Modernism and the Golden Era of detective fiction occupy overlapping periods of history. These early 20th century movements in literature each responded to rapid changes taking place in society: technological and industrial advance, wars of an epic and unprecedented scale, and pervasive intellectual upheaval.
The detective fiction genre was one of many responses to modernity and its changes. Another response took the form of wild, highly psychological literary experimentation. Nearly 100 years removed from the moment, genre writers like Agatha Christie now can clearly be seen as a counterpoint to the vaunted literary novelists of the day, not only in formula and subject, but more importantly, in terms of theme, implication, and in terms of the philosophical purport of the narratives they were producing.
Where the writers who would be later canonized as “modernists” (Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Woolf, etc.) expressed a profound sense of anxiety and seemed always to think of the world as breaking apart, Agatha Christie’s staple detective-hero reassuringly manages to put things back together.
Christie’s Holistic Hero: Hercule Poirot
Case in point: In Christie’s hero, Hercule Poirot, we have a figure of astounding holistic tendencies, capable of weaving together that which appears scattered, clarify that which seems hopelessly murky. He is a hero of comprehension and a champion of comprehensibility. Poirot, as a perfect classical detective figure, keeps the world whole.
In his skills and in his actions and in his thematic existence, Poirot represents an inversion of the modernism of Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce. Christie’s character maintains the “unity” and coherence of the world. This is in contrast to the characters that populate the fictions of these other giants of the modern era, characters that seem so often to articulate a divisive subjectivity that separates person from person, mind from mind, and situates every individual in a reality that is subjectively and definitively his/her own.
Poirot is invested with qualities of intellect and of social bearing that connect him with a pre-modern world and which demonstrate again and again a sense of coherence and integrity of mind that run against the grain of what we might call the literary modernism of Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and the like. Taking one of Christie’s best-known works as an example, Murder on the Orient Express, and examining the ways its hero Hercule Poirot functions in the novel as the quintessential detective figure, we might see clearly how the detective represents a particularly reassuring and positive response to modernity found in Golden Era detective genre.
“There’s modernism, and then there’s modernism…”
“Modernism” refers to an era and to a loosely defined literary and artistic movement taking place in the first half of the 20th century. Scholars of the movement retrospectively fix the work of William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce as its most consummate expression insofar as these writers presented texts of discontinuity: subjective psychology, stream-of-consciousness narrative strategy, and isolation as a theme. Personal history trumps social history for these writers and the mind is depicted largely in Freudian terms. This is literary modernism.
Historians tend to offer a broader definition of the modern period than literary critics do. Some parameters of modernity extend back into the 19th century to include the dawn of the industrial revolution. The broader view, interestingly, encompasses the dawn of the detective fiction genre as we know it, and includes the career of Edgar Allan Poe in the “modern era” ( Mystery Fiction and Modern Life). Poe is widely regarded as the originator of the classic detective story and its classic hero –- the detective figure.
Of Manners and Mysteries
Edgar Allan Poe created Auguste Dupin in 1862 in the short story “The Murders in Rue Morgue”, a cornerstone of the genre and a character type that persists today. Utilizing a special talent for insight and well-tempered logic, Dupin solves an astounding murder case and puts into order a seemingly chaotic array of circumstances.
The dynamic that Poe’s Dupin seems to represent is one of redemption –- possessing and utilizing a redemptive logic that puts order to chaos. He arrives on the scene of a fictional world in a state of disturbing disarray and leaves it in a state of harmony, having used the power of scientific thinking to solve a crime, penetrate a mystery, and explain how cause-and-effect rule the day no matter how incomprehensible events may have seemed. Such “wholeness” contrasts rather obviously with the schismatic Freudian influence that animates the writers of literary modernism mentioned above.
Sigmund Freud postulated a divided psyche roughly 50 years after Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, ushering in an age of art and literature that grew increasingly concerned with both personal and social fragmentation and with discontinuity (Mystery Fiction). Notably, the classic detective figure inaugurated in Auguste Dupin stands in nearly diametric opposition to the most common tropes of Freudian-influenced literary modernism.
Dupin and the detectives that follow him (such as Hercule Poirot) live in a world on the brink of incomprehensibility but with a trick of insight they bring coherence back to the world. For followers of Freud, there’s no going back to wholeness, as it were. The id, ego and superego stand as expressions of a permanent state of divided being. Literary modernism is often seen in this light. Repression, isolation, subjectivity, and many other psychologically-oriented (and generally negative) terms take prominence in discussions of Eliot and Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner.
These terms also come to describe a new social reality that is discontinuous with the one that preceded it. The aristocracies and definite class structures of the 19th century seem to disappear in the early 20th century. The texts of literary modernism, remarkable for their novelty, explore and powerfully articulate this sense of breech with what had gone before.
Concomitant with literary modernism, the detective fiction genre of the Golden Era demonstrated a more assertive and positive response to a sense of societal breech. One might even argue that the tendency of detective fiction was to deny that any serious breech had occurred. In this way, the fiction of Agatha Christie, argues George Grella, is importantly linked to the pre-modern fiction of Jane Austen, George Meredith, and Henry James (“Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”).
In his work on the detective story as a story of manners, Grella connects the Golden Era of detective fiction to these Victorian writers, arguing that the detective fiction genre is a genre of “manners”. Continuing the particular practice and mode of mythmaking established by Victorian novelists like Austen and James, the detective fiction genre and its protagonists “[present] the necessary ‘stable and numerous society … in which the moral code can in some way be externalized in the more or less predictable details of daily life’” (“Murder and Manners”). Moral order and social order are identical in these works.
In this way, the narrative resolution of both the Victorian novel of manners and the detective fiction of the Golden Era reveals an underlying stability of social structure and the moral codes that social structure promotes. The innovation of the detective fiction genre, Poe’s creation of the detective figure, is put in service to enacting this resolution and illuminating the stable social and moral order of the narrative world. Following its mannered predecessor, Golden Era detective fiction manages to leave the reader with an intact sense of social/moral order as well as a clear-cut narrative resolution, (e.g., mystery solved!).
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie’s best-known novel of the ’20s bears out this observation. Murder on the Orient Express presents us with Hercule Poirot, a retired officer of the Belgian police force who spends his retirement solving crimes in England. Erudite, mutli-lingual, posh and good-humored, Poirot is the image of a perfect Victorian era type. He is, in other words, a hold-over from another time. The struggle to maintain a connection to a quickly receding social/cultural past is also at the heart of many of the major works of literary modernism: Absalom, Absalom!, Mrs. Dalloway, “The Wasteland”, are all examples.
In Murder on the Orient Express, as elsewhere in Christie’s novels, Poirot “always employs his magic for good purposes, insuring that the fabric of society will be repaired after the temporary disruption of murder” (“Murder and Manners”). This particular social quality characterizes his figure’s psychological implications as well. When one has a mind like Poirot or like Auguste Dupin, one is capable of demonstrating that the world is unified, despite “evidence” to the contrary.
As the world remains whole due to the terrific powers of Poirot’s mind, the mind in its turn can be seen as bearing the power of unity (the power to unite and, therefore, to prove its own integrity). Thus, the stability of the social world is in part a product of a holistic mind.
The story of Murder on the Orient Express can accurately be described in terms of unity and salvation-from-incomprehensibility, both hallmarks of the genre. These hallmarks here are exemplified as services performed by Hercule Poirot.
When a murder occurs in the middle of a winter night in “Jugoslavia”, Hercule Poirot is faced with a set of clues that fail to add up: a voice supposed to be that of a murdered man is heard in the dead man’s room — speaking French. The murdered man, however, only spoke English. Every passenger on the train has an alibi. Poirot’s assistants, M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine, express repeated difficulties in finding any solution to the mystery of the murder. An American detective calls the case “bughouse” crazy (249), a view which summarizes those also held by Bouc and Constantine. The circumstances resist explanation.
A murder has certainly taken place, yet discovering the culprit seems so impossible that the idea borders on absurdity. Commenting on the incomprehensibility of the situation, Constantine says that it is “more wildly improbable than any roman policier I have ever read” (248).
Ever the calm and collected gentleman, Poirot is the only person to characterize the case differently, suggesting that “it is most natural” (244). This difference of perspective indicates both Poirot’s qualities and his role in the narrative. More than just a superior intellect, the detective figure naturalizes the unnatural and explains the inexplicable, normalizing a situation that presents discomfiting intimations of chaos.
Such a situation is expressive of the modern era in some specific ways. Poirot’s challenge is, importantly perhaps, contextualized by the highly “modern” circumstance of a train populated by people “of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages” (32). Technologically-driven economic growth, urbanization, and globalization in the early 20th century had created this egalitarian possibility. As Richard Kelly puts it in his book on the connections between modernism and detective fiction, Mystery Fiction and Modern Life, individuals in the modern era were suddenly placed “in a world of strangers”, where class and cultural borders were increasingly porous.
This backdrop of social change stands behind Murder on the Orient Express — and a majority of Goldern Era detective stories. Can we reasonably propose that detective fiction generically functions as a re-ordering of this breaking/broken social world?
If literary modernism serves as a cultural catharsis attempting to express and thereby exorcise the psychological results of living in a world in upheaval, can we see detective fiction following an opposite course?
The victory of unity over division and integrity over isolation that inevitably occurs in detective fiction of the Golden Era has been discussed by scholars in terms similar to those proposed here. Poirot, as the quintessential detective figure, is consistent with views expressed by scholars that these intellectual heroes are essentially “expressive of the individual’s internal struggle to analyze his own capacity to analyze, and distinguish himself as a conscious human subject within a modern scientific culture” (“The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story, and: Fiction, Crime, and Empire: Clues to Modernity and Postmodernism”).
The detective figure of the Golden Era is successful in this struggle –- a point not to be overlooked. His/her science of observation and deduction, as it were, is a highly effective and winning “science.”
Where literary modernism presents self-destructive figures like Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August , agonizing deeply over precisely the things he cannot know, detective fiction presents a figure of amazing capacity for discovery. Almost everything can be known when Hercule Poirot is on the case. This genre character-type quite literally stands against the very notion of the incomprehensible, a notion that so tortures the obfuscated, self-regrettably complex figures of literary modernism.
Poirot pieces together the puzzle of the murder in Murder on the Orient Express, naturally, and offers two solutions to the people on the train. The first solution is one of “guilt” and the second one of “innocence”. These terms are necessarily abstract as they apply to the conclusion of Murder on the Orient Express because the murderers (all the passengers and workers on the train) are ultimately granted clemency for their crime even as they admit to it. This conclusion is appropriate for a narrative about restoring social balance and order.
Poirot grants a renewed harmony to the narrative world by solving the crime and by granting leniency to the criminals. With only a few conflicting clues at his disposal, Poirot uncovers the fact that all of the passengers on the train are related to the dead man through their connections to a certain American family. (The family is the subject of a tragic scandal reported internationally in the news and resulting in the death of a child.) Everyone is connected. The cross-class, cross-age, and international admixture of demographics is undone. The remarkable egalitarian conditions that contextualize the story become identified as an integral part of the mystery, which Poirot solves. In doing so, the detective essentially reverses the trend of modernity as a movement toward social inter-mixing. The passengers actually represent a homogenous group, not a diverse grouping of varied classes, ages, and ethnicities.
Additional note should be taken of Poirot’s resolution to grant clemency and let the criminals escape punishment. Like Auguste Dupin, Poirot’s goal is not to see justice done, so to speak, but to harmonize the social order.
According to Edmund Wilson, readers in the ’20s and ’30s “sought release from anxiety in the identification of the scapegoat-criminal” (ctd. in “Murder and Manners”) in the aftermath of “the war to end all wars”, World War I. Agatha Christie’s novel delivers just such a release in Poirot’s conclusion to the murder plot.
Having determined that all the passengers took turns stabbing the murdered man –- with “good” reason –- Poirot concludes that the murder is justifiable and the murdering passengers can reasonably excused from any punishment. The murderers were taking revenge against a man who thoroughly deserved it, as many of the murderers themselves say: “If ever a man deserved what he got, Ratchett –- or Cassetti –- is the man. I’m rejoiced at his end” (91). This moral justification of the murder carries the day and lends credence to Grella’s claim in “Murder and Manners” when he argues that the “detective thriller maintains the necessary equivalence between the social and the moral code.”
Order and innocence are the salient elements of Poirot’s conclusions as the detective figure and, in turn, represent the novel’s thematic resolution.
While proposing that the justification of murder in Murder on the Orient Express is parallel to defending the violent actions undertaken by the Allies in World War I is most likely a step too far, the impulse to expunge both disorder and moral guilt is a distinct part of Golden Era detective fiction. The impartial and detached central character is, by nature, a figure of innocence that rises to prominence in a time of international turmoil and violence. As a counter to the horrors of war and to the uncertainty of the times, Golden Era detective figures like Hercule Poirot and Auguste Dupin figuratively imply that the forces governing the world are both benign and logical. Through character and action, the detective figure corrects the erroneous views of his friends and assistants (who see only chaos and incomprehensibility where the detective is able to see harmonious order).
In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot offers a corrective not only to this erroneous perspective but to the troublesome effects of modernity (i.e., radically altered class and national relations). For a genre defined by what some scholars refer to as the “ratiocinative story” ( Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction ), there is no surprise when the mythic hero of the story demonstrates the power of thought to order the world.
Literary modernism has no such heroes. Joe Christmas, Quentin Compson, Clarissa Dalloway and Lily Briscoe from the fictional worlds of Faulkner and Woolf are characters beset with disorder and discontinuity. At issue in these texts is the integrity of self (brought into question in part by Freudian psychoanalytical theory) and, by extension, these works question the integrity of a world marked by a crumbling social order. The old ways of thinking and living are actively giving way in the narratives of literary modernism.
The detective genre manages to slyly reassert the old ways, not by slight of hand but through an almost classic myth-narrative paradigm that articulates a connection between moral order and social order wherein each is restored by the hero, the detective figure. The overt action of the story entertains with plot twists and light humor, but the underlying themes of the text develop to suggest a victory of order over chaos.
Plot and theme merge ultimately in the story’s dénouement, wherein the detective illuminates the solution to the mystery, rendering the unknown (and unknowable) as finally known. The dense and psychologically-driven prose style of literary modernism is nowhere to be seen in the detective genre during the Golden Era; nor are the implications of social/historical discontinuity of literary modernism present in Golden Era detective fiction.
Hercule Poirot, in Murder on the Orient Express, is intrigued by the very modern situation in which he finds himself but he is unfazed. When violence ensues from this demographically “novel” scenario of mixed classes, ages and nationalities, Poirot’s cohort is baffled by the puzzle of the murder. Yet Poirot himself is able to present not only one but two solutions to the mystery. His detachment remains –- inherited from Auguste Dupin, the father of detective figures –- and from the resultant position of self-sufficiency Poirot is able to discern a decidedly social order at the center of the crime. He determines that all of the passengers belong to the same family, in one way or another, and in doing so explains and justifies the crime.
Modernity’s social changes, which M. Bouc speaks to regarding the surprising demographics of the train’s passengers, are shown to be rather overblown. The perceived discontinuity between Victorian past and modern present is rejected in favor of a statement of continuity.
In this reading we can clearly see the difference in thematic and narrative responses to modernity represented by Golden Era detective fiction genre and literary modernism. With its emphasis on comprehensibility, continuity and social order, detective fiction responds positively to the pressures of modernity – responds, in fact, almost defiantly.