Do not open your heart to evil… because if you do, evil will come. Yes, very surely, evil will come. It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.” – Hercule Poirot, Death on the Nile
Hercule Poirot is the best detective ever to grace the pages of a novel. Before you object, let me explain. Yes, I have read every single Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes is brilliant. But he’s also characteristically dismissive of the people he serves in favor of solving the puzzles which they present, especially in the recent BBC adaptation featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully compelling show – one of my favorites. Poirot, on the other hand, is deeply compassionate at his core, applying his keen, penetrating mind not merely to unravel the mysteries before him but also to empower the other characters to come out from the shadows, to spurn their mischievous misdeeds and to make better choices in the future. Thus, in Murder on the Orient Express, he presents the passengers on the train with not one but two possible solutions to who murdered Edward Ratchett – if you know the story, then you’ll also know that this is not because Poirot failed to solve the case.
Likewise, in Death on the Nile, Poirot consistently coaxes the characters to heed a call to conscience rather than to pursue the perilous paths they tenuously tread. This is most clearly and compellingly portrayed in Poirot’s conversation with the betrayed lover, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Jackie was once engaged and madly in love with one Simon Doyle, and she loves him still. But after a successful appeal to her wealthy friend, Linette, to give Simon a job managing her estate, Linette is likewise smitten with Simon and steals him away from Jackie. Within weeks, Simon has broken off his engagement with Jackie and marries Linette instead. A jilted Jackie decides that the best revenge would be to hound the honeymooners as they travel abroad, taking twisted pleasure in feeding off of their fury as they discover that they cannot travel anywhere without her haunting their steps.
Observing this tragic melodrama aboard a river steamer upon the Nile, Poirot confronts Jackie one evening, gently, with a heartfelt caution: “Bury your dead. Give up the past, turn to the future. What is done is done. Bitterness will not undo it… You have suffered, yes, but what you are doing now will only prolong that suffering.” Jackie rejects Poirot’s counsel, claiming, “There are times when I almost enjoy myself.” Poirot dolefully replies, “And that, mademoiselle, is the worst of all.” Lost in a bitter and jealous rage, Jackie has become blind to wisdom: in trying to find relief from her pain, she has opened her heart to evil. And though the screenplay skips past the true power of Poirot’s appeal, Agatha Christie crafted for her hero the perfect words of warning:
“Mademoiselle, I beseech you. Do not do what you are doing. Do not open your heart to evil… because if you do, evil will come. Yes, very surely, evil will come. It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while, it will no longer be possible to drive it out.”
Standing alongside her on the precipice of a pivotal moment, Poirot knows that she may still turn back, that she might move on with her life. However, once certain choices are resolved by the heart, they will set our feet upon a slippery slope. Every step we take will make it exponentially more challenging to turn aside from the course we have chosen, and all courses that lead down that hill may run ill.
Just a few years later, C.S. Lewis would present a similarly captivating conception of the choices that are ever before us as we move along on this spiritual journey we call life:
“Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
This is the fundamental truth at the core of human nature which the biblical proverb warns us about: “Guard your heart above all else, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). It is essential that we maintain a constant vigilance over our thoughts and our steps, for that central part of us can be so easily turned down the wrong path. Often, we are unaware of how it is not merely ourselves who are choosing to think and to act in such ways, but we are also transforming our very selves in the process. With every moment that passes, we are becoming more heavenly or more hellish creatures. Nothing is trivial. Nothing is insignificant. Every turn we take transforms the core of our being inexorably toward one destiny or another.
At the end of the story, Jackie speaks with Poirot once more. Confirming that he won’t let her off without consequence, she admits the justice of his course: “I might do it again. I’m not a safe person any longer, I can feel that myself… It’s so dreadfully easy, killing people, and you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter, that it’s only you that matters – it’s dangerous, that.” Once again, Lewis’ analysis of the heart is illuminating: “Remember that, as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right… Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.” Jackie can see that her behavior needs to be checked, that she has become a danger to herself and others, and yet she recognizes that she also lacks the wisdom and the will to restrain herself. She senses that in opening her heart to evil, she has begun to lose herself.
Yet when we feel ourselves start to slip, we need only remember the passage from Proverbs to regain our footing and find our way forward: “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or to the left; keep your foot from evil” (4:25-27). Long before we have reached the bitter end, if we look, think, and act in alignment with how God meant for us to live in relation with him, with others and with ourselves, we will keep our feet from evil. As Tim Keller observes, “What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable. It is all-important, then, [to] move the heart to stop trusting and loving other things more than God.” What does your heart most want? For it will direct your gaze, your thoughts, and your actions – knowing this, it is essential that we guard our hearts, that we fix our eyes on Jesus, that we dwell upon what is pure and praiseworthy, and that we act in accordance with the love that he has shown us, in accordance with our new and glorious identity in him (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 4:8; 1 John 4:19; 1 Cor. 6:20).
The 2022 movie mistakenly suggests that the moral of the story is that “people will do crazy things for love.” In the novel, the insight of Poirot pierces deeper: “People say, ‘Love justifies everything,’ but that is not true.” He perceived that Jackie loved Simon too much. Or perhaps we had better say that she loved him in the wrong way, such that she was willing even to kill in order to try to bring him the wealthy lifestyle he desired. It didn’t begin with murder – it never does. But that excess of love, unchecked by virtue, led to the ruin of all. Lewis reminds us that this is precisely “why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” If we open our heart to evil, there is no telling where it may lead.
I must also commend the novel to your attention because the film devotes little time to Jackie’s reflections upon her crimes, once Poirot has uncovered the truth. While Jackie had tremendous trepidation about being an accomplice to the first murder, even forcing Simon to be the one to do it, she confesses that the second murder was disturbingly easy to commit with her own hands. By the time she murdered a third person for threatening to expose the second, it was almost thrilling. Once we let our hearts wander to places we know they ought not roam, we begin to lose our sense of right and wrong, until eventually our very selves are thoroughly confused and hopelessly entangled in thoughts and deeds that would once have made us shudder. Guard your heart: your hope, your joy, your compassion, your love – all of the beautiful things that make life worth living – flow from it. And if you feel that the springs of your heart have been poisoned and you’re lost in the dark, God has promised to give you a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). Trust in him, lean not on your own understanding, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).