At the hotel, Poirot receives a telegram requesting his return to London after there’s a development in the “Kassner case.” Poirot had planned to stay the night, but he cancels his room and books travel on the Orient Express to London.
Poirot’s reputation and skill have been developed by degrees as his immediate services are requested in far-flung locations, creating the image of an international detective. But Poirot’s presence on the Orient Express is something of a foregone conclusion, and any mystery reader fluent in the genre will have expected some wrinkle that would put him on the train with Miss Debenham.
In the hotel restaurant, Poirot finds an old friend named Monsieur Bouc, a fellow Belgian and the director of a train company. M. Bouc knew Poirot when he was a “star of the Belgian police force.” Bouc praises Poirot’s current success while the latter tries to “look modest.” The two dine together, and Poirot tells M. Bouc about his travel back to London on the Orient Express. During the meal, Poirot focuses on keeping his moustache out of his soup.
Poirot’s reputation is burnished again by the revelation that he was the star of the Belgian police force, but this reputation continually clashes with the more comic aspects of Poirot’s character. His failure at modesty clearly indicates some measure of vanity and pride in his work. He’s not, as some other classic detectives are, immune to worldly success and recognition. Further, it’s difficult to reconcile this world-spanning detective with the image of a short, bald man completely absorbed in keeping his moustache out of his soup.
Poirot observes two American men in the restaurant, one older and one younger. The older man’s smile and bald head at first suggest the character of a “bland philanthropist,” but Poirot is thrown off by his eyes, which are “small” and “crafty.” When his gaze fixes on Poirot, the detective feels a “strange malevolence.” The old man tells the younger, whom he calls Hector, to pay the bill in a “queer, soft, dangerous” voice. The younger man assents, calling the older man Mr. Ratchett.
These two Americans are even further from home than the English passengers Poirot accompanies to Istanbul, and the book’s first vision of America is not generally positive. While a stranger might write Mr. Ratchett off as a genial older man, Poirot pierces to his inner, malevolent personality. The “soft, dangerous” voice suggests a barely suppressed violence.
The two Americans depart, and Poirot asks M. Bouc’s opinion of them. M. Bouc agrees with Poirot’s negative opinion of Mr. Ratchett, and Poirot describes Ratchett as a “wild animal” and a “savage.” They note the contrast between his respectable appearance and inner malevolence, which leads Poirot to philosophize about “the body” as a respectable cage through which a wild animal looks out.
As Poirot’s credentials and keen observations have already been established, his read of Mr. Ratchett’s character, even based on scant evidence, has the ring of truth. Further, as a way of establishing Ratchett’s core evil, Poirot presents a distinction between the inner and outer self. The outer self is misleading, and even misleads Poirot initially in Ratchett’s case, but the inner self, though hidden, is a more honest representation of an individual’s character. This is the self that the detective targets.
M. Bouc escorts Poirot to the Orient Express, which he is also traveling on. When they reach the train, they find that it’s entirely full, which is unheard of for this time of year, and even the compartment M. Bouc keeps in reserve is taken. But Poirot is able to take the place of a man named M. Harris, who hasn’t yet arrived, in a second-class berth. Poirot quips that M. Harris’ name is a good omen because “I read my Dickens. M. Harris he will not arrive.”
Poirot’s reference to Dickens points to the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Mrs. Harris is an imaginary person who exists entirely in the mind of one of the characters. This not only speaks to Poirot’s knowledge of English literature, but it pushes against the fourth wall of the novel by explicitly invoking literary conventions. This move implies that the novel itself has its own set of genre expectations, and so alerts the reader to a sort of cat-and-mouse game played between mystery author and mystery reader.
Poirot enters cabin number seven to find not M. Harris, but Hector MacQueen, the young American from the hotel restaurant. Hector confronts Poirot in stilted French with the possibility that he’s made a mistake, but the conductor confirms that Poirot is supposed to lodge here. Poirot speculates that Hector had paid the conductor to keep the two-person room for his own use. Despite the misunderstanding, Poirot has an “agreeable” conversation with MacQueen and then the Orient Express departs.
MacQueen’s French is quite bad, which might be a hindrance in international travel at this time. His initial annoyance that his attempt to preserve the cabin for his own use draws attention to the question of what use he might have put it to. This also suggests that M. Harris might truly not exist, as Poirot suspected, and was simply a contrivance to keep anyone else from booking the room.