On the next day, Poirot joins his friend M. Bouc in the train’s dining car. M. Bouc rhapsodizes about the passengers on the train, members “of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages.” He notes that if he had the pen of “Balzac,” he would be able to describe the scene.
M. Bouc pointedly expresses that the passengers on the Express are diverse in background. International travel necessarily involves international travelers, so this crowd must be especially diverse for the director of a train company to even comment on them. M. Bouc also invokes Honore de Balzac, a French novelist known for deep, psychologically rich characters. Here, Agatha Christie is possibly drawing on literary associations to focus or mislead reader expectations.
Poirot observes each of the thirteen passengers in turn. He first notices a “big, swarthy Italian man,” a “spare, neat” English servant, and “a big American in a loud suit.” The Italian man picks his teeth as he holds forth, gesticulating wildly and speaking in an accent, while the Englishman coughs and lets his attention drift.
The passengers at this table resolve easily enough into national stereotypes: an Italian man who’s effusive and talkative, a proper and fastidious Englishman, and a large American wearing bold or inelegant clothing. The Englishman even coughs in seeming embarrassment at the Italian man’s lack of manners.
Seated by herself, an especially ugly older lady dictates “autocratically” to a servant her requirements for the journey. The older woman is bedecked in expensive jewelry, and her gaze lands on Poirot but does not rest on him with the “nonchalance of the uninterested aristocrat.” M. Bouc clarifies that the lady is the Russian Princess Dragomiroff, an ugly but “cosmopolitan” woman who “makes herself felt.”
Another type is introduced here, a nominally Russian but cosmopolitan aristocrat, fabulously wealthy and accustomed to giving orders. Like Colonel Arbuthnot before her, Princess Dragomiroff doesn’t find Poirot especially worthy of attention, in this case for reasons of class rather than nationality. Although, Poirot dresses elegantly, his appearance is bourgeois, or upper-middle class, rather than aristocratic.
Ms. Debenham, the British governess whom Poirot met briefly in Syria, is also in the dining car, sitting with an elderly, evidently American woman and another woman with a “mild, amiable face rather like a sheep.” The American woman talks at length on the prospect of applying “Western ideals” to people in the East.
The American woman is exemplifying a kind of Western chauvinism that’s not unique to Americans, but which Americans participate in especially vigorously. Her condescending comments speak to a stereotypically American ignorance of world affairs and the particularities of other cultures. This, like some other stereotypes Poirot observes, is instantly recognizable—and, maybe for that reason, a bit too easy.
Colonel Arbuthnot is behind the three women, very pointedly apart from Ms. Debenham, which Poirot believes is an attempt to hide whatever relationship he may have with her for the sake of her reputation as a governess. His “gaze was fixed upon the back of Mary Debenham’s head.” Poirot then shifts attention to a middle-aged woman across the room, who’s probably the German lady’s maid he’d been informed of earlier.
Poirot detects in the Colonel’s fixed gaze an intensity that suggests a romantic relationship. The fact that they sit apart seems to cement this for him, an example of English propriety and the necessity of a governess to maintain virtue and a kind of chastity. It’s clear that Poirot is the type who is always discerning motives and extracting conclusions from details as small as two people sitting apart on a train.
Poirot moves on to observe an attractive young couple talking “animatedly.” The man is tall, handsome, dressed in the English style but evidently not English and around thirty years of age. The woman is only twenty, dressed elegantly with pale skin, dark hair, and a “foreign-looking” face. Poirot describes her as “jolie” and “chic.” M. Bouc places them as a husband and wife associated with the Hungarian Embassy.
The man’s English style of dress and Hungarian nationality exemplifies more of the cultural blending and borrowing common to the passengers on the Express. Here, “foreign-looking” is a compliment rather than a slight, a sign of exotic beauty and cosmopolitanism.
Finally, Poirot glances at the two Americans from the hotel, Hector MacQueen and Mr. Ratchett, and he once again notices the “false benevolence” in Ratchett’s appearance. M. Bouc returns to his compartment while Poirot listens to the American woman complain about Turkish currency, which she calls “rubbish.”
Poirot again focuses on the dishonesty of Ratchett’s self-presentation, which contributes to his evil character. In comparison, the American woman’s offenses stem from ignorance or naivete. But her refusal to acknowledge another culture as legitimate plays into the stereotype of a boorish American and undercuts the cosmopolitan character of the Orient Express.
As the dining car clears, Ratchett approaches Poirot and sits down. He correctly identifies Poirot and seems to recognize him by reputation. Ratchett goes on to offer Poirot a “job,” promising the detective “big money” if he accepts. In an elliptical way, Ratchett notes that he has received threats on his life, and he wants Poirot to ensure his safety. When Ratchett says that he has an enemy, Poirot challenges him, noting that men of his circumstances rarely have just one.
Ratchett’s clumsy appeal to Poirot’s greed with the offer of money reveals his fundamentally venal character. Though he recognizes Poirot as a famous detective, he seems to know little of the way Poirot operates, which, as readers have seen in his interactions with the French general, is generally out of a concern for justice or a basic fascination with a case.
Poirot refuses Ratchett’s offer, but the man continues to press him, offering a large sum. The detective states that money won’t tempt him as “I take now only such cases as – interest me.” Ratchett forces him to say straight out why Poirot refuses to work with him, to which Poirot responds, “I do not like your face” and exits the car.
Poirot’s admission that he does not like Ratchett’s “face” might seem a superficial reason to refuse, but what he’s truly saying is that he has used observation of Ratchett’s outward qualities to intuit his inner character and he has found that character abhorrent. He’s also showing his commitment to justice above greed and elaborating a sort of personal code. Poirot is not a mercenary.