The Mystery of the Blue Train
A very nice and pleasant early (1928) Hercule Poirot murder mystery novel, set partly where Hitchcock's (less successful, in my estimation) travelogue, To Catch the Thief, is located: on the Franch Riviera (Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo and all, and driving between the picturesque locations, including a brief 1920s car chase, even). But, The Mystery of the Blue Train is also partly located where one of Agatha Christie's most famous (and at the same time most controversial) murder mysteries is located: on a train run by the same company as that operating the Orient Express, Wagons-Lits. Christie went on to publish the outrageous, and outrageously successful, Murder on the Orient Express six years later (1934); she seemed evidently fond of travelling in the luxurious trains operated by Wagons-Lits. Thus, we may enjoy The Mystery of the Blue Train as an "audition" for the later famous mystery novel. And, it's a satisfying audition; not among the finest Christie novels by any means, but it contains everything a reader rightfully expects from a good Agatha Christie book. By this I do not only mean the mystery aspect; in fact, if you've read dozens of Christie mysteries before, you're not unlikely to guess who the murderer is in this book, if not the exact mechanism of the crime.
This novel has basically two leading male romantic heroes, and if you've already read many Christie books before, it's clear as the sun to you that one of the two leading male romantic characters will turn out to be the culprit – a cheating pretender, while the other male will turn out to be the one genuinely in love with the romantic leading heroine (Katherine Grey here). Essentially, this lowers the candidates number for the murderer down to 2, and lowers the excitement connected with the whodunnit aspect of the novel considerably. On the other hand, even this Christiesque cliché is given a novel twist in The Mystery of the Blue Train: although one of the two leading romantic males actually is a pretender, a cheater, liar and murderer – he, too, is genuinely in love with the romantic heroine. Essentially, it's a love triangle, with both males being geuninely in love with the romantic heroine; there is even a very nice quotation from Poirot on how "a bad man may be destroyed by his love for a good woman" – destroyed from his ("bad") perspective, that is.
Plus, the novel starts out slow, and somewhat farcically; essentially a meaningless, superfluous, and ludicrous (in being unintentionally comical) opening chapter; and the subsequent chapters are pretty boring, too – until Hercule Poirot appears. It's not that Agatha Christie cannot write interestingly unless Poirot or Marple are on the scene – however, this is the case in The Mystery of the Blue Train. As soon as Poirot first appears in the dinner car of the luxurious train, the novel picks up speed, and we never look back at the boredom of the opening chapters. The remainder of the book has all the hallmarks of quality of an Agatha Christie book: a combination of detection, romance, psychology, and musings on the nature of genius. Poirot is at the center of everything: he provides his insights on all four of the subject areas just named; plus, the novel manages to be genuinely funny in quite a few passages, mostly those concerning Poirot's eccentricity. For an example comedic moment, see the conversation between Poirot and his valet, George, opening Chapter 17.
In Agatha Christie's books, the aspect of romantic love is frequently underrated, and it is often claimed that Agatha Christie's books all revolve around the whodunnit exclusively, with the people involved being nothing more than cardboard characters. That is definitely NOT true of the finest Agatha Christie books, and it's definitely true of The Mystery of the Blue Train, either – a very good Agatha Christie mystery, on the whole. Christie shows how delicate she can be in drawing the psychology of her characters, and that she truly understands the nature of romantic love and infatuation. After all, romantic love is all about the "She is the (only) one for me – He is the (only) one for me" attitude; but, that sounds like kitsch, doesn't it? So, Agatha Christie goes about depicting these situations in a highly intelligent manner: invariably combining romantic infatuation with a cynical view of the world. For a prime example of this, see the conversation towards the end of Chapter 24: a man talking to Poirot basically says he despises all women, due to their being so shallow; except, of course, that one woman he is currently in love with – that one woman is supposed to be the "exception" that does not "prove", but rather disproves the rule that all women are supposed to be shallow. Now, should this woman indeed become this man's love of his entire life – what remains of his original cynical attitude, according to which all women are shallow? Nothing remains; it would be proved an empty slogan, showing off a person's own emptiness and cynicism. On the other hand, perhaps the man is correct in making his statement? Perhaps all women truly are shallow, and it is only this man's perception, clouded by romantic (and/or sexual) infatuation, that is incorrect in deeming this particular woman to be exceptional? (Of course, the reverse-gender analysis may also be applied: a woman may hold all men to be shallow, except the one she is currently in love with.) – Well, to all these questions related to romantic love, Agatha Christie gives the only correct answer, which is... none! No definite answer is an artist's best answer; great art does not attempt to solve human dilemmas – that is a task more apt for works of philosophy. Literary works are supposed to show us the human dilemmas by highlighting them, making us aware of them, inspiring us to think about them, and to resolve them each on our own, without the promptings of an artist's "solutions" or "recommendations". Great art shows the human dilemmas and the many contradictions that human beings are faced with on a daily basis. The Mystery of the Blue Train is no great work of art; but it has its moments of greatness – in this particular Christie novel, the aspects of romantic love, psychology, and examination of genius, with touches of comedy here and there, outweigh those of a suspensful whodunnit. That is very untypical of Agatha Christie, but there you have it.
A satisfying read!
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- The Mystery of the Blue Train webpage at Wikipedia
- The Mystery of the Blue Train (TV) – 5-minute film review of the TV adaptation of this novel
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