It’s five o’clock in the morning, and a French lieutenant (Lieutenant Dubosc) stands on a train platform in Aleppo, Syria, waiting outside the Taurus Express. He’s accompanied by a “small lean man” (later revealed to be Hercule Poirot) who is heavily bundled against the freezing cold. Even though “seeing off a distinguished stranger” on such a cold morning is an unsavory task, Lieutenant Dubosc conducts himself “mannerly,” as “graceful phrases fall from his lips in polished French.” Although he doesn’t know the details, he knows that the stranger had been assisting the General with a particularly delicate situation.
The novel opens by withholding the identity of the “distinguished stranger” who readers soon learn is the detective Hercule Poirot. But already, the details of the situation reinforce his talent and importance, creating a power asymmetry between the nervous functionary and the “distinguished stranger” he’s trying to see off. In addition, an international setting is quickly established. The “small lean man” is currently in Syria on his way somewhere else, and he’s speaking French with a member of the French army. Clearly, this is a well-traveled and worldly man.
The General had been in an increasingly bad mood up until this “Belgian stranger” (Hercule Poirot) arrived from England. After a week of “curious tensity,” one officer committed suicide, and another resigned. Immediately, Lieutenant Dubosc’s colleagues relaxed, and the General “suddenly looked ten years younger.” The lieutenant recalls overhearing a conversation between Poirot and the General, in which the General praised him for “sav[ing] the honour of the French Army” and saving many lives. Poirot brushed off the lavish praise, claiming the General once saved his life, so the men are even.
In an aside, the author establishes Poirot’s nationality (Belgian) and a previous location (England) that furthers his internationalist credentials. It’s not clear yet exactly what kind of assistance Poirot offers, but the General’s intense gratitude and insistence that he’s saved lives suggests that it’s considerable. A hint about Poirot’s past is also dropped in the allusion to the French General saving his life, which might in turn suggest a previous life as a soldier.
Back in the present, Lieutenant Dubosc makes painful attempts at small talk with Poirot. Aloud, he reflects that Poirot will be in Stamboul by tomorrow evening—an observation he’s already made a few times. The lieutenant says the La Sainte Sophie is “very fine,” even though he’s never been there. Glancing discreetly at his watch, he notes that he only has to make small talk for five more minutes, but he panics thinking that Poirot has noticed him looking at his watch.
The French lieutenant begins to flail in his attempt at small talk, and he doesn’t receive a lot of assistance from Poirot. The power dynamic between the eminent Poirot and the French lieutenant is reinforced by the former’s silence and the latter’s talkativeness.
Lieutenant Dubosc says he hopes Poirot doesn’t get snowed in during his journey—a common occurrence this time of year. After an awkward pause, the lieutenant repeats that Poirot will be in Stamboul tomorrow evening, and Poirot quickly replies that he’s heard La Sainte Sophie is “very fine.”
Here, an element of foreshadowing is buried in the lieutenant’s casual remark about snow in the mountains. Everything about the lieutenant’s presentation in the novel conditions the reader that he is inessential, and that his careless small talk can be ignored, but there’s a countervailing expectation embedded in the mystery genre that warns readers to observe even minor figures carefully.
Meanwhile, inside the Taurus Express, Mary Debenham peers out the window at two men below—a French officer and a “ridiculous-looking little man” with an “egg-shaped head.” Despite her troubles, Mary smiles, thinking of how no one could possibly take that funny little man “seriously.”
Hercule Poirot is presented as he appears to a stranger, and the initial impression is not impressive. His “egg-shaped head” and short stature seem at odds with the effusive praise that the French general delivered to him, suggesting that Poirot’s importance doesn’t lie in a commanding presence.
After exchanging formal goodbyes with Lieutenant Dubosc, Poirot boards the train, murmuring the word “finally” under his breath in French. The conductor explains that there are only two other passengers on the train: both are English, but one is a Colonel from India, while another is a young woman from Baghdad.
Poirot, a Belgian national, has just completed a task for the French army in Syria, after which he boards a train for Turkey alongside two English citizens based in Baghdad and India, respectively. It’s clear from the start that the story, and the mystery to follow, will have an international character.
Later, Poirot notices the female passenger, Mary Debenham, in the dining car. She’s about twenty-eight and has a “cool efficiency” about her, which makes her seem well-traveled. Poirot admires her features but deems her “a little too efficient” to be pretty. Colonel Arbuthnot enters and eats with Mary Debenham, though they speak very little. Neither notice Poirot eavesdropping because, as Poirot speculates, he’s “only some damned foreigner” in their eyes. At lunch, the Colonel and Miss Debenham dine together again, and through their conversation they learn that they have mutual friends.
In this initial interaction between Mary Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, Poirot illustrates his inclination towards and talent for personal observation. Their economy of words and Ms. Debenham’s “cool efficiency” mark them as particularly English. And in eavesdropping on their conversation, Poirot benefits from not being English and instead a “damned foreigner.” Colonel Arbuthnot assumes that either Poirot doesn’t know English or is too foreign to have any interest in their affairs. In this way, Poirot is able to hear more than a proper Englishman might in his position.
Later, the Colonel says that he wishes Miss Debenham “were out of all this,” but she hushes him. With a quick glance at Poirot, the Colonel continues, expressing his sympathy for Miss Debenham in her work as a governess, dealing with “tyrannical mothers” and “tiresome brats.” Mary Debenham assures him that the parents are more afraid of her than she is of them. Poirot thinks to himself that he’s watching “an odd little comedy” unfold.
Perhaps lulled by Poirot’s foreign status, the Colonel says more than he should, which Ms. Debenham's quick interruption indicates. And the Colonel’s meaningful glance at Poirot suggests that his references to “tyrannical mothers” and “tiresome brats” are meant to cover his faux pas. All of this contributes to a sense that the relationship between the Colonel and Miss Debenham is much deeper than it appears.
At the next stop, Poirot steps out to enjoy some fresh air and overhears another conversation between the Colonel and Miss Debenham. She cuts him off and references a time “When it’s all over.” They seem like they have been fighting, and Poirot notes that Miss Debenham no longer sounds “cool, [and] efficient.”
The sense that the Colonel and Miss Debenham aren’t strangers is reinforced by this snippet of overheard conversation. What sort of interaction could strangers have that would occasion this much emotion and familiarity? Poirot’s observation that Miss Debenham has lost her composure is a sign that this composure may have been a front and that Poirot’s initial grasp of her character was premature.
The next day, the train is slightly delayed due to a fire under the dining car, which puts Miss Debenham into a panic. In French, she expresses her worry that she’ll miss her connection to the Orient Express in Istanbul. Despite the setback, they arrive in Istanbul only five minutes late. After crossing the Bosporus Strait, Poirot makes his way to a local hotel.
Miss Debenham loses more of her composure at the suggestion that the train to Istanbul may be delayed and that she may miss her connection to the Orient Express. Her level of pique at being delayed, far greater than a simple traveler’s frustration, suggests that there’s something on the Orient Express that’s especially important to her.