Poirot can’t fall back to sleep afterward. He reaches for the bell to ring for the conductor, but as he does he hears a nearby bell ring a few times before the conductor answers it. He hears Mrs. Hubbard talk to the conductor, describing the conversation as 90% Mrs. Hubbard speaking.
Christie plays with reader expectations in this chapter, which is titled “The Crime.” The purposeful ringing of the bell and the conductor’s delay suggests that this crime may have been committed or discovered, but it’s almost with relief that Poirot realizes it’s Mrs. Hubbard ringing. Both Poirot and the reader have been conditioned to think Mrs. Hubbard is impertinent and naïve, so Poirot dismisses it easily.
When he arrives, the conductor explains to Poirot that Mrs. Hubbard believes she saw a man in her cabin and no objections on the conductor’s part would convince her otherwise. Poirot also finds out from the conductor that the train is stalled between stations in Yugoslavia.
Just as the French lieutenant suggested in the first scene of the novel, the train has been blocked by snow, creating a portentous stage for “the crime” yet to be discovered. Christie, by seeding the event in a casual remark by a minor character, rewards savvy readers or prompts an “aha” moment.
Poirot is just about to fall asleep when he hears a thud next door. Looking into the hallway, he sees a woman wearing a scarlet kimono walking by.
The next morning, there’s a big commotion because the train is stopped indefinitely in a blizzard. The Swedish woman is crying, Mrs. Hubbard complains about the “foreigners” in charge of the train and refers to their present location as one of those “Balkan things,” and Colonel Arbuthnot asks Poirot about the delay, confusing him for his fellow Belgian M. Bouc.
As the full scale of the delay unfolds, the passengers fall into their seductively easy stereotypes. Mrs. Hubbard talks dismissively about the country they’re in, the Swedish woman, known to be sentimental, is overcome with emotion, and Colonel Arbuthnot is so contemptuous of foreigners that he can’t make the distinction between Poirot and his fellow Belgian M. Bouc.
Poirot has a short conversation with Mary Debenham about the delay. Unlike the other passengers, she seems remarkably stoic, seeking, as she says, to save herself “useless emotion.” Poirot praises her for her strong will, but she replies cryptically that she knows someone “far, far stronger.” She stops short, realizing that she’s speaking to a stranger, and laughs off her strange comment.
Mary Debenham in one sense is falling into the stoic English governess role that she’s displayed, but Poirot has already seen through that façade somewhat. Her current indifference to the delay contrasts with her previous nervousness about the delay on the train to Istanbul. She also reveals too personal a detail to Poirot, perhaps prompted by Poirot’s unthreatening and ridiculous appearance.
M. Bouc calls for Poirot and tells him that Mr. Ratchett was stabbed to death last night. He also elaborates about the delay, noting that it will be days before they can move again. M. Bouc introduces the Greek doctor from the adjacent train car, Dr. Constantine, who estimates the murder took place between twelve and two that morning.
The revelation that the murder occurred sometime late the previous night and early that morning throws the details Poirot witnessed into sharp relief.
Further details of the murder follow. Ratchett was discovered by the conductor at 11 that morning, but his door was locked and bolted. A window was open onto the snow, but it seems impossible for anyone to have entered or exited through it because of the snow. Ratchett was stabbed about twelve to fifteen times, with apparent savagery.
In the lineage of the murder mystery there’s a trope called the “locked room,” where a murder has been committed in a place that no one could have accessed or left. Ratchett’s cabin seems one such locked room, although the fact that the window was opened suggests that someone might have tried to make it seem otherwise.
M. Bouc implores Poirot to take the case while praising at length his powers of deduction and investigation. He asks Poirot to use the “little grey cells of the mind,” using Poirot’s own phrase, to solve the case. Poirot is touched by the appeal and “emotionally” agrees, conceding that he had been dreading the hours of boredom ahead of him.
Here, Christie places herself in the lineage of detective fiction, presenting a mystery as an intellectual exercise and an antidote to boredom, a frame echoed by Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. But she also distinguishes Poirot as a man not immune to vanity, as he is touched by M. Bouc’s breathless praise. Poirot, while participating in the love of rational deduction for its own sake, humanizes himself with a small personal weakness.
In conversation with the conductor, Pierre Michel, and M. Bouc, Poirot determines that the train car was locked after dinner and no one could have exited the murder scene since the train was stopped in the snow. The only conclusion, as M. Bouc states, is that the murderer is still on the train.
There’s another locked room, this time in the form of the train car. This is a classic parlor room mystery set up, but where some writers would choose a house party at a secluded location, Christie chooses a snowed-in train. The dynamics of each setting are similar: the culprit must be among the assembled passengers and outside help from the police is out of the question. It’s from this baseline that Poirot begins his investigation.