Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Red, Hot and Blue: The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), by Agatha Christie--Underrated Christies #2

Cannes is 953 miles from London.  You travel 850 of those miles--that is, from Calais--in the Mediterranean Express.  The Labels with Mediterranean Express printed slantwise on them are pasted on your trunks.  You do not, however, call it the Mediterranean Express.  It is the Blue Train.

At Cannes you never meet anyone who has not arrived on the Blue Train.  That is the sole train to arrive by.  Hosts of visitors arrive, in fact, by other trains.  they do not mention this shameful secret.  Such is human nature.  The Blue Train, you see, is a little faster than rival trains.  That is something.  It is also more expensive.  That is everything.

Otherwise, the one positive difference between a sleeping car in the Mediterranean Express and a sleeping car in the rapide is that the latter is painted brown outside and the former is painted blue.  

To paint the Mediterranean Express blue, I admit was a stroke of genius.  It definitely advertises the train wherever it goes.  And the passengers staring languidly from its windows are perhaps not unaware that they partake in the splendor of its advertisement.  

It is a rich, royal blue, the paint on the outer walls of those sleeping cars.  But within the compartments resemble those behind the brown walls of the older sleeping cars.  The upholsterer has still persisted in choosing one of the six ugliest colours in the world for his upholstery, which is of the uncanny peacock velvet met with only in wagon-lit rolling stock.  The leather paneling still has twirliwigs executed in --apparently--treacle.  But when night comes, and you are snug in your berth, you realize that a sleeping car is meant to sleep in, and naught else.

--"The Only Train," author and photographer Ward (Wardrop Openshaw) Muir (1878-1927), in London Daily Mail, 1926

"I want to go to Nice the next week....What is the best train?"

Well, of course, the best train is what they call the "Blue Train."

Katherine Grey plans a journey in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

"Trains are relentless things, aren't they, Monsieur Poirot?  People get murdered and die, but they go on just the same."

--Lenox Tamplin to Hercule Poirot in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

In Mark Gatiss' foreword to Mark Aldridge's new critical study Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (2021), he reminiscences about his "first encounter with M. Hercule Poirot."  In his case, he recalls, "thrilling childhood viewing of And Then There Were None and the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films had taught me that Christie was very much up my street, but it was on foreign holidays (where Christie still seems to belong) that I first probably engaged with the man with the egg-shaped head":

The Mallorcan apartment we'd rented, you see, had the lot--a whole shelf of Christies with those incredibly scary Tom Adams covers and the strange, mustardy colored pages of the foreign editions....I can still remember one sultry Spanish evening explaining the plot of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to my slightly bemused parents as we trudged home from the local tapas bar.  Indiscriminately I devoured them....There was no order you see!  No way of appreciating the incredible run of copper-bottomed classics that Christie produced in what was a genuine golden age of crime writing.  

Gatiss' introduction rang a chord with me because he's so close to my own age and because my experiences with Agatha Christie's mysteries were so similar, within my American background.  Christie was my gateway to "adult" reading.  (Her ability to appeal to precocious young readers as well as savvy adults, naysayers notwithstanding, is remarkable, I think.)  

all aboard the Blue Train

As I have told several times, I was with my mother at Sanborns Department Store in Mexico City, where we were spending the summer of '74 when my father was teaching at the National University, when she bought, at 14 pesos apiece, four Agatha Christie Pocket paperbacks: The ABC Murders, Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral), And Then There Were None and Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy).  Though I was only eight I read them all.  I won't say I solved any of them, but I was deeply intrigued as I was continually misled and duped.  

Back in the States later that year my parents took me to see the first film version of Murder on the Orient Express, the one with the late Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, and I was enthralled.  However, I didn't read anymore Christie, who had died in the interim, until late 1976, when this time we had been spending the year in Monterrey, Mexico.  

American newspaper serial version of 
The Blue Train

Returning to the US in December 1976, we bought, at my urging at a Sears, I think it was, in a Texas border town (McAllen?) the Pocket paperback edition of Curtain, Poirot's last case.  The next year we got the Bantam paperback edition of my first Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder.  I also get a boxed paperback set of all the Sherlock Holmes books for Christmas.  I enjoyed that too, very much, but that was that with Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, (though I reread them every decade).  On the other hand, there were many, many more Christies out there, and, at the age of 12, I set out to read as many as I could.

Like Mark Gatiss I had no idea of the chronological order of the Christie mysteries back then and just read whatever was available and caught my fancy at the time.  It was easy enough to find them in paperback, those ubiquitous Pockets and Dells and Bantams.  I went on a real binge over the next few years, but even then there were some Christies which simply didn't appeal. 

At Bertram's Hotel
was a boor, I thought.  (Oddly I kind of liked Postern of Fate, being deeply intrigued by that message--Mary Jordan did not died naturally--in the book in the library.)  Endless Night bored me in the middle, though the ending was something else.  I thought The Murder at the Vicarage was underwhelming and I just could not get engaged with The Mystery of the Blue Train.  

Over a decade later, in the early nineties, I read about all the Christies I missed back in the 1970s and early 80s (At that time I hadn't read a Christie since Towards Zero in 1982/3) and I reread a number of them as well.  One I didn't reread was The Blue Train.  In fact until a few days ago, I don't believe I had read it since c. 1978.  So this was almost like reading a rediscovered "lost Christie," and a Poirot mystery at that.

Why didn't I like The Blue Train, exactly?  

Well, even in 1978 my view of the mystery as being something that should take place in England, in London or some country village or manor, had taken a firm hold.  I didn't like "exotic" settings in Continental Europe.  And, having read the novel again as an adult, I can see why else it didn't appeal to me.  It must have been too much like a conventional novel, with quite a bit about the love and sex lives of adult men and women, something that interested me not one whit when I was 12.  Reading it today, conversely, I found that the novel appealed to me for precisely those reasons.

Of course it must be admitted that Christie herself hated the book.  Indeed she bluntly stated just that, "I hate it," declaring that The Blue Train was: "Easily the worst book I ever wrote."  Just so people would be sure to get the idea, she also wrote:

I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train.  Presumably I turned out a fairly decent piece of work, since some people say it is their favorite book (and if they say so they always go down in my estimation).  It was terribly full of clichés, the plot was predictable, the people were unreal.  

Rubies are red, French trains are blue
I love Agatha and so should you!
Reflecting how miserable she was when she was writing The Blue Train--it was the lowest time of her life, when she was in the process of divorcing her husband, Archie--the Queen of Crime added that the book had neither "zest" nor the "faintest flash of enjoyment about it."

In his book on Hercule Poirot, Mark Aldridge defends The Blue Train from Christie's own disses as simply a "slightly lesser Poirot mystery," yet he deems that the book is marred by "padding," "extraneous characters," "narrative dead-ends" and "disorienting shifts of focus."  

Aldridge concludes that the novel "is a relatively rare Christie that is only really satisfying on its first reading."  Obviously I have something of a different view, as my second reading of the book was more satisfying than my first--although I must admit that over forty years between readings is an anomaly. 

Perusing Mark's book, it strikes me that Mark is one of those rare cases of a Christie academic who really values Christie because of--not in spite of--her superb puzzle plotting.  I would agree with him that The Blue Train is not Christie's most meticulous puzzle plot (it was expanded from a clever, but quite short, story); yet the digressions and "padding" and "extraneous" characters which he dislikes contrarily add a lot of appeal to the book as a novel in my view.  Contra Christie too, I think many of the characters are of real interest.

I do find that the novel gets off to a slow start with two short "exotic" chapters in criminal Pa-ree.  I was interested to learn from Mark Aldridge that these two chapters did not appear in the serialization of the novel.  I could have done without the two mixed blood characters, Boris Krassnine ("His father had been a Polish Jew") and Olga Demiroff (who cannot disguise "the broad Mongolian cast of her countenance"), whom we never see again anyway.  However, Chapter Two introduces Greek jeweler Demetrius Papapolous and his daughter Zia (who employ a manservant  with "gold rings in his ears" and a, yes, "swarthy cast of countenance"), who are interesting characters and show up several times later on in the story.  

French "Apache" up to no good

We also are introduced to a rich American--is there any other kind in Golden Age British mysteries--and a mystery man with false white hair, known as Monsieur Le Marquis, not to mention a roving gang of Paris street ruffians known as Apaches. 

It's all rather confusing and more the sort of thing you would expect to find in an Edgar Wallace thriller, but it settles down for a while in jolly old England in Chapter Three, which introduces to readers in London forceful American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin and his Great War veteran secretary, Major Richard Knighton.  

We learn that Rufus, presumably a widower, has a willful daughter, Ruth, upon whom in chapter Four  he bestows a recently acquired fabulous ruby necklace, the centerpiece of which is the famed "Heart of Fire."  (In modern value it is worth up to some 7.5 million dollars, apart from the historical aspect.)

Poor Ruth is having her troubles in the love department, so the Heart of Fire will make a nice pick-me-up for her, so her doting papa thinks.  You see, Ruth's dissolute English husband of a decade, Derek Kettering, an impoverished heir to a title, is playing around with an exotic (I'm using that word a lot, aren't I?) French dancer named Mirelle.  (I don't believe we ever learn her last name--maybe like Prince and Madonna, she doesn't have one.)  Papa Van Aldin advises his precious daughter to get a divorce and tells Derek he'd better not contest the suit or he will break him.  He also sets a purposefully featureless private detective, one Mr. Goby, on Derek's trail.

When Derek takes the news over to Mirelle and she learns that Ruth has not made a will, this mercenary Frenchwoman, a true she-devil, muses over how convenient it would be for them both were something--something nice and fatal--to happen to Ruth....Meanwhile Ruth herself has her own romantic skeleton in the closet in the suave French form of the Comte de la Roche, whom her papa separated her from when she was 18, leading to her marriage to Derek.  It seems she has taken up with him again.

Gare de Lyon station in Paris
which plays a significant role in the novel

All this takes us through Chapter Six.  In Chapter Seven we are introduced to an entirely different milieu and another major character, Katherine Grey, a lady's companion thrown out of work by the recent death of her old lady.  She resides in St. Mary Mead (!), a village which certainly will be familiar to readers of Christie's Miss Marple mysteries.  Christie started writing her first Miss Marple stories in 1927, about the same time she was writing The Blue Train.  

It would have been lovely had some of the Miss Marple characters been mentioned in The Blue Train, but alas not.  Still the St. Mary Maid milieu in The Blue Train surely will seem very similar to fans of the Miss Marple mysteries.

To her surprise, Katherine inherits a considerable fortune from her deceased employer  and she decides she wants to get out and experience the world for the first time in her life.  As a companion she has spent her life in the shade, listening patiently to others, and now she wants actually to do things.  Katherine reminds me somewhat of Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), except that I find Katherine much more sympathetic.  There's also similarity to Jane Grey, the similarly surnamed female lead character in Death in the Clouds (1935).

Conveniently in this regard, Katherine has a cousin, beautiful Viscountess Rosalie Tamplin, who lives on the French Riviera at the Villa Marguerite in Nice; and she invites Katherine to come visit her at her lovely exotic (there I go again) home.  Although Rosalie has not only a title but some remaining wealth from her three previous husbands, she is always on the lookout for more lucre and she thinks unworldly Katherine might be something of a "touch."  

Her latest husband, Charles "Chubby" Evans, is a costly possession 17 years younger than she with no money of his own.  Lady Tamplin also has an adult daughter, Lenox, who is regrettably rather sardonic and hard-bitten and has not landed a husband.  (Worse yet to Lady Tamplin, Lenox looks older than her years, making Lady Tamplin concomitantly seem older to people who take the time to do the mental arithmetic.)  

You can see the lack of tightness here, in that we have three distinct sets of characters from separate milieus: the London set, the St. Mary Mead set and the French Riviera set.  And don't forget the Papadolouses, father and daughter, and the mysterious M. Le Marquis, who were introduced earlier in the story.  You can see why this mystery is about 90,000 words long, lengthier than most of Christie's output, I believe.  At times it felt like I was a reading a sensation novel, in terms of the wider scope.

Christie clearly was quite bummed out with life when she wrote this book, and I think that attitude is reflected in it and actually enhances it.  There's a darkness to The Blue Train which is rather bracing.  Ruth is strangled in her sleeping compartment on the exclusive Calais-Mediterranean Express while traveling to southern France to meet her lover, after she has had an impulsive heart-to-heart chat with Katherine, who is on her way to see her cousin in Nice. 

While Ruth is no saint, neither does she come across as a natural murderee like so many characters in Golden Age mysteries, an unsympathetic stick figure who was "asking for it," as it were.  She is cruelly and callously done to death.  I was unpleasantly reminded, a bit, of the whole Amanda Knox affair.

Another striking thing about this novel besides its emotional "coldness" is its "hotness"--by which I mean most of the characters, men and women alike, are quite sexually active people.  With a few exceptions, the women are older and experienced, let us say, and have had relationships, perhaps not always wise, with attractive men.  Let's not even start on exotic French dancer Mirelle!  That she is sexually experienced goes without saying.  She is a hellcat.  

But there's also Ruth, 28, and her involvement with both Derek and the Comte.  There's Pia Papadolous, 33, who had to be extricated from the consequences of an ill-advised teenage fling by old Papa Poirot himself.  There's Lady Tamplin, 44, who with her fourth marriage has bought herself a much younger man and alone among these women seems happy.  Katherine Grey (like Pia 33--this book has much precision about people's ages) is of course a former companion who, until recently, had few options in her life and presumably she is a virgin.  She very much regrets the adventures and experiences which she has missed in her withdrawn life:

Jospehine Baker set the 
Paris standard for wannabes
like Mirelle Whatsit

Autumn, yes, it was autumn for her.  She who had never known spring or summer, and would never know them now.  Something she had lost could never be given to her again.  These years of servitude in St. Mary Mead--and all the while life passing by.

Even young Lenox Tamplin--we don't know her exact age but I'm guessing early twenties--is unsatisfied romantically, stuck in her vain mother's shadow, and she predicts sadly to Poirot: "Journeys end in lovers meeting....That is not going to be true for me."

What a melancholy tone to this novel! I can't help thinking it reflects Christie's views as she headed for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands with her young daughter at the beginning of 1927 to try and recuperate from what surely had been a 1926 nervous breakdown (her notorious disappearance) and get to work on another Poirot novel in the wake of her career triumph with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:  

You just can't trust beautiful men; those youthful romantic flings don't last; I'm pushing forty, I'll never find love again....

Of course Agatha did find love and companionship again, with an accomplished archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who was thirteen years younger than herself (shades of Lady Tamplin).  She met and married Max in 1930, and they remained together as woman and husband until Agatha's death, at age 85, nearly a half-century later in 1976.

Archie Christie,
dashing husband of Agatha,
with his surfboard (!)
in Hawaii in 1924,
looking rather jacked

Some of the writing in The Blue Train is repetitive and cliched.  The phrase "cast of countenance" is used three times, the first two times within a few pages.  A vase is broken in "a hundred pieces."  At one point so many characters start coughing--Ruth's maid, Ada Mason, the French policemen, Mr. Goby, Poirot himself--that I started thinking I was in a Miss Silver novel.  (Oddly Miss Silver debuted the same year.)  

Yet there's some sharp, incisive writing too.  "Moral worth, you understand, it is not romantic," observes Poirot to his Wodehousian manservant, Georges, concerning the age-old attraction of women to handsome men with bad reputations, adding sagely: "It is appreciated, however, by widows."  

(To which Georges with bland ghoulishness responds: "I always heard, sir, that Dr. Crippen was a pleasant-spoken gentleman.  And yet he cut up his wife like so much mincemeat.")

St. Mary Mead spinster Amelia Viner is a delight and sounds a lot like Miss Marple when she speaks of men--excuse me, gentlemen--like they are some strange species apart: 

"I have always heard that gentlemen like a nice piece of Stilton [at dinner], and there is a good deal of father's wine left....No gentleman is happy unless he drinks something with his meal."  

Max and Agatha 

Poirot himself only pops up about a third of the way into the novel, but he is wonderful, very much the magical "Papa Poirot" who takes to heart the relationship problems of the nice women in the novel whom he encounters.  Moreover, his past relationships with the Papapolouses and the theatrical agent Joseph Aarons (all of them are Jewish and are not portrayed invidiously) give Poirot a cosmopolitan air.  Poirot's relationship with Georges too is a delight.  (Poirot will meet Mr. Goby much later on in the books.) 

Honestly, I found that didn't miss Hastings at all.  

So, really, I would have to conclude that The Mystery of the Blue Train is very much an underrated Christie, not only by many experts and fans but by Christie herself.  It almost brought back to me the experience of reading a Christie all anew and that was much appreciated.  

Yet it was not not just nostalgia working on me.  The Blue Train is a more sophisticated book than the 12 year old me could have appreciated and it probed too deep emotionally, I think, for Christie herself, who later, when she had found contentment with Max, just wanted to forget those painful years when her first marriage broke apart, into a hundred jagged shards (or more) of misery.


  1. Thanks for the review. I was just wondering what to read next. I am already on chapter 3.

  2. Third chapter is where it really gets going. Hope you enjoy!

  3. I enjoyed it quite a lot, there is more in it than I remembered. I think I was confusing bits of it with Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles, which I do also enjoy, although it isn't one of the best thriller by that talented and under rated duo.

  4. I have a bit of a soft spot for The Mystery of the Blue Train as well. I've always been puzzled by the hostility directed towards it.