AT 100, HERCULE POIROT CONTINUES TO LIVE ON
A retired Belgain police officer turned world famous private detective, he is the only fictional character to have received an obituary on the front page of The New York Times in 1975. A stickler for neatness, he took great pride in his appearance — from his immaculately groomed black, twirled moustache to his patent leather shoes.
The clues are easy enough especially for Agatha Christie’s fans to guess who the super sleuth is.
Last October marked 100 years since Hercule Poirot was introduced in October 1920 by the Queen of Mystery in her debut novel.
Christie’s most popular and long-running character stars in 33 novels, 59 short stories and one original play as well as four continuation novels by Sophie Hannah.
Hercule Poirot initially appeared in chapter two of Christie’s first published novel, The Mysterious Affair of Styles which was completed in 1916 but not published until 1920.
The first description of Poirot was by friend and fellow character Arthur Hastings: “He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side…The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”
So, how did Poirot with his “little grey cells” to solve crimes come into being? It was during World War I when Christie was working at a dispensary that she accepted the challenge of her older sister Madge to write a mystery novel. Christie, who had a flair for writing with several poems and a novel to her credit decided to use her free time at the dispensary to write a murder mystery. And so was born a mystery writer and her famous detective Poirot.
When naming her character, Christie combined two other famous literary sleuths: Marie Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Evans’ Monsieur Poiret.
When we meet Poirot in the first novel, he is in his mid-50s and already has a reputation as a detective. Poirot had served as the Chief of Police in Brussels and when ousted from Belgium, emigrated to England. He often addresses himself in the third person, is very particular about his appearance, and likes squares rather than circles. He solves his cases applying logical reasoning and old-school clue-based deduction, using the catchphrase “little grey cells” and “order and method”.
As Hastings remarked of him: “Sometimes, I feel sure he is as mad as a hatter; and then, just as he is at his maddest, I find there is a method in his madness.”
Though he does not talk much, Poirot is adept at getting people to confide in him. He saves up everything for the “big reveal” in the end, where he deconstructs the sequence of events — as to how a murder took place, wrapping it all up with a flourish.
From appearing in Christie’s first novel to several others subsequently, including some of the novelist’s most popular works such as Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders and Death on the Nile, Poirot is notably meticulous in his personal habits and his professional methodology.
He unravels crimes with admirable civility and perfect manners. Yet his powers of logic are formidable and unremitting and he is uncompromising sans prejudice. All that matters to him is justice, regardless of the criminal’s station in life. His integrity only adds to his eminence. He cannot be bought, nor can he be stopped.
Take for instance the classic whodunit — Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot uses his keen powers of observation and vast knowledge of the human psyche to untangle the murder of the old Mr. Ratchett.
Despite the popularity of her character, there came a time when Christie was fed up of Poirot. “There are moments when I have felt: Why-Why-Why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature? …Eternally straightening things, eternally boasting, eternally twirling his moustaches and tilting his egg-shaped head… I point out that by a few strokes of the pen… I could destroy him utterly. He replies, grandiloquently: Impossible to get rid of Poirot like that! He is much too clever,” she wrote.
Shortly before World War II, she penned Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in which Poirot dies. However, the script was kept in a safe for over 30 years until it was published in 1975, just a year before her death.
The New York Times published a pretty long obituary of Poirot, leading with: “Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.”
But the invincible Poirot lived on in many renditions. The diminutive cop-turned-detective has been played on screen by different actors from Austin Trevor to Peter Ustinov to Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh. In television, David Suchet is known for his portrayal of Poirot in the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
That’s not all. The eccentric Poirot got a new lease of life in 2013 when Christie’s estate and publisher HarperCollins announced plans to follow the examples of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, commissioning crime writer Sophie Hannah to write new Poirot novels. Hannah has published four novels since then, keeping the famous detective on his toes as well as Christie’s legacy alive. The latest, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill was published this year to coincide with Poirot’s 100 years along with the big screen launch of Death on the Nile.
How can I conclude without a word about the creator of Poirot, the spectacularly successful Agatha Christie who wrote 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections including the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap.
According to her estate, she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. That even after four decades since her death in 1976 Christie is widely read is rich testimony to the timeless brilliance of her work as also to the enduring popularity of her pompous, eccentric and charming detective, the one and only Hercule Poirot.