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100 years of Hercule Poirot | A look at queen of crime fiction Agatha Christie's works and their timeless appeal

Unlike any of her contemporaries, Agatha Christie wrote her novels as literature. Writing in a very distinct voice, she was clear about who Poirot was and what his skills were. Along with Miss Marple, Poirot was among her best literary creations.

December 27, 2020 / 10:06 AM IST

When I was in my early teens, I became acquainted with Hercule Poirot, who Dame Agatha Christie, the creator of the Belgian-born detective, once called a "creep".

My life had been revolving around Enid Blyton and her Famous Five novels. But I was primed up for graduation.

Ever before I read Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series, Hardy Boys, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum and Harold Robbins, I was charmed by Poirot, who turns 100 this year. His first appearance in 1920's The Mysterious Affair at the Styles impressed me so much that I dipped into it repeatedly. I found Poirot more addictive than even Sherlock Holmes.

The eccentric and slightly effeminate detective, with his "little grey cells" was dapperly dressed in suits and often wore a red rose to go along with his coats. The detective with a swirling mustache, which he keeps well-waxed, does not have the cold-bloodedness that Holmes has.

He is famous for his deduction skills and is often approached by women to solve their cases. And, almost always, there at least one murder case involved. Christie also wrote with grand success novels that didn't involve Poirot, like for instance the famous case of The ABC Murders, which featured multiple homicides.

And, except in the case of Murder in the Orient Express, a book in which all of the characters (to give the game away) are involved in a single murder, he always nails the suspect.

However, it was the cerebral Elephants Can Remember, which was the most immersive read during my teens. Published in 1972, it was technically Poirot's final case, although it was Curtain which was published last.

I won't convert this into a list of all the best Poirot cases. I notice that Google today does a rather impeccable job of listing the best Poirot stories. Unlike any of her contemporaries, Christie wrote her novels as literature. Writing in a very distinct voice, she was clear about who Poirot was and what his skills were. Along with Miss Marple, Poirot was among her best literary creations.

The dame kept running into troubles because she was a woman but brushed aside hurdles in her path.

If you hail from anywhere outside Nagercoil, my hometown, you would not have heard of AVS Library. When I first began reading Poirot's novels, the library was run by an old man, who always dressed in a white shirt and white 'veshti'. Later, his son squandered away the famous library and the hundreds of books it contained, including some which featured Poirot.

I did not read the books chronologically. Although I tried to read them in the order they were published, many crucial books were not available in my tiny hometown. However, one of my absolute favourites was Appointment with Death, which was set in the Middle East.

That novel transported me to hot tents and steep slopes of a hill, where a murder takes place. Using his cold logic, Poirot nails the culprit in an unforgettable fashion. If I remember correctly, an empty hypodermic syringe is used quite innovatively in the novel.

Most of the Poirot novels have a certain structure. Although the setting changes like in the thrilling case of Death on the Nile, Poirot always gets to question the suspects individually. During the nail-biting climax, he lays out his logic in arriving at the suspect by the process of exclusion. No matter how much you are used to Poirot, it is impossible to deduce who the culprit is without the detective's help.

Poirot has been portrayed in films and on TV, most famously by David Suchet. When Doordarshan, the state broadcaster, was the only channel around, they used to telecast serials showcasing the Belgian detective.

In creating Poirot, Christie drew from the Holmes books of Arthur Conan Doyle, who in turn was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe. Christie also based her character upon real-life detectives of the 1920s. Captain Arthur Hastings was the stooge in the novels just like Dr Watson for the Holmes books.

Looking back, I feel that crime is a part of our lives. From primitive times till today, murder has always been part of society. We abhor crime, but usually read a lot of it in the daily newspaper.

Over the years, there have been dozens of authors who have taken advantage of our lurid interest in crime, but it takes Christie to give the whole business some class. Though she writes with detachment, she imbibes in Poirot an acute sense of justice. When things go wrong, you can trust Poirot to set them right.

Poirot is one reason why we continue to read Christie. Her tomes are available everywhere from airport stores to book fairs. Poirot is widely known as Christie's best literary creation. At a time when he turns 100, it has become impossible for readers to ignore him.

Nandhu Sundaram lives in the tiny town of Arumanai in Tamil Nadu. He is a freelance journalist who writes on film and politics and the intersection between the two.
first published: Dec 26, 2020 07:50 am