Perhaps the most popular mystery novel of all time, this classic novel pits a nearly superhuman detective against a nearly unsolvable mystery—all in the claustrophobic confines of a snowed-in train. What makes this novel so popular and adaptable? Let’s take a look.

Neither of the film adaptations I’ve seen do this fantastic novel justice. As wonderful as Kenneth Branagh is, his portrayal of famed detective Hercule Poirot came off more cartoonish than superhuman. (That being said, I will be first in line for Death on the Nile, which is set to release later this year.) For me Poirot will always be Sherlock Holmes plus age and experience and a soul and mustaches and a Belgian accent. He isn’t a joke—although, I do have a number of Poirot novels to read.

If you haven’t read any Christie, this is a great introduction. And Then There Were None is arguably her best novel, but it doesn’t star Poirot. The first novel to feature the Belgian detective is A Mysterious Affair at Styles, but I argue this can be read after MOTOE. There are at least three reasons for this:

  1. By the time Christie wrote this one, Hercule Poirot was established as a character and his keen senses are a wonder (at one point he reveals a character’s true identity by deciphering that an “H” we readers have been holding in our minds as a major clue is actually a Cyrillic “N.”)
  2. The evidence and interviews are handled systematically in a highly teachable method (Poirot travels from train car to train car, establishing an easy to visualize chronology).
  3. The climax and wrap-up are highly logical and highly surprising, and Poirot’s role is incredibly human rather than legalistic.

Furthermore, the characters, not just Poirot, are intensely fascinating in ways that characters from mysteries of that time period often weren’t. Frequently, a character existed for the sake of their clue or a telling anecdote or their role in the murder. Here, every person has a soul. Perhaps this is in part due to the historical context in which the book takes place. The kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby serves as a necessary backdrop for the novel.

Readers are still drawn to Agatha Christie today because of the brilliance of her detectives, her ability to render their thought processes intelligibly to her audience, and the complexity of even seemingly minor characters. For the aspiring mystery novelist, each of her novels serves as a master class in of itself, but especially this one.

Some take-aways after reading MOTOE:

  1. Don’t forget to let your reader in on the detective’s thought process. Most of us won’t get there with just a list of clues.
  2. Don’t forget to make your detective (whether they’re actual law enforcement or a curious/courageous individual) human.
  3. It’s okay to make the make the crime nearly impossible to solve so long as when the detective reveals the answer, your reader feels that same joy one feels upon hearing the solution to a complicated but perfectly obvious riddle.

Haven’t read it? You must! Get a copy here.

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