The Mystery of the Blue Train is a comparatively weak novel which has been transformed into as rare a gem as the Heart of Fire, the ill-fated ruby on which the murder hangs.
It is one of the earlier Poirot books, and the quality of Christie’s output, which had been climbing steadily until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, takes a notable wobble after her infamous disappearance and subsequent divorce from Archie Christie.
The Big Four was cobbled together from sketches of ideas that would have made more sense as parodies of Sherlock Holmes, and The Mystery of the Blue Train is nothing more than a padding out of a previously published short story featuring Poirot, The Plymouth Express – which had already been filmed as one of the hour-long episodes. How to make the story seem original?
Wisely, the screenplay focuses on the characters in the drama, and transports the main thrust of the drama to the titular train. The novel is saved from being humdrum by the excellent heroine Miss Katherine Grey, one of Christie’s no-nonsense, capable heroines, who has inherited money from an elderly employer and enters the glamorous, sometimes puzzling world of the gentry.
Her gold-digging relatives – a charming bunch of wasters, whose hijinks set the tone for one of Poirot’s more silly adventures, despite the brutal murder – find themselves on board the sleeper carriage as Ruth Kettering, the beautiful but troubled heiress whose father ruined Katherine Grey’s family, demands a divorce from her alcoholic, gambling husband, keeps an assignation with her sleazy lover, and drops hints about another mysterious pilgrimage with roots in her tragic past.
The dreamy James D’Arcy as the louche Derek Kettering gets all the best lines.
The dialogue in this adaptation is particularly good, the cast is superlative, and the plot has been tweaked just enough to differentiate it from The Plymouth Express (cross-dressing killers wisely edited out). The Poirot adaptations work best like this, when Christie’s characters are allowed room to breathe rather than serve the plot – her dialogue, often imitated, is widely underrated. At it’s best, it sparkles, dazzling the reader while concealing the clues within. The novel is not as tight as it could be, and contains some dated racial stereotyping, necessarily wiped from the screenplay.
The whole film is beautifully shot, capturing the decadence of the French Riviera, and every scene is a little masterpiece of characterisation. This is the first Poirot adaptation which greatly exceeds the source material.
“I shouldn’t have to see… All that… Blood!”
We get a glimpse of the sadder, lonelier Poirot to come. Travelling alone, he becomes a temporary father figure to Katherine, but ultimately, they must part – but not before they make a pact to travel independently on the Orient Express…
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