The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.

39 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot

39 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot

  1. What a good selection for the letter ‘P.’ It’s interesting learning more about Poirot. I think one reason I like him so is that he is portrayed in a bit of humor because of his own self-importance. Great stop on the Alphabet in Crime Fiction tour.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thanks so much for the kind words ๐Ÿ™‚ – Isn’t Poirot a distinctive character? I agree too that Christie did a fine job of using some humour here and there to highlight Poirot’s sense of self-importance. However of course, as Poirot himself says, he has the last laugh…

  2. Well, OK, I has wondered if this would be your choice for P but I also really enjoyed your post (as I knew I would). The point you make about class is particularly ‘a propos’ as it speaks to his strength of character and his status as an outsider, both for his intellectual acumen, his status as a foreign national and for his desire to divorce himself from most of the humdrum, everyday realities. This isn’t that unique (it is very Sherlockian in fact), but it is certainly crucial to my great enjoyment of the character. Thanks Margot, as always, for an illuminating read.

    • Sergio – Why, thank you for the kind words ๐Ÿ™‚ – much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I can imagine it wasn’t particularly difficult to suss out what I’d do for this letter. You make a very well-taken point about Poirot’s status as an “outsider” on more than one level. That status also allowed Christie to use his character to hold up a mirror to her own society – very clever. And yes that aspect of Poirot’s character is not unique; as you say we also see it in Holmes’ character and he’s not the only one. But it does add to Poirot’s interest. Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. He was the first adult detective I read, too, Margot, and like you I’ll always have a soft spot for him. As well as for those marvellous stories, perhaps my favourite being The ABC Murders.

    • Martin – Oh, I agree that The ABC Murders is a fantastic story. It’s well-plotted, has solid characters and I do like the way Poirot is portrayed in the novel. Yes it’s definitely Christie at her best.

  4. I am so glad you featured Hercule Poirot. I have been wanting to read more Christie, including Poirot, and want to make it a goal in 2013 to sample more of her books, at least one a month. This should be a good guide for the Poirot books.

    I read a good many of them when I was younger but don’t remember the plots so can easily reread them. The only one I read in the last couple of year was Murder on the Orient Express and I really enjoyed it.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you plan to include more Christie in your reading diet. Of course I’m biased but still… If you’re going to do that I would strongly suggest – very strongly – that you wait ’till later in your exploration before you read Dumb Witness AKA Poirot Loses a Client. It’s got spoilers to three other Poirot mysteries. I’ll be interested in what you think of these novels as you re-read them.

      • I am glad you gave me that warning. I don’t like stories to be spoiled. I will probably read in order if I can, but sometimes that is hard when you are going back to an author who wrote so many books.

        • Tracy – Oh, I don’t like spoilers either! And the nice thing about Christie’s Poirot novels is that you don’t have to read them in order (except for avoiding Dumb Witness ’cause of the spoilers) in order to enjoy them. They are easily savoured in just about any order.

  5. I like Poirot, even if Agatha Christie wasn’t too keen on him – she wrote in her autobiography: ‘Hercule Poirot, my Belgian invention, was hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.’

    • Margaret – Thanks for sharing that Christie quote. It really does reflect her view of him so well. And yet like you so many people do like him. I for one am very glad she continued to write about him regardless of her personal feelings.

  6. Dr. Kinberg:

    Thank you for the profile of my life. Poirot always appreciates a skilled writer talking about my favourite subject. I regret your use of the word conceit in describing me. I have never had an excessive pride in my life. I have always said modesty is a virtue. I admire the precision and orderliness of your post. Without organization nothing can be accomplished. I acknowledge I did not discuss affairs of the heart with Mrs. Christie but I promise you my ardour for the ladies has not gone unrequited. You have a lovely smile. I would like to add for your readers that it is a passion for me to use the English language correctly. Hastings has invariably been a help when I was searching for the proper word. I know you are a woman who values good English nโ€™est-ce pas. My career may be over but I am grateful so many readers around the world continue to read Mrs. Christieโ€™s stories about me. Au revoir.

    Monsieur Hercule Poirot

    • M. Poirot:

      Thank you very much for your kind note (and your kind remarks). It was my pleasure to profile your life, contributing as you have to the world of crime detection. I am glad you found my post orderly and organised; I do try to ensure both order and method when I write. Otherwise the result is of course as unpalatable as a badly-cooked meal. To be quite frank I’m just as well pleased that you haven’t revealed much about your personal life. Far too many people reveal all sorts of details about their love lives and really that’s so ungentlemanly don’t you think? As to your use of language, may I say that I’ve always found it interesting that you could use near native English when it suited you and yet also code switch to your own language and the dialect of a non-native speaker of English when that suited you. You certainly have a greater command of the language than a lot of people think. I’m glad too that Mrs. Christie took the time to detail your cases. They’ve been a real source of inspiration and given many hours of enjoyment. Best wishes,

      Margot Kinberg

  7. Excellent choice Margot. One way or the other we all started to enjoy criem fiction with his mysteries

    • Josรฉ Ignacio – Why, thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think you’re that many, many crime fiction fans first got addicted with Christie novels. I know I did.

  8. Hercule Poirot was one of my first detectives and I do still like him now so he has stood the test of time. My favourite story is ‘Cat Among the Pigeons’ although he only plays a small part in that one.

    • Sarah – Oh, Cat Among the Pigeons is a great story isn’t it? I’ve always liked that one very much. I agree too that Poirot has indeed stood the test of time as a character. He’s still attracting new fans and people who’ve always been fond of him still are. A truly iconic character I think.

  9. Poirot, an iconic character indeed. Thanks for your post it is well timed with the Agatha Christie Festival on this month 9-16th. I shall be making my “pilgrimage” to Greenway with my credit card held in a sweaty palm as I can’t resist the books and other Christie goodies.

    • Norman – Lucky you to be going to the Festival! One of these years I’ll get there I hope. In the meantime I hope you’ll post ‘photos. And yes indeed, Poirot is iconic.

  10. Thanks for the wonderful profile on my favourite detective Ever. If not for Poirot, I would be still stuck with Thomas Hardy! Before watching the Tv series I had a very different image of Poirot. But now when I think of Poirot, I think of David Suchet.

    • Valli – Isn’t Poirot a great character? How interesting too that your mental picture of Poirot was changed when you’d seen the series on TV. In my opinion, David Suchet is Poirot – very well cast for the part I think.

      • Yes, previous Poirots on film seemed a little too conceited and ridiculous, while Suchet brings that subtle mix of self-satisfaction and self-irony. Like all the comments here, I’m a big fan of Poirot – and the funny thing is that my parents and my husband are too, and we never have the same taste in detectives. Ever.

        • Marina Sofia – I couldn’t agree more about Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot. He really brings the character to life in a way I think Christie would have liked. I think he really seems to care about how the character comes across. And it is interesting isn’t it how many fans Poirot has gotten over the years, even though he’s got so many irritating traits.

  11. My first mysteries, when I was about seventeen, was the Poirots. At the time, I did not mind his traits at all–all adults seemed like that to me–but they do wear thin at my age. I could never sit down and read them one after another as I did then.

    • Patti – Isn’t it interesting how we feel differently about mystery series as we grow and mature. I can think of several series that I gobbled up when I was younger but that I don’t read so much now.

  12. He’s one of the reasons I went into writing mysteries. I just love the character. Great choice.

  13. Peggy@Peggy Ann's Post

    Nice write up Margot! I always enjoy your posts.

  14. Great choice, never ready any of his mysteries but one of the most memorable characters in crime fiction.

  15. Thank you for an excellent lesson on M. Poirot, Ms. Kinberg! I have read many of Christie’s Mysteries starting with THE MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS a couple of decades ago and the first thing that struck me about her stories was that there is a murder and a dead body but no blood and gore. Christie kept her murders clean much like Poirot’s fetish for neatness. In this she set a trend that few crime-fiction writers have picked up since.

    The other thing I noticed was that people are rarely rude to Poirot and he is generally acceptable to all including the suspects within a family he investigates. That’s because Poirot, with his genteel persona, comes across as someone who plays fair, someone you can trust. Except for one particular book, whose title I don’t recall, where Poirot walks through the countryside and knocks on the doors of a rather large house, whose occupants are hostile towards him, I think, to the extent of asking him to get off their property. This incident occurs in the opening two pages.

    Finally, I’ve always wondered why many (if not most) readers prefer Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple. While there is no comparison, the grand old lady needs to be given her due.

    • Prashant – You make a very interesting point! Poirot isn’t usually treated rudely. He is in Taken at the Flood during which he’s staying at a hotel and is snapped at by a resident who doesn’t approve of foreigners. But in general you’re quite right. People do respond to his politeness and his way of treating everyone as equals.
       
      And yes indeed, Christie had a way of writing that told readers everything they needed to know or imagine about a murder without being in the least bit gory. Good point!
       
      As to Miss Marple? A great character I think. And you’re not the only one who thinks she should get her due as you put it.

  16. I guess I need to read TAKEN AT THE FLOOD again. Thank you, Ms. Kinberg!

    • Prashant – Taken at the Flood is a very interesting novel from several perspectives. Lots of people don’t look on it as among Christie’s best but I think it’s an interesting study of what happens to a family who’s only known comfort when that money is taken away. And in my opinion it’s a solid look at immediate post-war life.

  17. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, September 2012 | Past Offences

  18. You mention Poirot’s egalitarian approach; “He treats others as human beings, regardless of their class.” I’ll note, however, that Christie rarely wrote a mystery where the murderer is working class or lower. When The Little Belgian finally assembles the group of suspects at the end of each novel, he never concludes with a maid, butler, gardener, steward, or the postman, or an auto mechanic… Inevitably, Christie’s killers were among the victim’s social peers, a leisure class used to being waited on and relatively well-off. Indeed, weren’t the murderers in Christie’s novels usually from the same socioeconomic demographic she belonged to? What does it say about her and her life that she found her social circle so culpable?

    • Scott – You make a compelling point. On the one hand, Poirot values information he gets from everyone regardless of class. So in that sense he is egalitarian. He also is willing to suspect anyone, no matter how ‘blueblood.’ And although he can be condescending to people from lower socioeconomic classes, he isn’t rude to them and doesn’t abuse them or dismiss what they say.
       
      That said though, it is true that most often, the people in Christie’s novels and stories who turn out to be guilty are often in the upper-middle or upper classes. I can think of one or two exceptions, but in the main they are certainly not poor or working poor. It could have been Christie’s way of saying that social class should not put one above the law. Certainly Poirot feels that way. Or it could have been her own reaction to some of what she observed in her own life. Interesting question!

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