Et voilà. The cold corpse lay in Compartment #2 of the Orient Express, stabbed twelve times, no murder weapon, no obvious motive, victim’s pistol ready under the pillow, door locked and chained from within, mysterious clues (or blinds) littered about, a broken watch, a ghostly intruder, a scarlet kimono, a perfect murder and a perfect crime—even given two unforeseen circumstances for the murderer to navigate: first, the sudden stoppage of the train by a snowdrift in the mountains outside Yugoslavia, and second, the presence of the internationally renowned grey-celled Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Que l’enquête commence. The murderer lurks in plain sight among the passengers. Everyone is a suspect. No one is safe. All aboard for Murder on the Orient Express, but where to get a ticket? The local library courtesy of Agatha Christie? Or the local cinema courtesy of Kenneth Branagh? The jury is out. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, everything hangs on the taste for murder, for murder can be too theological a matter for some movies—and it remains the case that some murders belong in books in order to retain theological implication over theatrical ostentation.
With the recent release of Murder on the Orient Express starring and directed by that talented thespian and man-of-letters, Kenneth Branagh, entertainment seekers are invited to experience a remarkable tale of murder in 65mm film that first achieved fame as a 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. Without commenting on the distinctions or deficiencies of Mr. Branagh’s film, there is always a general question when a classic work of literature is cast as a feature film as to whether the artistic shift in presentation is warranted. Of course, it is a mysterious truth that people tend to hold that the book is always better. Could the reason go beyond the probability that such claims are usually voiced by those who are readers first and moviegoers afterwards? Or does it run deeper than that? Could it be that films of books somehow murder the spirit of the story? Do they invariably force or finagle an interpretation of images that somehow strangles the aura that only words can convey? If such film versions and their visions are not necessary or properly justified, what more are they, then, than murder?
One fact that stands beyond denial is that the book is often better because it is always more personal than the movie. A story that engages with the mind’s eye rather than the eye alone will always leave a more powerful impression on the soul. Reading is essentially more active than merely receiving and that increased activity brings a dimension to the written word, and even to the stage, that is more in touch with the spirit of the reader or watcher. It is more of an experience. It is more real. It is more alive. It is more affected by the concept and depiction of death. And when the story about murder, as is Murder on the Orient Express, that intimate quality can be even stronger, for murder is always an intimate matter.
Murder stories play with the power that people possess to challenge and change the course of history, to take the work and will of God into their own hands and wrench it to their own works and wills. “The great King of kings hath in the tables of his law commanded that thou shalt do no murder,” cries Clarence in Shakespeare’s Richard III, “and wilt thou, then, spurn at his edict and fulfil a man’s?” Murder is theological because it is ontological, and its mysteries are even more so. As W. E. Fahey has written, claiming an authority in these matters that can only be wondered at, “Murder mysteries revolve around one theological truth: murder is evil, and not merely wrong because we would not murder others (i.e., our distaste is not libertarian or utilitarian—our fascination and conviction reveals something deeply embedded in us: an orientation to the Natural Law).” That orientation to the natural law, as Fahey puts it, is needful given fallen nature. After all, one of the foundational acts of the human race was a murder. Murder set Cain on his course—one where he had been torn away from the Holy Countenance.
Blood has cried out to man ever since, as Abel’s blood cried out to God. Murder is irresistible even though it is instinctually and intrinsically repugnant, for it cries out with the mystery of mortality. Why do men die? What fits of passions are men subject to? What penalties or mercies await the guilty and the innocent? In short, murder is always theological, for it demands the meaning of life. Thus, murder has a sickening savor about it, the odor of corruption as Dostoevsky phrased it in his Karamazov murder mystery. But it runs deeper, or higher, yet. Murder is, by the paradoxical designs of Divinity, central to the most significant of salvific mysteries. But even if murder is made sacred by heaven, it is still the vilest of violent crimes, nailed at the heart of the Commandments, as it tempts and attacks the holiness of existence itself. And therein lies the powerful appeal of murder mysteries, for as Hamlet said, “Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Moreover, therein lies the personal appeal of murder as it appears in books or even plays as opposed to screenplays.
When it comes to Murder on the Orient Express, and the medium by which to receive its particularly chilling and charming dish of murder, much depends on the murder scene desired—or rather, the murder experience desired. The intensity of the word wields a personal significance that impersonal film cannot historically compete with, and murder, perhaps, is better in the books and on the boards rather than the silver screen. In the end, the theology of murder is best left to personal meditation than popular representation. Christie’s novel is certainly a fast-clipping, cloak-and-dagger whodunit presenting a perspective on murder that might be interpreted as more profound than much of what is typical. That is to say, Murder on the Orient Express stabs deep with societal implication and involvement, presenting a theory of murder famously encapsulated by W.H. Auden: “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.” Murder on the Orient Express is unique as it abolishes the very act of murder itself as a necessarily evil with a direct societal act.
Murder on the Orient Express runs with murderous intent along wild, eccentric tracks beyond dime-novel thrills to life-and-death theology. In fact, the most mysterious thing about this celebrated murder mystery is that it charges somewhat in the face of the celebrated murder mystery. Looking to the origins of the genre, from Oedipus to Dupin to Holmes, it is traditional that the mystery should be more marvelous than the solution. Agatha Christie turns this paradigm squarely on its head by making the solution far more marvelous than the mystery, cutting from the cloth of G.K. Chesterton’s unpresuming, unconventional sleuth Father Brown who always knew that the sin was never so important as the sinner. Perhaps such is the new-fangled trend of excellent detective fiction in leaving the Enlightenment behind: rather than reducing the mysteries of the world to simple reason and logic, to redound them to the complex mystery of humanity—even if they are the instigators of heinous crime.
Whether at the hands of Christie or Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express is a tale of murder—and, as such, is a tale of theology. Whether such a tale is better told in print or performance is up to the perceiver. But, despite choices, the soul seeks meaning, and thus, seeks God. Whether books or films better bring man back to the Holy Countenance through stories is a storied question in the modern mystery of every modern man’s murder. But, when it comes to murder, bets ought to be hedged, for such bets are holy bets. Go to the library. Read Murder on the Orient Express. Hang on for the theological ride, and contemplate the mystery of murder in beauty bare before receiving it murdered from the bare beauty of the movies. All aboard.
Editor’s note: The movie scene pictured above is from the 2017 Fox film version of “Murder on the Orient Express” staring Kenneth Branagh as detective Hercule Poirot. Christie’s book pictured above is the Collins “Crime Club” 1962 edition of Murder on the Orient Express.