One wintry afternoon, I sat down to read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Six and a half hours later, I arose from the couch with the book completed, and my mind utterly blown. Now that's how you write a murder mystery. The 1933 novel has everything you could want in a winter read: A massive cast of idiosyncratic and quirky individuals, a lavish setting, and, most chillingly, a plot that has basis in truth.
But first, a bit of plot. Detective Hercule Poirot happens to be on the Orient Express when a passenger, Ratchett, is found dead. Near Ratchett's body, Poirot uncovers a scrap of paper that mentions a girl named Daisy Armstrong. Alarms go off in Poirot’s head, because Daisy Armstrong has been in the news a lot lately.
Some time prior to the start of the novel's action, Daisy, a young girl, had been kidnapped. Her parents, the daughter of a famous Hollywood actress and an English colonel, had paid the ransom — but by then it was too late. She had already been murdered. Daisy’s guardians’ lives fell apart after that: Her mother died in childbirth, her father took his own life, and her maid, accused of murder, jumped out of a window. Her murderer was still on the loose.
The tragic, but fictional, story of Daisy Armstrong is based on the tragic, and very true, kidnapping and murder of renowned pilot Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son, which occurred right before Christie began writing Murder on the Orient Express. Charles Lindbergh Jr. was snatched from his New Jersey home on the night of March 1, 1932. An hour later, the child's nurse discovered an empty nursery, muddy footprints, an ill-spelled ransom note demanding the Lindberghs pay $50,000 to get their son back.
Soon, the world's attention had turned toward this case, which journalist H.L. Mencken called, “the biggest story since the Resurrection." President Hoover was notified, Al Capone offered his assistance from prison.
Three days after paying the ransom, another note arrived saying that if the Lindbergs paid an additional $70,000, they’d find Charles on a boat off the coast of Massachusetts. There was no boat, though, and there was no Charles. The Lindberghs were left without a next step. An answer came that May, when Charles’ body was discovered in the field outside the Lindberghs’ home. As they discovered, Charles had been killed the evening of the kidnapping.
Officials began to interrogate individuals close to the Lindberghs as potential suspects. After becoming the focus of police attention, Violet Sharp, a 28-year-old English maid working for the Lindberghs, ended up taking her life — which mirrors the suicide of Daisy Armstrong's maid in Murder on the Orient Express.
The real and fictional incidents primarily diverge when it comes to their conclusions. The conclusion to the Lindbergh case was far more murky than the conclusion to the Armstrong case, which Christie ties up nicely. Some of the Lindburghs' ransom money was traced back to Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant and carpenter living in New York. Though Hauptmann professed his innocence all the way to the end of the trial, and though the prosecutions' evidence against him wasn’t robust, Hauptmann was given the death sentence and electrocuted in 1935.
Christie also drew on her own dismal passage on the Orient Express while writing the novel. In December 1931, Christie was traveling back to London on the train when it stalled in place for a full day due to inclement weather. She incorporated aspects of her fellow passengers in the novels’ characters.
Agatha Christie wrote 66 detective novels over the course of her life, but not using imagination alone. Unfortunately, the world produces more than enough fodder to inspire grim murder mysteries.
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