Agatha Christie and the Orient Express

Stagenotes: Murder on the Orient Express

“The train of my dreams…”
Agatha Christie and the Orient Express

By Charlotte Weber, McCarter Theatre Center

The Orient Express, near Vienna, Austria.
The Orient Express, near Vienna, Austria.

1926 was a difficult year for Agatha Christie, starting with the death of her beloved mother. Overtaken by what she called a “terrible sense of loneliness,” Christie then had to deal with another shock. Archie, her husband of twelve years, admitted that he had fallen in love with another woman and asked for a divorce.

Reeling from the loss of her mother and the betrayal of her husband, Christie left Rosalind, her seven-year-old daughter, with her maids and disappeared. At thirty-six years old, Christie was on her way to becoming the best-selling novelist in history, and 15,000 of her adoring fans made up a volunteer search party to look for their favorite writer.

The official search ended after ten days when Christie was discovered at the Harrogate Spa Hotel, but her disappearance remains a real-life mystery, as she refused to ever publically comment upon it.

Eager to put this dark chapter of her life behind her, Christie busied herself — taking Rosalind on holiday, finding her a suitable boarding school, and continuing to write. By 1928, Rosalind had begun school, the divorce was finalized, and Christie was ready for adventure.

Christie made plans to travel to the West Indies and Jamaica, but, two days before her intended departure, she impulsively threw out her reservations and booked passage to Baghdad via the luxurious Orient Express.

In Agatha Christie: An Autobiography she writes, “All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain of Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it.”

Agatha Christie in 1926.
Agatha Christie in 1926.

Along the first leg of her trip from Calais, France to Istanbul, Turkey, Christie encountered a host of characters including an American missionary, a Dutch engineer, and a couple of Turkish ladies. In her novel Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, Christie writes—in Poirot’s philosophic voice—the train “lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.” Inspired by the peculiar intimacy of train travel, Christie recognized trains as a perfect, confined setting for a murder, and used them as such frequently throughout her writing career.

Not only did her trip solidify Christie’s love for trains, but it also marked the beginning of her life-long love affair with the Middle East. It was the authenticity of Christie’s settings (considered exotic in her time) that set her apart as a novelist. In Istanbul in 1928 Christie first visited the Tokatlian, a luxurious European-style hotel, and the beautiful Haidir Pasha (Haydarpaşa) station where she re-boarded the train en route to Damascus. These two sites would later find their way into Murder on the Orient Express.

After completing the last leg of her journey—a bumpy 48-hour bus ride across the desert—Christie arrived in Baghdad. She made a number of friends during her stay, including the Wooleys whom she returned to Iraq to visit the following year. It was on that trip, her second to the region, that she met Max Mallowan, the archeologist who became the love of her life. The two were happily married until Christie’s death in 1976.

Christie took the Orient Express on a number of occasions in the following years, including one journey during which the train was halted for 24 hours because of heavy rains and floods. That experience, along with a 1929 report of the train stuck in a snow bank for six days, inspired the circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express, which remains one of her most popular and most frequently adapted stories to this day.

This article was originally printed in McCarter Theatre Center’s performance program for its 2017 production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.