Addressing the assembled passengers, Poirot speaks English as he says, “I think all of you know a little of that language.” He plans to give two solutions to the crime and then asks M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine to “judge” which is the correct one.
Poirot’s choice of English is apropos, as the passengers have all spent time in America, connected by their familiarity with the Armstrong family. And his request that M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine “judge” the proceedings implies that there is an underlying justice to be determine; it’s not just a matter of pointing to and naming the murderer.
Poirot sets out the parameters of what they’ve discovered. Mr. Ratchett was stabbed between midnight and two that morning and that at 12:30, the train was stopped by a snowdrift. He further states that since no one boarded or left the train in that time, the murderer will be found among the assembled passengers. But then he says that “was our theory” and M. Bouc exclaims in surprise.
The facts Poirot describes have been the basis of the entire investigation. Multiple witnesses have confirmed that it would be impossible for a stranger to have boarded the train. In one fell swoop, Poirot undercuts this certainty and sets even a savvy mystery reader adrift.
He then sets out an alternative theory in which an unknown assailant was provided with a conductor’s uniform, snuck on the train at Belgrade or Vincovci, With the pass-key, he entered Ratchett’s cabin through Mrs. Hubbard’s, stabbed him twelve times with the knife, abandoned the uniform in Hildegarde’s luggage, and left the train just before it departed again.
Poirot’s first solution is notable in that it doesn’t grapple with the facts of the case. Poirot himself had dismissed the “outside job” theory as the one the murderer or murderers had attempted to create before being foiled by the fierce snow.
The passengers raise several objections to which Poirot responds somewhat unsatisfactorily. The inconsistent time on the broken pocket watch is explained by Ratchett forgetting to wind the watch. The voice from Ratchett’s cabin at 12:37 is explained by a third person who went to check on Ratchett but found him dead and was afraid to be accused of the crime. Some seem satisfied by this, but Dr. Constantine exclaims, “No, no, and again no! That is an explanation that will not hold water.”
The reader should share Dr. Constantine’s refusal to believe Poirot’s solution. Poirot’s entire approach to the case has depended on determining the psychology of the assembled passengers. Now he posits a stranger whose psychology or motive can’t be known and tries to handwave away any valid objections. Dr. Constantine’s outburst reflects the fear that the entire investigation, and the novel that recounts it, will have come to nothing.
In response, Poirot moves on to a second theory. He alludes to M. Bouc’s early comment that the train contained people of all classes and nationalities. The only other place where such people would find themselves together is in America. This is how Poirot was able to guess at how each passenger was related to the Armstrong household, either as family or staff.
Having found little audience for his first theory, Poirot moves on to his second. The diverse classes and nationalities that M. Bouc had observed are possible in two places: an international train and America. America seems to be the logical place that such different people would have developed relationships.
Poirot supports a closer relationship between the passengers by reference to Ms. Debenham and Colonel Arbuthnot, who know each other too well to have just met on the journey. He also concludes that the pocket-watch evidence was faked and MacQueen had clearly established that Ratchett did not speak French so that Poirot would hear the interaction in the hallway and think Ratchett was dead at 12:37. Instead, he believes Ratchett was killed closer to 2:00. It was “a comedy played for my benefit.”
As for the identity of the murderer, Poirot establishes first that Ratchett’s guilt is unassailable. He then “visualised a self-appointed jury of twelve people” and the case comes together in his mind. Guilt was balanced between all twelve people so that suspicion would not fall too heavily on any in particular. Each piece of testimony or evidence was designed to frustrate rather than clarify the investigation.
Poirot had previously grappled with the curious occurrence that solid alibis for each passenger were provided by others who appeared to be strangers. The conclusion, finally, is that each passenger participated in the murder and the subsequent coverup, managing Poirot’s suspicions so that no individual could be deemed guilty. Poirot’s phrase “a self-appointed jury” lends legitimacy to the effort, considering Ratchett’s monstrousness. In this case, a “self-appointed” jury may be no less righteous than a randomly selected one.
The choice of the dagger as murder weapon initially confuses Poirot, but its advantage is that it could be used by anyone “strong or weak.” Additionally, as Ratchett was drugged at the time, each could stab him in turn and remain ignorant of exactly who delivered the killing blow.
The conspirators have conceived of Ratchett’s death not as murder but as execution: a sort of firing squad. Just as in a firing squad, none can be convinced that the killing blow was theirs, so that the punishment is abstract and impersonal. In this way, it resembles the kind of justice delivered by a community or a government.
Poirot includes the threatening letters, the identity of the small, dark man, and especially the “red herring” of the scarlet kimono as elements expressly designed to confuse him. He speculates that it may have belonged to Countess Andrenyi.
The scarlet kimono had warped the entire progress of the investigation, occupying an undue portion of Poirot’s thinking about the case. This was by design. The use of a “red herring” that’s actually red points to the brazenness of the approach. It was a clue too obvious to be relevant.
But at the end of it all, Poirot is faced with the reality of thirteen passengers and twelve stab wounds. He grapples with the irony that the person most likely to have killed Ratchett had no part it in it, namely Countess Andrenyi. The Count Andrenyi took her “place” and stabbed Ratchett. Poirot further identifies Hildegarde Schmidt as the Armstrongs’ former cook and Mr. Hardman as the lover of Susanne, Daisy’s French nursemaid who committed suicide after being targeted for the murder.
Countess Andrenyi had already had to take action to disguise her involvement as the person most likely to want Ratchett dead. It is safer for the coverup, in the end, if she can deny the crime and mean it. Additionally, the fact that the Countess’s “place” in the execution could be transferred to her husband further suggests that the justice delivered is impersonal and objective.
All of this requires an artist to choreograph, and Poirot identifies the mastermind as Linda Arden, at which point Mrs. Hubbard drops her false identity and introduces herself as Linda Arden. She does so “in in a soft rich dreamy voice, quite unlike the one she had used throughout the journey.” She says that after the Armstrong tragedy, the household down to the servants had been “crazy with grief.” They all decided that the “sentence of death” that Cassetti escaped had to be completed.
In the end, the woman whom Poirot and the others had prejudged to the greatest extent (as a hysterical and sheltered American), is the one whose identity is entirely fabricated. Linda’s status and performance as an actress affirms Poirot sense that the crime and aftermath was a play “performed for my benefit.” But Linda insists that what was inflicted on Ratchett was a “sentence” rather than simple revenge. It illustrates her sense that they were acting in society’s interests and with its permission after the normal course of justice had faltered.
Linda Arden goes on to fill in the gaps of the conspiracy. Pierre Michel had been the French nursemaid’s daughter and Colonel Arbuthnot had fought with Colonel Armstrong in the war. Then, she appeals eloquently to Poirot to pin the blame on her, as she “would have stabbed that man twelve times willingly.”
It’s appropriate that Linda Arden, the woman famous for portrayals that brought audiences to tears, makes the final appeal to Poirot. Eloquent, selfless, and wronged, Linda makes the case that what has been done on the Orient Express is justice. She even invites judgment on herself, saying she “would have stabbed that man twelve times,” but that, after all, would be personal revenge rather than the “sentence” actually carried out.
Poirot defers to M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine, who both suddenly decide that Poirot’s first theory is more credible after all, and they plan to present that to the Yugoslavian police. His work done, Poirot retires from the case.
The necessity of Poirot’s first theory, as maddeningly unsatisfying as it is, becomes clear as a way to free the conspirators of blame for the murder. It’s significant that Poirot, a former policeman outspoken in his commitment to justice, finds the conspirators’ act to be just, and indeed had felt that way even before Linda Arden’s speech.