Following the final tv episode of Poirot last week, I feel now is an appropriate time to share my favourite quote from the little Belgian detective.
It comes from near the end of Murder on the Orient Express when Poirot is confronting the group of passengers to reveal to them – and to us – who the murderer is. In most Poirot stories this involves a hitherto unknown backstory in which we discover that two of the characters are secret lovers who have conspired to kill the one person standing between them and their passionate love affair.
Murder on the Orient Express is a little different.
It transpires that the murder victim, Mr Ratchett, was responsible for the abduction and murder of a five year old girl many years ago but he fled the country after being acquitted in a trial that he most likely fixed. We discover that each of the 12 passengers on the train had a connection to the murdered girl and had organised this elaborate train journey to avenge her murder by killing Mr Ratchett (they killed him by each stabbing him once so that it could not be determined who administered the fatal wound).
As Poirot reveals these facts and confronts the group of 12, there is a superb piece of dialogue about the morality of the group taking justice into their own hands. The rule of law, argues Poirot, must not be abandoned otherwise we become like “savages in the street”.
The full transcript and video are below. It’s a great quote from a great story, n’est ce pas?
Hercule Poirot: [furious] You had no right to take the law into your own hands!
Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!
Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.
Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!
Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!
Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!
Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”
Hercule Poirot: Oui!
Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!