November 25, 2013


A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie's "Poirot" (Molly McArdle, November 25th, 2013, LA Review of Books)

She created the detective in a fit of patriotic fervor during the First World War. In a 2006 episode of the documentary series "Super Sleuths" on Agatha Christie's Poirot, the author's grandson Mathew Prichard attributes her inspiration to seeing near her home a bus full of Belgian refugees, having fled the bloody pit Europe's armies had made of their country. One, apparently, looked particularly striking: a small, dapper man with an "egg-shaped head."

Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1917 -- coincidentally the same year that Arthur Conan Doyle published the last story in Sherlock Holmes's chronology. (Though he went on to publish an additional book of short stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, all were set between 1896 and 1907.) Doyle's story takes place in 1914, on the eve of the Great War; Christie, in its midst. Both stories, set in Essex, offer the barest hint of overlap: the stuff of fanfiction.

If you were to imagine these detectives at a party, Sherlock Holmes -- tall, hawklike, thin as a razor (appropriate considering all that cocaine) -- would stand by the window, looking haunted and mean. Poirot, meanwhile, would be by the buffet, a crisp white napkin tucked into his precision-fit collar and draped over his significant front. While Holmes might consume himself with ashtrays or the quality of dirt on a guest's shoe, Poirot -- tiny plate of hors d'oeuvre in hand -- watches the way a dancing couple looks at each other, the huffy departure of an angered man, and slips in and out of pleasant small talk.

Though Christie clearly molded Hercule Poirot after Holmes -- both eccentric, vain, and improbably brilliant; both accompanied by rather dimmer wingmen (Hastings for Poirot, Watson for Holmes); both regularly interacting with their cruder and inevitably lower-class counterparts in the police (Japp and Lestrade, respectively) -- he is a clear departure. As a character, Poirot certainly lacks the glamor that bestows on Benedict Cumberbatch's wan, ferrety face the high-cheek-boned handsomeness he somehow bears in Sherlock. But his absurdity -- not only in the perfectly tailored suits, the persistent gleam of his patent-leather shoes, the perfect and ludicrous mustache, but also in the effort we see Poirot make to maintain his appearance -- humanizes him. We know the arguments he has with his tailor, how he sighs every time his feet threaten to touch dirt, about the tiny scissors he uses to trim his facial hair. Holmes's toilette, however, remains a mystery.

Poirot's physical vanity speaks to a larger difference in how the detective moves through and interacts with the world around him. He cares deeply how other people see him because he cares deeply about other people. Though Poirot is a far cry from a feminist detective, it's interesting to think about him as the product of a woman writer, or at least a writer who understands the importance of public opinion, of relationships, of feelings. Poirot's genuine engagement and interest in people, rather than merely the crimes they commit, shapes his method of investigation.

Patricia D. Maida writes in Murder She Wrote: A Study of Agatha Christie's Detective Fiction that "Poirot distinguishes himself from the prototype in his 'picturesque refusal to go Holmes-like on all fours in the pursuit of clues.' [...] By relying on his 'little grey cells'" -- that is, his brain (it's one of the detective's signature catch phrases) -- "Poirot moves beyond the limits of physical evidence to rare moments of perception."

Poirot's style of investigation centers on interviews. Though concrete clues -- footprints, initialed handkerchiefs, half-burned wills -- form a crucial part of his deduction, ultimately the solution he presents is founded on emotional truth, which he discovers through his perceptive reading of the personalities around him and, especially, the stories they tell him. Cultivating a solicitous, avuncular air, Poirot encourages witnesses to divulge all. "Papa Poirot" is all-forgiving, ever-understanding, kind and patient and harmless, really. (How could this tiny, foppish Belgian man, whose grasp of English seems none too firm, be a threat?) He collects each story, some complimentary and others contradicting, and he shapes them into master narrative, one that changes throughout the episode as new information -- physical as well as psychological -- arises. Ultimately, his solutions must make both logistical (the shoe must fit the footprint) and emotional sense. He seeks not merely to know how but also, fundamentally, why.

So much of the pleasure of Agatha Christie's Poirot can be found in the denouement. It is a profoundly theatrical event, every time. Poirot (or one of his agents) gathers the involved parties -- witnesses, suspects, bystanders -- into a room where they can be seated comfortably and then presents his findings. He does not merely supply a name, he tells a story, one about all of their stories. As a result, his metanarrative often grows larger than the murder itself: he reveals relatively unrelated drug addictions, affairs, secret parentage, shady histories. The price this group of people must pay for harboring a criminal (knowingly or not) is for all their secrets to be revealed. In the 2006 ITV documentary Poirot & Me, David Suchet explains: "He knows who it is. He puts everyone through hell. He makes everyone feel guilty. The whole of the last act is Poirot summing up. It's my piece of theater, as well as Poirot's piece of theater." [...]

The performance that Poirot supplies at the end of every episode, his summation, is essential to the pleasure we take in his stories. In the Poirot & Me documentary, Suchet says, "I think Agatha Christie is one of the great mystery and intrigue writers -- not so much for her plots. I think she's great because of her characterizations." Episodes are replete with truly ridiculous crimes -- full of electrocuted chess pieces, whoopee cushions that approximate dying screams, balls of goat blood sealed in wax -- but Poirot's retelling makes them, to a certain extent, sensible. Ultimately, despite the improbable twists, he grapples with the question of why people (that is, relatively well-off British people) do terrible things. Christie, and so also Poirot, succeeds because they shape the character of evil into something that can be explained. 

"You see murder, a real murder, is not an entertainment."

--Poirot, "Affair at the Victory Ball"

There is something about violent crime, when treated in a very specific way -- that is, named and punished -- that provides audiences in any medium a profound comfort. Though ostensibly about a brutal rupture in the social order, mysteries and crime novels end with a solution (murder is exposed) and a resolution (murder is punished) and are therefore, in fact, a reification of the strength of a culture's social fabric. Law and order (and thus justice), despite pernicious threats, ultimately prevail.

Poirot had always seemed to fussy, but The Wife and I are on Season Six (God bless Amazon Prime) and enjoying it immensely.  They're worth it just for David Suchet's performance and for Hastings, Japp & Ms Lemon.

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Posted by at November 25, 2013 4:00 PM

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