8/6/09

Hercule Poirot and the Art of Survival

Early on in her most audacious murder mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie has her eponymous Belgian detective with the egg shaped head and waxed moustache, Hercule Poirot, cultivating vegetable marrows. He is unhappy with the results and smashes one to the ground for not being big enough. It lands at the feet of Dr. Shephard, who — those who haven’t read the book, stop reading now —is the novel’s narrator and also eventually revealed to be the murderer.

Hercule Poirot always fascinated me not only with his behavioral peculiarities so deliciously brought to life in the long running Poirot TV series by the impeccable David Suchet, but also by his uncanny knack for instinctively teaming up with the characters who would eventually turn out to be murderers. I wonder if this wasn’t Poirot’s survival tactic – a theory that gains a special relevance in this year when his most famous case, The Murder on the Orient Express, turned 75 and when Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary was celebrated. If Darwin argued that natural selection is one way to propagate a particular species with only the strongest surviving youth and going on to procreate and increase the population, surely Poirot was blessed with a similar instinct to survive.

I set out to research my theory some weeks back. I had some of his best cases in book form as well as television adaptations. Suffice to say that watching and reading Poirot and nothing but Poirot for two whole weeks is disorienting. At work I could hear the theme music playing and I found myself imitating his mincing, pointy-toed walk. I also gained the habit of putting the word “delectation” in work-related emails. I would say the word in my head in a faux-Belgian accent. But my fledgling theory did sprout tiny wings and maybe a few feathers.

Poirot kept his friends – Hastings, Miss Lemon and, well, that’s about all – close, but he kept his enemies closer. In Peril at End House, he seems smitten by the damsel in distress, the charming Young Nick (named after the Devil himself) and keeps the impression going until the final act when he unmasks the murderer. His moony behaviour around the gorgeous actress, Jane Wilkinson, in Lord Edgware Dies convinces Hastings that he has fallen in love. And his affability and friendliness disarms the nefarious villain in Evil under the Sun.

Agatha Christie might have intended this empathy for villains to be red herrings that would lead the reader up the wrong path. This conscious decision to distract the reader from guessing which character was the rotten apple also served as a means of self preservation for her most famous creation. He survives because his creator’s instincts ensure that he has a protective shield, keeping him from harm. This was highly ironic given that Christie was privately frustrated with Poirot because she couldn’t kill him off and let her creativity loose by conceptualizing other mysteries that did not involve the little Belgian. She was handcuffed to Poirot for most of her life – the public wanted more stories with him and as an author who had to depend on royalties for her own survival, she continued writing Poirot mysteries beyond the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Poirot dies in The Big Four but this proves to be a ruse. When Christie eventually killed him off in Curtain (written in the 1940s because of the author’s fear of dying in an air raid during the war but only published in 1975), it wasn’t like Holmes and Moriarty on the Reichenbach Falls with the prospect of a comeback, but a final act from which there could be no return. Hastings describes the body and the funeral and readers knew that the little Belgian wouldn’t be appearing again. The New York Times carried an obituary on its front page for Poirot – the first and only one for a fictional character.

Poirot’s superior grey cells and finely honed instinct for survival elevated him above all other mortals in his world. And in giving him those powers, his creator proved the theory of natural selection and survival of the canniest, coined by another genius thinker.

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