Diary: Murder on the Orient Express and Moral Relativism
Have you ever heard the term armchair anthropologist? It's a term I learned my first semester Freshman year at Cal in my Cultural Anthropology course. It refers to an anthropologist who doesn’t actually go out into the field to study cultures, but who instead stays at home and reads about them in his ‘erm Armchair. So I’ve decided for the moment, this moment, to be an armchair philosopher and discuss Moral Relativity. This is not an extensive discussion, more of a musing in response to a movie I just saw, Murder on the Orient Express.
If you’ve never read the book or seen a film version of Agatha Christie's, dare I say, greatest hit, you should probably stop reading now. For the already indoctrinated, we all know the who in this who dunnit, so making any movie about the Ms Christie’s beloved Poirot and this particular affair, is more about the journey than the destination.
Poirot is one of my all time favorite literary characters, and I grew up watching David Suchet in the role as world famous Belgian detective on Masterpiece Mystery. I loved it growing up, and I love it now.
While for me Poirot will always be David Suchet, I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s new version. It's what I go to the movies for. Incredible production, amazing costumes, and world renowned actors. That said, it's time to discuss, from my armchair no less, a topic that fascinates me; moral relativism.
In one of the opening scenes of the Masterpiece Mystery version of Murder on the Orient Express, which is set in Istanbul and starring David Suchet and Jessica Chastain, Ms Chastain questions the stoning of a woman who has committed adultery. Though disturbed, Poirot says this is the law in that country, that the people who live there know it and know the repercussion of disobeying that law. That it must be abided by right or wrong. Later, after the murder on the train takes place, and Poirot knows what has happened, he chastizes Ms Chastain (nice, huh) telling her that she does not have the right to decide the law.
For the murder that takes place on the Orient Express we learn that not one, but all of the passengers of this particular coach took part, each taking a turn to stab the "victim." What is the idea then, in this case, that none of them is guilty, because they are all guilty? They each took a stab so that no one of them had to take full responsibility for the death, no single one of them knowing who's stab actually killed the victim.
Many of my favorite detectives practice moral relativism. Most decidedly, Sherlock Holmes. He does not hold that the law as supreme. He sees the grey instead of the black and white. He always examines the crime, and then determines whether the parties participant were reasonable and warranted in their actions. If it is evident that the perpetrator acted justly, regardless of what the law states, Sherlock will omit informing the police. If the criminal is actually a better person than the victim, and it is evident that they are not a threat to anyone else, Sherlock turns a moral relativity "blind eye." This is among the many things that fascinates me so about the great Sherlock Holmes. The world he inhabits is so nuanced, he is so far removed from normal rules of societal engagement, that he makes his own rules. I love this so about him.
For Poirot this is harder. He adheres steadfastly to the notion of wrong and right, but at the same time, he considers it his duty to make sure that any person accused of a crime is accused justly. If he feels even an inkling that an accused person may be innocent, he takes it to be his duty to discover the truth. The law may take its course, but only with the right man (or woman, there are some amazing female criminals, let us not forget). Thats what makes The Orient Express so difficult for him. He has discovered his criminals, but they are not bad people. He knows they committed the crime, but sending them to jail serves no purpose. Indeed, the person they murdered was the actual criminal, who's actions ruined each and every one of their lives. Although it affects Poirot to his very core of right and wrong, he walks away. It is really really hard for Poirot to do this.
Agatha Christie really threw her detective through a loop here. In his others cases, he finds the criminal who perpetrated the crime and it is just to send that criminal to jail. But in the Orient Express, Christie fuzzes the line and really tests her beloved detective. What will he do? Once he solves the crime, what does he decide? The world of Poirot up to this point is fairly clear, where there is a crime, there is a criminal, and the law deals with the criminal. But The Orient Express is so unique. The victim of the crime in this case is a criminal himself. Poirot does not feel that citizens should take the law into their own hands, but he also recognizes, though with anger at first, that these criminals are not bad, and that perhaps they did what they had to do. That this was restitution for them.
I think Branagh handled it very well and explored these complex issues. His Poirot is clearly shaken to his core and we see it in Branagh's eyes, which have to do most of the work behind that enormous mustache.
This idea of good people taking the law into their own hands, of a famous detective compromising his moral values in a nuanced situation is what makes this particular Agatha Christie tale so interesting and perplexing, and explains why it continues to intrigue us, even when we already know the ending.