Her­cule Poirot: Un­mask­ing The Man Be­yond The Mous­tache

Distinguished Magazine - - CONTENTS - SURANGAMA GUHA ROY

“My name is Her­cule Poirot and I am prob­a­bly the great­est de­tec­tive in the world.” -Her­cule Poirot, The Mys­tery of the Blue Train.

The ec­cen­tric lit­tle Bel­gian with his egg-shaped head, the mag­nif­i­cent waxed mous­tache that is a force unto it­self, and most sig­nif­i­cantly, the pen­chant for find­ing the most star­tling con­clu­sions to the most ex­tra­or­di­nary mys­ter­ies with the help of ‘the lit­tle grey cells’ – Her­cule Poirot re­mains to this day one of the most enig­matic lit­er­ary char­ac­ters, adored by mil­lions of read­ers across the world.

Poirot makes his first ap­pear­ance in The Mys­te­ri­ous Af­fair at Styles, a novel that was to cat­a­pult its au­thor, the then de­but novelist Agatha Christie, into a whirl­wind of fame. Pub­lished in 1920, this novel in­tro­duced the world to a de­tec­tive who would go on to be­come one of the most en­dear­ing, if not the most en­dur­ing, fig­ures in pop­u­lar world lit­er­a­ture. Christie en­thu­si­asts might be fa­mil­iar with the myr­iad char­ac­ter­is­tics of the tan­ta­liz­ing lit­tle man, whether it is his mon­u­men­tal ego, or his crav­ing for pre­ci­sion from the length of his mous­tache to the size of his eggs. Yet, how many of us are aware of the var­i­ous seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant facts, all of which add up to bring to life a char­ac­ter that is as much flesh and blood as its cre­ator?

A cu­ri­ous tale lies be­yond the con­cep­tion of Her­cule Poirot, ar­guably one of the great­est crim­i­nal minds in Europe, a fact which is firmly re­it­er­ated by the char­ac­ter him­self from time to time. Ru­mor has it that Christie might have con­ceived what would be her most re­mark­able con­tri­bu­tion to the world of lit­er­ary sleuths, dur­ing a fundrais­ing event held at the house of one Mrs. Potts Chatto for the ben­e­fit of Bel­gian refugees in Torquay, Eng­land, post-World War I. With Mrs Chatto her­self was bil­leted a re­tired Bel­gian gen­darme, Jac­ques Hor­nais. And as fate would have it, a young girl called Agatha is said to have played the piano on this par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion. It does not re­quire a stretch of imag­i­na­tion to be­lieve that Poirot, a for­mer mem­ber of the Bel­gian po­lice force, might have been born out of this chance en­counter. Agatha named her de­tec­tive Her­cule, de­rived from Her­cules in Greek mythol­ogy. See­ing that Poirot stood at a mere 5 feet 4 inches, one must com­mend the au­thor’s mis­chievous bent of mind that no doubt played a sig­nif­i­cant role in nam­ing her de­tec­tive. Some sug­gest that the lit­tle Bel­gian’s pe­cu­liar nomen­cla­ture com­bined within it­self two other fic­tional char­ac­ters Her­cule Po­peau, cre­ated by an­other British novelist Marie Lown­des, and a re­tired French po­lice de­tec­tive Mon­sieur Poiret, cre­ated by Frank How­ell Evans. In Agatha’s own words, though, “How about call­ing my lit­tle man Her­cules? He would be a small man — Her­cules: A good name. His last name was more dif­fi­cult. I don’t know why I set­tled on the name Poirot, whether it just came into my head or whether I saw it in some news­pa­per or writ­ten on some­thing — any­way it came. It went well not with Her­cules but Her­cule— Her­cule Poirot.” But you need more than just a name to en­gage your au­di­ence. Thus, what un­folded grad­u­ally was an idio­syn­cratic man with a very dis­tinct per­son­al­ity. In the words of Arthur Hast­ings, Poirot’s part­ner in crime in sev­eral of his most baf­fling cases. “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 one side. His mous­tache was very stiff and mil­i­tary. The neat­ness of his at­tire was al­most in­cred­i­ble, I be­lieve a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bul­let wound.” -- The Mys­te­ri­ous Af­fair at Styles

Poirot, who ap­pears in 33 nov­els, 59 short sto­ries and one orig­i­nal play by Christie, came to Eng­land as a refugee fol­low­ing the First World War. Not much is known about his an­tecedents ex­cept for a few hints given spar­ingly by the au­thor. In The Big Four, where Poirot is pre­sumed dead for the ma­jor part of the story, there are ref­er­ences to his home­town in Spa, a town lo­cated in the Bel­gian prov­ince of Liege. An­other town, Ellezelles, 30 miles west of Brus­sels, also prides it­self on hav­ing been the birth­place of the fic­tional sleuth. Lo­cal his­to­rian Pas­cal Hyde can even show you Poirot’s birth cer­tifi­cate, com­plete with the names of his par­ents – Jules-Luis Poirot and Godelieve Poirot. Amus­ingly enough, the birth cer­tifi­cate sug­gests that Poirot was born on the 1st of April, April Fool’s Day! No com­men­tary on the great de­tec­tive is com­plete with­out men­tion­ing the bril­liant ac­tors who have de­picted him on-screen over the years. With names such as those of Sir Peter Usti­nov, Sir Ian Holm and Al­bert Fin­ney as­so­ci­ated with his por­trayal, play­ing the epony­mous Poirot is nat­u­rally a daunt­ing task. Yet, the one ac­tor who be­came prac­ti­cally syn­ony­mous with the char­ac­ter it­self is David Suchet who played the lit­tle man in 70 films across a span of 25 years from 1989 un­til 2013. Suchet was per­haps the only ac­tor who im­bued Poirot with hu­man­ity, thus shat­ter­ing the com­monly held be­lief that Papa Poirot, as he calls him­self at times, is noth­ing more than a car­i­ca­ture, a ridicu­lous par­ody of the ag­ing Eu­ro­pean gen­try. While some ear­lier por­tray­als had em­pha­sized the lu­di­crous­ness of the pompous mus­ta­chioed de­tec­tive, Suchet played him with sin­cer­ity and hon­esty. His Poirot has his droll mo­ments, but he is far from a mock­ery. In­ter­est­ingly, ITV Stu­dios and Acorn Pro­duc­tions Ltd, that cre­ated the long-run­ning Poirot series for tele­vi­sion, do­nated sev­eral props from the show to Torquay Mu­seum, fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of the fi­nal episode. The grand Art Deco desk and the iconic swan walk­ing stick used by Suchet on the show were among the items do­nated. The first fic­tional per­sona to be given an obit­u­ary in The New York Times fol­low­ing his demise in Cur­tain: Poirot’s Last Case, the charis­matic de­tec­tive has, over the years, won over mil­lions of hearts. His cre­ator might have killed him off per­ma­nently so that, un­like Holmes, he could hardly be brought back to life. Yet, the fact re­mains that even to­day, we long to see the lonely lit­tle man wad­dle along in his pa­tent leather shoes, drink­ing his ti­sane, and bring­ing jus­tice to the world with his inim­itable sense of drama.

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