Murder on the Orient Express: Why do we love Detective Stories?

I have always loved detective stories. I have liked every detective. So I am incapable of being critical about them. Though I hate it when they are not honest. By that I mean I hate if the author does not provide all the facts that allow us to figure it out. The facts have to be there so if we were as smart as the detective—which we never are—we could have figured it out to. Anything less than this is cheating. It is as bad as cheating at cards or exams or life. Sadly, this movie cheats. The detective Hercule Poirot is given facts that are withheld from us. How can we possibly compete? We can’t of course, the playing field, like the railway track on which the train is stuck, is not level.

This movie is based on a 1934 Agatha Christie novel in which her legendary detective Hercule Poirot is trapped  on a famous train stranded in the mountains by an avalanche with 13 other people. One of them gets murdered and all of the other 12, are suspects. The stage is set for a mystery to be solved. Just like Jesus at the Last Supper wanted to figure out who betrayed him.

Why then do we love detective novels so much? Not everyone does, but enough do. Apparently Christie sold 2 billion copies of her books putting her nearly on par with God. That is pretty good company. The detective encounters a scene of devastating chaos with a blizzard of clues. There is mayhem, murder, and inexplicable violence. It is chaos in other words. The murderer could be any one of the 12 disciples.

It is the detective’s job to make sense out of the chaos. He must bring order out of the disorder. He must make the world right again. The detective has to be the one to do it because he is the only one capable of doing it. As the detective says, when asked who he is, “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” The detective is clever, diligent and implacable. He can never be turned from his purpose. The detective must do it “because God is always busy.” The detective finds the chaos that we all encounter. He is not afraid to enter into it even though it is dangerous.

Poirot is the central character in the movie. It all revolves around him. He is not afraid. He demands order. He sets out in search of the truth because we must be ‘better than murderers’. Poirot  sets out impeccably attired and adorned with the most improbable and flamboyant of moustaches, and demi-goatee beneath his lower lip, both waxed to perfection of course. When he is served 2 eggs they must be equal. Exactly equal. There can be no imbalance. When Poirot steps into shit on the street of Jerusalem he abhors the imbalance of having it on one shoe  only. So he steps into it again this time with the other foot, to balance the shit. He will not tolerate the imbalance. If he sees someone with a tie askew he is upset, so he points it out. Poirot demands the world be set to right.

In the film the body is seen from the classic God’s eye view—above on high. That technique, I think was invented by that master of cinema Alfred Hitchcock and Kenneth Branagh who directs the film and plays  the leading role  pays homage to the master.

Into the darkness the detective brings only one tool—his powerful mind. He brings the power of reason and in that way shows that the world is still subject to reason. He brings order out of disorder. The detective shows that no matter how chaotic the world appears, ultimately in the end it all makes sense. The detective brings reason and observation and skill to the task at hand and in that way draws out justice from the injustice and chaos.

Hercules sets out to find the “fracture in the soul” where evil lurks. Like Leonard Cohen who says there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. In the end the detective discovers the meaning in the world. Until then we are like dogs in a library. The detective brings meaning back to the world and for that we are eternally grateful. I think that is why we love detective stories—whether in films or novels. We are very uncomfortable with the absence of meaning and we love to see it restored to the world.

The final revealing of the truth by God’s immortal agent is staged in a setting in the train tunnel with the 12 suspects all arrayed on a long table exactly like the 12 disciples in Leonardo da Vinci’s immortal painting of the Last Supper. The resemblance is no coincidence. Poirot is Jesus and like Jesus he wants to find the one who betrayed him. Despite the strange staging, Poirot says as if he means it, “You will have to answer to two people: Your god, and Hercule Poirot.”

In the end when the holy truth is revealed and justice should be restored at last, in this case, Poirot finds he cannot accept that truth. Instead he says, for reasons I cannot reveal as it would spoil the movie, he “will accept the imbalance.” Even though that goes against every grain in his body. Sometimes murderers go free and there is no apparent justice. But perhaps that lack of perfection is in some cases, like this one, good. Perfection, as we know, can be the enemy of the good.

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