I have been spending a lot of time these days, reading and re-reading, sometimes reading once more, the amazing adventures of Hercule Poirot. Few days back, I picked up my old copy of “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” (the best whodunit I have ever read), and there the domino effected. Then I picked up Roger Ackroyd, the Styles, and then the short stories, and then the movie version of Murder on the Orient Express (a good movie by itself!). I must say, as I am now neck-deep in the entire mythology, I am impressed.
Poirot has always appealed to me in the way he approaches a problem. In his own words, from the short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister (one of the most high profile, but more ingenuous of his cases):
“It is not so that the good detective should act, eh? I perceive your thought. He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road and seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end, the fallen match? That is your idea is it not?”
The oblique reference to a certain famous English detective is not gone unnoticed by readers. He continues to expostulate his own method, which has changed with time, from being Pasteurian to Freudian, I might guess,
“But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here… It would have been sufficient for me to sit quietly in rooms there. All that matters is the little grey cells within. Secretly and silently they do their part…”
So Hercule Poirot, retired from Belgian Police, five feet four, chivalrous, dandy and limping on a leg, prone to seasickness and cold, brings down the most feared of criminals. Poirot’s idiosyncrasies doesn’t end there, from the short story The Capture of Cerebus:
“It is the misfortune of small, precise men always to hanker after large and flamboyant women. Poirot had never been able to rid himself of the fatal fascination that the Countess held for him.”
Poirot at the same time, is extremely thrifty and cautious about money, never making any speculative investment ( with the exception of fourteen thousand shares of Burma Mines Ltd which he received as a gift), in Arthur Hastings words:
“My little friend was a strange mix of Flemish thrift and artistic fervour. He accepted many cases in which he had little interest owing to the first instinct being predominant”
However, the second also played its significant role, in cases like The Arcadian Deer (in fact most of the cases from the Labours of Hercules), and in plenty of the novels he appeared in.
What marks Poirot from his fictional colleagues is his human qualities, the way he, on quite a few occasions, lets nemesis take its turn, not punishing the murderer, in spite of having arriving at the truth, loyalty to his friend Hastings (aside: I have noticed loyalty and friendship play a major role in Cristie’s work, sometimes murders being committed for its sake!), his hubris, from Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case:
I have no more now to say. I do not know, Hastings, if what I have done is justified or not justified. No – I do not know. I do not believe that a man should take the law into his own hands… But on the other hand, I am the law!
And then at times (The Chocolate Box being the only case he confesses having failed in), his fall:
“I should, perhaps, Madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirot.”
The revelation left Mrs Summerhayes unmoved.
“What a lovely name,” she said kindly. “Greek, isn’t it?”
The rotundity of the characters, I suppose, makes them so lovable, in spite of their follies and vices, right from Miss Lemon, with her perfect filing system, to Arthur Hastings and his proclivity for auburn hair. In a way, Cristie invokes the armchair sleuth in all of us, trying to solve elaborate mysteries, with imagination and an easy chair, for now we know its all about the little grey cells!
To say the least, it has been gratifying, Monsieur Poirot.