When I was poorly, I listened once again to my cherished recording of Agatha Christie’s Murder of the Orient Express, read by David Suchet, the actor who has become the perfect embodiment of Poirot. His voice is extraordinary, and it’s a story that I never tire of hearing because it is so well structured. Christie was always acclaimed for her plots (usually at the expense of her credibility as a ‘literary’ author – quite unfair in my estimation) and the way that she handles a cast of a dozen or more suspects, trapped on their snowbound train with the reviled child murderer, Cassetti, lying stabbed in his compartment, is magisterial. The novel is an interesting exercise in reception; on the one hand the events are quite possibly impossible – at the least they stretch credibility to the utmost. And yet, as Christie moves you through her narrative, she renders the amazing ending utterly plausible. If you let the story happen to you, if you don’t enter it as a cynic in a critical state of mind, then the outcome starts to take on an overwhelming necessity, and more than that, to be moving, affecting, devastating. It’s one of those stories that I appreciate more, the more I become familiar with it.
It’s also, implicitly, a study in the complexity of guilt. Guilt interests me because it’s an emotion responsible for so many behavioural consequences; feeling guilty is something that really affects what we do and say, how we respond to others, and yet it’s a very masked emotion nowadays, a really uncomfortable one to have in a society in which we are increasingly intolerant of mistakes and increasingly unwilling to take the responsibility for them. But guilt is a given in life, in things big and small we offend, we transgress, we fail. Surely it’s better to have a sensible response to it, to think on how we might exercise compassion and humility, than to attempt the impossible and legislate against anything, ever, going wrong? Ah, but this is something we might all agree to in the abstract, but struggle with in reality. The desire to be self-righteously innocent is a powerful one, and the inevitable counterpart of the aggressive wish to destroy what threatens.
The crime novel is the place where the problem of guilt finds an imaginative exorcism. The reader can be transported into a place of exquisite vulnerability, brought up sharp against violence and fear and evil, but safe in the knowledge that the story will reach a satisfying resolution with order and peace restored. Genre writing really makes sense from an emotional point of view – crime fiction scares us, but in order to make us feel safer in the long run, reassured that criminals will be hunted down, isolated and removed. One theoretical critic, the delightfully named Slavoj Žižek, wrote about the significance of the term ‘arrest’. When the conclusion of the narrative is reached, and the arrest is made, not only is the criminal identified and his threat neutralized, but the uncertain guilt that stalks the community is finally halted in its tracks. Think of the way that Hercule Poirot will collect the suspects together in the drawing room and gradually work his way through them, implicating each one in the crime before dismissing them and moving on. The finger of guilt hovers over each before finally coming to a rest, before finally being arrested, by the absolute guilt of one individual. And at that point, we can all breathe more easily, we can all be at rest. The reader, caught up in the emotional coils of the characters through the force of the imagination, is equally involved in the unfolding of suspicion, fear and innocence; we can all have a rest from that nagging, endless suspicion that we’ve done something wrong, that we are the guilty party. Because look! It’s turned out to be someone else being handcuffed and led away to the police van.
Now of course you might say that the crime novel is just a bit of fun that doesn’t mean anything much at all. But books exercise a formidable black magic over their readers, allowed, as they are, such free ingress into the intimate realms of their minds. It’s not like anyone picks up a crime novel for the pleasure of watching a serial killer run off scot free at the end of it. There’s a process that we want to see enacted every time. And this is one of the reasons why I love Murder on the Orient Express so, because it takes an unusual perspective on guilt and succeeds so well with it. I can’t say more because any trace of spoiler here would be all kinds of wrong. But it moves guilt from being a moral issue, bound up in rigid rules and regulations, to being an ethical problem, complex and flexible in relation to the other person and what may be considered their due. I can’t think of any other golden age crime novel that does that, or indeed, does it so very well.