Reading on the Orient Express

Reading on the Orient Express

[If you don’t know the story of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, either watch the film or, even better, read the book either in English or in a good translation.]

Searching for clues

Like the detective in a detective story, a reader presented with a text in a foreign language has no immediate clues to the meaning of the text. The detective is searching for clues which will explain the murder and identify the murderer. The reader is similarly looking for clues, inside, around and outside the text which will help the reader to understand the text.

Both the reader and the detective may be distracted in their search by evidence they judge to be more important than it is, or by false evidence, red herrings, which have been given with the intention of distracting the detective reader. The skills and qualities of a good detective are similar to those required by an effective reader. The detective needs to collect, interpret and evaluate evidence. The detective needs to consider the context; time, location and social setting of the crime. The detective needs to understand the personalities of the murder victim, witnesses and suspected criminals.

Like a detective, an effective reader needs a good imagination. A good imagination allows the detective to hypothesise many strange scenarios to explain the crime. The same skill is used by the reader as she/he searches for the meaning of an unfamiliar text.

When one of the passengers on the Calais coach of the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot, the detective, is asked to investigate the crime. The train, travelling from Istanbul to London, has become stuck in heavy snows in Yugoslavia. Monsieur Bouc, a friend of Hercule Poirot, is a director of the railway company and turns to Poirot and asks for help.

While the passengers were sleeping, the train became stuck in a snow drift and stopped moving. When the passengers woke from their sleep, the dead body of one of the passengers was discovered. The dead man is a wealthy American, Mr Ratchett, who employs a young Englishman as his assistant and secretary. Because the train is stuck in the snow, Hercule Poirot realises that the murder was probably done by one of the passengers in the Calais coach.  There is a rich variety of different characters from different backgrounds and Poirot spends a lot of time questioning each one.

Opportunity and Motive

Detectives look for two factors: opportunity and motive. The detective asks “Who could possibly have committed this crime?”, the reader asks “What could this text possibly mean?” This first question requires the reader to have a good imagination. From the reader’s background knowledge, this leads to the question, “What does this text probably mean?”

When evaluating different possible meanings, the reader constantly looks back at the text to find evidence in favour of, or against each hypothesis. Repeated examinations of the text lead the reader through 3 stages of certainty:

a)      This text might mean …

b)      This text probably means …

c)      This text means …

Many detectives (and readers) make the mistake of “jumping to conclusions” – believing that their hypothesis is correct without checking it against the evidence. Many fictional detective stories include characters, like Sherlock Holmes’ friend, Dr Watson, who jump to conclusions. The good detective is patient, examines the evidence and tests hypotheses.

Many crimes in detective stories are solved by examining motive. “Who will benefit from this crime?” Similarly, comprehension of a text may be informed by asking the questions:

a)      Who wrote the text?

b)      Who was the intended reader or readers?

c)      What did the writer want to communicate with the reader?

d)      Did the writer have a purpose, beyond the simple communication of information?

Poirot’s questioning of the passengers reveals that Ratchett, the dead man, had organised the kidnap of a child from a rich American family. The child was never found but the kidnap led to many disasters for the family. Looking for a motive for the murder, Poirot discovers that, in different ways, many of the passengers have links to the family and therefore might have a motive for the murder.

All the passengers were present in the railway carriage and therefore had the opportunity to commit the crime. It appears that many may have had a motive, but who actually committed the murder? When they examine the body of the dead man, they discover that he has been stabbed many times. Some of the stab wounds are powerful and deep, others are lighter. A few of the wounds suggest that the knife was held in the murderer’s left hand. Can Hercule Poirot find an explanation for all these differences?

Believing the Unbelievable

Agatha Christie, the author of Murder on the Orient Express, entertained her readers for many years by presenting them with puzzles which seemed to have no solution. In this story, Poirot is faced with a crime with too many possible suspects. Agatha Christie enjoyed playing with the genre of the detective story, and therefore playing with her readers’ expectations. In Murder on the Orient Express, there is not one murderer, there are twelve murderers. Everyone on the Calais coach is guilty of the murder!

Reading like a detective

A reading text is a comprehension puzzle. The reader, like the detective, needs imagination and hard work to solve the puzzle. The evidence required to solve the puzzle is not exclusively contained within the words of the text. There may be pictures around the text. The text may refer to well-known characters or events and the reader will need to use this background knowledge when searching for the comprehension.

Many people think that comprehension is just a receptive, decoding skill. It is not. Comprehension is a creative skill, the reader creates a hypothetical understanding and then tests that understanding with the text. When creating a hypothetical comprehension, the reader should not feel restricted by ordinary, everyday ideas. The solution to the puzzle may be something fantastic, unexpected and new.

A person with limited imagination may not discover those fantastic solutions. A creative reader will create an image of comprehension and then test the image with evidence from the text.

The Reading Conversation

Reading is not merely an attempt to decode the words on the page. Reading is, or should be a conversation between the reader and the text. A conversation in which nobody speaks? Yes, consider the following procedure:

  1. A reader opens the page on a small text in a book.
  2. A quick view shows the text is in English, so it is probably intended for someone who knows some English.
  3. The text is printed in a book, so it was not written yesterday and does not refer to recent events.
  4. It is a published book, so the contents of the text are not addressed to only one person, the author realised that many people may read the text.
  5. If the text was from a newspaper, or magazine, it might have more topical relevance.
  6. If it was an email, postcard, letter or SMS message, it could be a private message, addressed to only one person, possibly the reader.
  7. Looking at the page containing the text, the reader can see that it is page 23, so it is not the beginning of the book, not the introduction. There have been 22 pages before this page.
  8. From the thickness of the book held in the reader’s right hand, there are probably another 10 pages  in the book.
  9. A quick look at the text shows that it is not written in continuous, narrative style. It is not a dialogue or a book of poetry.
  10. The page seems to contain a lot of short paragraphs. Each paragraph begins with a name in bold type, followed by one, two or three stars. There are then one or two sentences in normal type. Each paragraph ends with an address, telephone number and email address.

The reader has not read the first word on the page and yet the reader has developed a clear idea of what to expect while reading. Before reading the first word, the reader has begun to form a hypothesis about the text. If the reader turned to look at the cover of the book, the reader would see “Buenos Aires Hotel Guide”.

  1. From the page layout and other factors, the reader will know that this is not a mystery or an adventure story. It is a reference book for consultation, it is not a literary or artistic work.
  2. The reader starts to think about motive; “Who was this book written for? Am I within the group of intended readers? What was writer’s purpose in creating this book? Is it a general information guide or is it commercial publicity for one particular hotel?”

You can hear the reading conversation starting. The reader is forming hypotheses and asking questions, the text is answering some questions and prompting others. If, for example, the reader has stayed in a hotel in Buenos Aires, the reader might look up that hotel to see if the hotel guide’s judgement concurs with the reader’s experience. The reader might do this for two or three hotels. The reader will form an opinion about the validity of this guide.

Reading Purpose

When a reader picks up a book, opens a magazine or reads an email, the reader usually has some reading purpose. We do not often read simply to use up time. Our reading purpose may be to find or confirm a specific piece of information. It may be more general: simply the desire to find out more about a topic. The text may just be a message from a friend: we open and read the message to find out what the message contains and the writer’s communicative intention in sending the message.

Our reading purpose will influence the form of conversation we have with the text. Some texts will prompt the reader to take some action, others may confirm the reader’s hypothesis and give the reader some satisfaction.

Writers of detective stories think very carefully about their readers. They plan the reading conversation leading the reader towards the revelation in the final chapter. Detective stories offer a comforting and satisfying reading experience. The reader knows that everything will be revealed and all problems will be solved by the end of the final chapter. Through the book, the reader has travelled an interesting journey and reached a warm comforting conclusion.

Learning to enjoy reading

Reading should not be treated as a test. When we read, we try to discover the author’s ideas but, more importantly, we begin to discover our own ideas. Good readers become interesting people because the books they have read have encouraged them to think. We can gain a wide experience of the world through reading, but our purpose is not just to memorise and repeat facts. Reading can inspire the imagination, but only if we allow our imagination to be inspired

Hercule Poirot frequently talked about using ‘the little grey cells’ in his brain. These little grey cells were not just for counting and organising, they were for creating ideas and, sometimes, believing the unbelievable.

Nick Dawson (on his 68th birthday) 2014


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