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Murder on the Orient Express | Themes

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Justice

Those who are wronged desire justice; this means identifying, convicting, and punishing the wrongdoer. Punishment is meted out according to a crime's severity, and murder merits the most severe punishment.

Criminal justice systems attempt to correctly identify wrongdoers and make sure innocent people are not punished. But no criminal justice system is perfect. Sometimes innocent people are convicted, and sometimes criminals escape justice.

The concept of justice raises many philosophical questions in the novel. Who has the right to inflict punishment for wrongdoing: only the government, or individuals as well? Who has the right to take another person's life? What role does punishment serve? What happens when justice is denied? What are the rights of victims or victims' families and friends when justice is denied?

In Murder on the Orient Express a man who committed several vicious crimes—kidnapping, ransoming, and murder—is acquitted by the criminal justice system. This enrages those affected by his crimes, so they decide to act as self-appointed jurors. They declare Samuel Ratchett—aka Cassetti—guilty, sentence him to death, and execute him. They serve vigilante justice, unauthorized and unsanctioned. In most countries these individuals would be considered guilty of murder. But no one turns them in; they go unpunished for their crime. Christie is a staunch advocate of law and order, and in most of her novels the wrongdoer is caught and punished. Murder on the Orient Express is one of only three Christie novels in which the killer or killers are not punished. The story seems to sanction vigilante justice—punishing a criminal outside the criminal justice system. Although Samuel Ratchett's 12 killers are legally guilty of murder, the novel indicates they are not morally guilty. They are merely doing what the criminal justice system failed to do.

Christie explores several philosophical questions related to justice throughout the book. Several characters say they believe Ratchett deserves to die and express satisfaction at his death. For example, when Hercule Poirot informs M. Bouc of Ratchett's true identity and his past crimes, Bouc says he "cannot regret that he is dead." Poirot concurs. Usually people don't think of murder victims as deserving of their fate, but Ratchett's crimes make his own death seem just.

Do people have the right to take justice into their own hands? Are Ratchett's killers guilty of murder? Or are they excused because their victim "deserved" to die? Is there an ethical law higher than the laws of governments? The novel's solution seems to indicate so. After learning the killers' identities, Poirot does not turn them in. In The Gentle Art of Murder Earl F. Bargainnier provides an explanation of Poirot's decision, saying a characteristic of classic detective fiction is "the discovery of the truth and the deliverance of the innocent." The only way to provide deliverance to the victims of Ratchett's crimes is to allow his murderers to go unpunished.

Appearances

All detective stories are about discovering the truth. People and things are seldom what they seem. The detective needs to go beyond appearances, or what seems to be true, to identify what is real and to accurately interpret people's words and actions.

Nowhere is the adage "don't judge a book by its cover" more appropriate than in Murder on the Orient Express. Characters judge each other based on their physical appearance, nationality, and social class, and Christie makes it easy for them to do so. In the novel she portrays English people as upright, proper, and not given to emotional displays. Americans are bad-mannered, overly talkative, and emotional. Italians are volatile and prone to crimes of passion. Governesses are of good character, but salespeople are far less so. These generalizations most likely reflect Christie's views, but they also serve a useful literary purpose.

Christie revels in the art of deception. She plants clues and then misdirects readers as to what they mean. This is most apparent in M. Bouc's habit of using circumstantial evidence to jump to conclusions and make false assumptions about the killer and what happened. Poirot is the antithesis of Bouc. Poirot does not accept anyone or anything at face value. He repeatedly says things are never as simple as they seem, and he keeps digging until he discovers the truth. He proves no one should make assumptions: anyone—no matter where they are from, what they look like, how pious or unemotional they may seem—might be guilty.

While all the novel's killers exemplify the deceptive nature of appearances, Princess Dragomiroff's character illustrates the idea "don't judge a book by its cover" exceptionally well. She is quite ugly; her face is like a toad's. But her unsightly physical appearance does not detract from her presence. She commands respect and admiration for her energy, intellect, and imperious manner. One of the more complex characters, she illustrates how futile it is to trust appearances, especially when one is a mass of contradictions.

Restoring Social Order

All detective stories also share the underlying tension of good versus evil. Someone committed a wrong. The wrongdoer will be caught, and good will triumph over evil. Christie's novels build on this tradition; she shows it's important to identify and punish the wrongdoer to restore social order.

In classic stories from the golden age of detective fiction, detectives represent the keepers of law and order. They are usually above reproach: honest, law-abiding, and fair. Detectives may occasionally skirt the law, or even breach it, but they do so for a higher cause or the good of the people. In Murder on the Orient Express Poirot is the ultimate good guy. He is impartial and fair and refuses to pronounce people guilty unless he is convinced of their guilt beyond any doubt.

Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express at a time when many people yearned for a restoration of social order. World War I had caused immense carnage, millions of shattered lives, and great social and economic upheaval. Many longed for the prewar days, when life may have seemed simpler and more innocent. While Christie typically does not expound on political ideas in her novels, she does reflect this longing for a more orderly, predictable society, one in which good prevailed and evil was rare. At the same time, her novels show evil is ever present because it resides in individuals. Identifying and removing evil individuals is the only way to restore a degree of social order.

Several of the novel's characters express their longing for an orderly society. Hildegarde Schmidt describes Ratchett's crime as abominable and wicked and says people are not as wicked in Germany. She believes Americans have a greater propensity for evil than Germans and German society is more orderly and safe than America. Princess Dragomiroff says she would have liked to have Cassetti flogged to death by a servant and then thrown in a rubbish heap, saying, "That is the way things were done when I was young." Her view represents a feudal approach in which individuals take vengeance on criminals, one that in the novel is the only way to restore the order Cassetti has so profoundly disturbed.

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