Christie’s cunning trains of thought
For our most popular crime writer, the railways held a seemingly irresistible allure, says Laura Thompson
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.
Brexit gags galore. The last new material from
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