A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot"

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Agatha Christie




A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot" by Molly McArdle

November 25th, 2013 reset - +

ON AUGUST 6, 1975, an obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective.” The only obituary of a fictional character printed in the Times, and certainly the only one to make the front page, it sweetly insists on his reality: “The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected.”

Agatha Christie, after Shakespeare and the authors of the Bible, ranks as the third bestselling writer of all time. Her 85 books, over half of which feature her “tidy little man,”[1] have sold around four billion copies to date. Of the 33 novels and 56 short stories that include Hercule Poirot — private detective, Belgian expat, dandy, neat freak, ambiguous bachelor, Catholic sentimentalist, and often judge, jury, and executioner — all have aired, in some form or fashion, as a part of ITV’s Agatha Christie's Poirot. The 70 total episodes (some of Christie’s stories were condensed into a single script) first began to appear in 1989. Its last, “Curtain,” aired this November 13th. In all of them, Christie’s most prolific creation is played by David Suchet. 

In the country of Doctor Who, a program that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, Poirot's 25 years can feel paltry.[2] But for all of the Doctor’s famed longevity, his longest-lived incarnation lasted only seven seasons — a long time to be sure, but nothing like Suchet’s quarter century. Only James Arness and Milburn Stone, who played Dodge City's marshal and doctor, respectively, during Gunsmoke’s two decades, rival Suchet’s run. For the past 25 years, viewers have watched an actor and character grow and change together, episode by episode, year by year: a time-lapse detective. The slow thin of his mustache, the growth of his ponderous belly, the accumulation of papery lines at the corners of his eyes has been nothing short of astonishing.

¤ 

“Hastings, why should I be the hypocrite? To blush when I am praised and say, like you, ‘It is nothing.’ I have the order, the method, and the psychology. There, I admit it, I am the best. I am Hercule Poirot.”

—Poirot, “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”

Christie famously called Poirot a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep," a string of adjectives so often quoted it’s difficult to find their original source. Her exhaustion with the character is apparent, though. Poirot first appeared in her 1920 novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and by 1936 —14 books later — Christie grew frustrated enough to insert a version of herself into the story. Ariadne Oliver, a mystery novelist who despises her most famous creation, vegetarian Finnish detective Sven Hjerson, appears in six novels with Poirot, starting with that year’s Cards on the Table. “If I ever met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life,” Oliver later says in 1952’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, “I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.” Christie would continue to write about Poirot until the 1970s.

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[3] 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.”

So explicitly theatrical, in fact, that he often uses props, conscripts a supporting cast, and performs his monologue in traditional performance spaces. In “The Affair at the Victory Ball,” his revelatory speech (and the murderer’s subsequent arrest) is broadcast live on the BBC. On a Mediterranean cruise in “Problem at Sea,” he interrupts a fellow traveler’s recitation of Rudyard Kipling and proceeds to display and interview a “talking” doll, whose voice is in fact supplied by a little girl hidden, behind a partition, who witnessed the episode’s murder. In this season’s “The Big Four,” which appeared on October 23, Poirot has orchestrated for all the relevant parties to assemble in the same space — a theater. As he explains the murderer’s motives, methods, the detectives concludes, “You adore the flourish that is theatrical.” The guilty party bristles:

“You’ve got a nerve.”

“Comment?”

“All this. You already worked out where I was. You could have sent the police to arrest me at any time. But instead you wanted a grand finale, show everyone just how clever you’d been. Oh, we’re more alike than you think, Poirot.”

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.[4] Law and order (and thus justice), despite pernicious threats, ultimately prevail.

Poirot, because of his status as a private detective, and because he is always right,[5] has remarkable control over the outcome of an investigation. Occasionally, if he feels their cause is just, or if he has a particular fondness for them, he will let guilty parties go. At other times, he gives the murderer the opportunity to commit suicide rather than face the public scrutiny of a trial and conviction. The television series has done a better job of complicating this privately held discretionary power than Christie did. In Suchet’s version of Murder on the Orient Express, his detective is far more disturbed by the truth of the killing than his counterpart in the novel: 

“No! No, you behave like this and we become just … savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed! “

It’s a thrilling speech from Poirot, given during his traditional last-act summation: Suchet’s slack face quivers in the cold air of the stalled, and unheated, train compartment; his words are puffs of ghostly white. It’s also more than a little hypocritical, given Poirot’s lenience in other cases. 

Murder on the Orient Express deals with, on the most fundamental level, a miscarriage of justice and its aftermath. “We looked to the law for justice,” one character in the episode says, “and the law let us down.” Poirot is indignant, yet the traditional criminal justice system consistently fails throughout the series. Inspector Japp, for all his good intentions, pins crimes on the wrong person as a rule. Often it’s more than a matter of superior insight (though Poirot has that by the bucketful) — the police on Agatha Christie’s Poirot are impatient and incurious: more eager to arrest someone than the right one. “I am better than the police,” Poirot explains to a skeptical (and ultimately innocent) suspect in “The ABC Murders,” and it is true. In Poirot’s cases, justice always triumphs, but it’s clear he lives in a world where, for everyone else, it does not.

¤

“I like sex maniacs. I’ve read about them.”

—Marlene Tucker, “Dead Man’s Folly”

Christie is progenitor of the “cozy” subgenre of mystery writing. “Cozies” are, as a rule, lighter and funnier, set in small communities, heavy on the poisonings (and other bloodless methods of killing), and light on salaciousness. Village spinster Miss Marple, Christie’s second most prolific character, reigns supreme over this style of mystery. Law and Order: SVU and CSI sit at the other end of the spectrum, with their fixation on the physical details of violent acts — bruises, stray hair, semen — and focus on tangible evidence. Though Poirot is resolutely more urban and urbane than Marple, and a professional rather than an amateur detective, their stories both share this general disinterest in gore and sex. Poirot’s purview is in drawing rooms, not morgues. 

This cozy attitude informed the first 15 years of the show. “I do think, for a television series, you need a basic family unit, whether it’s a family or not,” Poirot writer Clive Exton explained in the Super Sleuths documentary. Exton, who died in 2007, adapted the show’s pilot with his partner, producer Brian Eastman, and would go on to write nearly a third of the series’s episodes.

Their Poirot centers on the detective’s relationships with Captain Hastings, who lives with him until sometime before “Lord Edgware Dies” in 2000[6]; Miss Lemon, Poirot’s secretary; and Inspector Japp. Though often dark, the show consistently returns to this light-hearted core. The story is never too somber to have some humor — a bon mot or two, a vain frown from Poirot, a baffled “My word!” from Hastings — threaded through it.

Exton and Eastman ran the show for eight seasons before they left in 2003 to work on Rosemary & Thyme, a British mystery series that out-cozies Marple herself. (It centers on two retirement-age gardening detectives.) “There was a definite change when the original producer, Brian Eastman, left,” Philip Jackson, who plays Japp, observed in the same documentary, “He created the world, and he had a writer in Clive Exton … who liked the aspect of creating a little bit of a family, and not just having the mystery element. When Brian stopped doing it, I think [the new producers] may have thought that approach was a bit old-fashioned.”

With Eastman and Exton’s departure, so went the show’s marvelous saxophone-heavy title credits, which features Poirot strolling through an abstracted environment that’s part 1930s Art Deco and part 1980s Peter Nagel, replete with floating guns and magnifying glasses. (It is a gem.) Hastings, Lemon, and Japp also disappeared, which is due both to the show’s shift away from situational humor and to the Christie novels and stories the show had left to adapt, none of which featured the characters.

The production values increase dramatically with the ninth season. Though the show had already transitioned in 1994 into a format of 89-102 minute episodes doled out sporadically over a year (the first five seasons had ten 50-minute episodes), the episodes that began to air in 2003 now looked and felt like feature films. “This is British TV at its most expensive,” Suchet said in the Poirot & Me documentary, and it shows.

Though the show’s bread and butter plots continue to revolve around love or money, as the series has progressed, Poirot has dealt with more serial killers, dead children, abusive families, mass murders. In season 10’s “Taken at the Flood,” his eyes fill with tears as he barrels through his summation of a brutal bombing, “How depraved, God, how evil, does a man have to be to cause the slaughter of so many innocent people for the concealment of a single murder.” The weight of all this death weighs palpably upon the detective. Suchet moves through these later seasons as if his padding has been stuffed with lead.

“He’s also got a very dark side,” Suchet observed in Poirot & Me, “I try and bring out this quality in Poirot more and more.”

This final season has been striking for the attention paid to the victim’s bodies, and their deaths seem especially gruesome. In “Elephants Can Remember,” a murder victim is found bound and gagged — drowned — in an abandoned, and obviously cruel, hydrotherapy device located in a grimy, unused wing of a psychiatric facility, like something out of Session 9. “The Big Four” features a scene that takes place in a morgue, a location neither Poirot the detective nor Poirot the series ever spent significant time in before. In “Dead Man’s Folly,” the murder victims are a child and an adult with a mental illness, and one particularly curious 14-year-old hounds Poirot for details on the nature of “sex maniacs.”[7] (Though it must be said that when Poirot is faced with this question, his eyebrows, rising by the barest degree, express extreme incredulity, as if he recognizes she’s in the wrong story.) A splatter of blood, wild and red, flashes across the screen early in “The Labors of Hercules,” alluding to the brutality of a killing the audience is not even allowed to see. Though the body remains off screen, an act of this severity — and committed in cold blood — rarely occurs on the show.

¤

“Poirot, he is not your love. He is Poirot.”

—Poirot, “Labors of Hercules”

The show makes much of Poirot’s loneliness, especially as the series progresses. As first Hastings, then Lemon, and even Japp fall away, Poirot moves through the world by-and-large in solitude. “The journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone,” he tells the spinster Miss Gilchrist in “After the Funeral.” His later years are full of sighing regrets about his youth: he pines for a romantic relationship, but curiously that desire never exists in the present, instead wishing it had happened in the safe distance of the past 

In a speech I often recite in a halting and terrible imitation of Suchet’s cadence, Poirot laments to his friend Mrs. Oliver:

Am I so calculating, Madame? Am I a solver of puzzles with a heart that is cold? Or are we looking at the greatest of mysteries that life ever throws up … the mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve — the nature of love. 

In many ways this is Poirot at his most ludicrous, most cliché. The only mystery he could not solve was love. But this admission is also a product of his desperate aloneness, one he chooses to evade with unspecific fantasies of youthful romance.

And yet viewers don’t have to look far to name a long-term, committed relationship in Poirot’s life. For the first 15 years of the show, Hasting and Poirot live together, work together, vacation together. They are each the other’s closest friend and companion. For Poirot, no other relationship comes near the intimacy he shares with Hastings. Their affection for one another is tangible.[8]

Japp, for all his failings of detection, remains a rather perceptive reader of other people. “You got a slightly ambiguous attitude to Hastings and Poirot,” Jackson, who played Japp in 40 episodes, explains in Super Sleuths:

They sort of live a bachelor life. You’re not quite sure what their relationship is like when they’re off duty. They seem to hang around that apartment quite a lot. And there’s Miss Lemon. With the three of them you don’t know really what’s happening, there might be some deep sexual thing going on. Japp, when he went round to Poirot’s place, he was a bit suspicious of what might go on, the decadence of the upper classes and all that sort of stuff. 

The show takes pains to insist on everyone’s heterosexuality. Hastings is always swooning after different women, and he finally leaves Poirot (a la Watson) for a conventional marriage, though we never meet his wife. Christie even bestows upon Poirot his own Irene Adler, the Countess Rossakoff, a brilliant and glamorous jewel thief he lets escape justice. She returns this season in “The Labors of Hercules” to remind him of the (heteronormative, married, family) life he could have had.[9] 

There’s a whiff of overcompensation about all of this. Why can’t Hastings and Poirot just be left to be? Agatha Christie’s Poirot is itself a deeply asexual show — why go to such lengths to sexualize these characters, to supply them with heteronormative love interests that never seem to make much sense? Both hold each other in the highest regard: how can we believe that a woman who appears in one episode would have a greater claim on either one? Sex doesn’t need to enter this particular equation, for me, just an end to these false attempts at propriety. Poirot and Hastings don’t have to kiss, or even hold hands: all I want is for them to sing together on road trips, forever.

Suchet himself gives a thoroughly heteronormative reading of Poirot’s character in his interviews. In the documentary Poirot & Me, he explains that the detective “believes that a relationship with a man and woman, a loving relationship, is the greatest gift of god, especially when it ends up in marriage.” He goes on to say that many viewers “would love Poirot to meet someone, to not only love him, but that he could release and love a lady. And he wished he could too.”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot has queered some minor characters as they’ve adapted the stories for television. When asked by The Telegraph in 2008 if a similar shift might occur with any of the series regulars, Suchet answered “almost angrily”: “That’s not going to happen in Poirot. No way. He will not become gay.”

He cites Christie’s books as evidence, and to be sure the text is there. Still, Suchet willfully ignores the subtexts he has himself enacted through the show’s over two decades. Again, Poirot need not be explicitly sexual, or even sexual at all, but it is clear that his great relationship with Hastings is the most serious and intimate of his life.

In one of the worst scenes in the show’s 25 year history, “Hickory Dickory Dock” sees Japp invite Poirot over for dinner. The inspector is determined to introduce him to “some proper English cooking.” The set piece is organized around derogatory food puns: a kind of Welsh meatloaf called “faggots” and, of course, spotted dick — a currant-flecked cake. Poirot, equally uninterested in British cuisine as Japp is in Belgian, looks at his plate with horror. 

“Faggot?”

“Faggots. And there’s spotted dick for afters.”

“Dick?”

“Yes, it’s called that because…”

“This is tragic, Chief Inspector.”

“No, no, it’s fine.”

“I can eat none of this wonderful food.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I have … an allergy of the faggot.”

“An allergy?”

“Oui. I do not know how you say it in English but in Belgian it is known as … la phobia du faggot.”

“I’ve never heard of that.”

“I’m sorry, Chief Inspector, I should have warned you.”

“Well this is blessed upset, I must say. Well, you can still have some spotted dick. You don’t have a phobia to dick, have you?” 

It is as mortifying as it sounds. Though this kind of scene is an outlier — I have not seen any other in the series like it — the explicit homophobia here, and implicit elsewhere, is a moral failure on the part of the show.

“Ah, c'est magnifique. Just the place for a restful vacation. The food will be inedible.”

—Poirot, “Peril at End House”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot also struggles with the complicated (and often plain rotten) political outlook of the Dame herself.[10] There is no getting around Agatha Christie’s famous, and easily discerned, racism. There should be no getting around it. In fact, this is a major issue with all British period dramas: they document (and so often celebrate) a particular time in a particular place that is, by many objective standards, indefensible. Few costume dramas deal with the fact that the men and women who populate them live off, or actively subjugate, whole continents worth of peoples to support their lifestyles.[11]

Christie married her second husband, a young archeologist named Max Mallowan, in 1930, and her experiences traveling with him throughout the Middle East shaped her writing. Four years after their marriage, her first Poirot novel set outside of Europe — Murder on the Orient Express — was published. Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death soon followed. Edward Said talks about the experience of specifically English travel during this time period in Orientalism:

What the English mind surveyed was an imperial domain which by the 1880s had become an unbroken patch of British-held territory, from the Mediterranean to India. To write about Egypt, Syria, or Turkey, as much as traveling in them, was a matter of touring the realm of political will, political management, political definition. 

Though Britain is his adopted home, Poirot is never mistaken for an Englishman. Abroad, however, Poirot moves through these spaces as a European among other Europeans. His acts of colonial tourism are ones of solidarity with the British imperial project, and through his travel to British-held territories with other British people, he aligns himself with their causes.

Few native residents have speaking roles in these episodes: they toil wordlessly in the open sun of archeological digs or the bustle of the marketplace. We are spared the specificities of their lives, presumably because they are not interesting, important, or relevant enough to receive our attention. They are, in effect, a human backdrop.

Occasionally, a person of color has a major speaking role, but these episodes all notably take place in England. For Britain’s colonial subjects to warrant the show’s interest, they must make the effort of traveling back to the empire’s center, where they can be handy symbols of the places they left behind. These characters are often clumsily sketched, at best.[12] (Etienne de Sousa in this season’s “Dead Man’s Folly” is a notable exception.) The great British-Sudanese actor (and Deep Space Nine heartthrob) Alexander Siddig plays Mr. Shaitana, a devious collector of art and unusual criminal artifacts in “Cards on the Table.” Mrs. Oliver spots him across a gallery opening: 

“Oh, look, it's Mr. Shaitana. What is he? An Armenian? A Greek?”
“No one knows. All that is known is that he is one of the richest men in London.”
“He gives me the jitters.”

A man of unclear, but clearly non-English extraction, he is also manifestly bad news. He embodies the Orientalist stereotype Said outlines early in his seminal book: “Orientals are inveterate liars, they are ‘lethargic and suspicious,’ and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race.” It is a role that denies Shaitana his humanity, just as it makes him representative of all the people from the Near East. It is, in 2006, a demoralizing choice to make. 

Christie’s novel Hickory Dickory Dock is notable for not only her decision to depict a boarding house full of international students but also for her clumsy and frequently offensive portrayal of those characters. In the 1955 book, students hail from various parts of the United Kingdom but also Egypt, West Africa, Jamaica, India, France, and the United States. In the 1995 adaptation, the episode writers decided to “solve” the problem of Christie’s racism by whitewashing the whole cast. And what a wasted opportunity — there was nothing to prevent Poirot from reclaiming these characters. Even in the 1955 novel, Christie makes space for an Indian character, Chandra Lal, to shout at dinner, “You ask why is the Mau Mau? You ask why does Egypt resent the Suez Canal?” Forty years later, Agatha Christie’s Poirot doesn’t even allow him that: erasing both him and his anticolonial sentiments.

Indeed, Poirot’s greatest failing has been its uncritical reproduction of Christie’s imperialist worldview. The radical changes Poirot’s writers have made in other respects — changing the character’s chronology wholesale, combining stories and inventing new elements for them, and, especially, altering her plots to make space for (some) queer characters — nullify claims they had to remain faithful to the books. Though, as Christie scholar Maida reflects, “of all the heroes of detective fiction — past and present — Hercule Poirot is among the most cosmopolitan,” Poirot nonetheless leaves much to be desired. 

So is it worth watching? This question doesn’t have a uniform answer. For me — a straight, white woman — it’s easier to compartmentalize these issues, to acknowledge them as problems and then to forget them (at least for a time) in the process of trying to outguess Poirot, which simply won’t be possible for other viewers.[13] Essentially, Poirot’s problems are the same as many other British cultural products born of or documenting this time. It’s not an excuse, but a reality. If you can stomach Downton Abbey, chances are you’ll be okay with Poirot too. 

What makes the television show special, and worth the effort (for me), is Poirot himself — at once ridiculous and dignified, empathetic and avenging. Which is to say, David Suchet.

¤

 “It always seems strange to me that whoever plays Poirot is always an outsize man.” 

—Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

Christie did not live to see Suchet’s version of Poirot. There have been at least 13 of them since the character’s creation: Charles Laughton portrayed the detective first, in a 1928 West End play that adapted one of the most famous Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In pictures he appears to be a reasonable facsimile. Austin Trevor, the first actor to portray the detective on film, looks absolutely disgraceful: he does not even have a mustache. Sullivan, who Christie liked despite his size (he was quite tall), portrayed Poirot in the only play Christie herself wrote for the detective: Black Coffee. (It is, coincidentally, her only Poirot product the show did not adapt.) Tony Randall took a turn in 1965, but his rendition was more Clouseau than Poirot, and The Pink Panther had done the work of lampooning the detective the year before. You can watch Ian Holm, circa 1986, in an imagined meeting with Agatha Christie and her creation as well as Jason Alexander, ever so briefly, in “Murder on the Disoriented Express” from 1996 on YouTube. 

Charles Laughton, 1928; Austin Trevor, 1931; Francis L. Sullivan, 1940

Martin Gabel, 1962; Tony Randall, 1965

Albert Finney, 1974; Peter Ustinov, 1978; Ian Holm, 1986

Jason Alexander, 1996; Alfred Molina, 2001; anime Poirot, 2004-2005

David Suchet, 1989 and 2013

The most notable Poirots, other than of course Suchet, are Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express and Peter Ustinov in three feature and three made-for-TV films, chief among them, Death on the Nile. Finney was the only Poirot to be nominated for an Oscar. But with the stiffness (and the comb-over) of a Hitler impersonator, he is perplexing to watch now. Finney has none of the unctuousness of Papa Poirot, much less a discernible neck — though, if you squint, he at least begins to resemble the man Christie created.

Ustinov was the most visually unlike Christie’s creation: he is quite large, with a mop of gray hair (Poirot always kept it black) and a neat but slightly rumpled appearance. “When Rosalind Hicks, Agatha Christie's daughter, first saw me,” Ustinov told the Los Angeles Times in 1985, “she said, 'That's not Poirot.’”

He shot back, “It is now, my dear."

Ustinov won two Academy Awards for Spartacus and Topkapi, but I remember him best as the voice of Prince John in Disney’s Robin Hood and as the title character in the unjustly forgotten Blackbeard’s Ghost. I firmly believe he has one of the great voices of the 20th century, but hearing his rich, bubbling tremolo answer to and refer to himself as Poirot, however, is another matter entirely.

For a truly hallucinatory experience, the 1985 television movie Thirteen at Dinner casts Ustinov as Poirot alongside a younger David Suchet as a terrible, and terribly hungry, Japp. (Suchet frequently calls it his worst role.) A mouth full of food in every scene, he appears as if desperately trying to gain the weight to necessary replace Ustinov and end this whole charade. Thin-faced, disheveled, with a sloppy bowtie and a suspiciously naked upper lip, Suchet looks like a child in this movie.

Chiefly, these actors’ worst crimes are that they are not Suchet: a man who has so totally embodied this role that it becomes painful to watch anyone else attempt it. 

“There is only one Poirot, and there’s only one way of doing it.”

—Philip Jackson

“He was as real to me as he had been to her,” Suchet writes in his memoir, Poirot and Me, released in the UK this November 7, “a great detective, a remarkable man, if, perhaps, just now and then, a little irritating. He had inhabited my life every bit as much as he must have done hers as she wrote 33 novels, more than 50 short stories, and a play about him.”

Suchet was suggested to the producers of Agatha Christie’s Poirot by Christie’s family, her daughter Rosalind and husband Anthony Hicks, who loved him in Blott on the Landscape, a 1985 miniseries adapted from a Tom Sharpe novel of the same name. Suchet played Blott, an East German transplant to rural England, who has terrible teeth and a knack for accents. It’s easy to see what the Hicks saw in him then: his vocal control, his grasp of humor without sacrificing his character’s essential dignity, the magnetic energy with which he stole every scene.

They had lunch, and “all of a sudden the conversation became incredibly serious,” Suchet explains in the documentary Poirot & Me. Anthony Hicks leaned in, “We do not want anybody to laugh at Poirot. They can laugh with Poirot, they can smile with Poirot because of his eccentricities, but he is not a clown, and we want you to take him seriously.” 

Suchet did. He read all the books and copied down every piece of information Christie included about the detective, a master document he used throughout his tenure as Poirot. (It instructs him to take three, or occasionally five, lumps of sugar with his tea or coffee and to not sit down on a park bench without draping a handkerchief over it first.) He also retired the hair and mustache nets his predecessors wore to sleep as sight gags. His performance is a master class in immersive, detail-oriented acting.

“The care and precision that he brings to it is exactly right for the character he’s trying to do,” Jackson says in Super Sleuths, “it’s actually the approach Poirot himself would use.”

“How had I come to inhabit his morning jacket and pin-striped trousers, his black patent leather shoes and his elegantly brushed grey Homburg hat for so many years?” Suchet asks in his memoir, “What brought us together? Was there something in me that found a particular echo in this short, tubby man in his sixties given to pince-nez and saying ‘chut’ instead of ‘ssh’?”

It’s clear, both in his book and in his interviews, that his long-term attachment to this character has had a significant impact on his life, and the way he thinks about himself in it — so much so that he sometimes switches from speaking in the third person about the character, to speaking in the first as the character in the midst of a conversation.

“He’s a loner in all ways. He’s become self-sufficient because he’s had to become self-sufficient,” he says in the Poirot & Me documentary, “When I do have the opportunity of—not falling in love with another woman on or in the films — but those women that I’m with will often make me aware of my own solitude.” Later, he goes on to say that when leading ladies “take him seriously — him/me, me/him, seriously — you will too.”

In a 2009 episode of Who Do You Think You Are, a British genealogy show, Suchet cannot help bringing up Poirot time and again throughout the filming.

“It’s fascinating to me because how many times, as the character that most people know me, called Poirot, how many times have I put on white gloves and gone into registry offices and gone down lists of people. That was the first thing actually — it’s strange isn’t it — the first thing I thought when I put on those gloves, how many times have I done this, and I’m actually looking now for my bloodline, for my sake?”

The act of looking for something instantly connects him to a character that has become his alter-ego. He even sees Poirot in his forbearers. Looking at a picture of his grandfather, Isidore Suchedowitz, with his elder brother, newscaster John Suchet, the first thing he can say is, “Poirot, without the mustache.” 

His brother assents, “Is that not Hercule?”

Jackson told The Express this October how frequently Suchet leaves character once in full Poirot-garb: “Never. Actors have different ways of approaching the work. One of David’s is that once that mustache gets clamped on the upper lip he likes to talk in the accent, even to the extent of talking to his relatives and his agent as Poirot. It obviously works for him.”

Actor and character together have achieved such an intense level of symbiosis, it’s hard to imagine that the final scenes have already been shot. Suchet, an incredibly versatile actor, has acted in many projects outside of Poirot. (His Augustus Melmotte, in the 2001 miniseries The Way We Live Now, is near unrecognizable.) Still, what will his face be without Poirot’s mustache, that “perfect thing of beauty”? What, similarly, is Poirot without Suchet’s voice, that finely tuned, even alchemical, accent

“Nothing is so sad in my opinion as the devastation wrought by age.”

—Hastings, Curtain

“‘Curtain’ will be a very emotional farewell to a character who has been a big part of my life and has become one of my very dearest best friends,” Suchet told The Express. If you have not already guessed by the obituary at this essay’s beginning, or by the title of the episode itself, spoiler alert: Hercule Poirot dies. 

Christie wrote Curtain during World War II, roughly 30 years before its final publication. She would write over a dozen more Poirot books afterwards, in which the detective is alive and well. I wonder if it was strange, or perhaps even comforting, for Christie to have killed her most popular character, before she returned him again to the light, puzzle-solving mysteries in which people loved to see him. Manuscript in hand, she could, at any time, end it all. She waited until 1975, the year before her own death, to publish it. 

“It’s shocking,” mystery novelist Simon Brett said of Curtain in the documentary Poirot & Me, “because it is a change of genre, it’s a change of mood, because the books up until then have always been very playful.” Maida speculates that “the panorama of death and injustice which [Christie] witnessed during these wartime years” affected the kind of justice that Poirot oversees in this case.

For the first time in the Poirot chronology, the detective is very old. Having created him during the First World War at the ripe age of 60-something, Christie kept her detective in a kind of unaging limbo until her final book. Similarly, though Suchet has visibly aged through the series, and though the characters frequently talk about the passage of time in it (the Countess and Poirot have not seen each other for 20 years, Hastings has been gone for 6 months, etc.), it is always the year 1936. It was 1936 when Poirot had “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook,” in the first season, and it is still 1936 when he solved “Murder on the Orient Express,” in the 12th.[14] In this final season, time has managed to push forward two years — the first four episodes are set in 1938 — and Europe stands at the brink of the Second World War. “Curtain” takes place in its aftermath.

About three decades have passed since Hastings and Poirot met for the first time on English soil in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” In “Curtain,” Poirot and Hastings meet again at Styles Court, no longer a handsome country estate, but now subdivided into cheap, modern flats. They live in a difference England, and, indeed, Hastings marvels at how much Poirot has altered too: he is an old man. The publicity photos for Agatha Christie’s Poirot reflect the same change: Suchet’s cheeks are hollow, his ink-black hair gray, the padding that for so long filled out his waistcoats gone. He is a diminished man.

Suchet had long set his sights on filming all of the Poirot stories. In 2006, when Poirot & Me was filmed, he said:

I just can’t wait to film it, and yet, I don’t want to go near it. But can you imagine that last day on the set. I mean, it will be “Yes, I’ve done it!” and “My god, he’s dead” I will have left the complete works of this little man, which would be for me a sense of real achievement in my life, to be him for generations to come. That would be a wish so fulfilled.

His interviews this fall have been more subdued. The outcome of the story would have made it “very difficult for me psychologically to leave Poirot in this way” — that is, dead. Instead, the producers filmed the episodes out of order, so that these scenes would not be Suchet’s last for Poirot.

As a character, Poirot has had a curious shelf life. He certainly doesn’t have the name, or visual recognition that Holmes enjoys. He also lacks that detective’s cold elegance, the kind that drives even very reasonable people into gif-making hysterics. Still, Poirot’s appeal endures. Between 2004 and 2005, for instance, the anime series Agatha Christie's Great Detectives Poirot and Marple had a 39-episode run in Japan. In its 25 years, Agatha Christie’s Poirot has been broadcast in 100 countries and dubbed into 80 languages.

I think it has something to do with the competing forces of his ridiculousness — the spats, the mustache, the syntax inverted — and his brilliance. One would flatten him into a joke; the other, elevate him to inhuman heights. Together they make him human. The sheer volume of Christie’s writing, and now also a quarter century of Suchet’s performances, forces us to recognize in this dainty, dandied man a fundamental dignity. We want to protect him, just as he would protect us.

In the mid-1990s, Suchet was filming an episode of Poirot in Hastings, a town on England’s southern coast. He left the set for a quick breather — they were on location on some small road — in his full costume (pince-nez and swan-topped cane included).

“I was very, very tired at the end of the day. I just needed to get away,” he told the Irish Times recently, “I leaned on my cane and went, ‘Phew.’” He gestured to show his exhaustion.

“Then there was a little old lady with her shopping trolley, and she looked at me. I looked at her, and she looked at me again. She says, ‘Well, hello, Mr. Poirot.’”

“What do I do?” he asks himself, “What do I do?” He cannot speak in his own voice to her, looking like this. “I just can’t do it.”

He does what comes natural. He says “Hello, Madame” in Poirot’s voice.

¤

Molly McArdle's fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The Rumpus, Bitch Magazine, PANK, and Library Journal, where she was a book review editor for two years. 


 

[1] Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

[2] Dame Agatha, however, make a fictional appearance in the fourth season of the Doctor Who reboot: a testament to her relevance and longevity. The episode, “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” is chock full of references to her Poirot novels.

[3] One suspects that his insistence on both everyone’s being seated and comfortably so is meant to contrast, or perhaps ameliorate, how profoundly uncomfortable he will soon make them all feel. It may also discourage them from running, which very few of the perpetrators do.

[4] There are, as with all rules, exceptions to this.

[5] Not including “The Chocolate Box.” Like Holmes, Poirot has one emblematic failure to keep him honest and relatively humble. In “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” Holmes does not discover his client’s wife’s mixed-race daughter from a previous marriage, her mother instead “solves” the mystery for them both. (The yellow face refers to a mask the child wears outside the house.) In “The Chocolate Box,” the murderer confesses to a young Poirot (then a police officer in Belgium), and it is someone he never suspected.

[6] Sometime between 1996’s “Dumb Witness” and “Edgware,” Hastings has married, moved to Argentina, set up a ranch, and lost it — which all occurs off screen.

[7] The hydrotherapy murder was invented by Poirot’s writers; the “sex maniacs” question is pure Christie.

[8] I’m reminded of an occasion in Four and Twenty Blackbirds, where Poirot, laid low by tooth troubles, cooks all his favorites foods for Hastings and then watches his friend eat them. The strength of their bond allows Hastings to serve as a proxy for Poirot, the detective can enjoy the food through him.

[9] It’s a picture that, at first rosy, inevitably sours by the episode’s end. The “reformed” Countess cannot suppress her kleptomania; her lovely daughter, who could have been Poirot’s, is less wholesome than she seems. But “of course you are not his daughter,” the Countess also frankly explains to her child, “Monsieur Poirot and I would have had to have held hands at the very least.”

[11] One notable exception is the 1999 Mansfield Park, in which Harold Pinter plays a baronet, Sir Thomas, who owns a plantation in Antigua. The movie inserted details absent from Jane Austen’s 1814 novel that make explicit his ownership, and brutal treatment, of African slaves. This consummately civilized man is exposed for the monster he is, and how the whole household is implicated in his crimes.

[12] 1990’s “The Lost Mine” is a particularly egregious example, which takes place in London’s Chinatown.

[13] However, if you are willing to chance it, the offending episodes can be avoided with some ease. If the title includes a former British colony, you can skip that one. (Though Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are two of my favorite episodes.)

[14] This is a mystery I have no desire to solve. 

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