as much atmosphere as action; she follows ordinary people changed by violent acts, and has no easy division of character into good or bad, cop or criminal.

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Women’s History Month: Recommendations of Women (and Men) in Crime Fiction, From Women in Crime Fiction

-Post by Molly

March is Women’s History Month, so at the beginning of the month, I reached out to many of my favorite female authors writing in crime fiction today for some thoughts and recommendations. Jamie Mason, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Megan Abbott, and Lori Rader-Day all sent replies along, posted earlier this month (Mason’s response posted separately), and now we bring you some of their amazing recommendations. Not all the authors listed below are currently in print (although some soon return to print), and this is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the best crime writers today (a virtually impossible task). I’ve added quite a few of the following to my “to read” list. Enjoy!


monday's lieJamie Mason Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Josephine Tey
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • Patricia Highsmith
  • Agatha Christie

Second Wave Authors:

  • Ruth Rendell
  • PD James
  • Patricia Cornwell
  • Mary Higgins Clark
  • Sue Grafton
  • Kathy Reichs

Contemporary Authors:

  • Gillian Flynn
  • Tana French
  • Laura Lippman
  • Megan Abbott
  • Tess Gerritsen
  • Kate Atkinson
  • Lisa Lutz
  • Mo Hayder
  • Sara Paretsky

phantom instinct

Meg Gardiner Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Agatha Christie
  • Mary Shelley (as innovator of suspense fiction)
  • Patricia Highsmith

the unquiet deadAusma Zehanat Khan Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Dorothy L. Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh continuation of the Wimsey/Vane series)

Contemporary Authors:

  • Deborah Crombie
  • Imogen Robertson
  • Charles Finch
  • Charles Todd
  • Alan Bradley
  • Louise Penny
  • Susan Hill
  • Ariana Franklin
  • Anna Dean
  • Martha Grimes
  • Morag Joss
  • C. S. Harris
  • Stephanie Barron
  • Laurie R. King
  • Laura Joh Rowland
  • Elizabeth George
  • Peter May (in particular, The Blackhouse)
  • the late, great Reginald Hill

feverMegan Abbott Recommends…

The following books are soon to appear in the Library of America’s collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman

  • Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place
  • Vera Caspary’s Laura
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall
  • Margaret Millar’s Beast In View

the black hourLori Rader-Day Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Lois Duncan
  • Agatha Christie
  • Mary Higgins Clark

Contemporary Authors:

  • Tana French
  • Catriona McPherson
  • Denise Mina
  • Clare O’Donohue
  • Sara Gran
  • Gillian Flynn
  • Alan Bradley
  • James Ziskin

No Boys Here: Women and Crime Fiction, Guest Post by Jamie Mason

I reached out to several of my favorite female crime novelists at the beginning of March, hoping to get a few thoughts on the work of female authors in the detective genre and the representation of female characters. I was extremely gratified to get immediate responses from several wonderful authors. Check back on Thursday for some additional thoughts, and to (belatedly) kick off MysteryPeople’s March ode to women in crime fiction, I bring you a guest post from a recent visitor to the store.

Jamie Mason is the author of Three Graves Full and Monday’s Lie, and writes intense and atmospheric detective novels brimming with psychological insights. She stopped by the store in February for a signing – you can find signed copies of her latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com – and I was privileged to review her latest novel for the blog. MysteryPeople also got a chance to interview her about her debut novel.

– Molly


– Post by Jamie Mason

I came into my reading life, or more specifically into my interest in crime fiction, when the idea of crime fiction as the province of male authors was nearing its end. Of course, there were plenty of female authors in the foundations: Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers and Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, just to list a few. There has always been Agatha Christie.

There have always been women crime writers, but by the time my own my reading turned to crime as one of its staple foods in the early nineteen-nineties, finding female crime novelists wasn’t much of a thought for me. The wave of Ruth Rendell and PD James, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, and Kathy Reichs was the one I rode out, never wondering if the Captains wore skirts. And isn’t that nice?

I read both men and women crime writers (in fact, I read both male and female writers across any number of genres) but if I take a longer view, you can see the rise of women crime writers over these last three decades. If you regard To Kill A Mockingbird as crime fiction, you can say that the very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes. There are plenty of examples.

“The very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes…”

But I think one of the best things about crime fiction, especially now, is the egalitarian feel of the results. Good crime fiction is good crime fiction. And there’s so much good crime fiction out there just now. Men buy Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman (as well they should.) Tana French’s readers come in all plumbing. Megan Abbott is brilliant. So are Tess Gerritsen, Kate Atkinson, Lisa Lutz, Mo Hayder, and Sara Paretsky. And these are only the names that come quickly to me. We are Legion.

It’s still important now, for the time being, that we make a point of women in crime fiction, a point of women in very many  slots and chutes of achievement, really. But I have hopes that the horizon where gender is no longer an important distinction is a little closer in the crime writing world than it is elsewhere.  The future of crime fiction might very well be a small-but-illustrative map of a place where we won’t need initials or neutral pseudonyms to play coy with our genders – a place where good work speaks for itself.