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Praise for Poirot

November 10, 2013
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in Problem at Sea

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in Problem at Sea

In her autobiography Agatha Christie describes how the influx of Belgian refugees to Britain at the start of the First World War provided her with the inspiration for her famous fictional detective Hercule Poirot:

I reviewed such detectives as I had met and admired in books. There was Sherlock Holmes, the one and only–I should never be able to emulate him. There was Arsene Lupin– was he a criminal or a detective? Anyway, not my kind. There was the young journalist Rouletabille in The Mystery of the Yellow Room– that was the sort of person whom I would like to invent: someone who hadn’t been used before. Who could I have? A schoolboy? Rather difficult. A scientist? What did I know of scientists? Then I remembered our Belgian refugees. We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish of Tor. Everyone had been bursting with loving kindness and sympathy when they arrived. People had stocked houses with furniture for them to live in, had done everything they could to make them comfortable. There had been the usual reaction later, when the refugees had not seemed to be sufficiently grateful for what had been done for them, and complained of this and that. The fact that the poor things were bewildered and in a strange country  was not sufficiently appreciated. A good many of them were suspicious peasants, and the last thing they wanted was be asked out to tea or have people drop in upon them; they wanted to be left alone, to be able to keep to themselves; they wanted to save money, to dig their garden and to manure it in their own particular and intimate way.

Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer. Not a young one. What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must really be well over a hundred by now.

Anyway, I settled on a Belgian detective. I allowed him slowly to grow into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many odds and ends in my own bedroom. A tidy little man. I could see him as a tidy little man, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round.

It’s especially interesting to think of the war refugee inspiration for Poirot the Sunday before Remembrance Day. It is only a few days before the last episode of the television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot is broadcast. It feels as though we are saying goodbye to an era, and it’s worth looking back to where it all began, in print and on television. When David Suchet made his debut appearance as Poirot in 1989, Margaret Thatcher was still in power, the World Wide Web had not yet been invented, and Christie’s novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction would have seemed hopelessly out of date for television. Only a few years later, detective dramas such as Between the Lines, Prime Suspect and Cracker burst onto our television screens offering a gritty, realistic depiction of police corruption and crime in contemporary Britain. Suchet’s interpretation of Poirot built an audience and reputation slowly and steadily. Albert Finney and Sir Peter Ustinov had given entertainingly hammy performances as Poirot. Suchet was informed by the Christie family that they were sick of seeing Poirot portrayed as a caricature and wanted to see a version closer to the character in the books. Suchet did not let them down. Although his Poirot is definitely an eccentric, there is depth and humanity to the character which has made him so durable and compelling. His performance in the 2010 episode of Murder on the Orient Express, which gives an interesting twist on a story which was already ingrained in the public consciousness, was one of the most moving pieces of acting I have seen in television.

Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case will be the seventieth and final episode of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot productions which has seen every major work by Christie featuring the Belgian detective adapted to television. I’ll be watching it on Wednesday night, and I don’t doubt there’ll be a little sadness that such a superb series has finally come to an end.

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