First the good news: The Tuesday Night Bloggers are back, and we’re bigger than ever! And we have a month of posts planned for you that focus on the greatest detectives that ever lived . . . in the pages of literature. We do this in honor of a new book, edited by Eric Sandberg, called 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.
More good news: our return has been orchestrated by no less than the magnificent Kate at Cross Examining Crime because – drum roll – she has contributed to this book! And the final good news is that the fabulous Bev Hankins has supplied the cover art . . . just as she used to do! Brava, Bev!
Now the bad news: I selected some great detectives for this month, but alas! my schedule at work is just crazy, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to contribute. I have a few books I want to review, plus I’m starting my American crime fiction class tonight and want to report on that! So if I seem to be a TNSB (Tuesday Night Semi-Blogger) this month, I apologize. I will do all I can to point you in the right direction. (I think if you check out Kate’s site, as well as Noah Stewart‘s site, Moira’s Clothes in Books, and the Puzzle Doctor’s In Search of the Classic Mystery every Tuesday in April, you will have a good start!)
At least I’m getting in one good post, and it happens to be about the greatest detective of them all! No, seriously, Sandberg’s book skirts the issue by presenting his top 100 in alphabetical order. I’ve seen the list, and I promise you that it will be . . . er, controversial. But there’s nothing controversial about who the greatest detective of them all is: it’s this guy:
Yes, Hercule Poirot is the greatest detective of them all, and I will prove it to you. Herewith, the five reasons Poirot is . . . well, you know what I’m gonna say!
One: Agatha Christie used a template for creating Poirot, and that template is of the detective you thought was the greatest detective of them all.
Yes, I figured you be difficult and say that Sherlock Holmes was the best. Christie was certainly a fan of his since childhood, and when she decided to write her first mystery novel, she used the genius of Baker Street for inspiration. Like Holmes, her sleuth would be a private detective, and an eccentric one. He would assist the police with their inquiries – which means he showed up Scotland Yard every time. He would withhold his deductions for dramatic effect. And he would have his own Dr. Watson-figure: a stalwart but dimwitted pal who would alternately marvel at and chafe under the detective’s brilliance and who would chronicle each case for the public.
We learn very little about Poirot’s past: he was a retired inspector for the Belgian police force, and he had one failure there (“The Chocolate Box”). Here is a gentleman who lives in the present, despite his age, always looking for his next triumph. He is also a man who knows what he likes: everything in order (preferably square rather than round), his mustaches, a good pair of patent leather shoes, an excellent meal, followed by a good sirop (crème de cassis or de menthe are his favorites), the acknowledgment of his peers – and what he doesn’t like: primarily, crossing the water. He knows when to exert the force of his personality and when to play the part of the smiling refugee in order to encourage people to talk around him and incriminate themselves.
Like Doyle, Christie grew desperately tired of her creation. Unlike her predecessor, she did not send Poirot to his death – that is, until his very last case. She did, however, banish her version of Watson to South America; Captain Hastings was allowed to return one last time for the finale, Curtain.
Two: Like Holmes, Poirot has been portrayed successfully in every medium. At the same time, his character is both distinctive and complex enough to allow for multiple interpretations . . . including the possibility that the “best” Poirot is yet to come.
In the movies, there have been good Poirots (Finney, Ustinov, Branagh) and bad (Austin Trevor, Tony Randall!). Many of these productions are sumptuous: money has been lavished in ways we have never seen for any other detective. (Are the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr. as high budget? Perhaps. Are they good? . . . . I rest my case.) And if none of these actors has quite hit the mark as Poirot, that just means that somewhere out there a future screen star is staring at himself in the mirror, wondering how he looks in a waxed moustache.
It took decades to successfully navigate a television Poirot in order to get it right, and the result is considered the best portrayal of the character so far in any medium. David Suchet has his detractors: some fans of the detective have not forgiven the actor for the dark turn in which he took the character during the final seasons. This has prompted fierce debate as to whether the moral quandaries of Suchet’s Poirot can even be found in the pages of Christie. The fact that people are talking this way about a 98-year old character from genre fiction speaks volumes as to his popularity and to how much people care about the way he is portrayed.
In radio, the Americans took a stab at Poirot with middling results. No less a personage than Orson Welles took on the character in 1939 in an adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In the 1940’s, a series was developed with character actor Harold Huber that lasted only one season. A second attempt was no more successful. Poirot was transported to New York where he took on original cases, most of which could have fit just as easily on The Saint or Richard Diamond. I did listen to one of these episodes that was based on Death on the Nile. It was a fair adaptation of the central conflict, but since it cut out every other character but the victim and the murderer, there wasn’t much convolution to the case.
But the BBC sure got Poirot right in the form of John Moffat. Nearly every novel (except The Hollow) has been adapted beautifully, and Moffat has a justifiable claim on being considered as one of the greatest Poirots in any medium.
There are even Poirot comic books!
If you were thinking that so far Sherlock Holmes has matched Poirot pound for franc, the next three points separate the (little) men from the (tall, ascetic) boys.
Three: Poirot’s novels are devilishly clever puzzles and his deductions both fabulous and entertaining.
Sure, Holmes can take a quick look at a visitor and tell us he hails from Derbyshire after spending 38 months in Calcutta, that he raises peonies for show and has a French poodle, that he is fond of amateur theatricals and never eats fish, and that he is bedeviled by an ingrown hair on his right buttock. When was the last time you read one of these deductive sprees and gasped in surprise?
Poirot, in the words of the expert, “knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em.” He can dazzle with the analysis of a half-dozen objects found in a victim’s boudoir and yet hold certain facts close to his vest in order to stop a killer from escaping justice through the laws of double jeopardy. He can see past the web of confusing familial relationships and determine why the killer must be an outsider – or why an outsider must be a member of the family! He can peel back the multiple layers of a murder plot like an onion by simply sitting back and listening to the bickering heirs to a fortune or a charming family at dinner or even by interviewing a confusing series of “elephants.”
He can grasp the significance of a chair moved from its correct position in a man’s study; figure out to which woman an initialed ladies handkerchief belongs despite the wealth of ladies with the same initial; grasp the motive for the poisoning of a beloved cleric; identify a murderer immediately after examining the passengers’ luggage; see the forest for the trees in a series of killings; use a psychological approach to a stack of bridge scores to find a murderer; solve an impossible crime by observing the way a man laughs. His knowledge of botany helps exonerate two falsely accused women on two separate occasions (alas, it doesn’t help him figure out the best way to grow vegetable marrows). And Poirot excels at figuring the truth from the most insignificant of details. An empty bottle flung out a window dashes a perfect alibi. A bright new shoe buckle takes down an international spy. A vase of wax flowers on a malachite table turns a case upside down.
Even more astonishing, for a man whose entry to England occurred in his sixties, he fathoms the truth behind the confusions of the English language with extraordinary dexterity. He can suss out a fake will or a faked or misinterpreted letter in nothing flat. He can sort out the confusions behind names, nicknames, the initials of names, and all sundry associations. He can correctly construe the misconstrued overheard conversation. He knows why Louise Bourget used the conditional to describe her evening walk or why Mrs. Boynton made that unusual half-threat to Sarah King. He figures out Dr. Cristow’s dying message, and he sorts through the confusion of all those freaking “elephants” to answer Celia Ravenscroft’s question.
Let’s see you do half of that, Sherlock!
Four: Poirot’s moral code is fascinating and leads him to make decisions that will be fodder for conversations in the fan world for a very long time.
His policeman’s instinct for justice is tempered with pity, whether for a murderer or for a murderer’s family. It’s hard to discuss this point without fear of spoilers, so I will remain vague. He makes plain on more than one occasion that every man and woman is entitled to justice, and that even the most saintly or important person cannot escape the consequences for an act of evil. He has, for some reason, a special place in his heart for mothers. More than once, he has rushed to the aid of a child seeking to exonerate a mother; he has also protected a murderer’s children from exposure to their parent’s guilt and in at least one case, offered comfort to a bereaved mother over the guilt of her child. He has allowed a murderer to commit suicide in order to shield his family from scandal. There is of course the famous case where the killer gets away with murder because Poirot allows that the killing was actually the fulfillment of real justice – and yet, Poirot manipulates that situation so that others make the decision to exonerate. And finally, there’s the case of the serial killer who nobody can stop and of Poirot’s plan for obtaining justice that brings about the end of an era.
Speaking of which . . .
Five: Hercule Poirot is the only fictional character, let alone detective, to receive an obituary in the Times.
This means that Poirot transcends fiction and takes his place in a special pantheon of characters, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, who occupy a plain of existence for those of us who refuse to grow up are determined to believe.
From the New York Times, August 6, 1975, page 1
Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.
Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904. His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, his creator, was one of the most illustrious in fiction.
At the end of his life, he was arthritic and had a bad heart. He was in a wheelchair often, and was carried from his bedroom to the public lounge at Styles Court, a nursing home in Essex, wearing a wig and false mustaches to mask the signs of age that offended his vanity. In his active days, he was always impeccably dressed.
Mr. Poirot, who was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, went to England from Belgium during World War I as a refugee. He settled in a little town not far from Styles, then an elaborate country estate, where he took on his first private case.
The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May.
Hercule Poirot is the greatest detective of all time. Case closed.