Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 2, Chapter 11 : The Evidence (The Evidence of Miss Debenham) | Summary

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Summary

When Hercule Poirot interviews Mary Debenham, he begins with a few routine questions and asks her to write her address. He then asks what she can tell him about the previous evening. When she replies she has nothing to tell, he asks whether the crime distressed her. Debenham says she does not understand. After Poirot repeats the question, she states she is not distressed even though a murder is unpleasant. He tells her she is very Anglo-Saxon, which elicits a smile. Additional questioning reveals she did not know Samuel Ratchett, hardly noticed him, and did not consider him evil.

Poirot tells Debenham he has noticed she's "a little bit contemptuous of the way I prosecute my inquiries." He describes his unique method: he observes his witness, "sum[s] up his or her character," and then "frame[s] [his] questions accordingly." Because Debenham is so "orderly and methodical," he asks her questions about what she feels and thinks to elicit more than her customary brief responses. Debenham says asking her opinion about Ratchett's appearance is a waste of time and will not help him find the killer.

Debenham admits she knows Ratchett's real identity because Mrs. Hubbard told everyone. Poirot then asks about her trip and what she did in Baghdad. She says she was working as a governess to two children and is now taking a holiday. She is uncertain whether she will return to her governess post in Baghdad. She hopes she can find a different assignment when she is in London. Poirot says he thought she might be getting married; she calls him impertinent. He then asks her opinion of Greta Ohlsson, who shares her compartment. Debenham calls her a "pleasant, simple creature" and says her dressing gown is a brownish color. Her own gown is mauve. When asked if she has another in scarlet, she replies, "No, that is not mine." Poirot pounces on her answer and asks, "Whose, then?" She says she doesn't know. When he points out her answer reveals knowledge that a scarlet gown is part of the mystery, Debenham admits she knows of the gown. She saw a tall, slim woman wearing a scarlet gown in the corridor around 5:00 a.m. She adds the woman was wearing a cap and the gown was embroidered with dragons.

Poirot ends the interview without asking Debenham to describe her actions of the night before. Instead he murmurs to himself that he does not understand, that "none of this makes sense." Right before she leaves, Debenham says Ohlsson is worried she is under suspicion. Debenham vouches for her innocence and asks if she can tell Ohlsson that Poirot does not consider her to be a suspect. Poirot asks questions about the time Ohlsson left the compartment for an aspirin and how long she was gone. He tells Debenham she can reassure Ohlsson he does not think she is guilty of murdering Ratchett. Debenham smiles and says, "She's like a sheep ... she gets anxious and bleats."

Analysis

Hercule Poirot intentionally asks Mary Debenham what emotional impact the crime had on her so he can learn more about her inner workings. She retains her aura of coolness, and Poirot says she is very Anglo-Saxon. Because he considers the killer had to have an Anglo-Saxon brain, this clearly places suspicion on Debenham.

Poirot catches Debenham, or perhaps Colonel Arbuthnot, in a lie. Her comment that she never thought about Ratchett's appearance directly contradicts Arbuthnot's claim during his interview that Debenham had said Ratchett had an unpleasant appearance. Either Arbuthnot reported what Debenham said accurately and Debenham is lying, or vice versa.

Despite showing no special regard for Greta Ohlsson, her compartment mate, Debenham asks Poirot if she can tell Ohlsson she is not under suspicion. Debenham may be trying to wrest information from Poirot. Perhaps she is just as devious as he is, asking one question when she really wants information about another. Poirot tells Debenham to reassure Ohlsson she is not a suspect, but it's not true. As Poirot previously acknowledged, everyone is a suspect until he can confirm the killer's identity.

Poirot doesn't ask Debenham to describe her movements the previous evening. Either other witnesses have provided this information, or he suspects she is too cool to tell him anything new. Her interview has provided an additional clue: a vague description of a woman wearing the scarlet gown. Is this a real clue, or is she planting a false lead? Poirot is unsure. He cannot trust Debenham's report about this woman, but he (and readers) must pay attention to it: it is a piece of the puzzle that does not fit with the others.

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