March 30, 2012

Poirot's Psychology

In Cambridge the other day, I was between meetings and decided to go to the Waterstones cafe and read a book- I picked up a copy of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and began reading. I read the entire thing in about an hour and  a half. Its the first time I'd read Christie since I was about 15 and I have to say it is very readable stuff- I can see why I liked it. She is also a seductive writer and I thought quite hard about what she writes as well as the story I read. One of the interesting things about Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express is the way that he talks about psychology. He makes intuitions about people and those intuitions, rather than a logical chain of reasoning pace a Mr S. Holmes of Baker Street are what carry him to his solution. This is an interesting model of human knowledge.

Its worth thinking about for a second. Whilst we read the books, we believe that Poirot's intuitions are correct and some may well be. But they are based often upon stereotypes- so for example a murder might be an Italian murder or a British murder. This reasoning is appealing to us I think because it is the way that we reason in every day life often: without the time to construct logical chains we proceed on inference. Its a subject of much of the annoyance we all face: what we might call presumption- how dare you think I wouldn't be interested in... Poirot's approach to solving murders relies on this kind of presumption- he gets it brilliantly right or rather Christie rigs the story so that he gets it brilliantly right but even so, is there something fishy about it? To a modern sentiment, it definitely is and I think its one aspect of the way in which Christie is quite dated and feels dated in ways in which Holmes does not. She is anchored within the prejudices of her time.