Luxury travel meets murder when the train passenger Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself in the middle of whodunnit in Agatha Christie’s classic novel Murder on the Orient Express.
During his first voyage aboard the Orient Express, Christie’s great-grandson, James Pritchard, reminisced about why the “Queen of Crime – as she was known – became enamoured with the famous locomotive that has recently been restored by the French state.
The storied train and its voyages to the exotic east not only inspired one of Christie’s most famous mysteries, but also defined her.
“The Orient Express changed her life,” Prichard told the Associated Press.
Christie first travelled on the train in 1928 during the most painful moment in her life, after Prichard’s great-grandfather, Archie Christie, walked out on her.
“She wanted a holiday and someone suggested she went on an archaeological dig in Syria,” Prichard said.
For a woman travelling solo in that era, the trip was “extraordinarily brave and adventurous”, he added.
She met an archaeologist on the trip, Max Mallowan, who became her second husband, and they travelled via the Orient Express for years to digs in the Middle East.
“That was their commute, that’s how they got there,” Prichard said.
Prichard spoke about the family matriarch while travelling from Paris to France’s Champagne region on a train chartered by 20th Century Fox to mark the home entertainment release in February of director Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 film, Murder on the Orient Express – featuring Branagh as Poirot and co-starring Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp.
Looking around a restored 1920s railway carriage called Etoile du Nord, which his great grandmother likely travelled on, Prichard said he could see the unique “beauty of the train”.
The art-style carriage, with birch burl panels and exotic woodwork by renowned French decorator Rene Prou was among the carriages refurbished last year by France’s national rail network, the SNCF.
It restored the splendour of the locomotive that has captured the imaginations of generations since its creation in 1883 as it travelled along the route from Paris to Constantinople – today’s Istanbul – weaving through mountain ranges and Europe’s finest landscapes.
The Orient Express became the ultimate symbol of the golden age of travel and a byword for luxury.
In 1977, the route ended – a victim, experts say, of the proliferation of high-speed trains – and then served a shorter route until 2009, when it disappeared from official timetables altogether.
The train is now France’s premier museum-on-wheels, classified as a French Historic Monument, and owned, along with its famous name, by the French state.
These days, it travels out only exceptionellement, as the French say.
However, the 1934 publication of Christie’s novel saw the Orient Express become a symbol of something sinister: murder.
The story’s enduring popularity – including the 1974 film version, starring Albert Finney as Poirot, which led to co-star Ingrid Bergman winning the 1975 Oscar for best supporting actress, and stage and television adaptations – has forever bound the train to the murder mystery.
Why did Christie use the Orient Express as a setting for something so dark?
Prichard believes the train’s unique mix of foreigners, luxury and exoticism in an opulent but confined setting made it the “perfect” setting for a whodunnit starring Christie’s moustachioed detective Poirot. “One of the first things you need for an Agatha Christie mystery is an enclosed space,” Prichard said. The train compartments offered “12 people who couldn’t go anywhere”, all of them presenting a facade over their true selves.
Riding the train provided days of study for the author.
“She observed – and that’s where some of this writing came from – her ability to observe people and situations, and then make the leap, bizarrely, to murder,” Prichard said.
Christie would have seen “glamorous strangers dressed to the nines for breakfast, for lunch, for tea, for dinner – but who were they behind that theatre?”, he said.
And while the carriages are beautiful, they are also narrow, forcing passengers to brush against one another beside Cuban mahogany panelling and glass window reliefs if they passed along a corridor.
Christie frequently crafted her plots by putting disparate characters together in exotic locations, then imagining the fallout from a murder.
Not everything was made up, though. In her novel, the train gets stuck in a snow drift, giving Poirot time to gather clues and interview each traveller.
Prichard said that in 1929, the real Orient Express train also got trapped by a blizzard, and later, an Orient Express train on which Christie was travelling got stuck in flooding, with sections of track washed away.
As custodian and CEO of the Agatha Christie estate, Prichard handles artistic rights and must approve productions that use Christie’s work.
He served as executive producer on Branagh’s hit film adaptation.
The most popular novelist in history, Christie wrote more than 75 books that have sold about two billion copies.
Yet despite her huge popularity as a writer, she preferred to watch people rather than talk to them.
She was “very reserved, very quiet”, Prichard said.
“There was this stuff going on in her head, which were these plots, but if you’d met her and you didn’t know, you’d have just thought in her later life she was a lovely older woman.”
Prichard was only six years old when she died.
He said it was only when he saw news of her death at the start of the BBC television news, when arriving home from school, that he realised “she was something special – she was something more than my great grandmother”.