Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Hercule Poirot: Le Détective Magnifique




                                                                        
Hercule Poirot
(184?-1975)
Image courtesy of: http://www.linternaute.com



It is a profound belief of mine that if you can induce a person to talk to you for long enough, on any subject whatever, sooner or later they will give themselves away.
~ Hercule Poirot



By far, he is probably the most cosmopolitan detective in fiction. The peculiar - and distinguished - figure of Hercule Poirot, with his egg-shaped head, hallmark waxed mustache, fob watch, his silver-topped walking stick, gloves and patent-leather shoes, Agatha Christie's brilliant Belgian detective, first made his literary debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 and published in 1920. Even his name Hercule - adapted from the mythological figure of Hercules - is in itself peculiar, with its dropped 's' at the end of it.  

Previous to that, all that is known about him is that he was born in the 1840s and at some point in the future, assumed leadership of the Belgian Police Force until his retirement from the force in 1904. Once World War I commenced in 1914, Poirot sought refuge two years later, in 1916, in the southwest coast of England where he was granted hospitality at Styles Court for the duration of the war. It was only when his hostess at Styles, the wealthy Mrs. Emily Inglethorpe, was found poisoned in her bed that M. Poirot volunteered his qualified services to solve the case. The resolution of the case brought M. Poirot fame and, instead of returning into obscure retirement in war-ravaged Belgium at war's end, he launched the second phase of his professional career in London, establishing residence at 14 Farraway Street with Captain Arthur Hastings, who assisted Poirot in his investigations. (Source: Maida & Spornick, 1982)  


Agatha Christie
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In 1926, Poirot, for the second time in his career, retired permanently, renting a cottage in the country where he intended to settle down to a quiet village life in King's Abbot, puttering around in a garden growing vegetable marrows. But his idyllic retirement was short-lived - the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) plunged Poirot back into detection work. The exhilarating success of the Ackroyd case returned him once more to London and to a new address, No. 203 Whitehaven Mansions. From this point on, M. Poirot was consulted to investigate endless new cases; throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, he also embarked upon extensive travel tours of the Middle East where, not surprisingly, he found himself at the centre of new and intriguing murder mysteries - Death on the Nile (1937), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Appointment With Death (1938) and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (published as one of eleven short stories in Poirot Investigates [1924]) - all of which called for the employment of his exceptional reasoning powers (or, as he himself was wont to say, his infamous "little grey cells") to solve. (Source: Maida & Spornick, 1982; poirot.us, 2010)  


The author, Agatha Christie


In the following decades, M. Poirot took on successive and ever more elaborate cases (their composition being the sort of great, complicated mind puzzles at which Agatha Christie excelled). Some of the most challenging cases of his professional career can be found in such favourites as: The Big Four (1927), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Three-Act Tragedy (1935), The ABC Murders (1936), Evil Under the Sun (1941) and Five Little Pigs (1942). As a result, M. Poirot's reputed ability to outwit some of the most cunningly criminal  minds of his day has, as to be expected, reached mythical proportions.  Poirot's cases have earned him a well-deserved and far-famed reputation as a detective of extraordinary prowess, not only of murder cases but also of theft - Poirot Investigates (1924) features several such cases: The Adventure of the Western Star, The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Case of the Missing Will,  The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan, and The Incredible Theft (1937). (Source: poirot.us, 2010; agathachristie.com, 2009)


Photograph, ITV/Rex Features
Image courtesy of: http://www.guardian.co.uk/ 


In all, his career spanned thirty-three novels and fifty-one short stories beginning in 1920 and terminating in 1975 with the his final appearance in Curtain in October of that year (in the chance event of her demise during World War II, Agatha Christie wrote Curtain sometime in the mid-1940s to prefabricate a conclusion for Poirot's character).  But the only known failure of M. Poirot's long-lived career is found in The Chocolate Box (Poirot Investigates [1924]). We are told that while still working in Belgium with the Belgian Police Force, Poirot investigates the suspicious death of a French deputy which leads him to accuse the wrong party, the result of which nearly costs an innocent man his life by the guillotine. After gathering the incriminating evidence and just as he was about to make an arrest, the unlikely murderer confessed to his crime. Poirot's lapse in judgment causes him acute regret for not recognizing the truth - plainly evident, it seems, in the chocolate box. He is all the more respected for the admittance of his error. (Source: Maida & Spornick, 1982)


Image courtesy of: http://www.mirror.co.uk/


In Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, Poirot the murder detective becomes Poirot the murderer. In the novel, the  aged M. Poirot appropriately returns to the scene of his first case in England, Styles Court, and faces a most formidable foe who does not actually perform the act of murder itself, but psychologically manipulates and provokes others to perform the diabolical deeds for him, deriving pleasure in heinous acts which he cannot himself perform. When he is unable to legally bring the criminal to justice, Poirot brings justice to the criminal and takes it into his own hands by killing him - his moral conviction permits this act of murder on the basis that murder is permissible and is perhaps even necessary at times for the protection and greater good of others: "I am the law... By taking [X's] life, I have saved other lives." Poirot stages the murder to appear as a suicide. As for his own demise, for all intents and purposes it seems that Poirot dies a natural death; only later in the book do his  plans for his own death and funerary arrangements come to light. (Source: Maida & Spornick, 1982:102)


David Suchet as Poirot (since 1989)


When news of Poirot's death became known, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times on August 6th, 1975 - a singular honour accorded to no other fictional character - with the headline: "Hercule Poirot Is Dead. Famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, dies." Of Poirot, New York Times reporter Thomas Lask, wrote, "Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age is unknown."
(Source: all-about-agatha-christie.com, undated; poirot.us, 2010)


Photo, Granada Plus
Image courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/


But while still very much alive, what struck most people who met Hercule Poirot for the first time was his distinct and fastidious appearance, which at once bewildered and fascinated. He stood at just over five-feet tall but the stature of his inordinate pride - some would even suggest 'vanity' -  was as towering  in the accomplishments he achieved in his profession as it was in his impeccably groomed appearance, most especially of his meticulously waxed mustache, of which he took great care and time to construct. His social graces - purely Edwardian in their values - his mannerisms and his 'foreignness' simultaneously endeared him to his fellow Britons and perplexed them; at times they did not quite comprehend his eccentricities. His savoir faire allowed him to move with considerable ease in refined social circles. He possessed an extensive knowledge of the English literary classics as well as a love of the theatre and fine food - his  epicurean delights were not restricted only to those served at the Ritz and Savoy hotels, but he also savoured those other fine French restaurants in the Soho district. Curiously, although he adeptly mixed socially with both men and women, M. Poirot was never known to have been sexually involved with either; he is sexually neutral. 
(Source: Maida & Spornick, 1982)

Image courtesy of: http://www.kued.org/


While it is highly unlikely that Agatha Christie could ever have anticipated or even foreseen the longevity, let alone his popularity among television viewers of the 21st century, nonetheless, the character of Hercule Poirot has gained new fame as well as new audiences through the mediums of cinema and television, and he has been personified by several actors over the the past four decades. The first memorable movie actor to portray Christie's Belgian sleuth to notable acclaim was Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor in his role as Poirot. (Source: myoscarpredictions.com, undated)


Albert Finney  in the role of Poirot (1974)
Image courtesy of: http://www.moviestore.com/


Albert Finney


Albert Finney - Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
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Then, Peter Ustinov, the seasoned stage and screen actor, took on the role of Poirot in the 1970s and 1980s with star-studded casts in Death on the Nile (1978), Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment With Death (1988). Ustinov also depicted Poirot in three made-for-television movies: Thirteen At Dinner (1985), Dead Man's Folly (1986), and Murder in Three Acts (1986). (Source: imdb.com, 2010; poirot.us, 2010)


Peter Ustinov portrayed Poirot in the movies and on television


Peter Ustinov - Death on the Nile (1978)
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But perhaps of all those who have interpreted him, the quintessential Poirot belongs to the English actor, David Suchet, who has masterfully enacted the role of the famed detective since 1988 (the first episode aired in 1989). To his credit, Suchet has thus far played the role of Poirot in sixty-one episodes, all closely based on Christie's books and short stories, with only about ten episodes left to complete the entire crime series. PBS currently airs the original ITV Poirot episodes.

More recently, in 2010, Suchet starred in three Masterpiece Mystery! specials, two of which were revived versions of the Finney and Ustinov film roles, respectively: Murder on the Orient Express, Appointment with Death, and Third Girl. (Source: pbs.org, 2010) 


David Suchet - Death on the Nile (2004)
Image courtesy of: http://www.throng.co.nz/


David Suchet - Death on the Nile (2004)
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David Suchet as Poirot
Image courtesy of: http://www.throng.co.nz/



Everyone is a potential killerin everyone there arises from time to time the wish to killthough not the will to kill.” ~ Hercule Poirot



David Suchet - the quintessential Poirot for over 20 years
Image courtesy of: http://www.kued.org/


 


Video courtesy of: tvtestcard ~ YouTube
 


Suggested readings:

 
 
The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie (1980), by Earl F. Bargainnier: Popular Press 

Murder She Wrote: A Study of Agatha Christie's Detective Fiction (1982), by Patricia D. Maida & Nicholas B. Spornick: Popular Press

Hercule Poirot's Casebook (1984), by Agatha Christie: Dodd, Mead

The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot (1990), by Anne Hart: Berkley Books

Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories (1999), by Agatha Christie: Harper Collins

 


2 comments:

  1. My two favorite Poirots are, of course, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet. However, I did enjoy Albert Finney and Alfred Molina as the Belgian detective, as well.

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    Replies
    1. David Suchet, in my opinion, has, over the past couple of decades, become the quintessential Hercule Poirot; also in my opinion, Mr. Suchet has done an exceptionally good job of not only portraying the character of Poirot but of bringing him - with all his idiosyncratic traits - to life. And I think that's largely due to Mr. Suchet's intense study of the Poirot character. (As part of his research, I believe he read every one of Agatha Christie's books in which Poirot was featured & made character notes in order to help bring Belgium's most distinguished, albeit fictional, detective to life.)

      While I liked Mr. Ustinov's rendition (I found Mr. Finney's to be a bit on the bombastic, slightly ridiculous side) and while I may be biased in my choice, but Mr. Suchet's Poirot, again in my opinion, remains peerless.

      Thank you for your comment.

      ₵. Ð.

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