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The Great Detectives: Hercule Poirot

by Michael Bowen

Donald Westlake Essays


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It must be possible to write a truly satisfying Christmas mystery, but I can't think of anyone who's done it. It would make an elegant segue to say that Agatha Christie came closest with Hercule Poirot's forays into seasonal crime in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and Murder for Christmas (also published as Hercule Poirot's Christmas), but in each case that would only be half true.
desperate
Murder for Christmas is a dandy mystery with buckets of blood and a nicely turned locked room element (both uncharacteristic for Christie). The Christmas aspect of the story, though, is purely ornamental (so to speak). It serves merely as an excuse to get a half-score of plausible suspects and a victim together in a remote country house. It also provides irony as the characters-one or more of whom are possibly bent on mayhem-natter on about the season of peace and goodwill to men. The mystery in Pudding, on the other hand, is second-rate by anyone's standards, much less by Christie's. The story itself can still be read with pleasure forty years after it was written, but that is because the mediocre mystery is buried in a Christmas tale that is subtly charming in its own right-like a booby prize concealed in a splendid Yuletide plum pudding. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

The charming quality of this tale (speaking of elegant segues) leads us straight to the hero of both stories, Hercule Poirot, one of the most remarkable detectives ever to appear in print.

No stereotype in mystery fiction is more familiar than the mannered, sherry-sipping sleuth of the Golden Age cozy, depicted with acid disdain in Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" and parodied by everyone from Neil Simon to Parker Brothers. These parlor game crime-solvers are amateurs who inexplicably spend their lives stumbling over corpses in country homes, vicarages, and gentlemen's clubs. They have plenty of money that they generally come by without working. They enjoy the privilege of confronting upper class murderers who have the decency to commit suicide when finally exposed-which is a real piece of luck, because the average Queen's Counsel would have the devil's own time actually proving these detectives' conjectures or brilliant deductions in Old Bailey. And, of course, they are Anglo-Saxon-Englishmen or Americans tricked out like Philo Vance with English diction, tastes, and tics.

Except for Hercule Poirot, who happens to be the single most enduring and productive member of the breed. In an unmatched career that began just after World War I with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and spanned fifty-five years, Poirot exercised his little gray cells in thirty-three mystery novels, more than fifty short stories and novellas, and a play or movie now and then. He would be the quintessential Golden Age cozy detective except for the inconvenient fact that he contradicts each element of the genre's stereotype.

Poirot was a professional-a policeman who retired to become a "consulting detective." While his trade more than occasionally involved "'solv[ing] the problems of London society ladies'" (as an antagonist contemptuously puts it in The Big Four), he dealt often enough with professional criminals-as in Pudding, for example, and in The Big Four itself. When Poirot's work did focus on amateurs, it was because they had committed the crime committed overwhelmingly by amateurs-murder, almost always for the kinds of reasons amateurs commit it: jealousy, rage at blighted lives, pathological demands for attention. He "had no scruples of delicacy," as Christie explained with a nice scruple of delicacy in Hickory Dickory Death, and experienced no qualms about sending criminals where they belonged, even if it was to the gallows. It's impossible to imagine him suffering a nervous breakdown over the terrible moral responsibility he assumes in bringing a criminal to justice (as Lord Peter Wimsey did in Whose Body) or even maundering about it over a glass of sirop cassis.

Above all, he was emphatically not English. He couldn't have been English, because if he had been (at least in the early stories, with Captain Hastings) he would have been Sherlock Holmes. Poirot in the early stories, after his rookie English outing in Styles, is an eccentric private detective sharing cases and bachelor quarters in London with a bluff, unimaginative ex-army officer whose "up-Guards-and-at-'em" physicality perfectly complements the detective's cerebral qualities. Martin Edwards, in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Fiction entry on Poirot, says that these elements "echo the work of Arthur Conan Doyle." Well, that's one way to put it.

Christie emphasized Poirot's nationality from the start, in a mystery whose serene bucolic setting contrasts strikingly (and deliberately) with the brutal war year, 1916, when the story takes place. Through a series of coincidences that pile up like similes in a Time magazine article, Poirot and Hastings join forces at Styles Manor, where Hastings happens to be on convalescent leave from the front, and where Poirot and a group of his countrymen happen to have sought refuge from war-torn Belgium. And also where, believe it or not, an aging English chatelaine is about to pass away from other than natural causes. (As Harriet Vane might say, it's the kind of thing that could happen.)

You can say what you want to about Styles-that its plot is busy, that its solution depends on a bit of pharmacological esoterica disclosed in the last chapter, that the floor plan shows Styles Manor with endless corridors and only one bathroom, deep in the far wing of the house. The fact remains, however, that not only is the audacity of pinning the fairly clued crime on both the least likely and most likely suspects breathtaking, but the crucial by-play between the English soldier and the Belgian refugee works. Absent that critical element, Poirot's charmingly Sherlockian observations could easily have fallen flat.

Christie, though, accomplished much more than defusing charges of derivative characterization when she chose Poirot's nationality. In Murder by Death, Neil Simon's combined send-up of the cozy and hard-boiled genres, the Sam Spade clone flippantly calls his Poirot counterpart "Frenchy." "I am not a 'Frenchy!'" the latter sputters, "I am a Belgie!" Yes indeed he was. The pains Christie took to have Poirot insist on this correction in book after book (though with rather more aplomb than in Simon's version) suggest that Poirot's nationality was not an incidental makeweight in his backstory but a vital key to his character.

Because of the common language and perceived cultural overlap, most Americans probably think of Belgians as sort of junior Frenchmen. A Briton in 1920, when Poirot and Christie made their mutual debut in Styles, would have had a very different view. Caesar wrote in the first paragraph of The Gallic Wars that of all the tribes inhabiting Gaul, "the Belgians are the bravest." Every Briton around in 1920 with any claim to a serious education knew this-indeed, had probably read it in the original Latin. At the beginning of World War I, when German Foreign Minister Zimmerman accused England of "race treason" for going to war against a fellow Teutonic people over "a scrap of paper," the paper he was talking about was a nineteenth-century treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium. If the hopelessly outnumbered Belgian Army hadn't bought time with its gallant stand against the Kaiser's troops in 1914, the First Battle of the Marne might well have gone the other way and the war would have been over in eight weeks-with Germany victorious.

The Great War, as it was known to Agatha Christie's generation, was the defining event in her life and the lives of virtually all of her readers. They knew Belgians weren't any more French than Canadians were American. France was at that time, in English eyes, simultaneously a foppish sink of decadence, a major commercial and imperial rival, and a condescending proponent of its own assumed cultural superiority. Belgium, by contrast, was a scrappy, unpretentious, non-threatening little country the English could admire without any sense of competitive risk or inferiority.

By making Hercule Poirot Belgian, Christie got the best of all worlds. She not only differentiated her creation from Arthur Conan Doyle's, but gave mystery readers a protagonist who offered a refreshing Continental perspective on the solving of English crimes in English milieus. And she accomplished this without the baggage a French character would have had-hers being a time when even polite Englishmen complacently assured each other that "wogs start at Calais."

Poirot's nationality lent him plasticity and a capacity for growth that turned out to be crucial. An English writer of genre fiction who created a French character prior to World War II could scarcely have avoided having that character become, at some level, a type. Centuries of shared history across the narrow Manche had made France a pervasive presence in English consciousness. The first indication that a character had grown up in Paris would inevitably have evoked a flood of associations, virtually setting the character in concrete. The poor creature could even have been a well-crafted, perfectly serviceable type (like Flambeau in Chesterton's Father Brown stories), but he probably would not have been able to sustain more than two generations of book-length fiction. If he hadn't exhausted the readers' patience before then, he most surely have exhausted the author's.

Because Belgium did not occupy anything like as prominent a place on the English radar screen as France did (to indulge in an anachronistic metaphor), a Belgian didn't present this problem. He might have to speak English with fractured syntax, and dress or eat with what a plain and patriotic Englishman would regard as a certain affectation; however, beyond these trivialities he could be what Christie chose to make him. He could change and mature over time. Poirot did just that. He didn't age-having begun his literary adventures in his sixties and always on the verge of retirement, he scarcely could have-but he did grow. Spectacularly.

The early Poirot stories after Styles are period pieces. Although they clearly satisfied the tastes of their times, by today's standards some of them are nearly unreadable as entertainment for adults. The Big Four, first published in 1927, presents a number of small, self-contained, and quite satisfying mysteries. It overwhelms them, though, with a boys' adventure magazine tale full of derring-do, laboratories hidden in secret mountain chambers, and villainous international masterminds set on achieving world domination through shadowy technologies owing much to science fiction and nothing to science. (Yes, I know this is just the kind of thing Hollywood's James Bond, as opposed to Ian Fleming's, has been dealing with ever since Doctor No. I rest my case.) It is also hard today to read offhand references to "dyspepsia" as the natural "enemy" of the Jewish "race" or to the "American Secret Service" as a "counter-espionage agency" without cringing.

However, even these early works flickered here and there with glimmers of the genius that would later shine with such dazzling brightness in classics like Murder in Mesopotamia and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and in less celebrated but nonetheless brilliant masterpieces like After the Funeral. Early in The Big Four, when Captain Hastings is doing his best impression of Dr. Watson as a handy vehicle for exposition, Poirot slyly murmurs, "'Your narrative style is masterly . . . I say to myself, it is a book that talks, not my friend Hastings.'" The wink to the reader is unmistakable. By having Poirot expose Hastings as a conventional literary device and a rather lame one at that, Christie shows that Poirot himself is a genuine character of human complexity, with more interesting things in his future than bluffing his way out of a deathtrap with nonsense about cigarettes concealing tiny blowguns.

As Christie's powers developed and her confidence in her own gifts palpably grew, Poirot more than fulfilled this promise. His English went from the comic diction of a generic foreigner from the London music hall stage to the realistically stiff fluency of a language thoroughly learned and practiced but acquired late in life. He would never suffer from self-esteem problems, but his very healthy ego evolved from the kind of absurdly overdrawn self-importance that might be displayed by a secondary sitcom character into a quiet confidence so complete that it required no assertion. In other words, from something uncomfortably close to a cartoon, Poirot grew to become a fully realized and engagingly human character.

Traits that served Poirot well when representatives of a British government agency so secret it can not be named ask him, in Pudding, to subject himself to an old-fashioned traditional English Christmas at Kings Lacey. Kings Lacey is a country house in its final years as a family residence before death duties doom it to sale and institutional use. It has an ancient butler and a gaggle of seasonal help who serve a blustering squire always addressed as "Colonel" and his wise, commonsensical wife. It also boasts a pair of jewel thieves whose most recent illicit acquisition will provoke a dreaded international incident if not recovered. Completing the tableau is a good-hearted but headstrong young woman on the cusp of adulthood and about to become unlucky in love. Poirot must navigate all of these delicate issues through a sea of holiday trimmings: holly, mistletoe, a Christmas tree, and a traditional Christmas dinner with two turkeys and flaming plum pudding.

Not much of a chore, as it turns out. Anonymous government agents seem-in unexplained ways-to have determined already that the thieves will be at Kings Lacey over Christmas. Poirot's job is apparently just to show up under a transparent pretext and, by the mere presence of his famous self, panic the rotters into fatal mistakes. These they obligingly commit. Poirot's little gray cells are able to take a well-earned holiday. He only has to use them for a bit of sleight-of-hand and some playacting after the gem is discovered, essentially by accident.

Although Poirot has little occasion in Pudding for the relentlessly logical crime fighting that is his trademark, the problem of young Sarah's sentimental education does present him with a challenge-one of an entirely different order. Sarah's fundamental goodness is fighting an unequal battle with her youthful folly. Evening the odds requires not cleverness but wisdom, not brilliance but sympathy. Sarah's "case" calls for a combination of finesse and humility that the Poirot of the Captain Hastings years could never have mustered.

Poirot permits Mrs. Lacey's "sweet and grave" sense of tradition and permanence, symbolized by a time-honored Christmas in a manor full of mischievous children who can't wait to look in their stockings (even though they're really too old for such things), to be refracted for Sarah's benefit through his own unassuming appreciation. When Sarah wishes that she had the courage to tell her boyfriend she really would prefer to go to Midnight Mass, you feel the important battle has been won-and you have trouble caring about whether the priceless jewel is ever found.

Murder for Christmas can be read and reread with enjoyment by any mystery fan. One simile alone-the sneakily grabbing kind that only a writer supremely confident of her craft could produce-is enough to repay the effort: A young woman's mouth suddenly turns "[c]ruel and greedy-like the mouth of a child or a kitten-a mouth that knew only its own desires and that was as yet unaware of pity."

Pudding's appeal, though, transcends genre. It can be enjoyed by anyone and, unlike the bleak and bloody Murder for Christmas, is a fitting source of guilt-free pleasure even during the Christmas season. That is because by the time it appeared, its protagonist had become not only a detective but also a man-whose little gray cells were complemented by a serene and well-tempered heart.

THE END

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