Hercule Poirot: Sleuth of the century
It’s no surprise that Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian refugee detective (he served as a policeman in Belgium before moving to England), was created in the middle of World War 1. Agatha Christie had served in a Red Cross hospital in Torquay, in southwest England, where several Belgians had taken refuge. Barely 26, she wrote her first work The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, though it was published in 1920 in the United States and the following year in the United Kingdom.
A hundred years on, Poirot remains one of the most famous literary characters of all time, appearing in 33 novels, 59 short stories, and a play. He has been portrayed by several actors, including Orson Welles, the more recognisable David Suchet, John Malkovich and Kenneth Branagh, in adaptations across mediums, from theatre and film to radio plays, TV series and audio books. Nicaragua even released a postage stamp in his honour, in 1971.
In 2014, long-time publisher HarperCollins (earlier called William Collins, Sons) also started an authorised continuation novel written by Sophie Hannah, which became an instant bestseller; the fourth novel in this series came out last year. Also released last year was a film based on Christie’s 1937 novel, Death on the Nile, starring Branagh and Gal Gadot.
Poirot inhabited a genre that was already marked by another genius detective whose ratiocinative powers brought his creator Arthur Conan Doyle popular fandom as well as raucous appreciation from literary critics. But Poirot was an odd man. His head was egg-shaped. His moustache rose at the tips and shone as though polished. A pince-nez sat atop his nose at all times. He wore pointy patent-leather shoes, carried a pocket watch and hated dust.
Though older by a few decades, Sherlock Holmes was decidedly cooler: he wore a deerstalker hat, cashmere muffler and the overcoat with upturned collar that was all the rage in the late 19th century. Both were geniuses, of course, but Holmes was the quintessential upper-class gentleman with some bad boy traits (his opium addiction, for example), while Poirot, already a retired man albeit of the gentry, was the quintessential outsider.
Poirot also bore a burden that Holmes didn’t: It was his task to restore order to a world rent apart by the Great War. Indeed, he was not alone in this. The 1920s and ’30s, referred to as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, were filled with men labouring to do the same. Christie counted as her contemporaries accomplished writers such as Dorothy L Sayers, GK Chesterton and R Austin Freeman. Across the Atlantic, American authors such as SS Van Dine, John Dickson Carr and Raymond Chandler were churning out whodunits using the same formulaic narrative structures. In fact, such was the genre’s prolificity that many books codifying the tenets of detective fiction were written in those decades too.
TS Eliot, a fan of the genre, wrote some of these: a key tenet was “fair play” — an attentive reader must have a shot at solving the mystery, same as the detective. For Eliot, “the character and motives of the criminal should be normal”, there should be no “relying either upon occult phenomena” or “elaborate and incredible disguises”. Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories by Van Dine in 1928 commanded that “no willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader”. And the mystery-writer’s group London Detection Club to which Sayers, Christie and Chesterton belonged, followed Ronald A Knox’s commandments of detective fiction. According to literary critic Paul Grimstad, the club required its members to take an oath that their stories would avoid making use of “divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo-jumbo, jiggery-pokery, coincidence, or the act of god.”
To be fair, Christie couldn’t do much about the second oath but she turned it to her advantage, creating not just an oddball like Poirot — so unlike any masculine standard that readers were familiar with — but also a character like Miss Marple, who relied on nothing but her powers of observation and her unobtrusiveness as an old woman who got in no one’s way, to solve crimes that baffled the police.
Poirot’s genius was sealed when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. Hailed as one of great detective fiction novels, …Ackroyd shook the very foundations of the reader’s expectation: the trustworthiness of the first-person narrator. But while readers may have been fooled till the very end, Poirot, who cracked the case, was not.
Detective fiction is popular because it perpetuates a socio-cultural ethos that finds many takers. The detective doesn’t just find the murderer in our midst. By locating the evil — methodically, scientifically and through sheer genius — the detective allows us readers to collectively heave a sigh of relief: the evil can be cast out, a semblance of order and morality can been restored despite the chaos that surrounds us. The problem is never the social order itself.
When Christie wrote Poirot into existence, women didn’t have the right to vote, and the first trans-Atlantic wireless telegraph had been relayed barely a decade before. Vast changes were taking place around the world: a war to end all wars ended with a socialist government replacing the monarchy in Russia; and in the rest of the world, including in India, Britain’s imperialist power was being severely challenged by national movements. The collective anxiety of a fast-disappearing world order was best expressed by Irish poet WB Yeats in 1919: “Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
“Yet the detective story has kept its hold; had even, in the two decades between the great wars, become more popular than ever before; and there is, I believe, a deep reason for this. The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility,” literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote in a 1944 piece titled ‘Why do people read detective stories?’ published in The New Yorker. “Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain … and he has been caught by an infallible Power, the supercilious and omniscient detective, who knows exactly how to fix the guilt.”
Poirot’s career continued undiminished until Curtain, which Christie wrote during World War 2, but which was released several years later, in 1975. In Curtain, Poirot commits a murder before ending his own life. The victim was a murderer himself, and his weapon of choice wasn’t poison or a blade, but his ability to manipulate people into committing crimes. Poirot did what he had set out to do at the start of the century: restore to us the world as we needed it to be, drained of the chancers and manipulators, locating the evil and fixing the guilt. But by the end of it, Poirot had to turn into a criminal himself. His brilliant mind was no longer enough.