Christie’s cun­ning trains of thought

For our most pop­u­lar crime writer, the rail­ways held a seem­ingly ir­re­sistible al­lure, says Laura Thomp­son

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CHRISTMAS TELEVISION -

On Fri­day Dec 3 1926, Agatha Christie dis­ap­peared for 11 days. She aban­doned her car on the North Downs in Sur­rey, close to where her hus­band (whose love she sought to re­claim) was spend­ing the week­end with his girl­friend.

Then she jour­neyed into in­vis­i­bil­ity by the most or­di­nary means: the train.

Christie trav­elled to Lon­don, then Har­ro­gate, al­ready a miss­ing per­son with a large man­hunt on her trail as she sat alone in the restau­rant car­riage. The pre­cise de­tails of her itin­er­ary are un­known, al­though as Christie’s bi­og­ra­pher, I once spent a day at the Bodleian Li­brary, study­ing Brad­shaw rail­way guides and work­ing out her most likely move­ments.

This, as I was plea­sur­ably aware, was the be­hav­iour of a clas­sic Golden Age de­tec­tive. The train timetable and the rail­way guide were the means by which a puz­zle could be as­sem­bled and dis­man­tled, and were of­ten painstak­ingly used by pop­u­lar Irish de­tec­tive nov­el­ist Free­man Wills Crofts (The Cask), a rough con­tem­po­rary of Christie’s.

While Christie also made use of trains in her fic­tion, it was not her style to de­rive a so­lu­tion from minu­tiae like the sec­ond hand of the sta­tion clock. Her plots are far looser in de­tail. The ti­tle of 4.50 from Padding­ton, which she pub­lished in 1957, may sug­gest a Wills Crof­tian ap­proach, but only the open­ing is pegged to the rail­way tracks. Af­ter two trains pass each other so slowly that a pas­sen­ger on one train is able to wit­ness a mur­der on the other, Christie’s killer chucks the body from the car­riage and the ac­tion leaps away from the rail­way line.

The ABC Mur­ders – tele­vised on BBC One this Box­ing Day, with John Malkovich giv­ing his re­vi­sion­ist take on Her­cule Poirot – also uses the rail­way guide, but its con­tents are ir­rel­e­vant. To Poirot, what mat­ters is the ti­tle: “A light came into Poirot’s eyes…” writes Christie. “‘A rail­way guide, you say. A Brad­shaw – or an ABC?’” The guide has been placed, as a clue, be­side the vic­tims of a killer who writes mock­ing let­ters to Poirot un­der the name “ABC”. The names of the vic­tims as­cend al­pha­bet­i­cally – Ascher, Barnard, Clarke – and the im­pli­ca­tion is that the mur­ders will con­tinue on to Mr Zi­dane of Zeal Mona­cho­rum if Poirot does not solve the case.

What a plot: a supreme ex­am­ple of Christie’s al­most child­like sim­plic­ity and deft ma­nip­u­la­tion of the or­di­nary, which sticks in the imag­i­na­tion as com­plex­ity never does. Her writ­ing note­books show that she strug­gled to come up with the “al­pha­bet com­plex”, as it is called in the novel, but the reader would never know it. The idea seems to emerge clean, clear and per­fectly formed.

Her mur­ders are not “real” – The ABC Mur­ders is as fan­ci­ful as they come – which is why crit­ics such as Ray­mond Chan­dler whinged bit­terly that the story of And Then There Were None could never have hap­pened. What he did not see – or per­haps did not want to see – was that, al­though Christie was un­re­al­is­tic, she was never un­true. Her so­lu­tions sat­isfy so pro­foundly be­cause they are based upon a thor­ough, wise-tothe-point-of-cyn­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of hu­man na­ture. The ABC Mur­ders is one of the best in this re­gard. So too is her most fa­mous train mys­tery, Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press (1934), which could eas­ily be de­vel­oped into a novel about nat­u­ral ver­sus pos­i­tive law.

It is also text­book use of the train as a set­ting. Here, af­ter all, was the “closed en­vi­ron­ment” – ear­lier used in The Mys­tery of the Blue Train (1928) – of­ten re­quired by clas­sic de­tec­tive fic­tion to force to­gether a mul­ti­plic­ity of char­ac­ters. More­over, both those trains rep­re­sented rail­way travel at its most glam­orous. Al­though Christie was rarely overly de­scrip­tive, she had the abil­ity to con­jure a world with­out striv­ing to do so, and her Ori­ent Ex­press

– fea­tur­ing an au­to­cratic Princess straight out of Tol­stoy – has be­come em­blem­atic of a van­ished lifestyle. I read that book aged 12, and I still yearn for that in­ef­fa­bly el­e­gant train jour­ney.

Even on the Ori­ent Ex­press, there are the com­par­a­tively poor. Christie, whose idle, charm­ing fa­ther squan­dered a small for­tune, al­ways em­pathised with the gen­teel de­sire to keep up ap­pear­ances. Mur­der Is Easy (1939) opens with a train jour­ney on which a lady jus­ti­fies a rare splurge Life’s tini­est tribu­la­tions are blown to com­i­cally ab­surd pro­por­tions in this new sit­com about work­ing class “geezer diva” Gary King (Tom Davis, pic­tured) who rules the roost in com­pet­i­tive subur­bia. A sea­sonal re­run from 1982 has the much-loved duo of Ron­nie Barker and Ron­nie Cor­bett joined by David Es­sex, while a spot of bell­ring­ing doesn’t go to plan.

BBC One, Dec 23, 9.30pm

Boyle and guests make sense (and much­needed light) of a tur­bu­lent year.

Ex­pect

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BBC Four, Christ­mas Day, 9.15pm BBC Two, Dec 27, 10pm BBC Two, Box­ing Day, 7.50pm

JUST THE TICKETJohn Malkovich, cen­tre, plays Poirot in The ABC Mur­ders; Judi Dench and Olivia Col­man in last year’s Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, below left; Christie, right

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