Critical Analysis: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Critical and Literary Context
During the rise of crime fiction in the interwar period (1918-1939), Agatha Christie was an English writer who wrote the most popular mystery novels of all time. She wrote fourteen short story collections and sixty-six novels with detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple serving as her main protagonists. Before marriage, she worked at Devon hospital and tended to soldiers injured from the trenches in world war one. Numerous awards have been handed to her, including the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: The Grand Master Award in 1955, the Witness for the Prosecution earning an Edgar Award by the MWA for the Best Play and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd being voted the best crime novel by the Crime Writers' Association.
Overall, the book received positive reviews.
The little grey cells solve once more the seemingly insoluble. Mrs Christie makes an improbable tale very real, and keeps her readers enthralled and guessing to the end— The Times Literary Supplement of January 11, 1934
Murder on the Orient Express EXPLAINED in Five Minutes
Crime Fiction was a popular genre due to the way is served as a form of escapism from the stress of the world wars. As P.D. James stated, “What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order” (2017, p. 4). This is reflected through the common characteristics of the genre. This includes suspense, several murders, detectives attempting to keep track of murderer’s next move, a complex plot, and a psychological approach to reading characters’ personality and behaviour. Societal values and ideas reflected in the genre include of justice, truth, law and order. The outcome served to the villain of the story is often perceived to be justice. However, the idea of justice is challenged within Christies’ novel as the murders of the primary villain do not receive punishment for their actions. This contradicted the social norms of the genre where books such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) ended with the murderer being brought to justice. This perception of justice supports the growing trend of vigilantism within the time period. This is seen with movies such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and texts such as Zorro by Johnston McCulley (1919).
The war had a devastating effect on citizens’ faith in the law and God which made vigilantism appealing in pop culture. Resources were depleted, hysteria was caused due to mass deaths and the seemly endless war of attrition hurting the economy. This pain manifests incarnates into the spirit of vengeance present within this book. The work alludes to the French Revolution in 1789 where the people’s justice included killing the higher classes and the monarchy. Like how the monarchy escaped prosecution due to their money and statues, the murderer, Ratchett, does the same with his wealth and the "secret hold he had over various persons" to be acquitted from his murder of young Daisy (p. 39). The failure of the law is expressed by how Ratchett was able to change his name from Cassetti to Ratchet and go travelling. So, in the same vengeful, revolutionary spirit, Daisy’s family murders Ratchett.
Techniques such as juxtaposition, allusions and symbolism are utilised to challenge the audience’s perception of law and justice. Ratchett’s characterisation symbolically paints him as the epitome of evil. The characters continually mention how his murder of a child makes deserving of death. Furthermore, his character is symbolic of who the French Revolution revolted against: the rich who bought their way out of condemnation and held themselves above the law. To reflect the characters’ distrust of God’s power, Frau Schmidt states God should not allow terrible events such as child murders to occur (p. 84). The monarchy also created the narrative of being appointed by God. Thus, to twist the monarchy’s narrative into irony, Daisy’s family uses Christian allusions to imply they were working for a power higher than the judicial system.
Juxtaposition is used between an early scene where a woman is stoned to death for adultery and the scene where the Armstrong family’s murder is exposed. Hercule defends this law, despite grimacing at the barbarity of her punishment. Yet, when the family comes together to ritualistically stab Ratchet in the name of vigilante justice, Hercule condemns the crime. Why does he defend the barbarity of the law’s justice and reject the people’s justice towards a murderer the law failed to catch? Ironically, in the end, Poirot puts aside his Kantian beliefs in relation to the law and passively agrees with the murder by allowing the family to get away with the crime.
Another allusion includes the number of people who stab Ratchet: twelve. The number twelve is a Christian allusion to the twelve apostles enacting God’s work and is the number of people needed for a jury. This confronts and challenges the audience’s perception of juries and why would one consider their form of justice as barbarity and not the US legal system. This also makes the audience question whether it is right to use the name of God in the name of justice, which was a common occurrence in the law and governing systems. As a result, Christie uses a variety of techniques to challenge the norms of the legal system and confronts both Poirot and the audience with the ethics regarding the law being just.
Christie, Agatha 1933, Murder On The Orient Express, HarperPaperbacks, New York.
Christie, Agatha n.d., Agatha Christie, The Christie Mystery, UK, viewed 23 March 2019, <http://www.christiemystery.co.uk/calendar/OrientExpress.php>
Doyle, Arthur 1892, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, George Newnes, London.
History n.d., French Revolution, History, New York City, viewed 23 March 2019, <https://www.history.com/topics/france/french-revolution>
Kemp, Peter & P. D. James 2017, Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales, Faber & Faber Ltd, Winston Hills.
Lit Lovers n.d., And Then There Were None (Christie), Lit Lovers, Virtual Location, viewed 24 March 2019, < https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/fiction/9070-and-then-there-were-none-christie?start=1>
Mark of Zorro 1920, Motion Picture, Douglas Fairbanks Studio, Hollywood.
McCulley, Johnston 1919, The Curse of Capistrano, All-Story Weekly; Grosset & Dunlap, New York City.
Robin Hood 1922, Motion Picture, Douglas Fairbanks Studio, Hollywood.
The Scarlet Pimpernel 1934, Motion Picture, London Films, London.
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© 2019 Simran Singh