Murder on the Orient Express: Movie Review
by Alvin G. Burstein
The birth of a literary genre cannot always be dated without dispute, but there is a strong consensus that the first detective story was The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published by Edgar Allen Poe in 1841. The detective, C. Auguste Dupin, called his method “ratiocination,” disciplined thinking. The story begins with Dupin’s appearing to read the mind of his companion, detecting his thoughts by closely observing his behavior. There is an intuitive opposition between thinking and feeling, and Dupin’s method seems to decisively favor rational thought over emotion.
In 1886 Arthur Conan Doyle published the first of a long string of Sherlock Holmes adventures, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes, repeating Dupin’s mind-reading trick in several of his cases, styles himself the first consulting detective. He energetically searches for information about the details of the crime and mulls over them extensively. In several of his cases, he refers to the time needed to think about the situation, clocking the number of pipefuls to be gone throughin the process. Holmes’ companion, Dr. Watson, describes Holmes as “a calculating machine” and cites the detective’s view that emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. Holmes, even more clearly than Dupin, privileges rationality over feeling.
Of the many detectives that have emerged on the literary stage following Dupin and Holmes, the two that have most strongly emphasized intellectual process, as distinguished from emotion, are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Both, after talking to those who report the details of the crime to them, engage in extended reflection. Wolf sits, eyes closed, pursing his lips, until he has found a solution. Poirot relies on what he calls his “little grey cells,” cogitating until, his green eyes glowing with satisfaction, he settles on the solution.
Although Wolf does not inveigh against the dangers of emotion, unmarried, he rarely leaves his home, has a rigid daily routine, and is uneasy about relating to women. Poirot, too, is unmarried. Though he is gallant in relating to women, he twits Captain Hastings about his companion’s interest in young ladies.
A focus on intellectual activity and avoidance of emotional involvement raises a question about the psychological defense mechanism called isolation of affect. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, as portrayed in the 2017 film, Murder on the Orient Express offers an opportunity to explore that question.
In the film, as in Christie’s many Poirot writings, the detective appears as a compulsive person, scrupulously neat, intolerant of any form of messiness. In short, what some psychoanalysts would call an anal character. In an opening scene, this epitome of tidiness, walking in a bustling middleeastern market steps into a pile of camel dung. Intentional or unintentional psychoanalytic gesture, the mishap foretells a challenge to any neat logic based separation of right from wrong in dealing with this murder.
Although the story and its outcome are well known, to avoid a possible spoiler I will not recount the details. The point is that Poirot is confronted with a messy situation. One in which neatness is not an option, and in which he cannot be an external, after-the-fact observer. One in which he must become emotionally involved, an uncomfortably direct participant.
In a biography, as opposed to a fiction, this might have been a life-changing experience. But Murder on the Orient Express is fiction, and the fictional Poirot went on for decades of later
adventures without giving evidence of change in his character. Perhaps that is why, trapped by financial considerations, Christie is said to have tired of writing of him, and why—though I have not been able to document the source—she once described him as “a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”