The Orient Express was a transcontinental railroad that knit together the countries of Europe from Istanbul, Turkey in the east to London, England in the west. As such, the passengers in Agatha Christie’s novel are drawn from various countries across Europe. In addition, all of the characters have spent time in the “melting pot” of America, where Ratchett’s original crime of murdering Daisy Armstrong took place (a crime that affected each of the passengers in some way). When Mr. Ratchett is murdered, some of the investigators initially see national origin—in the sense of stereotypical traits supposedly belonging to certain nationalities—as a likely explanation for the crime. However, as the true nature of the murder becomes clear—that it was an elaborate conspiracy among many people to take revenge on an amoral gangster—the novel reveals a critique of such narrow nationalist thinking. By attributing guilt to every passenger, from a sentimental Swedish nurse to a worldly Russian count, Christie ends up telling an unexpectedly utopian story about people of many different nations working together. Further, by locating the source of their connection in the United States, she suggests that America is a place that forges common purpose, for good or ill, particularly among people who might otherwise be divided by ethnicity, class, and language. This, in turn, dismantles the idea that national origin is destiny in a way true to American ideals, if not practice.
Christie begins to attack the primacy of national identity by presenting theories about the case based on national origin, only to expose them as limited or irrelevant. She puts this reasoning by ethnic stereotype in the mouth of M. Bouc, an executive of the train company that operates the Orient Express, which is significant particularly because he’s an obviously awful detective whose main function is to be comically wrong about the case. For instance, M. Bouc very prematurely incriminates the Italian Antonio based on nothing more than a coincidence and a stereotype: “I say, my friend, that it is the big Italian. He comes from America—from Chicago—and remember an Italian's weapon is the knife.” He finds the simplicity of the stereotype compelling and is happy to accuse a type of person who, by his own admission, he does not like. Detective Hercule Poirot’s dismissal of these theories indicates that the crime involves a deeper motivation than national origin. What’s more relevant in this case, Poirot understands, is a shared purpose and experience that cuts across national origins.
M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine’s errors in focusing on national identity are compounded because, as the reader later learns when Poirot figures out what happened, all the passengers have been putting on performances in order to frustrate the investigation. No one does this with more gusto than Mrs. Hubbard, who’s actually the famed actress Linda Arden. Mrs. Hubbard plays the role of the boorish, nosy American so well, and the investigators are so comfortable with the stereotype, that she deflects suspicion for the majority of the story. All of these performances, which themselves rely on stereotypes based on national origin, show how the belief in the truth of such stereotypes can blind people, including criminal investigators, to the truth of individual identity.
It is no accident that the man who solves the crime, Hercule Poirot, exists outside of this network of national identities and prejudices. Poirot is from Belgium, a European country distinguished by its neutrality in many of Europe’s conflicts. And, beyond that, his outlook determinedly international. When asked about his identity by the Countess Andrenyi, Poirot retorts “I belong to the world, Madame,” unwilling to be defined even by his native Belgium. This outlook allows him to stay out of the national tensions of the other passengers, such as MacQueen’s slights of “Britishers,” but it also, crucially for a detective, allows him to more effectively pursue his investigation. For instance, Poirot slides in and out of English, French, and German both to test suspects or to put them at ease.
That both the intricate effectiveness of the murder and Poirot’s ability to solve it are based on an ability to connect across national origins is implied when, just before Poirot lays out the facts of the case to the assembled passengers, he declares, “I will speak in English since I think all of you know a little of that language.” English, of course, is the “melting pot” language of America, and in that way serves as the medium for cross-national connection that both Poirot and the passengers share.
National Identity and International Connections ThemeTracker
National Identity and International Connections 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.
She had never seen anyone quite so heavily muffled up. It must be very cold outside. That was why they heated the train so terribly. She tried to force the window down lower, but it would not go. The Wagon Lit conductor had come up to the two men. The train was about to depart, he said. Monsieur had better mount. The little man removed his hat. What an egg-shaped head he had! In spite of her preoccupations Mary Debenham smiled. A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.
The Colonel sat down. "Boy," he called in peremptory fashion. He gave an order for eggs and coffee. His eyes rested for a moment on Hercule Poirot they passed on indifferently. Poirot, reading the English mind correctly, knew that he had said to himself, "Only some damned foreigner."
“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.”
"It is—they must—how do you say?—serve the water of the country," explained the sheep-faced lady.
"Well, it seems queer to me." She looked distastefully at the heap of small change on the table in front of her. "Look at all this peculiar stuff he's given me. Dinars or something. Just a lot of rubbish, it looks like!”
"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.
"I am not a Jugo-Slavian detective, Madame. I am an international detective." "You belong to the League of Nations?"
"I belong to the world, Madame," said Poirot dramatically.
"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.”