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The Mysterious Allure of the Orient Express

Posted 17.12.15  - Culture

In Istanbul, Hercule Poirot is urgently recalled to London. The only choice of conveyance for a man of his discerning taste who is in a hurry: the Orient Express. As he boards, he encounters an assortment of glamorous characters - among them a Hungarian count, a Swedish missionary, a Russian princess and an obnoxious American.

Spoiler alert: don't get attached to the last person on that list.

Murder on the Orient Express may not be Agatha Christie's biggest-selling novel (And Then There Were None holds that honour) but it is arguably her most popular, and certainly her most influential. One reason is the international glamour implicit in the setting. When the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits put it into service in 1883, it ran from Paris to Munich and Vienna, continuing to Budapest, Bucharest and the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna, where a boat service took passengers to Istanbul. Later, the train went all the way. In the 20th century, the opening of the Simplon tunnel allowed an alternative route via Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia for further enchantment and colour. The shifting sands of European politics and conflict often meant it had to change route - and often conveyed spies over borders.

The carriages were works of art: René Lalique-designed glass panels and light fittings, rare woods, bathroom floor mosaics and beautiful fabrics referencing Orientalism, Jugendstil and Art Deco.

The carriages - both berths and Pullman dining cars - were works of art. Rare woods formed the interior panels; details such as glass panels and light fittings were designed by the likes of René Lalique; there were mosaics on the bathroom floors; and beautiful fabrics took a journey of their own through Europe’s aesthetic periods: Orientalism, Jugendstil, Art Deco.

Christie wrote about the train twice (a Parker Pyne mystery also takes place aboard) for another reason too. A sense of intrigue snakes along the corridors of the Orient Express, largely because it can provide a locked-room mystery with a twist. Aboard a moving train, everyone - murderer, victim, innocent bystander, detective, spy - is trapped, yet each compartment could contain a secret… and what of the gaps between carriages… Did we stop in the night? Did you hear something on the roof?

This combination of intrigue and glamour drew other writers to the train, too. In Stamboul Train, published in 1932, two years before Christie's novel, Graham Greene describes how the lives of a murderous thief, a Jewish businessman, a revolutionary leader, a lesbian journalist and a chorus girl intertwine on the train. Greene revisited the train in 1969 in Travels With My Aunt.

The train's most memorable screen appearance came in 1963, in the adaptation of Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. The film’s big fight is precipitated by one of the Orient Express’s sumptuous dinners. Bond realises the SMERSH agent (played with charming menace by Robert Shaw) posing as an MI6 colleague who couldn’t possibly be an English gent because of his gauche choice of wine (and this from a man who has his martinis shaken!).

The train has continued to be depicted on screen, with varying degrees of historical accuracy - the Doctor Who episode Mummy on the Orient Express takes place in space, but looks the Art Deco, Agatha Christie part. Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days was published a decade before the maiden voyage, but the 2004 film allows it into the itinerary, because it is too good to leave out.

Probably the greatest waste of the Orient Express in literature comes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Harker tells how he, Van Helsing and their vampire-hunting crew board the train to Varna to overtake the Count: ‘The journey may have incidents; I was, however, too eager to get on, to care for them.’ The 1897 novel uses the service as a shorthand for speed, just as a 1970s novel might have used Concorde. But what a chapter Stoker could have written if Dracula had boarded at Budapest. And what a film it could still be… Dracula on the Orient Express!

Chris Madigan - Writes for Brummell and The Quarterly

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