Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poirot's first case

Tonight, ITV shows Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, bringing to an end the series of adaptations starring David Suchet. Until last month I'd never read any Agatha Christie, but – prompted by Lucy's Worsley's history of British murder – I got my wise chum Robert Dick to recommend some. He had me start at the very beginning...

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) was Christie's first published novel and marked the first appearance of Hercule Poirot.
“Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. 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 side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost as 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. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.”
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), p. 23.
For a character Christie would still have appearing in new adventures more than 50 years later, it's striking that in this first appearance he's already “old” (p.59). [By The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), Poirot has retired.]

The novel is set during World War One – so our first encounter with Poirot is soon after Sherlock Holmes' last bow. In fact, Poirot is compared to Holmes on page 11. Poirot is a refugee living with other Belgians in a small English village, but the story is narrated by another detective, Captain Hastings.

Hastings is an unreliable narrator, often wrong in judging character or making sense of clues – yet honest in his account about that wrongness. The effect of this dual assessment of each detail – by Hastings and by Poirot – is to encourage us as readers to play along. The text reproduces a map, a fragment of charred paper and a facsimile of the handwriting found on an envelope to help us play detective.

Just as in the Holmes stories, Poirot gives lessons in the deductive arts.
“Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”
Ibid., p. 80. 
“Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory – let the theory go.”
Ibid., p. 82.
“Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined – sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried. No, my friend, this evidence has been very cleverly manufactured – so cleverly that it has defeated its own ends.”
Ibid., p. 103. 
He's a strange little man, fussy and fastidious, straightening other people's ties and tie pins. It's this attention to detail – and to tiny incongruities – that makes him so good at nabbing crooks. But Poirot is not entirely in control: as the tension of the case affects him, he builds houses from playing cards to steady his nerves (p. 178). Then, when given a last, essential piece of evidence, he kisses Hastings on the cheeks and rushes off - scandalously “hatless” (p. 179).

Though Hastings often has fun at Poirot's expense and describes him looking ridiculous, he also greatly respects him and his methods. For much of the book he – and we – struggle to keep up with Poirot's “little grey cells”. Poirot can also have fun Hastings' expense, too:
“'Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.' ...

There had been times when when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

'Yes,' he continued., staring at me thoughtfully, 'you will be invaluable.' This was naturally gratifying...”
Ibid., p. 124.
Towards the end, there's quite a surprise when Poirot becomes the man of action:
“A chair was overturned. Poirot skipped nimbly aside. A quick movement on his part, and his assailant fell with a crash.”
Ibid., p. 190.
Yet there's little depth to Poirot: he's a series of fussy ticks. We learn very little about him or his background other than that he's highly thought of by the police in his own country; we don't even know the names or relationships of the other Belgians he's living with. His mannerisms – his way of slipping into French mid-sentence – make him a caricature.

This is also true of the other characters populating the story – wild young things, maiden aunts and bounders, larking about round a stately home. In fact, with posh, hapless Hastings narrating it reminded me most of all of a Wodehouse farce, only with a murder. There's little sense of reality; the death doesn't seem to affect anyone more than being a interesting puzzle.

In some cases, that light caricature becomes more sinister. One red herring concerns a spy, who Poirot refers to as “a Jew of course” (p.147) – then defends him for being a “patriot”, because, the detective appears to think, though the man in question has been naturalised for 15 years he cannot really be an Englishman. The suggestion is not of one bad Jew; it's all of them.

The ending, neatly, comes as a surprise when the murderer is exposed as someone we thought had been ruled out earlier on. Poirot then delights in explaining how the puzzle fits together, and there's a light-hearted ending as he promises that Hastings might get the better of him next time. The parlour game is over, though the implication is that the murderer will now hang.

It's fun and ingenious but I felt a little unsatisfied – even a little disturbed – that that is all it is.

Robert's next recommendation was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.


Wm Keith said...

Lucy Worsley's series inspired me, on the other hand, to re-read some Dorothy Sayers, and I have finished "Busman's Honeymoon" tonight. Very clever, very witty, almost entirely about the relationship between Peter and Harriet, and the murder weapon turns out to have been referenced in conversation on almost every page. (Also read it because my father recently died the same way as the murder victim, except he was not murdered by a SPOILER whom he was SPOILING, SPOILERING a SPOILER TO SPOIL on his head. Nor indeed murdered at all.)

0tralala said...

Ooh! I've not read any Dorothy Sayers, either - and am open to recommendations on where to start. (Mrs Guerrier suggested I read Christie first, then Sayers.)

Rob Stradling said...

I too popped my Christie cherry this year, with "Death On The Nile"; Meh.

Pacey and very readable, but unsatisfying in the extreme. And yes, the rotter is not only someone eliminated early on, but the first and most obvious suspect; one who, as Poirot takes great pains to remind us AT EVERY TURN, can't possibly be the one.

That's my insoluble problem with whodunnits, I'm afraid. If they're possible to work out, they're no fun. And if they're IMpossible to work out... they're no fun.