Murder on the Orient Express (Philip Martin, 2010)

A hardliner on justice who likes his breakfast eggs exactly the same size, merci

This is perhaps Agatha Christie’s most famous story, starring the quirky Belgian detective Poirot. He is in my opinion a more interesting character than other sleuths. Holmes, Columbo, let alone the modern teams of crime scene investigators – none can hold a candle to Poirot with his iconic wax mustachio.

Why is Murder on the Orient Express such a seminal tale? At first glance it’s ‘merely’ a smartly constructed and interesting mystery, set in a fascinating location. Called back from Istanbul to London, Poirot takes the Orient Express. The ride normally takes three days to get to Calais, but a snowdrift strands the train in inhospitable territory. Worse, a murder is committed right under Poirot’s nose. A classic closed room mystery, as the snow has isolated the train. Who among the passengers killed rich, American Mr. Ratchett? Was it the Russian princess Dragomiroff? Gangster-suspect Foscarelli? Or fanciful Mrs. Hubbard? Poirot goes to work to uncover the truth.

This is a feature-length television adaptation in the long series starring David Suchet. Its quality is such that it feels mostly like a big film; it has a certain grandeur to it. The editing is sometimes a little rough, betraying its modest background, but the visuals are beautiful. A truthful recreation of the Orient Express was created for this, and it looks spectacular. The soundtrack is full of ominous horns mimicking the rhythm of a steam engine. Everything in the audio and video supports this dark whodunit.

Without spoiling any of the surprises in store, the plot is unlikely, but enthralling to follow. And yes, there is a certain romance to the train’s luxurious coaches and cabins, where people from every walk of life come together (though mostly the well-to-do). But what makes this story – or specifically this adaptation – shine, is the conundrum of justice underneath. Poirot is by no means a charming, kind investigator. Suchet portrays him here as a stern, tormented man, who speaks of himself in third person. An implacable advocate of the law, even when that law becomes intolerable or is waylaid by trickery.

Before the story proper starts, we meet Poirot in the thrall of solving a previous, military case. Filled with furious anger, he explains how a soldier lied and was subsequently ensnared by lies. Though not the actual perpetrator, the admonishment is so severe the man takes a gun and shoots himself then and there. Poirot is unfazed. He sees no error in himself and reasons the choice to lie, and to commit suicide, were the soldier’s alone.

Moments later, before the train departs, he walks through Istanbul and is witness to a woman chased by a gang of people. She is an adulterer, they shout. The terrified lady is dragged by her hair to a corner and stoned to death. Another passenger also happens to see it and is terribly upset, but Poirot explains that it’s best not to get involved in the justice of other cultures. “She knew the rules and what breaking them would mean,” he states. To Poirot, the law is the law.

That makes this case particularly troubling for him. When things turn out differently than was assumed, Ratchett’s murder in the Calais coach might not be so horrid after all, and the consequences of Poirot's persecution of the guilty party morally conflicting. He battles his better nature. His entire existence hinges on the righteousness of his judgment. He is a machine and the law a binary thing: an action is either right or wrong. But what if it isn’t? What happens when justice fails?

“The rule of law, it must be held high,” he fulminates, “and if it falls, you pick it up and hold it even higher!” No matter the situation, no one has the right to take justice into their own hands. Poirot sees a society that collapses if everyone were to administer it at their own discretion. He might not be wrong, but his view is certainly limited. No matter what he chooses in the end, it will scar him.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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