Monday, June 26, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: The Plot within the Plot

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or seen the 1974 movie, you might not want to read further.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in the latest version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” due out later this year. In a recent article in “Entertainment Weekly,” Branagh is described as “cagey” when discussing how much this latest version of the story sticks to the plot of the novel, and “shrugs off” concerns that those familiar with it will be able to anticipate the story’s twists and turns.

A traditional murder mystery conforms to a pattern – we are introduced to a cast of characters and a person who is tasked with solving the mystery. The detective, more or less, stands in for the reader. The murder occurs, and we are given a few basic facts about how it was committed. Not all of this information may be correct, but it will allow us to form one or more theories of the case. Then we get to know the cast of characters and hear their explanations. Our theories rise and fall on what they tell us. We know our detective will probably solve the mystery, but we will get a thrill by perhaps guessing first who the murderer is from the information we receive. Again, not all that we hear and see may be reliable. We know some of the characters will lie, but we assume the author will leave clues, sometimes within other clues, that allow us to see afterward how the solution was always there, even if it was impenetrable.

“Murder on the Orient Express” presents us with a murder victim, Mr. Ratchett. He is introduced as a thoroughly unpleasant man, and even the great detective Hercule Poirot says that he does not like Ratchett’s face. When he dies, his murder presents a puzzle to be solved, not so much a wrong that must be righted. Why? Because he is soon revealed, by Poirot, to be Cassetti, a figure from the criminal underworld responsible for an infamous kidnapping. 

 Looking at the story, as a story, Agatha Christie’s twist is to present us with a cast of characters who are gradually all revealed to be guilty. But what would motivate a dozen people to assemble in one place to murder one person? Writing in the 1930s, Christie took as her inspiration the Lindbergh kidnapping, a case that still fascinates the public decades later, which H.L. Mencken called “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” She presents us with a scenario where Cassetti abducts Daisy Armstrong, a three-year-old girl, from her home in America. She is connected to figures spanning the globe. Her father, Col. Armstrong, is a famous British aviator. Her mother Sonia is the daughter of the greatest tragic actress of the day, Linda Arden. The household staff is comprised of people from various countries who have gravitated to the Armstrongs out of friendship and loyalty. When Daisy is found dead after a ransom is paid, Sonia Armstrong dies in childbirth, Col. Armstrong kills himself, and a maid in the house commits suicide when she is falsely accused of complicity in the kidnapping. Cassetti is captured, but eludes prosecution and flees America.

I have always thought a really good story would be to see everything that we don’t see in “Murder on the Orient Express.” It is “The Plot.” One can almost imagine its opening, with the conspirators standing over the freshly dug grave of Col. Armstrong, his suicide following Cassetti’s unsuccessful prosecution. All of the principals have gathered for the funeral. Linda Arden announces to them that they must have revenge. Mary Debenham, the family secretary, and Hector McQueen, the son of the district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted Ratchett, conceive the plot. Hardman, a former policeman in love with the dead maid, tracks down Cassetti. McQueen and Masterman, Armstrong’s former butler, get into Cassetti’s employ. Working with Pierre, father of the dead maid, they arrange for Cassetti to board the Orient Express at a time of year when few people travel. They invent a passenger, “Mr. Harris,” in order to ensure no one else will be on the coach. Then they all arrange to be on the train at the same time in order to kill Cassetti. They are their own jury.

One of the best, most subtle moments in the 1974 Sidney Lumet film of the book occurs when Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is added at the last moment to the Calais coach of the Orient Express by the director of the line, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). Bianchi introduces Poirot to the conductor, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Pierre immediately grasps, to his horror, the situation – a great detective will be in the middle of their plot, which can’t be called off now. Once the murder takes place, a further complication comes when the train is immobilized by a snowdrift, which gives Poirot time to discover what has happened.

Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story.
Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that.

What kind of conversations took place once Poirot was on board? How was the plan altered? Perhaps the conspirators resolved to leave enough clues to implicate each of them, but meant only to muddle the issue. Perhaps one of them said, “All we have to do is confuse him until we get to the next stop on the line.” So they assigned roles to each member, with contradictory stories in order to keep Poirot guessing. Arden, in her “role” as Mrs. Hubbard, a female version of the Babbitized American, says a man entered her compartment, which is adjacent to Ratchett’s.

The only evidence of what the conspirators decided on is the evidence that was left in Ratchett’s compartment – the “too many clues” Poirot alludes to in the film. The theory created by them is that a figure, perhaps from the Mafia, entered the train at Vinkovci dressed in a conductor’s uniform – a man with a female sounding voice – and gained access to Ratchett’s compartment, but was seen by Mrs. Hubbard. There may even have been two murderers, since Ratchett’s stab wounds came from a knife wielded by a right hand and a left. The killer may have smoked a pipe, as a pipe cleaner is discovered. The shadowy figure was then seen leaving in a woman’s kimono, but dropped a ladies’ handkerchief with the initial H.

In “Curtain,“ Poirot’s final case, he tells one of his associates:

“For a murderer, my friend, is more conceited than any creature on this earth. A murderer is always more clever than anyone else – no one will ever suspect him or her – the police will be utterly baffled, et cetera. Therefore he (or she) goes ahead just the same, and all you can have is the satisfaction of hanging them afterwards.”

What must it have been like for the conspirators? What kind of solace could they have offered each other, as the plot spins beyond their careful control? Cassetti was a murderer – he was used to living life on the edge. When he approached Poirot about serving as his bodyguard, Ratchett allowed us to see a man who knows the trap is closing around him. But how about those who killed him? They are not used to the suspicions, the anguish, the constant inner questioning. They must hang together, having come this far, but how much anguish was there? Which of them was ready to crack at the first accusation? The only hint we get is a whispered confidence from Mary Debenham to Col. Arbuthnot: “Not now. When it’s all over, when it’s behind us.” Hear the tension in the words – begging for release. 

Poirot begins to question each. In the novel, he needs more than one session from some of the conspirators to zero in on his suspicions. It becomes obvious that they are panicking and begin to offer up more information, which is their undoing. In the 1974 movie, this is made clear by the discovery of the conductor’s uniform and the kimono, and Poirot’s laughter. In the 2010 version starring David Suchet, there is much more interaction between the conspirators than in the Lumet version, or indeed, the novel. Humor is decidedly absent. There is also an underlying tone of Christian disdain for the murder plot, from Poirot and from the group’s supposed conscience, the missionary Greta Ohlsson. In Suchet’s version, there is more of a feeling that even though Cassetti was a monster, it was up to God, not human beings, to exact punishment on him.

A word should be said here about the Ohlsson character. In Christie’s novel, she is barely present. Her character was greatly expanded for the 1974 version, to accommodate the actress Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. In it, Ohlsson was once Daisy Armstrong’s nurse. After the child’s death, she “sought refuge in a vision of Jesus” and became a missionary teacher in India. Bergman gives the missionary several colors of personality – grief, regret, subterfuge and a kind of humble peace. In the 2010 version, Marie-Josee Croze’s Ohlsson takes this a step further. She advocates that the conspirators stand in the place of God, allowed by their righteousness to exact revenge on the murderer. No one wanted murder, but the circumstances cried out for it. 

The 1974 version never quite strays from its old-style ambience – Poirot figures out fairly early that this case is extraordinary, but he keeps his own counsel on whodunit as Dr. Constantine and Bianchi declare each passenger guilty as soon as the individual’s questioning is over. This allows for humor and the thrill of the chase. There are no moral judgments here. This is an entertainment. A repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively and perhaps deservedly murdered. When the conspirators clink their glasses at the end, they are celebrating a successful revenge. Something seems to have been healed.

But if we were to go forward with the plot, how would taking part in the murder affect each of our conspirators? Would Ohlsson be seized with regret and remorse? Would Hardman, as a policeman, begin to pursue his own vision of justice in other cases? Would keeping the secret spoil the marriage of the Count and Countess Andrenyi, or the romance of Col. Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham? What if some new evidence should implicate someone else in the killing of the Armstrong child? Might the group be moved to another plot in another part of the globe? We don’t worry so much about Poirot – there is always another case in some other exotic spot for him.

There’s no way of knowing now how the story will be told by Branagh, especially since Ratchett/Cassetti will be played by Johnny Depp. But perhaps one day, with the pen of a Balzac, someone will tell the story of this extraordinary revenge from the other side, and what mysteries might it further reveal? 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.