Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trains, Travel & Murder

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey are remarkably similar. They both feature recurring detectives, Hercule Poirot for Christie and Inspector Alan Grant for Tey, trains, The Orient Express for Christie and the London Mail for Tey and of course both feature death, murder to be precise.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is returning to London from Syria and boards the train in Istanbul. Due to a crowded passenger load Poirot doesn’t have a berth all to himself until his second night on the train. In the wee hours of his third day on the train Poirot is awakened by a noise that appears to

be coming from the next compartment. When he peers into the corridor to inquire into the matter he hears a voice inform the conductor that “Ce n'est rien. Je me suis trompé” (It's nothing. I misspoke). Poirot returns to bed only to be again disturbed by the ringing of another

passenger’s bell. Unable to sleep Poirot requests a bottle of water and learns that the train has been stranded in snow. Sometime later he is again disturbed by a bump on his door and looks out of his compartment to see a woman in a scarlet kimono scurrying down the passage. Finally able to sleep without being interruption Poirot awakes the next morning to startling news; Samuel Edward Ratchett, the man in the next apartment, was fatally stabbed in his sleep.

Christie, in her slow and somewhat clunky way, guides the little grey cells of her famous Belgian detective through a series of false leads and plots twists until she delivers what is, arguably, one of the most provocative dénouements in the history of detective fiction.

One of the most obvious ways in which Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands differs from Murder on the Orient Express is the quality of her prose. Both stories begin in the morning, but compare Christie’s opening:

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man, muffled up to the ears, of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward curled moustache.

with Tey’s:

It was six o’clock of a March morning, and still dark. The long train came sidling through the scattered lights of the yard, gently clicking over the points. Into the glow of the signal cabin and out again. Under the solitary emerald among the rubies on the signal bridge. On toward the empty grey waste of platform that waited under the arcs . . . The London mail at the end of its journey.

While Christie’s prose is certainly sufficient it lacks the power of Tey’s to pull the reader through the story. In The Singing Sands Inspector Grant is on vacation from his stressful job in London and is heading to Scotland for vacation. As Grant is preparing to exit the train the conductor finds the body of a man, which he initially assumes to be drunk. Grant realizes the man is dead but is not drawn to the case until he discovers that the man’s newspaper contains a brief bit of poetry - the singing sands, that guard the way to paradise. These mysterious words haunt Grant all throughout his stay in the Hebrides until he is forced to return to London. He finally lands in Marseilles where he resolves this most diabolical murder.


4 comments:

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