Murder on the Orient Express and Closed Circle Mysteries

November 22, 2017 | M. Elwood

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Murder on the orient express2
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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When I was younger, I loved Agatha Christie but didn't read Murder on the Orient Express until a couple of years ago when I rediscovered her books thanks to the library's Overdrive collection. I devoured that particular book over Christmas one year. It really is a brilliant novel. Even if you see the new movie version starring Kenneth Branagh's ridiculous moustache, the book should not be missed.

Murder on the Orient Express is a great example of a closed circle mystery. Closed circle mysteries are the ones where there is a murder (or murders) and there are a limited number of suspects due to circumstances. The murder may have taken place on a ship, on an island or in a small isolated village where outsiders are rare. Country house murder mysteries are a common example. In Murder on the Orient Express, the victim and suspects are passengers on a train that becomes trapped because of a snowdrift on the tracks. No one can leave the crime scene and outside help is prevented from reaching it. A good thing, therefore, that Hercule Poirot is on board to sort it all out. 

This type of mystery was popular in the pre-World War II Golden Age of Detective Fiction. These examples are from that era:

And then there were none Cheltenham square murder Christmas party
Five red herrings Question of proof Thirteen guests

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Christie wrote a lot of books that fit this genre but this influential mystery is one of Christie's best known stories. Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island where they are murdered, one by one. Someone on the island must be responsible. As their numbers dwindle and their hopes of rescue fade, the survivors try to solve the crime and save themselves.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

The small community of Regency Square is shocked when a resident is killed by an arrow shot into his house. Fortunately Superintendent Meredith and crime writer Aldous Barnet are on hand to figure out which of the neighbours is a killer.

A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer

  • ebook (published as Envious Casca)

Family, friends and associates gather at a country estate to celebrate Christmas -- much to the displeasure of the estate's owner Nathaniel Herriad who wants nothing to do with it. Soon Nathaniel turns up dead -- stabbed in a locked room. Which of the guests is responsible?

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers

Six members of an artists' colony are prime suspects when a universally-hated fellow artist is murdered.

A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake

Nigel Strangeways investigates when a friend is accused of the murder of an obnoxious student at a respectable boys' school.

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon

John Voss falls getting off a train and is invited by one of his fellow passengers to recover at a country house where he finds himself the unlucky thirteenth guest at a weekend hunting party. Before long, the party takes a sinister turn when one of the other guests is murdered.

Modern Examples

This subgenre is not as common today but there have been some interesting recent books that make use of the closed circle plot device.


1222 Corpse with the diamond hand Endgame
Farthing The human flies Hush now don't you cry
Murder on the leviathan Swiss vendetta Ten dead comedians

1222: A Hanne Wilhelmsen Mystery by Anne Holt

A train derails in remote northern Norway during a blizzard and the passengers take shelter in a nearby hotel. In the morning, one of them has been murdered. The last thing retired detective Hanne Wilhelmsen wants to do is solve another crime but she reluctantly investigates as the weather conditions deteriorate.

The Corpse with the Diamond Hand by Cathy Ace

Cait Morgan, a criminology professor, and Bud Anderson, a retired police officer, are on a honeymoon cruise. When one of the crew members is murdered, of course they step in to assist.

Endgame by Jeffrey Round

Members of an old punk band and those from their inner circle are invited to a private island for a weekend reunion where past disagreements resurface. Soon, people start dying in this modern retelling of "And Then There Were None".

Farthing by Jo Walton

The first book in Walton's wonderful alternative history series is a country house murder mystery. The members of the British upper class attend a weekend retreat. Among the guests is Lucy, whose parents led the 1941 overthrow of Winston Churchill and established a peace agreement with Hitler. Lucy has fallen out of favour with the so-called Farthing set for marrying a Jew. When one of the guests is murdered, Lucy's husband is the prime suspect and she realizes that they were only invited to provide a convenient scapegoat. Who is really responsible for the murder?

The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum

When a World War II hero is murdered inside his locked apartment, it becomes clear that one of the seven residents of the building must be responsible. It's up to Inspector Kalbjorn Kristianson, with the help of a brilliant civilian mystery fan to uncover the truth about the crime. 

Hush Now Don't You Cry by Rhys Bowen

In this historical mystery, amateur sleuth Molly Murphy and New York City Police Captain Daniel Sullivan are invited to honeymoon at a seaside cottage on an estate in Newport, Rhode Island. The relaxing vacation they envision takes a dark turn when Daniel becomes ill and their host is murdered.

Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin

A priceless shawl is stolen and its owner and everyone in the household is murdered. French detective Gustav Gauche quickly realizes that the killer must be a first class passenger on the Leviathan steamship, soon to set off on its maiden voyage to Calcutta. He boards the ship and begins his investigation of ten suspects while passengers are being murdered.

Swiss Vendetta by Tracee De Hahn

A blizzard, power failure and unhelpful witnesses complicate Inspector Agnes Luthi's first murder investigation. An antiques appraiser has been murdered in a Lausanne manor house and now Luthi is trapped inside with the killer. Will her first murder investigation be her last?

Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente

Nine comedians are invited to an island by a comedy legend but when they get there, their host is nowhere to be found. The comedians amuse themselves by exchanging stinging barbs and cheap shots until it becomes apparent that someone with actual weapons wants them all dead.

 Do you have any favourite puzzle mysteries? Share them in the comments.