Hercule Poirot: Unmasking The Man Beyond The Moustache
“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.