The Power of Poirot
Sophie Hannah shares her ongoing affection for one of the most iconic characters of 20th century fiction.
Posted on September 14, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: Agatha Christie, Crime, Poirot, crime fiction
Last year, because of a certain project I’d taken on, I decided it was time I introduced my husband to Hercule Poirot. I persuaded him to watch David Suchet in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Forty minutes in, when things were becoming intricate and entangled as they tend to in Agatha Christie stories, I asked, ‘Are you following it?’ – not because my husband is dim but because he isn’t a particular fan of detective stories. ‘Not at all,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘I’ve no idea what’s going on or who anyone is.’ It didn’t seem to bother him. As the denoument scene got underway, however, with all the suspects gathered in a room to hear Poirot’s pronouncements, my husband’s mood darkened. When Poirot said, ‘And the fourth thing, ladies and gentlemen…’ it sent him over the edge. ‘The fourth thing?’ he fumed. ‘Why do there need to be four things? Why are those people all sitting there, listening to him bang on endlessly? I’d get up and say, “Look, I didn’t kill anyone, so I’m off.”’
‘No, you wouldn’t,’ I told him. ‘Poirot would have you pinned to your seat. He’s had readers all over the world pinned to their seats, hanging on his every word, for more than ninety years, so I wouldn’t bother challenging his authority if I were you.’
These days, my husband knows his place. This summer he has watched One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Sad Cypress and Three Act Tragedy without complaint. Though he still doesn’t ever know what’s going on or who anyone is, he no longer challenges Poirot’s authority, and sits through each denoument with an attitude of quiet reverence. He understands the power of Poirot.
Where does this power come from? What makes the Belgian with the egg-shaped head and abundant moustaches the most popular and famous detective of all time? Why do we still love and need him nearly a hundred years later? Why hasn’t he been surpassed? And if he hasn’t yet, will he ever be? Some of you will be thinking, ‘But Sherlock Holmes…’ But no. Sherlock Holmes has become an investigative diaspora: he is no longer merely his original self, as delivered by Arthur Conan Doyle and, more recently, Anthony Horowitz. He is several different detectives all at once: Jonny Lee Miller’s recovering twenty-first century Heroin addict in Elementary, Dr Gregory House, star of House MD and brilliant solver of medical mysteries. When played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he is keen on creating a dazzling spectacle, but far more cavalier about plot architecture than his original namesake.
Poirot has always been the one and only Poirot, never an altered version. He is timeless not only because he has lasted so long, but also because Agatha wisely gave us almost nothing of his back-story. We know him so well – his frustration when his first suspicions prove incorrect, his love of the fine food and wine, his eyes that turn greener when he realises what the truth must be – and yet, at the same time, we don’t know him at all. He understands so much about the human heart and does everything he can to bring lovers together (assuming they haven’t conspired to commit a murder) but we never learn what past experiences have instilled in him this wisdom and empathy. Whenever we encounter him, it’s as if he has sprung into the present moment fully formed – more legend than man, magicked into existence when needed. His lack of described childhood and young and middle adulthood, and Christie’s locating of him as only ever in the now, gives him an air of omniscience. He isn’t quite real; he is better than real.
Poirot’s vast wisdom leaves us in no doubt that he has seen much and felt deeply. He’s a man of substance who advances his philosophies of life whenever he has the chance, though he never bores people with them. Any sort of utilitarianism is anathema to him – in more than one novel he explains that every human life matters, and that the wellbeing of the vast majority is no excuse, ever, for committing murder. He is skeptical of grand political causes, suspecting that they lead to needless tragedy.
Like all substantial, multi-layered characters, Poirot contains contradictions and inconsistencies. He can listen to the most obnoxious, deluded egotists with a patient smile on his face, displaying exemplary self-control, but he can also explode with anger when a murderer is unrepentant. He craves order in his surroundings, but loves to immerse himself in the messiest of human dramas. He pursues justice ruthlessly, while pitying the killer about to face the gallows as a result of his efforts.
Poirot’s genius as a fictional creation is that, as well as being a complicated human being who defies easy definition, he is simultaneously a stereotype of himself. His clothes, his catchphrases – Milles tonerres! – his mannerisms, his references to himself in the third person… On a superficial level, he is instantly memorable and recognizable – a comic exaggeration. Both character and caricature, he is also the point at which many other opposing points meet: light and darkness (he is jolly and witty and enjoys life, even in the face of the grimmest death), justice and mercy, intellect and emotion, absurdity and seriousness, answer and question. He solves the mystery each time, perfectly, while remaining a mystery himself. When he talks about the importance of motive, what motives of his own and of those he knew and loved in the past does he have in mind? We can’t begin to guess. With every mystery he explains away with almost supernatural insight, Poirot himself becomes more mysterious. We will never solve him, and nor would we want to.
Sophie Hannah is the author of The Monogram Murders – available in paperback and ebook now.
© This article was first published in The Sunday Times (2014)