Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

13. The Mystery of the Blue Train - an Hercule Poirot mystery
by Agatha Christie
mystery, 1928
Kindle book - 7
finished, 2/3/11

I think most of us know that there is too often a hint, either broad or subtle, of anti-Semitism in Agatha Christie's work. It makes me cringe every time I read such passages. And she isn't the only author. In those years, there were prejudices which were expressed in life and in literature. I like to think things are better now, but I'm not so sure. I recently read a piece in the New Yorker about the Shinnecock tribe in the Southampton area of Long Island, and the writer noted that a trustee of the group used 'racial profiling' in his descriptions of people.

As much as I hate reading any kind of prejudicial remarks in fiction, I still do not believe in changing the words of old books. That's like changing history to suit ourselves. Literature is sacred to me, no matter what it says. I think it is better for people to read something distasteful and discuss it with others, or breathe a sigh that such words, such sentiments are not as acceptable now.

The Blue Train goes from London to Nice, France and by traveling on it one avoids 'the tiresome Customs business at Calais.' On this train we have, among others, Ruth Kettering, the murder victim to be, who has an expensive ruby with her; her maid, Mason; her husband Derek who is soon to become her ex-husband; the newish assistant to Mrs. Kettering's father; and Miss Katherine Grey from Miss Marple's village of St. Mary Mead who has just inherited a great deal of money from a woman she took care of for a long time. And of course, Hercule Poirot the great detective. His dinner companion happens to be Miss Grey, a particularly engaging woman in her early thirties, and he notices she is reading a 'roman policier,' a detective novel. She doesn't think such stories could ever happen but Poirot says, 'I who speak to you - they have happened to me.'
'Some day, who knows, you might be in the thick of things,' he went on. 'It is all chance.'
'I don't think it is likely,' said Katherine. 'Nothing of that kind ever happens to me.'
'Would you like it to?'
The question startled her, and she drew in her breath sharply.
'It is my fancy, perhaps,' said the little man, as he dexterously polished one of his forks, 'but I think that you have a yearning in you for interesting happenings. Eh bien, Mademoiselle, all through my life I have observed one thing - "All one wants one gets!" Who knows?'
And naturally, excitement does come into Katherine's life in the form of this murder on the train. She becomes a kind of assistant to Poirot in the case.
'Well, Mademoiselle, how goes it?'
She looked at his twinkling eyes, and was confirmed in her first impression that there was something very attractive about M. Hercule Poirot.
This is the first Poirot in my recollection in which a woman has viewed him as attractive. She doesn't fall in love with him, and they are merely amiable friends in the story, but I wonder if it occurs ever again, and if not, why not? I think it would have been a nice touch to have a little love in Poirot's life.

The Mystery of the Blue Train was an interesting, involved case with a number of disagreeable characters. As a mother I had a hard time with the murder in this one; the death of a man's daughter. Agatha doesn't dwell on his sadness, but the reader is all too aware of how he feels. I read that this is the first time St. Mary Mead was described by Christie.

My Agatha Christie: A Reader's Companion by Vanessa Wagstaff & Stephen Poole, which I've mentioned before, offers this great picture.

If you click on it, you may see more clearly the names of a number of other mystery writers from this time. I wonder how many of them are known today. I myself have heard of only Anthony Berkeley and have his first book waiting on my shelf. From The Reader's Companion I learned that this mystery was written while 'Christie was recovering from the breakdown of her marriage.'
She was later to say that she hated it and thought it the worst she had written. Her readers did not agree and while it is far from her best book, it is not a bad read. It is based on her short story 'The Plymouth Express,' later published in the UK in Poirot's Early Cases (1974) and in the USA as one of eight stories in The Under Dog (1951).
I agree with the authors of the Companion book. It isn't a fantastic story, but still I am very glad I read it. I love the character of Katherine and it was entertaining to see Poirot working with her. The investigating officer is so pleased that Hercule is on board. He tells Ruth's father:
'... you have doubtless heard of him. Although he has retired from his profession for some years now, his name is still a household word as one of the greatest living detectives.'
If you substitute 'fictional' for 'living' I would certainly agree. Even a not-so-great book is still worth reading for the joy of learning more and more about Hercule Poirot.


  1. Hi Nan! You are going to laugh but I am addicted to watching A. Christie series on TV (we have them a couple of nights a week on the British satellite) but I have never read a book of hers. I really do need to get one and start.

    Tonight, the actor David Suchet is doing a special about the actual Orient Express. He travels on it to report on the romantic travels of days gone by and in the times of his character Hercule Poirot. Jos will watch it for sure but I might go to bed early with my book. :-)

    Hugs from Holland ~

  2. Heidi, I won't laugh at all! I learned about Poirot and Miss Marple from watching television! And I didn't begin reading the books until much later. I still have a long way to go before (if) I finish them all. I just taped the Orient Express show but haven't seen it yet. I look forward to it, and it might just be worth you staying up for. :<)

  3. The BBC made a Radio drama of this book that's quite fun.

    The views of the time tend to become noticeable in the books of some eras esp between the Wars I think... it's as you say though, I'd rather read it and notice (even if it means the odd jarring wince) than have some one sanitize it for me.
    We probably display similar prejudices in our writing that we are unaware of, that will cause winces in the future. I don't think it's good to intentionally offend but think it's important to acknowledge facts so we can learn from them and move on.

  4. I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie. I haven't read this one though. There are only two Christie titles that are free (before 1923) that you can get on the Kindle. Hmmm... sounds like I'll have to get a regular book. :-)

  5. I have a confession to make: whilst I love Joan Hickson's Miss Marple and dear David Suchet's Hercule Poirot, and whilst I live close to where Dame Agatha was born, and have visited (and had lunch at) Burgh Island where some of her novels were set (albeit under a different name for the island), I have never read a single Agatha Christie novel! Maybe one day ...
    Margaret P

  6. Yes...a book is worthwhile if you took something from it. I agree with you in regards to changing words from past work..should never be done. That is a part of history whether we like it or not.

  7. This, to me, is one of Christie's sadder books. Primarily because the woman murdered is never 'real' except after she's murdered and becomes 'real' for me in her father's grief-stricken reaction and even, her ex's. No one else liked her very much. Very sad. It is not one of my favorites because, for whatever reason, I grieved extra for the father in this. And that grief is never really resolved in any way in the end.

    As for the prejudices expressed in books of that era, well, if you read from that era, it's likely you will find this sort of thing, Nan. I just filter it through my own modern-day lense and let it go.
    As long as it isn't so objectionable that it spoils the story for me.

  8. Sounds like another good Agatha Christie read! I love the picture of the old book jacket-it's great!!

  9. I am reading through the Jane Marple books first (although many years ago I read a few Hercule, I have forgotten most of them. The only one I remember in great detaila is 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

    I didn't even realize that the Hercule series came first; that was very interesting to read that this book is the first one that mentions St Mary Mead.

    I've noticed prejudicial attitudes; it is a sad part of history that these attitudes were accepted even by educated people, but I agree that just as we can't edit history, we can't edit literature. It's good to point those things out in your reviews though. I tend to ignore what I don't want to dwell on.

  10. I am quite sure that I have heard of Anthony Gilbert's "Murder of Mrs Davenport", but I don't know where and when and in what context; it just rings a bell, that's all.
    There are probably many, many authors forgotten or never really risen to fame whose works would definitely be worth being read today. More often than not, it is just a question of clever marketing.

  11. G D H Cole is better known as a Socialist historian and commentator. I had no idea he and his wife had written thrillers!

  12. The thought of Poirot as attractive is interesting. I don't think of him that way, but, perhaps because I have not as yet read this. The PBS feature Heidi describes in her comment is wonderful. I've watched it several times. David Suchet is endearing in this rich feature about the actual Orient Express. I hope you both enjoy it when you do view it.

    I agree with you about these prejudicial remarks, Nan, and I try to keep them in the context of the times they were written. I am reading a beautiful, small, novel, One Fine Day, by Molly Panter-Bowes that has been hailed about on the book blogging circuit, and it is a truly beautiful read - save for one word, a racial one, that a housekeeper uses, once, in conversation, and it has left a bitter taste.

    What a wonderful review you have here. Thank you.

  13. Nan, I have seen that Orient Express show with David Suchet and it is very well done. You will love it!
    Kay Guest (Fellow Agatha Christie Fan)

  14. This isn't my favorite Christie--although I'm always interested in the way it parallels one of her short stories--but it does work in general. I do agree about the anti-Semitism, both about the cringing and the non deleting.

    I LOVE the book-cover image; I've read a couple of books by Anthony Gilbert (who was actually a woman). They're not Christie, but they're very readable.

  15. Val, this is exactly how I feel, and you expressed it beautifully!

    Kay, I've been buying them for the Kindle - I think at $6.99 each. I'm building a little AC library there. I expect they are books I'll read over again.

    Margaret, as I told Heidi, I began with the television versions. I am finding myself utterly in love with her work. She is wise and funny and intriguing and I think, an excellent writer.

    Staci, yes!

    Yvette, I'm so glad you wrote and told me this. I had the same feeling about it. I think it is all part of the genius of AC. And if she were writing this after her sad break-up, her feelings of loss would certainly color the book.

    Sherri, I love the AC Companion book for just that reason - it shows great old pics of book covers, as well as locales. It truly is a great 'companion' for an AC reader.

    Sallie, I haven't read RA yet. I do know the 'twist' though and somehow have been put off of reading it for that reason. Silly, probably. You are right about the 'educated people' - many great writers are quite loose with their prejudices.

    Librarian, I'm sure you are right. There are some great sources of the old books - Rue Morgue Press and Felony & Mayhem for two.

    Call me madam, very interesting.

    Life on the cut off, thank you so much. And I do look forward to the show.

    Kay, thanks for the recommendation!

    Tinky, I'll look into AG. Thanks.

  16. I read this book a few months ago and agree with your opinion. It wasn't a great story but ir was interesting. I also like the character of Katherine Grey. Her story added a lot to the whole.

    I too have been uncomfortable with Christie's comments about Jews and other foreigners. It always surprises me when I come across it but it was common talk in the 30's and 40's. I only remember the last half of the 40's (and 50's) when it started to turn. It became a matter of manners - nice people didn't speak disparaging of minorities. As I work my way through Christie's novels, I'm curious to see if that changes for her.

    Very good work on this revew.

  17. Thank you, Margot. I'm having so much fun with Agatha!


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