Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is in one sense a reinscription of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece ‘La Bête humaine’ (1890). Zola’s novel — to which Christie also alluded in 4:50 from Paddington (1957) — centres on the murder of a gentleman in a train compartment.
The victim is a director of the Western Railway Company, and he is killed by a railway employee whose wife had been sexually abused by him as a child. The novel represents the railroad as an agent of rationalism that is tragically incapable of containing the irrationalism that it generates. So the final image of La Bête humaine, which offers a self-consciously prophetic glimpse of the apocalyptic consequences of the nineteenth-century ideology of social and technological progress that Chesterton called Victorianism, depicts an uncontrollable troop train “heading into the future”: “And on it sped through the darkness, driverless, like some blind, deaf beast turned loose upon the field of death, onward and onward” (Zola 367-68).
At the conclusion of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, the Simplon-Orient Express itself — which Christie travelled on in 1928, and which she later referred to as “the train of my dreams” (Christie, Autobiography 363) — finally proceeds from Istanbul to Paris as if the violent event that so sensationally interrupted its journey had not in fact taken place. Christie’s novel domesticates Zola’s novel. And in so doing it rehabilitates the conservative values that Zola’s unsentimental attack on the sanctity of the bourgeois family had so energetically undermined.
In the opening chapters of Christie’s novel, one passenger in particular, apparently an eccentric American plutocrat, is explicitly identified as une bête humaine. “I had a curious impression,” says Hercule Poirot, referring to this man, before they have even boarded the train; “It was as though a wild animal — an animal savage, but savage! You understand — had passed me by.” “And yet he looked altogether of the most respectable,” replies his companion. “Précisément!” Poirot responds; “The body — the cage — is everything of the most respectable — but through the bars, the wild animal looks out” (Christie, Murder 29).
In an ironic reversal of the reader’s initial expectations, however, this man turns out to be the victim of the murder, not its fanatical perpetrator. When the Orient Express runs into a snowdrift, he is found dead in his berth, beneath a compartment window that, oddly, has been left open. His corpse is marked by no less than twelve distinct knife wounds: “It is as though somebody had shut their eyes and then in a frenzy struck blindly again and again” (Christie, Murder 165).
It transpires of course that this man, who cannot quite conceal the appearance, according to Poirot, of a human beast, is not the respectable man that he claims to be — he is after all a human beast. The man is in fact an infamous criminal, called Cassetti, who, having escaped the police, is living incognito (his Italian name, which evokes a travelling casket, makes him seem destined to be entombed in a compartment).
Several years ago, he had kidnapped a young girl in order to extract a ransom from her rich father, and he had then killed her before the negotiations were completed. As a consequence, the family in question imploded: the child’s mother, who was expecting another baby, “gave birth to a dead child born prematurely, and herself died;” “her broken-hearted husband shot himself;” and, finally, an innocent nursemaid suspected by the police “threw herself from a window and was killed” (Christie, Murder 97).
With this lurid melodrama in mind, and having assembled various implausible pieces of evidence, Poirot gradually establishes that the victim has been stabbed twelve times because each of the twelve passengers in the first-class carriage of the train, from members of the nobility to their servants, across the social spectrum, have contributed to his death, since all of them were in some way affected by the family’s catastrophic collapse. They therefore act as an unofficial jury executing rough justice on an individual whom the law has failed to contain. But although Poirot duly accuses the passengers of the crime, he does not ultimately impugn them, both because he is sympathetic to their motives and because he is himself profoundly socially conservative. Instead, he decides to tell the police that this is a random killing by a psychopathic outsider who has escaped through the open carriage window across the snowy wastes of Central Europe.
So the murder on the train enacts the mythological reconstitution of the social system destroyed by Cassetti, the human beast, when he killed the innocent child whom he had kidnapped. Although not quite an act of “creative destruction”, to cite Joseph Schumpeter’s famous formulation, Cassetti’s death is nonetheless reconstitutive; it is an act of conservative destruction. An entire social microcosm, as it is more than once characterized, including aristocrats, middle-class professionals and servants — though not, significantly, members of the working class, who do not quite fit into Christie’s nostalgic, quasi-feudal model of class society — acts in concert to avenge the symbolic attack on its very being.
As in Zola’s novel, the man murdered on the train has abused a child’s innocence, and is rewarded with a death-sentence decreed from outside the law. But whereas the working-class murderers in La Bête humaine enact an iconoclastic attack on the respectable bourgeoisie, the murderers in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ restore its stability and reputation. “Altruistic murder”, as Pierre Bayard calls it in his provocative study of Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ (1926), is here elevated to a principle of social preservation (Bayard 129).
It is as if Christie is deliberately revising aspects of Zola’s narrative in order to patch over its jaggedly subversive implications. She is determined that the train will arrive at its destination in Paris in an orderly state. In Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation of Christie’s book, scripted by Paul Dehn, the flashback that rehearses the murder itself stages it as a stately succession of symbolic stabbings.
This horrific act of violence is an anthropological ritual conducted by the appointed representatives of (almost) every social caste, a sacrifice necessary for preserving the class system formally inherited from the nineteenth-century. As Light argues in her fascinating account of the archetypal detective fiction produced by Christie between the wars, “murder, which for three-quarters of the novel is the agent of disintegration, becomes a means of social integration, and by the end of the novel enables the setting up of a new society” (Light 89). It needs to be added though that, in this novel, the new society is in fact an old society.
Light later insists that Christie’s conservatism, which she persuasively claims has been considerably overstated, is not centred on “an idealisation of the past” (Light 105). But this seems to me to be difficult to sustain in relation to ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, even if it does dramatize a social breakdown. For in the end the narrative nostalgically reinstates an order that no longer exists (and that, like the objects of most forms of nostalgia, has always existed only in the imagination).
On the Orient Express, the bloodied compartment is effectively cleansed and re-upholstered, so that the artificial community that Christie so carefully constructs on this exotic train can safely proceed to Europe across the ominous spaces of the East.