Festive Tasks, Door 20 — Travel: Read a book that involves the main character travelling, or a story involving pilgrims on a journey of faith, be it personal, or religious. (For example: Eat, Pray, Love would be about a woman on a journey of self realisation.)
The Appointment with Agatha group’s December read is, of course, also the perfect book for the “Travel” square of Festive Tasks — and it also happens to be my absolutely favorite mystery by Dame Agatha; in fact, it was one of the first books by Agatha Christie that I ever read, not to mention watching (and owning) the screen adaptation starring Albert Finney and half of classic Hollywood’s A list. I also own and equally love all three recent audio versions of Christie’s classic; in fact, if there’s one thing they bring home is how individually you can approach a reading of this particular book and nevertheless be perfectly true to Christie’s writing.
David Suchet is, of course, the obvious choice to read any of Christie’s Poirot novels; but that is true not only (and perhaps not even so much in the first place) because he “is” Poirot on screen: great character actor that he is, he is obviously also having the time of his life with all of the story’s other roles, including those of the women. His Mrs. Hubbard alone is a thing of glory, and incidentally also conveys a good deal of the fun that London audiences must have had, a few years ago, watching him appear as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. Who knew Mr. Suchet got such a kick out of drag roles, anyway?
If you’re looking for a more straightforward reading, though, there is much to enjoy in both Kenneth Branagh’s and Dan Stevens’s narrations. (Yes, I did use the words “Branagh” and “straightforward” in the same sentence there.) Branagh’s audio take on Poirot doesn’t have any more (or different) mannerisms than are actually called for straight off the page: whatever big messes his Poirot movies may be, for an audio, this is a nicely-balanced performance; even though both Hugh Fraser and Dan Stevens come closer to Suchet’s finely-honed take on a Belgian French accent … Branagh’s is decidedly “French French”. But Branagh saves most of the eccentricities for the train’s other passengers, and even his Mrs. Hubbard is not quite as extravagant as Suchet’s (he also makes do without any semblance of drag in his voice). So, there actually is much to enjoy here. If you like Branagh’s audio narrations, chances are, you’re going to like this one as well — regardless of what you think of him as an actor, director, or otherwise, and never mind that both this and his (IMHO even better) audio recording of Death on the Nile are obviously promotional vehicles for the movie versions starring him as Poirot. In fact, he might have done Christie a vastly better service if he had kept his paws off the screen appearances entirely and contented himself with the two audiobooks …
Then again, if you’re in a “just the facts, please,” mood, you can’t go wrong with Dan Stevens. He’ll give you all the passengers on the Orient Express (plus the French lieutenant conveying Poirot to the Taurus Express at the very beginning of the book) with their individual natures perfectly represented and recognizable, but without any exaggeration and without inserting himself into the whole thing at all. His was the performance I ended up turning to for this year’s revisit of the story, and like in the past, I enjoyed it every bit as much as the other two.