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Monday 8 April 2019

Poirot - The Greatest Detective?

The Golden Age
 by Carol Westron

Last week, I was part of a panel of four crime authors who each had ten minutes to give a presentation to the audience, advocating for their chosen detective as the greatest fictional detective. My choice was Hercule Poirot, or perhaps he chose me, because while writing the presentation I had an experience I have only ever had when writing my own fiction, with characters I had created. It was as though Poirot was telling me what to write and which arguments I needed to include and the best quotes to illustrate my points. Of course, being Poirot, he was extremely boastful, and I ended up with a presentation that was three times the length that I was allowed, and so I had to edit it rigorously. In order to appease the great detective and stop him sulking, I wrote an article as well, which explains his uniqueness, using many of his own words. It was great fun to write and I hope it’s fun to read.  By the way, when I gave the presentation, Poirot won.

 Reasons Why Hercule Poirot is the Greatest Fictional Detective.

Hercule Poirot is an unlikely detective hero, in fact he is the archetypal outsider who makes good. We first encounter Poirot during the First World War when he is a refugee, living with several other Belgians in a house provided by the charity of a wealthy lady, Mrs Inglethorpe.

Captain Arthur Hastings is convalescent from a war wound and is completing his recovery at Mrs Inglethorpe’s country house. Hastings had met Poirot before the War and is surprised when he encounters him again in an Essex village. He describes him thus:
‘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. Yet this quaint dandified little man... had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’ (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)

Soon after, when Mrs Inglethorpe is murdered, Hastings appeals to Poirot to help the investigation, which of course he brings to a successful conclusion. This starts his new career as a private detective in England, as well as renewing his amicable working relationship with Detective Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard and establishing his friendship with Hastings.

We first meet Poirot as a dispossessed man in late middle-age, living on charity, but within a few years, he becomes a celebrated and moderately wealthy private detective, able to pick which cases he chooses to investigate. He does this by his own determination, intelligence and ability. He rarely refers to his past, but he is willing to help those who are poor and in trouble. Despite his vanity and affectations, he is a very kind little man.

Poirot’s appearance alters little throughout his career. He remains a dandified, finicky little figure, wearing smart suits and patent leather shoes even in the most unsuitable of situations. His magnificent moustache flourishes and remains his pride and joy. In fact, when he moves to a village, incognito, the local doctor is convinced that he is a retired hairdresser.

In only one way does Poirot’s appearance change. When Hastings returns from South America to visit him, he notes that...
‘“You’re looking in fine fettle, Poirot,”... “You’ve hardly aged at all. In fact, if it were possible, I should say that you had fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last.”
Poirot beamed on me.
“And why is that not possible?” It is quite true.”
“Do you mean your hair is turning from grey to black instead of from black to grey?”
“But surely that’s a scientific impossibility!”
“Not at all.”
“As usual, Hastings, you have the beautiful and unsuspicious mind. Years do not change that in you! You
perceive a fact and mention the solution of it in the same breath without noticing that you are doing so!”
I stared at him, puzzled.
Without a word he walked into his bedroom and returned with a bottle in his hand which he handed to me.
I took it, for the moment uncomprehending.
It bore the words:
Revivit. - To bring back the natural tone of the hair...
… “Poirot,” I cried. “You have dyed your hair!”
“Ah, the comprehension comes to you!”’
(The ABC Murders, 1936)
This trivial conversation holds one of the keys to Poirot’s success as a detective. He can see the rational explanation behind the tricks of smoke and mirrors. Although it sometimes takes time to see through the camouflage a killer has created, Poirot is always firmly grounded in reality.

Poirot is well aware that the average British person takes one look and despises him, and he uses that to his advantage, along with his eccentric use of English. When, at the end of a case, Mr Satterthwaite, who has been assisting him, asks:
‘“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”
Poirot laughed.
“Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also, I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much,’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.”
“Dear me,” said Mr Satterthwaite, “quite the cunning of the serpent.”’
(Three Act Tragedy, 1935.)

This strategy of lulling the villain is present from the start of Poirot’s investigations in England, as he explains to Hastings while they are investigating the murder of Mrs Inglethorpe:
‘“Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”’
(The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)

Poirot is obsessed with neatness and order. He chose the building he lives in for ‘its strictly geometrical appearance and proportions.’ He is continually making sure that ornaments are lined up in regimental order and is frequently begging permission to straighten his friends’ tie pins. But even this can be a useful detection tool, because it causes him to notice slight alterations in his surroundings that can be significant. Even more valuable, his orderly meticulous mind collects and collates all details, even the trivial ones, and fits them into a pattern that makes sense of the crime.

Poirot is the supreme egotist. He believes in the superiority of his intellect and that the world would be a poorer place if he was to die.
‘He dragged me back - just in time. A tree had crashed down on to the side walk, just missing us. Poirot stared at it, pale and upset.
“It was a near thing that! But clumsy, all the same – for I had no suspicion – at least hardly any suspicion. Yes, but for my quick eyes, the eyes of a cat, Hercule Poirot might now be crushed out of existence – a terrible calamity for the world. And you, too, mon ami – though that would not be such a great national catastrophe.”
“Thank you,” I said coldly. “And what are we going to do now?”’ (The Big Four, 1927.)

Despite his small stature and quaint appearance, Poirot has quick reflexes and physical courage.
‘Never before, or since, have I felt so near death. Poirot was magnificent. He neither flinched nor paled, just stared at her with unabated interest.
“Your psychology interests me enormously, madame,” he said quietly. “It is a pity that I have so short a time to devote to studying it.”’ (The Big Four, 1927).

Poirot’s method of detection is almost exclusively psychological. He does not despise physical clues; indeed he knows how to take fingerprints and measure shoe-prints, but is continually warning Hastings against the dangersof depending upon them too much. His contention is that physical clues can be manipulated by the knowledgeable killer to deceive the investigators and frame the innocent. Poirot is more likely to place weight on the subtle physical clue that everybody else has discounted. Poirot is more likely to place weight on the subtle physical clue that everybody else has discounted, such as a frozen leg of mutton or the unexplained purchase of an extra set of wigs. 

Poirot attempts to gather all the information he can about a case: people’s actions and reactions down to the most trivial details. He encourages people to talk because that reveals a great deal about themselves and things they have noticed but have not realised they have any significance. ‘For in the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away.’ (After the Funeral, 1953.) And people do talk easily to Poirot, after all he is merely a comical little foreigner. But Poirot’s own motto is ‘suspect everyone.’

All the snippets of information and details of character that he gathers, he stores away, until he has all the pieces to make a complete picture. When Hastings complains that it is impossible to know what is important and what is not, Poirot disagrees.
‘“Not so... One fact leads to another – so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A Merveille! Good! We can proceed. The next little fact – no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing – a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!” He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. “It is significant! It is tremendous!”
“Y-es -”
“Ah!” Poirot shook his forefinger so fiercely at me that I quailed before it. “Beware! Peril to the detective who says: ‘It is so small – it does not matter. It will not agree. I will forget it.” That way lies confusion! Everything matters.”’ (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)

For Poirot it is essential to analyse the psychology of the crime. In this way he ties together the killer and the crime.
“And do not neglect the psychology – that is important. The character of the murder – implying as it does a certain temperament in the murderer – that is an essential clue to the crime.”
“I can’t consider the character of the murderer if I don’t know who the murderer is!”
“No, no, you have not paid attention to what I have just said. If you reflect sufficiently on the character – the necessary character – of the murder, then you will realize who the murderer is!”
(Dumb Witness, 1937.)

Poirot elaborates upon the theme of identifying a killer by the character of the crime when he is on the track of a serial killer who appears to have a complex associated with the alphabet: ‘“But in any case, after another crime we shall know infinitely more. Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions. There are confusing indications – it is as though there were two intelligences at work – but soon the outline will clear itself, I shall know.”’ (The ABC

This method of working means that Poirot is particularly skilled at solving cold cases, discovering the truth many years later, even when the main players are dead, as in Five Little Pigs (1942) and Elephants Can Remember. (1972). This probing into the past becomes even more complex when Mr Shaitana, a man who ‘collects’ successful murderers is stabbed in a room where the killer must be one of four people who are playing bridge, all of whom Mr Shaitana believes are murderers ‘“... who have got away with it! The successes! The criminals who lead an agreeable life which no breath of suspicion has ever touched.”’ (Cards on the Table, 1936.) Poirot’s task is to uncover the truth about four suspicious deaths in the past, in order to reveal the identity of Mr Shaitana’s killer. His method of doing this is unique. Instead of questioning them about what they had observed regarding the crime, Poirot examines their bridge score cards, which enables him to discover their personalities. Again he uses his method of talking until the suspect’s suspicions are lulled: ‘“You think perhaps that they are foolish, these questions that I ask? But it is not so. I want to get at the characters of these four players, and when it is only about bridge, I ask, everyone is ready and willing to speak.”’ (Cards on the Table, 1936.)

When Poirot is being particularly scathing of the passion many detectives have for fingerprints and bloodstains, he declares that he doesn’t need to see the scene of a crime, all he needs to solve a case is to sit in a chair and use his ‘little grey cells’ and let other people bring information to him. In fact, once he wins a bet with Japp that he can solve a mystery in just this way. This
physically inactive  method of detection often proves extremely irritating to Poirot’s more impetuous assistants, like Hastings or Ariadne Oliver, the detective novelist.
‘“Well, what are you doing? What have you done?”
“I am sitting in this chair,” said Poirot. “Thinking,” he added.
   “Is that all?” said Mrs. Oliver.
 “It is the important thing,” said Poirot.’ (Third Girl, 1966.)

Poirot has a love of flamboyant lies when he is gathering information or meeting suspects before they are aware he is involved in the case. He claims: ‘“If one is going to tell a lie at all, it might as well be an artistic lie, a romantic lie, a convincing lie!”’ And in the same way, he enjoys a flamboyant ending, with all his suspects gathered together so that he can expound upon the case and reveal the truth. Psychology or showmanship? For Poirot it works.

Poirot willingly admits that he has ‘a bourgeois attitude to murder.’ He disapproves of it. However, this is not merely a moral judgement, he is well aware that if a murderer has got away with killing, they are likely to murder again, either because it is an easy way of getting what they want or because they fear being caught. He explains this to Mr Shaitana, a foolish and arrogant acquaintance who ‘collects’ successful murderers, by which Shaitana means those that have not been suspected of their crimes:
‘Poirot shrugged his shoulders.
“I am not as insensitive to art in crime as you think. I can admire the perfect murder – I can also admire a tiger – that splendid tawny-striped beast. But I will admire him from outside his cage. I will not go inside. That is to say, not unless it is my duty to do so. For you see, Mr Shaitana, the tiger might spring...”
Mr Shaitana laughed.
“I see. And the murderer?”
“Might murder,” said Poirot gravely.’ (Cards on the Table, 1936.)

Poirot does not investigate for self-gratification or aggrandisement, he sees it as a more important cause. ‘“Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”’ (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926.) However, despite his disapproval of murder, Poirot’s belief in his own judgement means that he does not always bring killers to justice. In one exceptional case he allows the death of a particularly evil man to go unpunished and, on quite a few occasions, he allows a killer to commit suicide rather than face the gallows. And, in the end, when he is very old and very frail and his time is running out, in order to save his oldest and dearest friend from a murderous predator, Poirot abandons his long-held principles and kills. This decision does not come easily but Poirot has to cling to the belief that his actions are right. ‘“I have no more now to say. I do not know, Hastings, if what I have done is justified or not justified. No — I do not know. I do not believe that a man should take the law into his own hands... But on the other hand, I am the law!”’ (Curtain – Poirot’s Last Case, 1975.)

Throughout his long and successful career, Poirot plays a significant part in solving national and international political crimes: leading the fight against an international conspiracy of immensely powerful and evil people who plan world domination and succeeding in defeating them, even though it entails the ultimate sacrifice, the shaving off of his moustache. He rescues a kidnapped Prime Minister at a time of diplomatic crisis; averts a scandal that could have toppled the government; and regains foreign potentates’ jewels. He tracks down serial killers and brings the wealthy and powerful to justice.

Despite all his high-profile cases, Poirot is a man who cares about ordinary people. When his friend, Superintendent Spence, tells him that he thought the wrong man had been tried and condemned for a murder, Poirot undertakes the case at his own expense and considerable discomfort, even though the man he saves from the gallows is a lower class man with little personal charm and even less gratitude. This is also true of his view of the victims of crime. When investigating the serial killings that the press called The ABC Murders, Poirot cares as much for the death of the first victim, an elderly female shopkeeper, as the third, a famous and rich man.

As he explains to a rich and powerful man whose continuation in office is important for Britain’s stability:
‘“... we are all human beings. That is what you have not remembered. You have said that Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale was a foolish human being and Amberiotis an evil one, and Frank Carter a wastrel – and Morley –
Morley was only a dentist and there are other dentists. That is where you and I... do not see alike. For to me the lives of those four people are just as important as your life.”
“You’re wrong... Don’t you realise, Poirot, that the safety and happiness of the whole nation depends on me?”
“I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.”’

Although Poirot enjoys good relations with the police, in all the essentials he alone solves his cases, whether it is an international conspiracy or the kidnapping of a Pekingese dog. PD James once wrote that if you asked anybody to name a fictional detective, Hercule Poirot would be easily in the top three of those named. In 2020, it is a hundred years since Poirot started his second career in England as a private detective and his adventures are still being retold and elaborated upon. If that isn’t greatness, it’s something very like it.
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. 
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013.
Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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