Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

March 31, 2021

PONTIN | Whodunit?

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One deceptively cold evening during winter break, I found myself sprawled out in front of the television watching Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 remake of the Agatha Christie staple, Murder on the Orient Express. Armed with an almond croissant and a plush throw blanket, I was fully prepared to let myself slip away into the film’s old-timey glow and blustery backdrop. I made a point of paying painstaking attention to each detail from the very first moment of exposition, mistakenly confident in my ability to identify the guilty party before any of the players on screen.

In many ways, the film appeared to synthesize several of the most quintessential tropes of the whodunit mystery genre: a variegated cast of larger-than-life personalities carefully designed to throw us off the scent, an acute physical and ideological isolation from the predictability and safety of the everyday, and an impenetrable aura of indulgence. The film’s beating heart, however, lies in none of the above. Unfailingly and indisputably, it is Hercule Poirot, the meticulously manicured and magnificently moustached detective who, in this version, is brought to life by Branagh himself. 

This finding, of course, is not unique to Murder on the Orient Express, nor is it unique to Christie’s repertoire. What is peculiar about mysteries is that they dupe us into thinking that the suspects are the story, when the story is almost always the detective themself. Our suspects are nearly always heightened, hyperbolic variations on what we would consider to be “normal people,” a far cry from what we recognize in our own social circles and in ourselves. They are distant royalty, accomplished and esteemed academics, famed members of the one percent. It is not long, however, before an ironic relationship begins to reveal itself. Even amidst a churning sea of captivating individuals, the detective somehow always emerges as the most intriguing. 

What is it, then, that makes the detective so alluring beyond his counterparts? Perhaps it is the fact that no one on our long list of suspects ever really grants us the luxury of comprehending exactly who they are — there are critical details cunningly excluded, relations switched or obscured, motives abandoned and refashioned. Thus, the detective is the only party that we can see in full view, the only individual whose existence is entirely truthful. However, this analysis feels incomplete. While honesty and full disclosure might be admirable policies for the real world, they don’t necessarily make for the juiciest character traits.  

Could it be that we are enchanted by their intelligence, their shrewdness, their irreciprocable aptitude? This is perhaps a more plausible explanation, yet it still feels unsatisfying. I’ve met plenty of people with admirable intellect who wouldn’t quite hit the mark for mesmerizing (I would also presume that the same probably rings true in your experience). 

Perchance it’s the confluence of strange quirks and distinct physical characteristics that makes detectives so fascinating. Almost without fail, these characters embody images that are particularly striking and over-the-top. Take Inspector Clouseau’s stiff moustache and perpetually wide-eyed gaze in The Pink Panther, for example, or Benoit Blanc’s sweet southern drawl and impeccably tailored suits in Knives Out. The same could also be said, however, of many of our suspects. They too are nearly always preposterously overdone, insulated by elaborate dress and props that are perfect stereotypes of their occupations or origins. 

What sets the detective apart, then, as the most riveting character in our favorite whodunits is not any single quality or ability, but rather the very role they play in propelling the plot forward. The very presence of the detective is a cinematic safety blanket for us as viewers, imparting a vital sense of comfort. The stories that we watch unfold are oftentimes jarring ones, teeming with brutal murders, unthinkable betrayals, and thoughtless abandonments of any sense of morality or reason. Upon recently reviewing the plot of Christie’s And Then There Were None, a book I hadn’t laid eyes on since middle school, I was shocked to remember the severity of what had been required reading in my class — a bullet to the head, a shot of poison to the neck and a chilling suicide round out the novel.

Oftentimes, mysteries (and murder mysteries in particular) are profoundly perturbing and upsetting. Detectives are a way to make these stories palatable. They grant us an opportunity to feel adrenaline without abject alarm, excitement unmarred by trepidation. In this way, they simultaneously make the mystery genre and mitigate its thrilling effect. While all characters may not survive to see the denouement, at least we ourselves will escape unscathed. The detective saves us from the frustration of being denied closure, neatly and dutifully tying up the loose ends in a convoluted yet logical little bow. Thus, our fondness for detectives stems from their helping us to see the story for what it truly is, the characters for who they truly are.

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.