The other night I watched the 2017 film of “Murder on the Orient Express”. This is not a review of that movie. It just got me thinking about an aspect of the story that younger me, reading the Agatha Christie novel and watching the earlier film, did not consider. And it’s a powerful one. There will be spoilers.
The original murder that powers the whole plot has taken place some time before the story, and is of a small child, a girl named Daisy Armstrong. Kidnapped for ransom, the girl was found dead after the ransom was paid. This is revealed during the course of the story, which is the investigation of the murder of a man called Ratchett, who is revealed to be Cassetti, the murderer of the little girl, who left America and changed his name. Mrs Armstrong went into premature labour and died along with the unborn child. Mr Armstrong suicided. Shortly after, a nursemaid who fell under suspicion also committed suicide. So, including the unborn child, Cassetti’s actions caused five deaths.
It was a somewhat radical idea of the author to write a story with such an unusual outcome. They all did it. This is not something a first time reader (or viewer of one of the movies) is likely to guess, as it is not something usual. Over the course of the story it is revealed that twelve people (a jury of sorts) planned and carried out the murder (or execution, if you like) of Cassetti. They were made up of relatives, friends, and employees of the dead family, as well as those associated with the nursemaid who committed suicide.
I couldn’t help but think that, as well as coming up with an innovative solution to the case, Agatha Christie was saying something else about murder. Her novels are often seen as sanitising murder, and that’s a fair assessment. There are no graphic descriptions, no real engagement with the dead or the ones grieving them, and certainly very little about the after effects once the detective of the piece has found out ‘whodunnit’ and moved on. But here, that’s not the case at all. A man got away with murder. He was known to have done it but bought his way free. This story is a tale of ruined lives, of ongoing grief and devastation. For once, Christie tells us that a murder is a stone thrown into a pond, and the destruction just spreads out from there. For once we see that there are no neat endings like in a detective story, and those affected have to live with grief, and anger, and regret.
The ending is quite a satisfying one, if not legal. For as well as dealing with those who died, these survivors have witnessed the law, the rules, fail them. This criminal walked free and continued his criminal ways. Who knew when he might decide to play the kidnapping game again, ending in the death of another small child and causing another tsunami of devastated lives. They came together, thought up a very clever plan, and carried it out. They even did it as a community, with each person striking one blow of the knife. If it hadn’t been for Poirot’s last minute inclusion on the train, they would have had no problems at all. Luckily for them, Poirot, as well as being a detective, was a very moral character, and could see that, unorthodox as it was, justice had been served. In the absence of ‘the proper authorities’ he was quite comfortable with saying nothing about it. Maybe he recognised himself that, if he had not been there, the story about an assassin who had come on to the train then escaped from it would have been accepted.
It’s an interesting story, and tells us something we tend to forget. When someone is murdered, there are far more victims than just one.