The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is continuing its frightening journey through the letters of the alphabet. Thanks to our excellent guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise we’re all having a great time and collecting lots of souvenirs (You should see my TBR list!). We’ve just arrived at the letter P so before I post my latest trip ‘photos to my Facebook account, let me share my contribution for this week: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Oh, come on now, don’t tell me you’re surprised. If you’ve been kind enough to read this blog more than a few times, you could probably have predicted this contribution as soon as you knew I was participating in this meme.
So what is the appeal of Hercule Poirot? It’s certainly not his modesty about his detection skills. In several of the novels and short stories that feature him Poirot’s sense of self-importance is clearly portrayed, to the point where it’s almost comic. In fact in Death in the Clouds, Poirot has gathered some people together to reveal the killer of Paris moneylender Marie Morisot AKA Madame Giselle. Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp leans towards one of the other characters and says, sotto voce,
“Conceit’s that little man’s middle name.”
One of the interesting things about Poirot is that he knows he’s conceited. He doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t embrace the fact that he’s brilliant when it comes to solving crimes. To him, calling himself a truly great detective is simply stating a fact, much like stating that he is Belgian. He feels the same way about his luxurious moustache, which Poirot fans know is the one aspect of his physical appearance about which he’s conceited.
That said though, Poirot knows that he has faults. In fact he admits in his own way that he loves an audience. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead for instance Poirot is feeling a little at loose ends at the beginning of the novel. He doesn’t have a case at the moment and he’s frankly a little bored. He finds himself missing his friend Captain Hastings who’s moved to Argentina (The Murder on the Links explains that). Here’s what Poirot admits to himself about missing Hastings:
“It is my weakness, it has always been my weakness, to desire to show off.”
Poirot doesn’t have long to wait to do so. Superintendent Spence visits him, asking for his help in the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger.
In this novel as well as in other novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we also see one of Poirot’s other characteristics. He is fanatical about neatness. His own possessions are always meticulously organised and his watchwords when it comes to cases are order and method. Although those traits can be annoying they also have their advantages. In both Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and The Mysterious Affair at Styles as well as the play Black Coffee it’s Poirot’s habit of making order and straightening up that gives him important clues to the mysteries at hand. And Poirot’s habit of arranging all of the details of a case in logical order is legendary. He insists that the only acceptable explanation for a mystery is one which accounts for every detail, even the ones that don’t seem to matter.
We don’t know a lot about Poirot’s personal life and backstory although Christie fans know that he is a former member of the Belgian police force. Poirot’s a bachelor with no desire to marry (although there is his attraction to the Countess Vera Rossakoff, a brilliant thief who’s Poirot’s match in several ways). He depends heavily on his frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Felicity Lemon and his very very English valet/butler George but other than those two individuals, Poirot lives alone.
Poirot’s relationship with his employees highlights one of the appealing aspects of his character: he treats others as human beings regardless of their class. He doesn’t toady to the wealthy and powerful (although he admits in The Hollow AKA Murder After Hours that he’s a bit of a snob). He speaks to everyone with respect and treats the murder of a young girl from the working class (detailed in Dead Man’s Folly) with the same importance as he does the murder of the 4th Baron Edgware (detailed in Lord Edgware Dies AKA Thirteen at Dinner). Poirot is also no respecter of class, wealth or privilege when it comes to naming the murderer. He suspects everyone regardless of birth or money and is just as willing to see a wealthy “well-born” person arrested for murder as he is anyone else if that person is guilty. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do) that’s a fairly forward-thinking attitude for the times.
Poirot often says that he does not approve of murder. And yet he does have a compassionate side. In more than one story in which he is featured he lets the guilty party go free because of his compassion for that person. He’s not afraid to play Cupid either. In The Mystery of the Blue Train , Death in the Clouds AKA Death in the Air and Dead Man’s Folly among others, Poirot smooths the sometimes-bumpy road to romance. He even arranges Hastings’ personal life.
And then there’s of course Poirot’s expertise when it comes to fine food. He’s not a world-class chef himself (although as we learn in Cat Among the Pigeons he can make an excellent omelet). But he is a truly dedicated gourmand who appreciates excellent food and those who prepare it.
Poirot’s ability to solve cases isn’t miraculous, and that’s another appealing aspect of his character. He thinks logically, understands psychology and arrives at his conclusions reasonably. And when he is on the wrong path so to speak he’s the first to say that he’s mistaken about something. He claims that it’s just that possibility that keeps him from telling others his theories about cases: he doesn’t want to mislead others in case he’s wrong. But I suspect he also really enjoys springing the truth on people and even he says that he likes to keep his theories to himself until the very end.
Poirot is compulsively neat, eccentric, conceited about his detection skills and sometimes pompous. Even Christie is said to have got fed up with him. But for all that he’s surprisingly egalitarian, he can be compassionate and of course he’s a brilliant detective. And when it comes to detectives in adult crime fiction he was my first as you might say. So yes I have a soft spot for M. Poirot.