by Christina Morgan Cree
One of Agatha Christie’s best loved characters is the fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Though I’ve known many people to give me that blank-eyed “I have no idea what you’re talking about and I’ve already lost all interest in what you’re saying” look when I bring up the name of Hercule Poirot, he actually has, and has had, quite a following. He’s the only fictional character to ever get an obituary in the New York Times, and of Agatha Christie’s more than 80 novels and short story collections, he appears in 33 novels and 51 short stories.
Hercule Poirot is born
Legend has it that Agatha Christie’s extremely successful career (she’s the best-selling novelist of all time, having been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible) started in 1914 when her sister, Madge, challenged her to write a mystery that could not be solved. She began working on her first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, and modeled her detective after the many Belgian refugees that were flooding into the country at that time. The invasion of Belgium was the reason England had entered WWI and it was considered patriotic to be sympathetic towards these newly- displaced immigrants. In her own words:
“Why not make my detective a Belgian?…I could see him as a tidy little man, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round. And he should be brainy–he should have little grey cells of the mind.” AGATHA CHRISTIE–AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
She wrote over the next two years. After stalling halfway through her book, her mother suggested she take it with her on her two-week vacation where she finished most of it. Upon returning home, she added the finishing touches, and sent it off to three different publishing houses. It was rejected by all three. She sent it to a fourth, John Lane at The Bodley Head publishing house and never heard back. Two years (and one baby) later, Lane called and asked her to come in to discuss her book. In 1920, four years after she had first submitted it, The Mysterious Affair At Styles was finally published.
The New York Times Book Review of December 26, 1920 stated:
“Though this may be the first published book of Miss Agatha Christie, she betrays the cunning of an old hand…You must wait for the last-but-one chapter in the book for the last link in the chain of evidence that enabled M. Poirot to unravel the whole complicated plot and lay the guilt where it really belonged. And you may safely make a wager with yourself that until you have heard M. Poirot’s final word on The Mysterious Affair At Styles, you will be kept guessing at its solution and will most certainly never lay down this most entertaining book.”
Hercule Poirot: stage, film and television
Several actors have played Poirot over the years, each with his own interpretation of the role. In 1928, Charles Laughton was the first to portray the detective in a play based on the story The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. On film, Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, and even Tony Randall have tried their hand at the great detective. Peter Ustinov played him in six adaptations, the most notable being Death on the Nile with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith.
When ITV decided to do the Poirot series, they collaborated with the Agatha Christie estate. It was Rosalind Hicks (Christie’s daughter) and her husband, who hand-picked David Suchet to play the beloved detective. Suchet prepared to take on yet another character role for a television series, not quite realizing what he was stepping into. In order to prepare for the role of Poirot, Suchet stated in an interview with Phil Penfold that he researched all of the books writing down characteristics until he had a file full on the character. His next job was to become him before they started shooting.
Suchet reports spending over three months of hard work to find Poirot’s voice. Starting with his own deep resonating tone, he added a French accent, then some Belgian inflections and moved his voice higher and higher into his head until he found what he was looking for.
In order to obtain the exact look of Poirot as described by the author, Suchet wore padding under his suit and even in his cheeks. He also wore green contacts.
In The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Hercule Poirot is described by his friend Captain Hastings:
“He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
“The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.”
(His limp inexplicably disappeared in subsequent novels.)
With Suchet, the character is realized completely. The manic attention to detail paid off. He embodied the role, added flesh and blood, humor and warmth. You feel you are getting to meet the “person” that Agatha Christie wrote about. As he told the Strand Magazine:
“I always carry around a list of ninety-three things to remember about him. As mundane as how many lumps of sugar he puts in his tea, and how many in his coffee. Because, you know, people will notice these things if you make a mistake. And they do write in about my accuracy. One of the nicest descriptions of him is that ‘his eyes twinkle’ and I’ve had some lovely fan mail in from some ladies who love him purely because of that. I wanted him to have…charm.”
Suchet recounts a time during the filming of a scene where Poirot has to put lumps of sugar in his tea and he doesn’t have his list with him. He called home to his wife (talking still in character) and asked her to find the list and tell him what the correct number of sugar lumps was. The answer? Three, sometimes five.
Like many authors who create a sensationally popular character that keep the public asking for more, Christie grew tired of writing about him.
“By 1930, Agatha Christie found Poirot ‘insufferable,’ and by 1960 she felt that he was a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.’ Yet the public loved him, and Christie refused to kill him off, claiming that it was her duty to produce what the public liked, and what the public liked was Poirot.”
She took her cue from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes only to have to resurrect him again due to public outcry.
From 1989 to 2011, Suchet and ITV filmed 36 episodes and 28 feature- length movies.
On November 14, 2011, ITV announced that it would be filming five new Poirot movies in 2012: Labours of Hercules, Dead Man’s Folly, The Big Four, Elephants Can Remember, and the final Poirot novel, Curtain. This will complete the canon of Poirot works brought to screen by Suchet over 24 years. That is, all but one story, The Lemesurier Inheritance. The good news is that The Lemesurier Inheritance was part a series that Suchet narrated and is available on audiobook.
“I’m more than delighted to be reprising my role as Poirot. It has been my life’s ambition to bring this amazing canon of works to completion on ITV,” said Suchet in the ITV press release. “Poirot is a brilliant, yet profoundly complicated character, and I’ve always loved playing him. He’s considerate, with a love of elegance and precision, but he is also so maddeningly frustrating to play as he’s so vain and pedantic! What endears me to him the most is his endless love of people,” added David. “And for all his faults he is one of the greatest listeners in literature. I’ve been so fortunate to play him.”
Fans will also be excited to know that Hugh Fraser will be reprising his role as Captain Hastings in Curtain after a 10-year absence. Maybe we can circulate a petition to bring back Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon.
If you’ve never seen Poirot, here are a few to start with:
Full length films
• “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”
• “Evil Under the Sun”
• “Lord Edgware Dies”
• “The ABC Murders”
• “Death in the Clouds”
• “Adventure of the Clapham Cook”
• “Theft of the Royal Ruby”
• “Problem at Sea”
• “The Veiled Lady”
• “Double Sin”