My Favorite Crime Movie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
If there's a crime movie I would enjoy more than the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the 1934 novel of the same name by the inimitable Agatha Christie, I haven’t found it yet. I've seen the movie — starring Albert Finney as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — a number of times. And even though I know whodunit, I can watch the movie over and over again and still be fascinated by it.
The appeal of this particular adaptation of the book begins even before the first scene, with the opening overture and the graphics against which the opening credits are listed. The music is jazzy and upbeat and the graphics are perfect — art deco, bright, snazzy. Everything fits the time during which the famous train ride is supposed to have taken place. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express during the second half of the 1920s and the music and graphics in the movie suggest the Roaring Twenties as well as any novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As the opening credits fade, the musical score becomes darker, more sinister, and we are plunged straight into the story of the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby. The flashback sequence in the movie is perfectly executed. There is no talking, only music and action. Newspaper accounts fill the screen and we get suggestions of how the kidnapping occurred. We catch fleeting glimpses of the kidnapper escaping with the baby, a woman tied to a chair, a car fleeing the scene. We see the aftermath of the kidnapping: the baby's body has been found, a couple too distraught to speak try to dodge all the reporters clamoring for a comment.
As a writer, what I find most interesting about the opening scenes of the movie is that they are a flawless example of the adage "Show, don't tell." Not a word is spoken until we meet Hercule Poirot five years later on a ferry about to cross the Bosporus, and yet we know everything that has happened. We've met the family, we know of their grief, and we've got an idea of how the crime was committed.
And now we get to the cast, one of the greatest strengths of the 1974 movie adaptation. The movie features, in no particular order (in addition to Finney), Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Jaqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Perkins, among others. The cast list reads like a Who's Who of the movie industry.
Finney manages to be both funny and serious. He's in his element, investigating a crime in a variation of the locked-room scenario, but he is world's greatest detective, after all, and he allows himself a certain amount of pride and preening. I laugh every time he puts on the hair net and the mustache protector to sleep, and when he dons gloves to read the newspaper or puts on his robe with the snakeskin pattern. He's a man of contrasts that Finney plays to perfection.
And every time I watch Lauren Bacall reveal her true identity (that's as close as I’ll get to a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie), I am shocked. The movie is that good.
I could go on, talking about certain cinematic nuances, like the train brakes that sound like a woman screaming or the snowstorm that strands the train on the tracks, but I won’t. I want you to see the movie for yourself. And see it before November, when the newest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is released.
—Amy M. Reade
USA Today Bestselling author Amy M. Reade writes women's contemporary and gothic fiction. Her books have been compared to authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Phyllis Whitney, and Victoria Holt. Her standalone novels feature vivid descriptions of exotic and fascinating locations, such as the Thousand Islands region of New York State, Charleston, South Carolina, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Most recently, she has been working on The Malice series, set in the United Kingdom.
Mug Shot: Michele Campbell
Michele Campbell is the author of It's Always the Husband, which US Weekly called "a riveting, suspenseful tale of love, hate and murder." It's Always the Husband has been featured in Elle, Redbook, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, the New York Post, PopSugar, BookBub, and Culturalist, and reviewed by the Associated Press, Publisher's Weekly, and many other publications. Campbell is a former federal prosecutor and law professor, and a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School. She previously published four novels in the Melanie Vargas thriller series under the name Michele Martinez.
Tell us about your latest work.
It's Always the Husband is a psychological thriller about the relationship between three young women who meet as roommates on their first day at an Ivy League college. They couldn't be more different, yet in the crazy, pressure-cooker atmosphere of freshman year they become inseparable. A tragedy at the end of freshman year leaves them with a terrible secret that they don't trust one another to keep. Twenty years later, one of the friends turns up dead. Was she murdered, or was it a suicide? If it was a murder, was it the victim's husband — as the police suspect — or was it one of the best friends?
When and how do you find time to write?
I write full-time, and I try to keep regular hours. I work most efficiently if I go to an "office," which is usually the library, although sometimes it's a room in my house dedicated to writing. In other words, I'm not sitting on my sofa or lying in bed with my laptop like Hannah does on Girls. How can she possibly be productive that way?
How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do?
Authors need to be proactive if they want their books to succeed, even if they have great publisher support. It's a team effort. My publisher has done wonderful marketing and publicity for my current book, and I have also done a lot of my own marketing and publicity. When I say that I've done it, I'm including what I do personally and what I pay experienced professionals to do. For example, I have a professionally-designed website. I'm active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I personally post most of the content, although some is posted for me by publicists. I have advertised, and sponsored contests. And I've hired an outside publicist experienced at working with the wonderful in-house team at my publisher to work on getting media exposure for my book.
What writers have inspired you?
So many writers have inspired me over the years. At the moment, I'm reading a few great, recently released psychological thrillers in search of tips to sharpen up my plotting game. I recently finished The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware and The Break Down by B.A. Paris, both of which are incredibly propulsive and have fantastic, relatable protagonists.
In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read, network, listen to criticism.
Harlem’s Renaissance Man
The Golden Age of detective fiction coincided with a different sort of Golden Age among African-Americans: The Harlem Renaissance. Arguably no-one could have been described better as a Renaissance Man, than Rudolph Fisher, the author of The Conjure-Man Dies. A graduate of Brown University and Howard University Medical School, he was the author of scientific papers and political tracts promoting Pan-Africanism, as well as at least two novels and several short stories, all within the unbelievably short life-span of 37 years.
Fisher was not the first black author of a detective story. That distinction goes to the Jamaican-American writer W. Adolphe Roberts for The Haunting Hand (1926). (Quite a character in his own right, Roberts had love affairs with women as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Edna St. Vincent Millay, although the second may have been purely literary.) But Fisher’s novel was the first to introduce a black detective – along with a completely black cast of characters.
As he did in his first novel, The Walls of Jericho, Fisher self-consciously strove to portray both the upper classes and lower classes in Harlem equally. Thus, his hero, Dr. John Archer, “a tall, slender light-skinned man of obviously habitual composure,” and N’Gana Frimbo, the Conjure-Man, a Harvard-educated African prince who pencils notes such as “Fairclough, too has missed the great secret,” in a text titled The Philosophical Basis of Destiny, are balanced by Bubber and Jinx, who discover the body when they “jes’ come to get this Frimbo’s advice ‘bout a little business project we thought up.” In between these polar opposites stand Frimbo’s landlord and his wife, a railroad porter, Easley Jones, and Perry Dart, the police detective, who, unlike the usual bumbling police officers in Golden Age stories, “knew Harlem from lowest dive to loftiest temple.”
Perhaps not unexpectedly in such a rigidly-defined society, gradations in skin color play an important role in solving the mystery. Overall, however, The Conjure-Man Dies destabilizes epistemological and social norms rather than reinforcing them. The line between the rational and irrational is constantly blurred, culminating in the man of science, Archer, saying to Dart, “Frimbo would call me a mystic. I have implicit faith in something I really can’t prove.” Bubber and Jinx provide a comic reworking of this same debate between mysticism and detective work; however, they are the ones who actually solve the mystery by discovering the proof Archer cannot.
Perhaps most ambiguous of all is the figure of the railroad porter, a job that was at once a demeaning reminder of slavery and crucial to the dissemination of black culture (especially music) and the rise of the black middle class. Fisher shows how a similar dichotomy drives Archer’s life in a passage that is worth quoting at length:
“[My father] died shortly after I finished college. I wanted to study medicine. One of my profs had a wealthy friend. He saw me through. I’ve been practicing nearly ten years – and haven’t finished paying him back yet. Hardly dramatic, is it?’
“You have omitted the drama, my friend. Your father’s struggle to educate you, his clinging on to life just to see you complete a college training – which had been denied him; your desperate helplessness, facing the probability of not being able to go on into medicine; the impending alternative of teaching school in some Negro academy; the thrill of discovering help; the rigid economy, to the keep the final amount of your debt as low as possible – the summers of menial work as a bell boy or waiter or porter somewhere, constantly taking orders from your inferiors both white and black.”
Beyond being a stinging social commentary, the passage is also a brilliant apologetic for writers giving voice to characters and societies that are usually dismissed for being “hardly dramatic.” So read The Conjure-Man Dies not for its historical significance. Read it because it is a damned fine book.
Ah, Lord Peter, I Hardly Knew Ye
You can’t sell Lord Peter Wimsey to a classroom full of millennials. I’m sorry. You. Just. Cannot. Even A.C. Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” with which I begin my survey course on mystery fiction, is met with cries of “What’s in it for me?” and “It’s just not relatable” (the latter a neologism I cordially despise). Or as Edmund Wilson would have it, “Who Cares who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
Teaching the Golden Age mystery – on which I cut my escapist teeth – is hard, for, as W.H. Auden demonstrated in “The Guilty Vicarage,” it is a socially, morally, and epistemologically normative genre policed by a detective who is an intellectual and social snob. (And Auden was a fan.) And when you think of it in those terms, why should students care? By the time I finally gave up and cut poor Dorothy Sayers from the syllabus, I found myself asking myself why I loved Gaudy Night so much after all.
So is the detective story nothing but a hopelessly nostalgic fantasy of a time and place of an epistemological and social certainty that never was? Well, yes. They wouldn’t call it a Golden Age if it were real, now would they? The entire point of an idyl, whether it sings of Theocritus’ nymphs and satyrs or Tennyson’s King Arthur, is to celebrate a lost state of perfection that never really existed. (Okay, I had to sneak that it. It's the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to introduce one of my abstruse orals topics into polite conversation.) Still, it is no coincidence the Golden Age mystery flourished between the two World Wars – a time of considerable, social, moral, and epistemological upheaval. For the idyl is a profoundly conservative form, which offers the fantasy of a return to a vanished Eden from which we have fallen.
And yes, in the wrong hands, this quest to recover a lost state of grace rapidly turns into a quest to scapegoat the Other. Doyle's assumptions about class and race pop out like a missing stud on a starched shirt front; The Sign of Four is one of the very few texts I consider too racist to teach. However, the very fact that the Golden Age never existed in reality paradoxically opens up tremendous post-modernist literary possibilities for those who write from outside the closed society whose values the Golden Age detective story reinforces.
“Silver Blaze” met with grudging acceptance at best. But Sherlock’s “Empty Hearse” met with no such objections. Many would say (myself included) that Sherlock wound up hoist on the petard of its own cleverness. But “The Empty Hearse” is an elegant homage to fans and fan fiction. (For more on that see Emily Nussbaum’s article in The New Yorker.) The episode is also a slick post-modernist take on Lacan’s and Derrida’s seminal readings of “The Purloined Letter,” in which they demonstrate the inherent instability of the mystery’s central promise epistemological certainty – for (apologies for the ugly flashback to Lit Crit 101), any truth is inherently conditioned by the symbolic order of the subject that construes that meaning. (Okay, that was pretty painless, wasn’t it?)
Thus, according to Derrida (and Quentin Tarantino after him), the purpose of any search for the solution to a puzzle can only be to spin further narratives. Dare I introduce the term “absent referent” here? Or, as Hitchcock put it much more simply and elegantly, the MacGuffin. Manuel Ramos’ “The Skull of Pancho Villa” begins with a wonderful counter-narrative to the tale of how the titular MacGuffin was stolen by a mercenary in 1926 and wound up in the possession of Prescott Bush, “grandfather of you-know-who,” and now rests in Skull and Bones at Yale. Instead, Gus Corral, the narrator claims his Grandpa Alberto, the Chicano flunky who actually dug up the grave, kept it, and it remains in the possession of the Corral family, “stored in various containers like hat boxes, cardboard chests, and even a see-through case designed for a basketball.” The conflicting narratives are in themselves a wonderful commentary on the United States’ relationship with its Latin American neighbors, but the true joy of the story is that those narratives are as much of a MacGuffin as the skull, which has little role in the mystery itself beyond making a memorable return with a “lime-green sombrero with red dingle balls balanced on his slick, shiny head.”
Desideria Belen Ayute, the narrator of Carlos Hernandez’ “Los Simpaticos,” solves a classic Golden Age locked room puzzle halfway through the story, whereupon she breaks the fourth wall to deliver a lecture on why Latinos prefer judgement to puzzles – and why this makes the telenovela their art form of choice. She then goes on to deliver the criminal into the hands of the U.S. courts, not out of any abstract belief in justice, but rather because it makes a simpler and tidier instrument of revenge than picking up a weapon herself.
Then there’s Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I wrote in a previous post about how difficult I found it to write in the first person from any point of view other than my own. Haddon uses the equivalence of the reader and the detective, first pointed out by Tsvetan Todorov, to manage this feat. Christopher’s mindset may be very different from his reader’s, but they are connected by being in the same position as they both struggle to “read” the text of the central mystery. Even more importantly, the very nature of autism means that Christopher’s quest is a fictional demonstration of Lacan’s claims, for Christopher’s cognitive difficulties all stem from the fact that he has no symbolic order to condition his ordering of facts into a narrative that can create meaning.
Perhaps most fascinating of all of these counter-narratives is Randolph Fisher’s extraordinary The Conjure-Man Dies, written during Harlem’s own Golden Age, decades before post-modernism was a gleam in Derrida’s eye. But more on that next time.