This weekend the Orient Express pulls into the station, bringing with it murder and mayhem. Murder on the Orient Express features an all-star cast including Johnny Depp, Dame Judi Dench and Daisy Ridley. Directed by and co-starring Kenneth Branagh as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the often-filmed mystery is based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie first published in 1934.
The sensational story of a murder —13 strangers on the luxury train and an investigator’s race to solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again — is Christie’s best-known novel, but it is just one of 66 detective novels she penned in a career that spanned more than five decades.
“I think people have been pretty tough on her,” Branagh told The Guardian. “They’re suspicious of the volume of her output.”
It’s true that the author’s omnipresence on bookshelves, 20th century household-name status and massive popularity — over two billion copies of her books have been sold worldwide making her one of the bestselling authors ever — didn’t endear her to the literary elite, but Branagh sees her differently.
“Personally I admire the prolific nature of what she does … her ability to grab the audience’s attention is really striking,” he said. “The surface of what she writes has led people to dismiss her as a second-rater. But I think she is far more than that.”
Christie’s public persona was that of a button-down grandmother with a macabre imagination, but she led a remarkable life.
In an essay for Radio Times, Branagh writes, “This was a woman full of surprises.” He goes on to describe how the author became the first British female surfer to hang ten in Hawaii. “It was 1922,” he writes. “She was fully upright, scantily clad, and 32 years old.”
In her own words Christie says she wore a “wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!”
Another episode from her storied life feels like it could have been ripped out of the pages of one of her books. The year was 1926. Christie was on the verge of a divorce from her first husband when she vanished, leaving behind only her abandoned car, an expired driver’s licence and some clothes.
Already considered a national treasure, her mysterious disappearance was front-page news. Some thought it was a publicity stunt, others wondered if she was trying to frame her husband for murder.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, tried to solve the mystery with the help of a psychic. When Christie re-emerged 11 days later, after living under an assumed name in a small hotel, she offered no clues as to what had happened.
One popular theory suggests the Queen of Crime had fallen into a psychogenic trance. In the book The Finished Portrait, biographer Andrew Norman sites the adoption of a new personality and “failure to recognise herself in newspaper photographs” as signs that she was depressed and had fallen into a fugue state.
Christie never publicly commented on those missing days, not even in her official biography.
Now, 91 years later the mystery will likely never be solved. So much time has passed that not even Christie’s greatest creation, Murder On The Orient Express’s master detective Hercule Poirot, could get to the bottom of this mystery.