Written for Acculturated
November 20th, 2017
At the moment, I am extremely annoyed with Agatha Christie. I am a lifelong fan of the mystery genre, an appreciation that began with watching Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?every day after kindergarten. From there I read through the Encyclopedia Brown stories and the Nancy Drew novels, and even decided to tackle the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon in only sixth grade.
I’ve taken in the adventures of Father Brown, C. Auguste Dupin, and Shawn Spencer, yet somehow the closest I’ve ever come to engaging with an Agatha Christie mystery is through Murder by Death, the delightfully hilarious Clue-esque parody of half a dozen different fictional detectives, including Christie’s Miss Marple, Jessica Marbles in the film, and possibly her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, parodied as Milo Perrier. So it was with some excitement that I entered the theater to see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend. I left deeply disappointed.
I should say, the movie itself isn’t terrible. The cast is stellar and the set-pieces are luxurious. My biggest problem came not from a decision made by the director or cast, but from an element of the story original to Christie herself: Poirot solves the crime, but he allows the criminals responsible get away with it.
To (briefly) summarize, the movie follows Poirot as he tries to solve the murder of Samuel Ratchett, an art and antiquities dealer with connections to the criminal underworld. Poirot is able to narrow his search down to his fellow passengers in the carriage as they were locked out from the rest of the train the night of the murder.
Poirot struggles with the case until he finds a note left at the crime scene that leads him to realize Ratchett is actually John Cassetti, a criminal who was accused of ransoming and ultimately killing the young daughter of a famed aviator, Captain Armstrong, only a few years earlier. The shock of the news of her daughter’s death sent Armstrong’s pregnant wife into premature labor, killing her and the child, and Armstrong committed suicide shortly thereafter. Through the course of the film it is revealed that every passenger had some connection to the Armstrong family and that they’d all conspired to kill Ratchett/Cassetti.
Rather than turn them in to the police, Poirot decides to misinform the authorities that he believes an assassin snuck aboard the train and had probably already escaped. At the beginning of the film Poirot states that there is good and bad, black and white, and nothing in between. This decision is meant to show that he’s now learned there are shades of gray in the world. Which is all fine and well I guess, but this instance doesn’t particularly seem to be a gray area. It’s not justice brought about by grieving family and friends of the victims; it is revenge, plain and simple. It is, as the title would suggest, murder.
The justification given to and accepted by Poirot is that sometimes the law fails, and justice must be taken into the hands of those whom it has failed. This is a dangerous concept.
The law was created to be objective because we little humans, with our unshakeable biases, cannot be. The judiciary is meant to remove passions and prejudices, and focus only on the facts that relate to the particular case being tried. If everyone who felt the system had failed them took matters into their own hands we wouldn’t have justice, we would have chaos. The judiciary may err at times, but it arrives at what is fair and just far more often than the masses can, for it has no personal stake in the matter.
It is the impossibility of impartiality that makes the public at large such poor judges (just look at Twitter). We often decide what the outcome of a case should be before the facts are fully known. We leap to conclusions based on superficialities, allow our emotions to dictate how we view cases, and search for a narrative that fits our predispositions. This holds true within the context of Murder on the Orient Express as well. We have no idea whether Ratchett is truly guilty. We know that he is a shady character who is undoubtedly involved in some illegal activities, but that does not make him guilty of the Armstrong girl’s murder. Even Poirot, for all his genius, has no way to definitively determine Ratchett’s guilt. He hadn’t seen the evidence, and yet he simply accepts Ratchett’s guilt because he didn’t have a good feeling about the man.
The only way justice can be achieved is if we accept both the rule of law and our own shortcomings in discovering truth. Poirot may be an eminent gumshoe, with sleuthing skills that far surpass those of the hoi polloi, but his mind is just as poor an arbiter of justice as our own.