Murder on the Orient Express | Study Guide

Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express | Part 2, Chapter 8 : The Evidence (The Evidence of Colonel Arbuthnot) | Summary

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Summary

The next person Hercule Poirot interviews is Colonel Arbuthnot, who provides brief answers and is not very forthcoming. He says he chose the overland route for reasons of his own but does not say what they were. He also says he and Mary Debenham first met on a railway convoy car between Kirkuk and Nissibin.

Poirot "acts a little more foreign" than necessary and appeals to Arbuthnot as an Englishman, asking his opinion of Debenham as the only other English person on the train. After Arbuthnot coldly replies that this question is highly irregular, Poirot confides that the murder was most likely committed by a woman and he needs to give all the women a "once over." Because the English are very reserved, he wants help figuring out the type of person Debenham is in the "interests of justice." Arbuthnot passionately states Debenham is a lady and could not have committed the murder. The victim was a total stranger to her, and she thought he had an unpleasant appearance. When Poirot remarks about his warmth in defending Debenham, Arbuthnot grows cold and says he does not know what Poirot means. Poirot drops his eyes, fiddles with his papers, and changes the line of questioning to what Arbuthnot had done the night of the murder.

Arbuthnot's story matches what Hector MacQueen had informed Poirot of earlier. Arbuthnot talked with MacQueen about everyday issues until 1:45 a.m. He then went to bed. While talking with MacQueen he noted a lot of people passing in the corridor but did not pay attention to any of them. He briefly got off the train at its stop in Vincovci, but it was too cold to stay out for long. He complained about the train being overheated, causing M. Bouc to sigh and comment on the impossibility of pleasing everyone. And Arbuthnot admits to smoking a pipe. Poirot asks him to think specifically of the latter part of his visit with MacQueen and whether he had seen anyone in the corridor. At first Arbuthnot says he cannot recall anyone passing by, but then he remembers a woman. He doesn't know who it was or what she was wearing, but she had a distinctive smell. He eventually connects the smell to a topic he was talking about, and this helps him recall the time, toward the end of his talk with MacQueen.

Poirot changes the topic and asks whether Arbuthnot has ever been in America. Arbuthnot says he has not. Earlier he expressed a dislike for Americans but said MacQueen was an exception. Although he does not personally know Toby Armstrong, the father of the kidnapped child, he recalls the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping and murder. Poirot informs him that Samuel Ratchett, the man murdered on the train, was responsible for the Armstrong child's murder. Arbuthnot's face grows grim, and he declares "the swine deserved what he got," although he wishes Ratchett had been "properly hanged—or electrocuted." He and Poirot briefly discuss private vengeance and law and order, with Arbuthnot expressing his preference for law and order.

As they wrap things up, Poirot asks Arbuthnot whether he noticed anything else suspicious. Arbuthnot mentions seeing a man in No. 16 peek out of his door in a furtive and sinister way. He then announces Debenham could not have committed the murder because she's a pukka sahib (British slang for someone who is first class, genuine, or "one of us"). After Arbuthnot leaves, Poirot, Bouc, and Dr. Constantine discuss what they have learned. Arbuthnot is the only known pipe smoker so far. When asked whether it was possible for Arbuthnot to have committed the crime, Poirot emphatically states he could not have; he calls Arbuthnot a "slightly stupid, upright Englishman" and says such a man would never stab an enemy 12 times. He reiterates his belief that psychology will reveal the murderer, and Arbuthnot's psychology does not fit.

Analysis

Of all the people interviewed so far, Colonel Arbuthnot seems most likely to be concealing something. He does not explain why he chose a train route when he could have taken a P&O boat—part of a fleet of ships carrying mail, cargo, and passengers in the 1800s and 1900s. The P&O boats that sailed from India had luxurious accommodations for passengers and traveled faster than trains.

While Poirot gives the appearance of trying to establish a bond with Arbuthnot, he is, at the same time, trying to make himself appear more foreign. He tricks Arbuthnot into thinking Poirot is inept and intentionally provokes Arbuthnot to see his reaction. Arbuthnot fiercely defends Debenham, which reveals far stronger feelings than typical for someone he claims to have met for the first time just a few days ago. His claim to have just met her also seems to contradict the intimacy between them Poirot observed earlier, as does his description of her as "pukka sahib." This shows how concerned he is about protecting her innocence.

After riling Arbuthnot, Poirot changes course and appeals to his vanity, mentioning his "soldier's observation for detail." Having his rank and supposed intellect recognized pleases Arbuthnot, and he makes a greater effort to remember details and share them. This reveals Poirot's understanding of psychology and his purposeful efforts to use it to his advantage. His questions and approach are tailor-made for the subject. After first irritating Arbuthnot, he intentionally presents himself as nonthreatening and less intelligent than Arbuthnot to lull him into a false sense of security.

Arbuthnot also reveals his preference for law and order and his disapproval of people taking the law into their own hands. He equates private vengeance with blood feuds and organized crime, such as the Mafia. Poirot says he thought that would be his view. Poirot seems to accept his answer without discrimination, which is out of character. His declaration that the Englishman could not have committed the crime appears to be just as one-sided as Bouc's eagerness to jump to conclusions based on circumstantial evidence. Poirot is Belgian, yet he evidently holds the English in high regard. In this way, he is letting his own biases cloud his reasoning.

When Poirot says the crime has a signature, he is referring to a unique aspect of a crime that reveals the perpetrator's psychological needs and/or emotional and mental motivations. For example, a killer may leave a note on a dead body to taunt the investigators. In this regard, Poirot is making several faulty assumptions. First, he assumes the signature is the multiple stabbings, or an excess of stabbings beyond those necessary to kill Samuel Ratchett. Next, he assumes the stabbings were done by one person despite the variance of weak and strong blows observed on the body. And finally, he assumes Arbuthnot lacks the psychological makeup to become enraged and stab someone repeatedly; Arbuthnot is an Englishman, after all.

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