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Poirot at 100

Dapper: David Suchet as Poirot.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

July 28, 1914. The First World War has broken out. Germany invades Belgium and turns millions homeless. Evicted from their homeland, Belgians seek asylum in England. A bus full of Belgian refugees reaches Torquay in 1915. Among these shell-shocked refugees is a man named Jacques Hornais. With his diminutive figure, eccentric gait, egg-shaped bald pate and extravagant moustache, he turns heads around the terminus. It transpires he is a police officer, recently retired.

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In a Torquay town hall, meanwhile, a young woman named Agatha Miller (she would later marry Archibald Christie, a military officer) is working as nurse and dispensing chemist. Soon, at a fund-raising programme held for war emigrants, Agatha, performing as a solo pianist, spots Hornais.

And when she starts writing crime novels in 1916, she instinctively homes in on the man she would now cast as her detective. She says in her autobiography, “I settled on the Belgian detective. I allowed him slowly to grow into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy... And he should be brainy — he should have little grey cells of the mind... Yes, he would have little grey cells.”

Stickler for order

Disregarding the influence of Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin and Joseph Rouletabille, Agatha formed a unique detective. He would be a stickler for order and method and follow the prompts of his little grey cells rather than analyse footprints or cigar ash.

Growing up a loner and subsequently working with wounded soldiers, Agatha had developed a set of incisive eyes. And shaping her protagonist, she spontaneously came up with someone who would solve crimes with astute observation and knowledge of human psychology.

While naming the sleuth, Agatha fancied Hercules, the mythical Greek hero, an embodiment of brawn and brain. But, perhaps in deference to her detective’s 5’4” height, she decided to remove the ‘s’. She arrived at the famous surname by merging the names of two fictional detectives — Hercule Popeau and Monsieur Jules Poiret.

A hundred years have passed since the creation of Hercule Poirot. The Mysterious Affairs at Styles was published by John Lane in the U.S. in October 1920 and in the U.K. by The Bodley Head (John Lane’s UK branch) in January 1921. A runway success, it’s odd to think now that the manuscript was rejected many times before.

The “dear little man” subsequently appeared in numerous crime novels and short stories, and three plays by Christie, conquering hearts the world over. His popularity continues even today: for most readers, solving crime with the diminutive, dapper detective is like taking part in a feast of suspense. The more we dig in, the more we get addicted.

Mysterious Affairs got praise from high quarters. The Pharmaceutical Journal wrote: “This detective story has dealt with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens. Agatha Christie knows her job.” Christie’s days as apothecary’s assistant had paid off.

I am the best

Poirot’s primary attraction was his way of detection, which was quite unlike any followed by his peers in the genre until then. The detective got into the mind not only of the murderer but also the victim to solve the crimes.

Christie was as much psychologist as writer. Some of Poirot’s observations speak of her intimate knowledge of the human mind, such as when he says, “She might have trusted you. But Mademoiselle Katherine has spent a great deal of her life listening, and those who have listened do not find it easy to talk; they keep their sorrows and joys to themselves and tell no one” (The Mystery of the Blue Train).

But creators often come to hate what they have made. As Poirot’s popularity kept soaring, Christie began to find him insufferable, calling him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep”. She would eventually kill him off in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

What made her so uneasy about the character she had created novel by novel, tale by tale, play by play? Did she feel bested by her own detective? One is not quite sure. We do know that Poirot himself would have had no doubts about it. We are always left with an image of the little man doffing his hat: “‘Rest assured,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘I am the best!”’

The writer is a Kolkata-based freelancer and documentary film-maker.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 6:34:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/poirot-at-100/article32917884.ece

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