Monday, October 27, 2014

Dame Agatha and the Orient Express

I believe Agatha Christie has some kind of honorary British title. Dame, I think it is. Not dame like in a hardboiled crime novel, but Dame like Duchess and Duke and all that peerage kind of stuff. And her characters in Murder on the Orient Express have the same type of Upstairs-Downstairs-Masterpiece-Theatre-stiff-upper-lip-tea-time-dress-for-dinner kind of feel to them as the word “Dame.”

1934. Murder on the Orient Express. Great, maybe the best, of candidates for best novel of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, between the wars. A champion detective, Hercule Poirot, solves a locked-room (OK, locked train car, trapped in snow in the Balkans) murder, using only his mighty wits.

We discover each clue as Poirot does, and we race him to the completion of the puzzle of who killed Mr. Ratchett. The inspector solves the crime with good old armchair detection, all done in his slightly preening little head, armed only with his observational skill and knowledge of human nature, and he comes to a stunning conclusion.

It’s great fun, and if you can figure it out before Poirot, my hat (which men wore then, along with spats and garters) is off to you. This mystery is a great by-the-fire kind of read, perhaps in a big old study with a lot of dead animals on the wall and those bookcases that reach so high you have to use that silly kind of sliding ladder to access them all.

I’ve been reading up on detective fiction (including the wonderful PD James’s Talking about Detective Fiction) and all of the books I’ve perused talk about how detectives use observation and inductive (as opposed to deductive, or reasoning from general principles, like in Aristotelian Scholasticism) reasoning, sometimes known also as the Scientific Method. Poirot claims to be the most scientific of detectives, a master of that sainted method. Of course, the distinction between inductive and deductive can be misleading, as general principles are built on particular observations, and you can’t make an individual observation without relying on some general principles, as we will soon see.

Poirot bases most of his conclusions on his vaunted knowledge of humankind. He “types” people according to their temperaments based on racial and national stereotypes. Pretty contemptible today, but perhaps not so at the time. It is kind of amusing in retrospect, quaint, if you forget about the racial theories of people like Hitler and what they led to.

Some of his observations include the one wherein he opines that the killer of Ratchett could not be British, but could very well be an Italian, because knife killings are somehow more passionate than those done with pistols, and the Brits are famously reserved while the Italians are wildly intemperate and operatic. This all reminds me of that Simon and Garfunkel song “It’s all Happening at the Zoo”:

Monkeys stand for honesty
Giraffes are insincere
And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb
Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum
Zebras are reactionary
Antelopes are missionaries
Pigeons plot in secrecy
Hamsters turn on frequently…

It’s kind of racist, kind of reactionary, kind of imperialist, smacks of the ancient regimes, but it is fun. Yes, it is wrong to assume that the group habits and temperament of a people will accurately predict behaviors of individuals (the British guy does stab Ratchett), but it is part of the fun, as is the extreme luxury the passengers travel in as they idly wander across Europe looking for novel ways to spend their money, as is the way Poirot has to sit down and have a good meal before he starts questioning the travelers, as is the way Christie depicts the Americans as crude, boorish, obsessed with making a buck, and ostentatious (once you’ve made a bundle you are supposed to make believe you don’t have all that much, I guess). It’s like a game of Clue in motion across the savage Balkans with a bunch of passengers who can literally and figuratively afford to ignore the unpleasant realities outside their compartment windows. A part of me would like to live that way, I guess, and I got a vicarious thrill out of the decadent lives of the pilgrims on their pilgrimage back from the trip to the decadent East, on their way to Calais, and finally home, where I guess they can look forward to London fog and kidney pie.

[Spoiler Alert! — ed.]

Christie seems to be poking gentle fun at the detective genre itself when Poirot reveals that the whole plot to kill Ratchett (aka Casetti, a child kidnapper and murderer modeled on Bruno Hauptmann, who killed the Lindbergh baby even as Christie was writing this book) was a massive conspiracy, and that all thirteen passengers stabbed the despicable man once each. The serial child kidnapper is apparently a criminal that the British felt could only exist and operate in America, and who could only be avenged in Europe. I can’t imagine too many people beat Poirot to the intellectual punch on this one: it is like a game of Clue where the murder is committed not only by Colonel Mustard, but also Professor Plum, and Mr. Green and Mrs. White and Miss Scarlett and Mrs. Peacock, each of whom then provides the others with phony alibis and tries to throw Poirot off by planting phony clues, clues which the brilliant Poirot knows enough to take as clues to the conspiracy itself.

Ingenious fun, and clever enough, if you are willing to suspend disbelief. I was, and I was fooled. The fact that it is announced early on that the “Orient” trains are never full in winter, and then suddenly it is, should have alerted me, but I missed it. You can’t say Christie doesn’t play fair. And Poirot even provides a kind of extra-legal justice when he allows that there is another possible solution to the crime, and that he will provide that one to the authorities and let all thirteen of them walk. Implicit in this is the realization that evidence can be ambiguous, allowing for more than one interpretation, and the sainted scientific method is not infallible, and I liked the way Christie allows for that even as she astounds us with Poirot’s prodigious cerebrations.

The old monarchical and imperial world order was crumbling in the 30’s. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were defunct, Russia had undergone a convulsive revolution, and the empires of England and France would be superseded by the American one after the next war. But for a moment in time, I could imagine being among the idle rich, being one of the idle rich, a world traveler with nothing better to do then spend my money on gimcracks and nothing worse to worry about than missing my boat at Calais. The whole thing made me think of Downton Abbey, a time and place brought about by imperialism, racism, exploitation, and the idea of the white man’s burden, to be sure, but one that provided for a lot of glorious fun for a lucky few. A genuine, if somewhat guilty (and aren’t those the most fun?) pleasure for a rainy afternoon by the fire.

Certainly British gentlemen of that time and place thought that their nobility was the cause of all their money, and not the other way around, and of course that is bullshit. And it’s a pernicious way of thinking, rewarding the exploiter and blaming his victims, but what a sweet daydream to imagine it is true, and you are one of the chosen and special few, the cream that rises to the top. What if you could be some character in an Austen or Thackeray novel, both gentry and genteel? Heady stuff.

It’s a kind of grand illusion, then, that Christie pulls off in grand style, convincing us in the very idea of nobility, and the idea of the noble man, the brilliant detective Poirot, the magical man for whom no crime is too difficult to solve, as long as he has a good meal and a good smoke and a couple of hours to just sit and use his outsized Age of Enlightenment mind.

© 2014 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the mighty Dame AC proves that some mortals are more talented than others! tjstraw