When writing a mystery, one of the author’s main responsibilities is to confound any reader’s attempts to solve it. When Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1938, detective fiction had a rich tradition dating at least back to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” published in 1841. Devoted readers were familiar with the conventions of the genre and knew the strategies authors used to throw them off the trail. This makes mystery an especially self-referential genre, where both readers and authors are conscious of what’s come before. It also makes mystery novels self-referential in another way: the same cat-and-mouse relationship between writer and reader is mirrored in the relationship between criminal and detective. By covering their tracks, criminals in mysteries provide alternate theories of the crime to mislead their pursuers. This is explicitly true in Murder on the Orient Express because much of the plot is a performance for the benefit of Hercule Poirot, in which the passengers try unsuccessfully to stump him. Through this dynamic, Christie makes sly references to the genre of the detective story as the passengers use classic techniques to thwart Poirot. Clues and motives that a lesser novel might have put at the heart of the mystery are a distraction or just one piece of the overall picture. By using the conventions of the mystery genre in a knowing way, Christie pushes the boundaries and stays one step ahead in order to tease and delight savvy mystery readers.
In this meta-reading of the novel, Hercule Poirot stands in for the smart reader that Christie hopes to keep ahead of. The passengers know that Poirot isn’t merely a detective but one of international renown. They overload the detective with obvious, overdetermined clues that confuse any attempt to build a narrative of the murder. Christie knows that her reader will see past these classic and conventional clues, but their sheer number throw enough chaff that readers are constantly eliminating clues rather than building a positive picture of the crime. For example, Poirot finds the stopped watch in Ratchett’s pocket immediately suspect. In his final summation, he notes, “Anyone might see through the watch business—it is a common enough device in detective stories.” The passengers’ objective here is the same as Christie’s. She introduces a cliché from more conventional detective stories to throw off the reader, while also slyly making clear that she’s playing a deeper game. The scarlet kimono is an equally classic technique: the red herring. A red herring, named for the smoked fish that would throw hounds off the scent of their prey, is a detail that seems crucial but is meant to mislead. When Poirot finds the kimono in his own luggage, it’s a sign that each party is aware of their relationship. The author and criminal’s role is to mislead, while the detective and reader’s role is to deduce. Finally, Christie reveals deception only to hide a deeper one that’s relevant to the crime. Mr. Hardman, on recognizing Poirot, admits “Guess I'd better come clean,” preparing the reader for a heart-stopping revelation. But the information is simply that Hardman is a fellow detective. Having revealed one lie, Hardman tricks the reader into believing that his whole truth is revealed.
Christie also subverts genre expectations by assigning collective guilt to all twelve passengers. Dr. Constantine identifies twelve stab wounds on Ratchett, some made by a man and others made by a woman, but even with that evidence, he can only imagine at the most two culprits. Traditional mysteries depend so often on single culprits to the extent that a team of twelve perpetrators short-circuits the logic of the mystery story. Rather than evading suspicion, the twelve conspirators balance it, so that it falls on those most equipped to absorb it. Neither the reader nor Poirot expects that the perpetrators would actually selflessly incriminate themselves to draw attention from other members of the conspiracy who they don’t even seem to know. The pipe-cleaner, conductor’s button, and handkerchief all point directly to Colonel Arbuthnot, Pierre Michel, and Princess Dragomiroff respectively, but we later learn that they were planted specifically to direct attention to those with strong alibis. Further, the conspiracy forms a web of alibis, pairing off members to ensure that each has someone to vouch for them. Any reader would expect suspects to lie in a mystery novel, but the reader wouldn’t expect all of them to. By colluding on the only source of truth for the pivotal night’s events, the passengers keep any would-be detective from seizing on any ironclad conclusion.
Poirot also participates in the deception in ways that break the mold of the traditional detective by tailoring his personality to the suspect, testing their facility with certain languages, or anticipating aspects of their personality in ways that surprise them. But his final act of deception when diagramming the crime is an especially self-referential moment that is meant as much for the reader as his audience on the Orient Express. The detective, a creature of truth, is willing to conceal it for the sake of justice. Poirot’s first theory is that a stranger boarded the train, disguised himself as a conductor, and killed Ratchett, ditching the knife and leaving afterward. Dr. Constantine’s reaction is meant to mimic what is also likely the reader’s: “No, no, and again no! That is an explanation that will not hold water.” This theory, introducing a previously unknown character, violates the rules of the genre in ways that break the contract between writer and reader. However, the second deception is that Poirot isn’t making a mistake when he suggests this theory. Rather, he purposely introduces it, knowing it’s wrong, in order to later suggest it as a cover so the conspirators could escape punishment for the murder. After it’s accepted, Poirot cryptically says, “having placed my solution before you, I have the honour to retire from the case.” It’s a final twist of mystery convention that the famed detective would substitute a dull, convenient falsehood for a fascinating truth, and that he would, in the end, refuse to solve the crime.
Deception and Genre Expectations ThemeTracker
Deception and Genre Expectations Quotes in Murder on the Orient Express
“And yet—it lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together.”
He was just dropping off when something again woke him. This time it was as though something heavy had fallen with a thud against the door. He sprang up, opened it and looked out. Nothing. But to his right, some distance down the corridor, a woman wrapped in a scarlet kimono was retreating from him. At the other end, sitting on his little seat, the conductor was entering up figures on large sheets of paper. Everything was deathly quiet.
"Perfectly," said Poirot. "The matter begins to clear itself up wonderfully! The murderer was a man of great strength—he was feeble—it was a woman—it was a right-handed person—it was a left- handed person. Ah! c'est rigolo, tout ça!"
"A woman's handkerchief," said the doctor. "Our friend the chef de train was right. There is a woman concerned in this."
"And most conveniently she leaves her handkerchief behind!" said Poirot. "Exactly as it happens in the books and on the films—and to make things even easier for us, it is marked with an initial."
"Without a doubt, that is the solution of the mystery. Doubtless he and this Ratchett were in this kidnapping business together. Cassetti is an Italian name. In some way Ratchett did on him what they call the double-cross. The Italian tracks him down, sends him warning letters first, and finally revenges himself upon him in a brutal way. It is all quite simple." Poirot shook his head doubtfully.
Mr. Hardman sighed, removed the chewing gum, and dived into a pocket. At the same time his whole personality seemed to undergo a change. He became less of a stage character and more of a real person. The resonant nasal tones of his voice became modified. "That passport's a bit of bluff," he said. "That's who I really am." Poirot scrutinised the card flipped across to him.
“You are, I think, a little bit contemptuous of the way I prosecute my inquiries," he said with a twinkle. "Not so, you think, would an English inquiry be conducted. There everything would be cut and dried—it would be all kept to the facts—a wellordered business. But I, Mademoiselle, have my little originalities. I look first at my witness, I sum up his or her character, and I frame my questions accordingly.”
He got it down and snapped back the lock. Then he sat back on his heels and stared. Neatly folded on the top of the case was a thin scarlet silk kimono embroidered with dragons. "So," he murmured. "It is like that. A defiance. Very well, I take it up.”
Then everyone jumped as Dr. Constantine suddenly hit the table a blow with his fist. "But no," he said. "No, no, and again no! That is an explanation that will not hold water. It is deficient in a dozen minor points. The crime was not committed so—M. Poirot must know that perfectly well."
I remembered that MacQueen had called attention, not once but twice (and the second time in a very blatant manner), to the fact that Ratchett could speak no French. I came to the conclusion that the whole business at twenty-three minutes to one was a comedy played for my benefit! Anyone might see through the watch business—it is a common enough device in detective stories.