How Does Murder on the Orient Express Differ from other Murder Mysteries?
Murder on the Orient Express is a novel that is rightfully praised not only by the army of Agatha Christie’s admirers but also by literary critics. This novel, which is typically reserved, English, and typically detective, is nevertheless very different from other murder mysteries. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot faces quite a difficult task: to find out which of the passengers of the train, stopped by snowdrift, killed a very unpleasant American passenger named Mr. Ratchett. With the murderer initially seeming so obvious, the further we read the more details we find that show the participation of totally different people. Which of them is the murderer? And is he or she still on the train? In the paper, we will show how Murder on the Orient Express differs from conventional detective stories.
To begin with, it is necessary to admit that some of the features of Murder on the Orient Express are entirely common for the detective genre, especially when it comes to Agatha Christie’s classic detectives. For example, the space of the murder scene is closed, and nobody can go in or out. Also, it is quite easy to determine the exact time when certain events took place. There are no extra characters, no extra objects, and everything is related to the crime performed. Normally it would be easy for a world-famous detective to solve a mystery like this, but not in Murder on the Orient Express.
Not Just Another Conventional Detective
What differentiates the novel from the other novels of the detective genre? “The genre’s conservatism has frequently explained the continuing appeal of the detective novel; detective fiction tends to affirm rather than to question, to take social structures, moral codes, and ways of knowing as givens, rather than subjecting them to thorough, principled criticism. In conventional detective stories crime is usually seen as a symptom of personal evil rather than social injustice, and the detective is depicted as an ideal incarnation of competitive individualism” (Stowe 570). Here, in Murder on the Orient Express, things are different: it actually raises moral questions (Poirot proclaims two versions of the crime and lets his colleagues decide which one should be presented to the police), the crime is a social justice performed over someone who had managed to escape true justice in society, and the detective himself is a very unusual type of personality.
Hercule Poirot is anything but a conventional detective. In the genre of detective fiction, there is a notion of “the detective code,” and Agatha Christie’s two favorite detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, break this code, but whereas Miss Marple never claims to be a professional detective, it is quite interesting to see how Hercule Poirot’s behavior differs from that pinpointed by “the detective code.” According to W. Marling, “the detective should be anonymous, eschew publicity, be close-mouthed, and secretive. He or she protects good people from bad people, who do not live by the rules; thus, one may break the rules in dealing with them.” Poirot, on the contrary, loves attention, and he is ambitious and quite vain. He is a true genius, with his knowledge of people’s psychology, ability to analyze evidence and events, and unexpected conclusions.
This is what he says himself about his detective method: “See you, my dear doctor, me, I am not one to rely upon the expert procedure. It is the psychology I seek, not the fingerprint or the cigarette ash” (Christie 36). This approach can be considered the work of a genius. Whereas following the logical threads, Poirot nevertheless considers all aspects of the case, including the most incredible. He makes the readers think together with him: “There is something in this case—some factor—that escapes me! It is difficult because it has been made difficult” (Christie 101).
But Poirot never gives up: he collects all the details, even the tiniest ones, and then brilliantly recreates the events of the murder. Even the names of the chapters of the Murder on the Orient Express concisely describe the elements that they are dealing with: “The Evidence of the Secretary,” “The Crime,” “The Body,” etc. In this detective novel, no detail is meaningless: all objects, all conversations, all characters make sense and are directly related to the crime.
It looks like the train is cursed: everything is a mess, new facts arise that deny old facts, passengers of completely different backgrounds and various social levels ensure each other’s alibis. But Poirot finally manages to come to the unusual yet inevitable conclusion. The suspects, Count Andrenyi with his wife Elena, Hector MacQueen, Colonel Arbuthnot, Mrs. Hubbard, Mary Debenham, Hildegarde Schmidt, Pierre Michel, Greta Ohlsson, Antonio Foscarelli, and even princess Natalia Dragomiroff, are, in fact, all guilty. That is the first and main feature that differentiates Murder on the Orient Express from other stories and novels of the detective genre, and all other differences relate to this one.
A detective story is always a game in which the reader must follow everything, even the smallest details, read the text with the utmost attention, and calculate the probability of each suspect’s chance of being guilty. The best outcome in this game between writer and reader is actually the reader’s loss, when the author manages to create a logical plot with comprehensive details, and yet the reader fails to find the correct answer. The Murder on the Orient Express is definitely one of the books that will make a lot of readers “happy losers.”
Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express. HarperCollins, 2017.
Marling, William. “The Detective’s Code.” Detective Novel, www.detnovel.com/DetectiveCode.html.
Stowe, W.W. Critical Investigations: Convention and Ideology in Detective Fiction. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 31, no. 4, 1989, pp. 570-591.