Review by New York Times Review
BEFORE I PRESSED PLAY on the new audio version of "Murder on the Orient Express," I visited a particular corner of my den, a shelf crammed with muzzy-edged paperbacks, some of them missing chunks of their covers. The list price on most of them is 50 cents, which doesn't take into account the extra markdowns from the secondhand bookstores I haunted in high school. That was the peak of my Agatha Christie obsession. I collected a few dozen of her novels, and I read them cover to ragged cover, staying up as late as it took. Back then I lived for the day when I would actually spot the murderer before Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple explained who it was to me. (Never happened.) I'd reach the end and then scan back through pages for all the clues I'd missed, and I'd see how the puzzle was put together. Occasionally after enough time had passed, I'd reread one, pretending I didn't remember the ending, and then I'd congratulate myself for figuring it out, feeling significantly smarter the second time around. I couldn't do that with "Murder on the Orient Express." I couldn't even pretend not to remember the ending: It's one of Christie's most convoluted and shocking. So as I settled in to listen to Kenneth Branagh's always mesmerizing voice tell me the story of the Orient Express and the potential murderers roaming its passageways, I wondered if over six hours might be a bit of a chore. After all, I knew who did it. There was no puzzle to solve. Instead, the book was a revelation: It turns out that my teenage self (unsurprisingly) had not really appreciated Christie. Because by focusing on the puzzle, I had missed the pure joy of her voice. The sly humor and clever asides. The cutting way she sums up a character in a few strokes. You can tell she liked Dickens. One traveler has "a long, mild, amiable face rather like a sheep." An intimidating Russian princess commands the eyes because of her sheer unattractiveness: "It was an ugliness of distinction - it fascinated rather than repelled." And when an English military man glances past Poirot without pausing, "Poirot, reading the English mind correctly, knew that he had said to himself, 'Only some damned foreigner.' " The conjuring power of Branagh's voice is the perfect complement to the wit and breadth of Christie's. There is plenty of room here for him to play - he summons up an Italian, a German, a Swede, a couple of Hungarians, a Greek, a Frenchman, a Russian, and assorted Brits and Americans. (It's this last one that made me laugh out loud more than once.) Branagh brings them to life in a few words, and it's an impressive balancing act. The accents are all slightly exaggerated, but the humor has a soft touch; it's never cartoonish. He manages to give each potential cliché a soul, and then he sends them off, one by one, ready to slip into their respective slots among the whirring mass of gears and levers that form the plot. Oh yes. The plot. It goes like this: While headed home to England for a much-needed rest after solving a case in Syria, master detective Hercule Poirot finds himself booked on an unusually full train during a slow time of year. As he settles in for the three-day trip across Europe, he finds that the passengers are a mixed bunch, including a mysterious young woman and the English colonel who admires her, the dragonish Russian princess, an American woman who talks ceaselessly at high volumes and one solitary older man who exudes "a strange malevolence." Soon enough one of the passengers - I'm not saying who - is found murdered inside a locked sleeping compartment on the same night that the train has run into a massive snowbank in the middle of Yugoslavia. Everyone on board is trapped for an unknown amount of time. It seems impossible that the murderer could have left the train - there are no tracks in the snow. And in the murder victim's room there are, if anything, far too many clues, several of which point in opposite directions. The killer is left-handed. The killer is right-handed. The killer is a man. The killer is a woman. All of Christie's trademarks are here: red herrings on top of red herrings, astonishing leaps of logic by Poirot and enough low-hanging clues to leave you feeling as if you're getting a handle on the thing... until you realize you have no idea at all. That sense of not being able to keep up is, I think, compounded by the format - if I were reading a print version, I'd like to flip back to remind myself of what the efficient British woman whispered to the colonel or what the diplomat said about his wife's sleeping pills several chapters earlier. At times while listening, I itched with the need to check my memory. That's not really an option. You're at the mercy of Poirot's recaps of the information, with no ability to shore up your own investigative efforts. Which doesn't matter in the least. Just sit back and enjoy the whir of all the moving parts, and trust two spellcasters to bring it all together. ? gin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Fierce Kingdom."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 26, 2017]