Caroline: There aren’t many characters who are recognisable just from a silhouette, but Hercule Poirot is one of them.
The beloved Belgian detective made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair At Styles a hundred years ago, and today it seems impossible to remember a time when he wasn’t a ubiquitous part of pop culture.
But Agatha Christie’s sleuth, for all that he is obsessed with neatness and order, isn’t a straightforward character. Even in print there are all sorts of inconsistencies in his portrayal, and at times even his creator seemed less than enthusiastic about his little grey cells. The cinematic success and beloved television adaptations are a relatively recent phenomenon. There were entire decades of the twentieth century where Poirot barely appeared on screen at all.
In fact, we might say that there isn’t one Hercule Poirot, but many, jostling for position on page and screen. And today, we’re going to meet some of them.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Hercule Poirot came to be because of an argument that Agatha Christie had with her sister. In her autobiography, Christie described herself and Madge as “connoisseurs of the detective story”, saying they had enjoyed all of Sherlock Holmes as well as the work of Gaston Leroux and the Arsène Lupin stories. They were disputing whether it was easy or not to write a detective story — Madge thought it would be difficult, whereas Agatha thought she might be able to do it if she tried. She didn’t put pen to paper write then and there, but as she put it “the seed had been sown”.
She began to think about it more seriously in 1916 when she was working as a dispenser at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. Snatches of plot and character came to her in idle moments, and apparently thinking about it made her quite distracted at home. Those idle wonderings eventually became The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which was published in 1920.
But before it got that far, she had to make a key decision for a detective novelist. She had to create a detective.
Mark: Well, she had this thing and I think it shows how she was already able to think like an author in a very practical sense, even before she had anything substantial published that when she was writing Styles or when she was planning that she was going to write Styles, she was like, well, I need a detective, and she was very sort of pragmatic about it.
Caroline: This is Mark Aldridge, a historian of Agatha Christie and the author most recently of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. This book is a study of all the different ways Poirot has been written and portrayed over his century of existence, and the context behind both Agatha Christie’s work and that of all the other writers and actors who have had a hand in his appearances. That origin point, when she was pulling together her ideas for The Mysterious Affair At Styles, is crucial to Mark’s book, so I’ll let him explain Christie’s thought process.
Mark: I need a detective, they probably have to have some sort of quirk, you know, she didn’t want an inspector from Scotland Yard. So she started to think about what else you could have. So she thought about things like a school boy investigator or scientist. But she, she settled on. Yeah, a Belgian refugee, but she immediately says, and she says this in her autobiography. Well, I didn’t know them but there was several were housed near Torquay or in Torquay. And actually there still is. You can still see where, where they, they used to be held or housed and So what you can actually get a sense of from that is that she was like, Oh, well, here’s somebody, who’s a bit interesting distinctive, even though I don’t know much about Belgians or indeed refugees perhaps necessarily, but she still felt that that would be somebody who was, was very appealing.
Caroline: When Christie was giving her detective his distinguishing characteristics for this first story, she could have had no idea that she would still be working with this character five decades later. She had never had any writing published before — and indeed it would take several years of trying even to get The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. She certainly wasn’t designing Poirot with a long running series in mind, in the way that a professional writer embarking on a new project might. As a result, Christie had some regrets about how Poirot turned out.
Mark: So she did say that she, she regretted making him so old initially and possibly regretted making him for her quite annoying. But she seemed to soften on that as she got older as well. But yes, it, I think that if she’d known that she was having a recurring detective, I suspect that that Poirot isn’t who she would have gone for
Caroline: Poirot’s age is the obvious issue that Christie herself, as well as all the playwrights and screenwriters who have engaged with her work, have had to grapple with. He’s introduced as a retired policeman in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which suggests he’s at least in his sixties. By the time a book like After the Funeral was published in 1953, he must be at least into his nineties, which isn’t ideal if you think about it for too long. And that wasn’t the only thing about Poirot that Christie regretted.
Mark: The things that she found quite difficult to stick with, the things that are work on a superficial level.
And then don’t, if you think about them too much and actually most, we just don’t mind these things, but she would even get annoyed with things like that. He had an egg shaped head. It’s just like, what is the next shape? Ted says, people would ask me which way round is the egg. Can I say, no, I just said an egg shaped head and you’re stuck with that already.
He limps in the first one, which goes out pretty soon. So we can assume that that’s a passing sort of problem. But, but things like, she seemed to get quite annoyed with his, his tidiness and his fastidiousness because she said herself that did I create him because I’m wildly untidy myself, so says perhaps subconsciously she was writing someone who was a complete contrast to herself.
And I guess that’s quite fun, once or twice, but then if you’re writing somebody who’s whole sort of attitudes to life perhaps is quite different to yours in terms of the him, his neatness, his desire for order, which really was, were not Agatha Christie type traits in her own life. Then you can understand why she would then find him quite annoying over time.
Caroline: Like Poirot himself, Christie’s relationship to her creation did not remain fixed. In the introduction to the Daily Mail serialisation of Appointment with Death in 1938 she wrote that “there are moments when I have felt why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” That line is often quoted, but doesn’t really reflect her true feelings to her little Belgian sleuth, Mark says.
Mark: If you keep reading that, that quote, which is in the introduction to appointment with death serialization? She, she says, Oh, but actually, I, I think he’s won because actually he, he has sort of won me over by this point and, and I feel much more warmly towards him. So even by the late thirties, she didn’t seem to mind him that much, but.
You know, it’s like with colleagues, isn’t it, you can really enjoy working with a work colleague, but they can still annoy you every now and again. And I think this was the same for her. That Poirot was her work colleague and it was all right when he was bubbling in the background and when she had a good idea for him, but when suddenly you’re stuck together, it’s not so much fun.
Caroline: Christie used another of her sleuthing characters, Ariadne Oliver, as a way of relieving her feelings about this a little. She admitted in an interview in 1956 that Ariadne, a popular detective novelist who appears in a string of novels beginning with Cards on the Table in 1936 and ending with Elephants Can Remember in 1972, contained “a strong dash” of Agatha Christie herself. Ariadne’s detective character is a Finn, Sven Hjerson, who has a number of quirks that are frustrating to his creator, including vegetarianism, cold baths in winter, and raw foods. She also complains of how difficult it is to create a realistic and consistent backstory for a character from a country she knows nothing about — in Ariadne’s case, Finland, but for Agatha and Hercule, of course, it was Belgium.
Ariadne Oliver was also useful for Agatha as a way of acknowledging or correcting her past mistakes. For instance, in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne admits to having got the length of a blowpipe completely wrong and receiving a lot of reader letters about it — which refers to a similar error Christie made in a Poirot novel from the 1930s.
Poirot might have had his annoyances for his creator, but there were circumstances in her own life that meant he had to endure. Readers loved him, and especially after the success of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, there was an increasingly large audience for new Poirot adventures. That year also marked a turning point for Christie herself, as I’ve covered before on the show, which culminated in her divorce from Archie Christie and her need to support herself with her writing.
Mark: She was having to then really write professionally because she needed the money, which before her divorce, she hadn’t really needed. But she wanted to then obviously have her independence afterwards.
And so when actually you’re having to write, because you’ve got to put Poirot in a story because he’s commercial because you know, you need to sell these copies, sell it to magazines. That was a big thing that they love Poirot in this era. Then you can start to feel a bit tied to him can’t you and feel a bit like you’re, you’re stuck in this, this sort of dependence between yourselves that, that, that perhaps isn’t something that is going to be very gratifying to you as an author, but commercially and for your readers will be very successful.
Caroline: Agatha Christie was a keen reader of Arthur Conan Doyle. She writes in her autobiography how instrumental Sherlock Holmes was to her own ideas about how to write a detective, and in The Sittaford Mystery she created a brilliant homage to his 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle had of course, famously, tried to kill off his detective when he got fed up of writing him, even though the public were desperate for more stories, and then had to humiliatingly revive him. Christie came up with a much more subtle way of relieving her feelings around Hercule Poirot’s end while keeping her public happy — and I’ll be talking more about that in another episode soon.
After the break: Hercule Poirot is ready for his closeup.
Now, a brief intermission. The style that I use to make Shedunnit means that what you hear in these final episodes is a bit like an iceberg — it’s only the visible tip of a great big mass of interviews and research that goes unseen underneath. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Shedunnit Book Club, because I can put some of that extra material into bonus episodes and extended interviews for those dedicated paying supporters. If you would like to hear full length versions of my conversations with the guests you hear on the show — such as On Nomoto from the Honkaku Mysteries episode, say, or Hamish Symington the crossword setter, or indeed Agatha Christie historian Mark Aldridge, become a member today to get access to the show’s bonus feed. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and you’ll be helping to keep the show financially viable. To hear more from Shedunnit, consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Caroline: Agatha Christie had a somewhat tense relationship, at times, with the stage and screen versions of her characters. Her clearest of expression of this, again, comes via Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, when she says: “You’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things they never would have said”.
1931’s Alibi was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot on film, and that came to the big screen via the theatre. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been adapted by Michael Morton into a stage play called Alibi that was performed in 1928, and it was that version which was subsequently produced as a film. Christie had disliked Morton’s early suggestion that her Belgian sleuth should become “Beau Poirot”, be 20 year younger and be a heartthrob to young ladies. This didn’t make it into final version of the script and he remained Hercule for both the play and the film of Alibi. But he was played in the first three Poirot films by the young actor Austin Trevor, who was 33 when Alibi was made — introducing yet another confusing element to the question of “how old is Hercule Poirot”. That film, by the way, is now completely lost, so you can’t go back and watch it — all we have to go on are the contemporary reviews and material that survives.
While I was talking to Mark about all the different incarnations that Hercule Poirot had and Christie’s attitude to the adaptation of her work, it reminded me of something that Victoria Stewart said on an episode last year when she was talking about how the students on her detective fiction course first encounter murder mysteries. Let’s hear it:
Victoria: But it’s been interesting to me over the years that I’ve taught the module, I must be teaching it for eight or nine years by now, I think and quite often students haven’t actually read a lot of detective fiction, but they’re interested in it. And very often their reference points are TV adaptations. So Sherlock — the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is a reference point that a lot of people have. More recently, the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been going out around Christmas time. A lot of people have watched those. And also and I find this quite an interesting phenomenon that many people talk about having watched things like Murder She Wrote or the Poirot adaptations with David Suchet when they were being looked after by their grandparents. So they have quite interesting associations with detective narratives and they often admit this in a slightly shamefaced way that they’ve been watching these adaptations on television.
Caroline: Reruns of the various Poirot and Marple films and TV series are so common on British daytime television that the young people who come to Victoria’s classes quite often had their first encounter with the characters on screen, rather than in books. That is completely normal and expected these days, but it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon.
Mark: We’re so used to seeing lots of Poirot now. And you go look at this such a long period where there’s no Poirot whatsoever. If we are to, you know, perhaps ignore a single West German adaptation and possibly some unofficial ones in Russia, then actually between 1934 and 1965, he is not onscreen at all for 31 years at the peak of his success, there is no real Poirot.
There’s like an American TV pilot. So, so there’s 25 minutes shown once in like the early 1960s. But other than that, very, very, you know, there’s no great mainstream Poirot. There’s no actor who people are readily associating with him beyond those who’ve played him on stage and screen in the late twenties and through to the thirties.
Caroline: As Mark says, there were a handful of film and TV projects through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but they often focused on other characters from her canon, rather than Hercule Poirot.
Mark: Poirot was always seen as the, sort of the crown jewels as, as the absolute sort of the, the thing to be protected above all else, I guess, in, in Agatha Christie. And that goes for during her lifetime and, and afterwards. And then there is this sort of slight relaxation when Murder on the Orient Express happens in, in 1974 the film. And then there seems to be a bit more relaxation, but even then they would test the waters usually with other things. So when there were noises about television adaptations again which they had been constantly been asked about and denied their response was, well, you can have Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, which is, you know, it doesn’t have Ms Marple doesn’t have Poirot is, is is a very decent mystery, but is I would say, not generally regarded as, as one of the handful of masterpieces. You know, it’s not very, very top tier, I would say And so it was slightly a safe bet that you could say why? Well, let’s see how they get on with this one. And then we’ll see. And then, then that they’re sort of starts really in the sort of fishing line a little bit and go, okay, you can have Tommy and Tuppence that? See what happened to Tommy and then there’s miss Marple. And then so 10 years after Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? happens, we’ve got David Suchet as Poirot.
Caroline: This idea of “protecting” Poirot, of keeping Agatha Christie’s most popular character “safe” from clumsy screen adaptation is one that has its origins in the author’s own caution, and which was carried on by her relatives as they took bigger roles in her literary estate. But it isn’t always quite as simple as that, as Mark has discovered during his research.
Mark: One of the great surprises was about murder by the book, which is this, this one off a television film ashes, about 50 minutes long, which was made and shown in the eighties. And that is all about Agatha Christie played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft meeting Poirot, played by Ian Holme and having a discussion about let’s say her plans for him.
And, and, and how well Poirot, I was going to come out of all of these plans and, and what, how what’s my plan for him might be. And my assumption had always been well, they must’ve just sort of done this and not worried about. You know, the Christie estate and stuff, because it’s everything that they don’t like.
You know, it says they really didn’t like Agatha Christie herself being depicted on the screen, particularly and Poirot was fiercely protected at this point. So imagine my surprise in learning, not only through paperwork, but also speaking to Matthew that actually they really liked it and they were really supportive of it.
Caroline: That’s Matthew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie.
Mark: And they, they allowed the use Poirot for a pound. So they didn’t even like make money out of anything. They just saw. It was a rather nice idea. So are I often, I think I’m probably guilty of this more than anybody else of, of sort of really reinforcing this over-protective idea that I think some people get the impression of that being, but actually there are so many of these exceptions that it just shows actually, if you had them right approach, if you were doing things that happened to coincide with what either Agatha Christie Limited or the sort of family wanted to do, then actually there was quite a lot there. That’s that they would allow you to do. So it’s just always full of surprises.
Caroline: Adaptations, especially popular ones like the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and the more recent films, certainly help to give a character the university that makes them instantly recognisable from even the smallest hint or phrase. But Hercule was a household name long before David Suchet started twiddling his moustaches on television. There’s something intrinsic to the way Christie wrote him that makes him stick in the memory.
Mark: I think that there’s something immediately definable about him in a way that even Miss Marple isn’t quite there. He’s got some very strong traits and of course is, is very well known as well. But I think that because Poirot has particularly got this thing about being an outsider that makes them much more immediately identifiable. She basically describes him in the same way. In dozens of books that she will describe him in precisely the same way, you know, with the egg shaped head and with the fine moustaches and with the little grey cells all the ways that he’s described.
And so it almost becomes a description that, that is so heavily ingrained in your head that, that he’s right there. And I think it’s a bit of a gift to a good actor to be able to, to, to bring that to the screen.
Caroline: But lots of characters have recognisable physical traits. The moustaches alone aren’t enough.
Mark: I actually would suggest that the reason he’s endured is because the mysteries he’s in are brilliant. And I think that’s the big thing is it’s a Poirot’s around because he solved really good cases in a really interesting way with completely satisfying conclusions for the most part — Murder in Mesopotamia, there’s one or two exceptions — but what we’ve got really is, is somebody who, who it’s great to revisit and go back.
I mean, there are loads of brilliant characters who have completely forgotten in detective fiction because perhaps they’re their mysteries aren’t that great. Poirot has got this great thing of being both a very strong and identifiable character and somebody who is in some of the greatest pieces of detective fiction ever written.
Caroline: That’s what it comes down to, as I think it often does in discussions of Agatha Christie’s work. You can dissect her prose style and her settings, her focus on a particular class of people and set of attitudes, her over reliance on a few stock ideas about how people lived. But you can’t argue with her plots, or with most of them, at least. That’s what gave Hercule Poirot life a hundred years ago, and it’s why he’s still alive today.
Mark: Poirot is bigger than any of us, once you’ve created him, there’s no stopping him and you can’t, you can’t contain him.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/themanyafterlivesofherculepoirot. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.