‘The Hateful Eight’: How Agatha Christie Is It? (An Investigation)

The Hateful Eight
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

(SPOILER ALERT: This column gives away major plot details from “The Hateful Eight” and may ruin your enjoyment of several Agatha Christie mysteries, particularly “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” You’ve been warned.)

I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of skepticism when I first heard “The Hateful Eight” described as Quentin Tarantino’s spin on an Agatha Christie whodunit. That’s not all it is, of course: It’s Sergio Leone crossed with Harold Pinter, “Stagecoach” by way of “The Thing,” and a grimly funny three-hour soak in the lingering tensions and anxieties of postbellum America (the takeaway is less “The butler did it” than “Benjamin Butler did it”). But Tarantino has invoked Christie directly in interviews, and before I saw the film, I feared he would regard the author’s legacy in much the same way as those who’ve never bothered to read her — as convenient, even derisive shorthand for the cozy, creaky drawing-room mystery.

You know the conventions: the dinner party, the heavily foreshadowed murder, the closed circle of thinly drawn suspects, the gradual divining of means and motive, and the startling solution, relying on clues that have been deftly hidden in plain sight. Christie is the name people reach for even when they’re describing a scenario that might more accurately be attributed to one of her contemporaries, like Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers or Ngaio Marsh. In fact, the author deviated from her formula early and often, or at least reshuffled it brilliantly: She wrote series and non-series works, detective novels and spy thrillers. Some of her most memorable mysteries unfolded not in Gosford Park-style manor houses, but on exotic holidays in the Balkans and the Middle East. One of her most atypical detective stories, “Death Comes as the End,” centers around a family in ancient Egypt.

To be sure, Christie never wrote about the sort of wintry Wyoming outpost where “The Hateful Eight” takes place. Nor, for that matter, do her books traffic in exploding heads, nude death marches, forced oral sex acts, or any of the other horrors piled up in Tarantino’s latest pulp fiction. Even still, the Christie influence is pronounced and sustained. Tarantino, pastiche artist that he is, delights in stuffing his movies with elaborate homages and shout-outs to discarded gems of cinema past, and he approaches the task of plundering Christie’s oeuvre with, if not the same encyclopedic rigor, than at least a genuine respect and enthusiasm for what he’s appropriating.

The movie may only fitfully reproduce the puzzle-box ingenuity of the author’s plotting, but it both grasps and honors the enduring appeal of her work. As evidence, I offer up these eight points of connection between “The Hateful Eight” and the Christie canon from which it draws inspiration. It’s entirely possible that these are references of an entirely accidental nature, though Dame Agatha herself knew better than to put too much faith in coincidence. So let’s look at the on-screen evidence and consult the little gray cells of the brain, as Hercule Poirot would say.

1. The circle of strangers, a killer among them. The most obvious point of reference, as many have noted, is “And Then There Were None.” Christie’s endlessly influential 1939 masterpiece stranded 10 people on an island — and proceeded to kill them off, one after another, in a manner inspired by the fatalistic verses of “Ten Little Indians.” “The Hateful Eight” doesn’t proceed according to any such nursery-rhyme logic. The mystery here concerns which of the eight is working as an accomplice of convicted murderess Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), and said accomplice is not necessarily bent on offing everyone in sight. Still, from the moment we see them all gathered in Minnie’s Haberdashery, it seems all but certain that most or all of the eight will be dead by movie’s end.

(Not-so-fun fact: Although better known by its preferred American title, “And Then There Were None,” as well as “Ten Little Indians,” Christie’s book was originally published in England under the title of “Ten Little N—–s.” Is it purely coincidental that the same racial epithet has figured so controversially in Tarantino’s own body of work?)

2. The blizzard. A freak snowstorm becomes an unexpected hurdle for Domergue and her collaborator(s), not only making escape temporarily impossible, but also bringing in two very unwelcome party crashers: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), both of whom are more or less on the side of the law. I was reminded of Christie’s 1948 short story “Three Blind Mice,” about a group of people trapped with a murderer at a guest house that has been unexpectedly snowed in. (That story also served as the basis for the author’s long-running play “The Mousetrap.”)

“Three Blind Mice” is not the only Christie mystery that hinges on a spot of inclement weather. In her 1934 Poirot classic, “Murder on the Orient Express,” a London-bound passenger — a notorious gangster, it turns out — is stabbed to death in his cabin, the same night the train gets caught in a snowdrift. A crime that was meant to look like the work of an outsider is thus exposed as an inside job: With no tracks leading away from the coach, it’s clear to Poirot and his fellow passengers that the murderer could not have escaped.

3. The poisoned coffee. As detailed in Kathryn Harkup’s recently published book “A Is for Arsenic,” poison was Christie’s preferred method of offing her characters, and owing to her experience as a hospital trainee during WWI, she employed her various toxins with unusual skill and accuracy. Admittedly, none of her poisonings resulted in the sort of bloody projectile vomiting that makes for one of “The Hateful Eight’s” most memorably grisly sequences, thanks to a pot of coffee surreptitiously spiked by one of Domergue’s accomplices. Two men drink from it: one an intended victim, the other an innocent bystander.

My own mind flashed back to Christie’s final Poirot novel, “Curtain” (1975), in which a tainted cup of coffee is accidentally (and fatally) imbibed by the poisoner thanks to an inconveniently placed revolving bookcase. But there may also be some overlap with “Three Act Tragedy” (1934), in which a number of poisoned cocktails are distributed in notably callous, arbitrary fashion; the murderer is targeting one person in particular, with no regard for collateral damage. Last but not least is “Five Little Pigs” (1942), perhaps Christie’s greatest achievement, in which one character looks on, quietly gloating, as a man drinks the coniine-laced beer that will end his life. It’s a similar look, I imagine, to the one that crosses Domergue’s bloodied face as she watches her captor take his first sip.

4. The impostor. As numerous critics have pointed out, Christie’s books are often marred by throwaway descriptions and lines of dialogue that reflect the casual racism of the era in which they were written. The orientalist and anti-Semitic attitudes expressed by some of Christie’s characters make her an especially curious fit for Tarantino, who routinely draws accusations of racial insensitivity despite (or perhaps because of) his own obvious hyper-awareness of race. Few other writers would have the gall to turn that animus into the very basis of a key plot twist: In “The Hateful Eight,” Warren exposes the haberdashery’s hired hand, Bob (Demian Bichir), as a fake, based on the secret knowledge that Minnie, the establishment’s black owner, would never have had a Mexican in her employ.

This development arguably violates the rules of fair play, since Minnie’s prejudice is never disclosed beforehand (we don’t even meet the old gal until a flashback in the second half). Still, Tarantino does prompt us to suspect something’s not quite right about Bob, who seems less than attentive to the task of plucking a chicken for supper. In any event, the devoted Christie scholar would be on the lookout for such a rug-pull, given that her work positively reveled in false fronts and mistaken identities, from “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” to the Miss Marple classic “A Murder Is Announced.” The most relevant examples here may be those books in which the murderer dresses up as a servant or helper — an airline steward in “Death in the Clouds,” or a waiter in “Sparkling Cyanide” — betting, correctly, on the assumption that no one ever notices the help.

5. The man murdered in his chair. Another instance of narrative cheating on Tarantino’s part, as one key revelation — that a Minnie’s regular by the name of Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) has been murdered — depends entirely on the viewer’s foreknowledge of the man’s attachment to his favorite chair; had he truly left town, he would surely have taken it with him. And yet there it remains, draped with a cloth that, as Warren knows, conceals the bloody evidence of what happened to the chair’s rightful occupant.

In Christie’s 1926 masterpiece, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the title character is stabbed to death in a chair in his study. To throw investigators off the scent, the killer subsequently tampers with the room — planting a few footprints here, moving a piece of furniture there — in ways that “The Hateful Eight” can’t help but evoke, with its hasty crime-scene cover-up. Yet there are also echoes of “Cards on the Table” (1936), in which eight (!) guests gather for a bridge tournament, during which one of them gets up and stabs their host to death while he dozes by the fireplace. The book is more interesting in its minimalist conception than its tedious execution, but whether he’s read it or not, Tarantino is channeling the same sense of danger in close quarters. The entire movie is like a high-stakes, three-hour poker game where everyone winds up losing. Speaking of which …

6. Everyone’s in on it. Perhaps inevitably, Domergue doesn’t have just one gangster accomplice in the room. She has four of them — one of them hiding beneath the floorboards, in Tarantino’s most flagrant cheat (foreshadowed only by the appearance of the actor’s name in the opening credits). And that’s not counting the ex-Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a not-so-innocent bystander who goes along with the gangsters’ scheme to save his own skin. And so the movie’s whodunit scenario resolves in the bluntest, easiest fashion imaginable — one that affirms the veracity of the movie’s title, and allows for the goriest possible ending.

Consider it another throwback to “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which Poirot gradually realizes that everyone on board had reason to wish the victim dead — an outcome that could only have been achieved by design. All, therefore, must be guilty: 12 stab wounds, each one inflicted by a different passenger. (“Only a half-wit could guess it,” Raymond Chandler famously sneered, and he might well have said the same of “The Hateful Eight.”) Thankfully, no gruesome bloodbath awaits at the end of Christie’s book, or Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation: Knowing the gangster’s execution was a necessary, even moral act, Poirot lets all 12 conspirators off the hook. (Domergue and her collaborators try to coax Mannix into letting them go free as well, but no such absolution is forthcoming.)

7. The hanging. “The Hateful Eight” concludes with the lynching of Daisy Domergue — a scene that many critics have interpreted, along with the woman’s generally horrendous mistreatment throughout, as definitive proof of Tarantino’s misogyny. I’m not buying it. Leigh’s character may be one of the year’s most memorably horrific creations, but she is very far from some Tarantinoan stand-in for womankind, and the director refuses the condescension of phony chivalry: He lets Domergue be as nasty and degenerate and irredeemable as she wants to be. If there’s a reason the scene is so unsettling, it’s that the movie gives the spectacle of her comeuppance an almost cosmic weight. It’s the one event foreshadowed at the outset — Domergue must hang — and there’s something disturbingly satisfying about the inevitability with which it comes to pass, as though Tarantino were intervening directly in order to bring about justice in a very, very unjust world.

The climactic hanging of a woman has at least two Christie antecedents. In one of them, “Towards Zero” (1944), the gruesome event doesn’t actually occur, but it is nonetheless envisioned at the outset. This is one of the author’s most unconventionally and ingeniously plotted novels: The killer’s plan, we learn, involves framing a woman for someone else’s murder, so that she will be tried, convicted and ultimately hanged (the “zero hour” referenced by the title).

The second example brings us back to “And Then There Were None,” in which the last person standing is a woman named Vera Claythorne. Shaken by guilty memories and the trauma of watching nine people die before her, she calmly climbs the stairs to her room and places her head in a noose that someone has thoughtfully provided. The moment is chilling in its finality, as well as its suggestion that, even through acts of extraordinary evil, justice has somehow prevailed.

8. The title. This one’s a stretch, but bear with me (as you surely have if you’re still reading). Many have interpreted the title of “The Hateful Eight” as a nod to “The Magnificent Seven” — but might it not also be a play on “The Big Four”? Christie’s 1927 spy novel was not exactly her shining hour; indeed, none of her occasional forays into the world of espionage are remembered with any particular fondness. Still, “The Big Four” does contain one snippet of dialogue that seems a bit revealing in context: “That’s psychology, isn’t it, M. Poirot? You see, I’ve read all about your methods, and I may say I’m an enormous admirer of yours.” The speaker is a man by the name of — wait for it — Dr. Quentin.