Crime in popular imagination, including mystery novels, generally centers on individual motivations and perpetrators: one person commits a crime out of greed, jealousy, anger, or a pure streak of evil, while another seeks to unravel the clues in order to “bring the criminal to justice”—to identify and capture the criminal so he or she can be judged and punished for his or her crimes. In Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie complicates the story by starting it after traditional justice has already failed: the original criminal was acquitted on a technicality (and also bribed high-ranking officials). The crime that the detective Hercule Poirot investigates in the novel is actually an attempt to redress the failure of justice—the crime is an act of vigilantism. Such a “crime” offers Christie both a twist on the typical mystery novel, but also a way for Christie to investigate whether any act committed outside the traditional justice system can actually serve as justice.
Christie lays the groundwork for the novel’s investigation of justice by making clear that the victim of the murder, Ratchett, is himself guilty of an earlier monstrous crime. Ratchett’s guilt is established both through Poirot’s observations of his personality and descriptions of the scale and severity of his crime. Indeed, the novel suggests his evil character and guilt almost immediately. He’s described as a “bland philanthropist” but when his “gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment […] just for that second there was a strange malevolence.” The novel suggests he is in disguise, which in turn suggests his hidden guilt. Through its opening sections, the novel then reveals the terrible crime that Ratchett is accused of committing: Ratchett’s gang kidnapped Daisy Armstrong, a three-year-old girl, and then savagely murdered her while continuing to extort money from the family. Not only is Ratchett accused of this crime, he is definitively guilty of it. This is clear when Poirot himself, the novel’s singular source of truth and expertise, recalls that Ratchett was only “acquitted on some technical inaccuracy.”
In short, the novel establishes that the Ratchett deserves to be brought to justice that he has so far evaded. In contrast, the murder of Ratchett, committed by the other passengers of the Orient Express, shows that the certainty of guilt is just one precondition for justice. The passengers on the train also lay claim to justice by modeling their killing, at least roughly, on the ordinary proceedings of the justice system. They take pains to ensure that the people who sit in judgement over Ratchett are similar in both number, identity, and affect to the members of a jury. While revealing the results of the investigation, Poirot remarks, “A jury is composed of twelve people—there were twelve passengers—Ratchett was stabbed twelve times.” Later, Linda Arden, formerly Mrs. Hubbard, reveals that “Colonel Arbuthnot was very keen on having twelve of us.” In other words, that there were twelve passengers who came together was no coincidence or accident. It was part of a concerted effort by to give the murder of Ratchett the appearance of justice. In addition, like a typical jury, the members of the conspiracy come from every conceivable background. The Russian Princess Dragomiroff held the knife along with Antonio the Italian chauffer and Hildegarde the German cook. The diversity of the murderers in terms of both national identity and class provides the sort of cross-section of America that Ratchett might have seen in those who would have judged him during a jury trial. Also, early on Poirot detects also that the crime was not one passion: “It is a crime that shows traces of a cool, resourceful, deliberate brain…” In fact, it was deliberately planned and staged over a long period of time. This satisfies another requirement of justice: that it be delivered with cool rationality, without emotion.
The ordinary course of justice works by socializing the responsibility for the punishment of the guilty—by spreading it out across multiple people. A jury composed of multiple people ensures that no one person shoulders too heavy a burden for sitting in judgement over another. When each member of the conspiracy personally stabs Ratchett, guilt is diffused in a similar way. This “spreading out” of the crime takes the act out of the realm of the personal to that of the collective, as punishment would function in a jury trial. Indeed, Linda Arden explicitly points to the idea that the twelve passengers are only an instrument of society when society’s aims had been frustrated: “Society had condemned him—we were only carrying out the sentence.” Even the weapon is chosen so every one of the conspirators, even the frail Princess Dragomiroff, can have their portion of both justice and guilt. The dagger, as Poirot says, “was a weapon that could be used by everyone—strong or weak.” Finally, the crime is structured so that no one perpetrator can be sure of delivering the killing blow. Because Ratchett is already drugged, “They themselves would never know which blow actually killed him.” This elevates the act to an impersonal judgement by society. Ratchett is killed by everyone, but by no one person individually.
Ultimately, after he solves the crime of Ratchett’s murder, Poirot decides not to apprehend them: he officially settles on an alternate story of a murderer who got away. Poirot’s actions make clear that even though Poirot is a detective, his allegiance is to the spirit of the law rather than to the letter. More broadly, his refusal to incriminate the passengers acknowledges that justice has the same principles of established guilt and collective judgment whether it’s pursued inside or outside the courtroom.
Justice Quotes in Murder on the Orient Express
"You have saved the honour of the French Army—you have averted much bloodshed! How can I thank you for acceding to my request? To have come so far—" To which the stranger (by name M. Hercule Poirot) had made a fitting reply including the phrase—"But indeed, do I not remember that once you saved my life?" And then the General had made another fitting reply to that, disclaiming any merit for that past service; and with more mention of France, of Belgium, of glory, of honour and of such kindred things they had embraced each other heartily and the conversation had ended.
He was a man perhaps of between sixty and seventy. From a little distance he had the bland aspect of a philanthropist. His slightly bald head, his domed forehead, the smiling mouth that displayed a very white set of false teeth—all seemed to speak of a benevolent personality. Only the eyes belied this assumption. They were small, deep-set and crafty. Not only that. As the man, making some remark to his young companion, glanced across the room, his gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment and just for that second there was a strange malevolence, an unnatural tensity in the glance.
“Name your figure, then," he said. Poirot shook his head. "You do not understand, Monsieur. I have been very fortunate in my profession. I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take now only such cases as-interest me."
“I will come to the moment when, after the parents had paid over the enormous sum of two hundred thousand dollars, the child's dead body was discovered; it had been dead for at least a fortnight. Public indignation rose to fever point. And there was worse to follow. Mrs. Armstrong was expecting another baby. Following the shock of the discovery, she gave birth prematurely to a dead child, and herself died. Her broken-hearted husband shot himself.”
"In fact, Colonel Arbuthnot, you prefer law and order to private vengeance?" "Well, you can't go about having blood feuds and stabbing each other like Corsicans or the Mafia," said the Colonel. "Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system."
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 agreed with him, but when this particular point came into my mind, I tried to imagine whether such an assembly was ever likely to be collected under any other conditions. And the answer I made to myself was—only in America. In America there might be a household composed of just such varied nationalities—an Italian chauffeur, an English governess, a Swedish nurse, a German lady's-maid, and so on.”
“I would have stabbed that man twelve times willingly. It wasn't only that he was responsible for my daughter's death and her child's and that of the other child who might have been alive and happy now. It was more than that: there had been other children kidnapped before Daisy, and there might be others in the future. Society had condemned him—we were only carrying out the sentence.”