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Hercule Poirot ranks with other characters like Sherlock Holmes, as one of the great and best loved fictional detectives. Created by Agatha Christie for the 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the diminutive and somewhat fussy Belgian detective has been enjoyed for his keen mind, comic arrogance, and playing his part in some of the most famous fictional mysteries to emerge from Christie. He enjoyed a long career by fictional standards, and did not meet his death until the 1975 novel Curtain. In between his first novel and his last, Poirot was featured in more than 50 short stories and 30 novels.
Mirroring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dislike of Holmes, Christie did begin to despise Poirot by the 1960s and expressed a wish of killing him off. For readers, it’s fortunate that she waited since Curtain is considered to be one of Christie’s most interesting novels written towards the end of her career. An interesting thing occurred with the death of the character; the New York Times actually featured him in an obituary. It was the first time the Times eulogized a fictional character.
In most novel-length stories, readers come to depend upon several key features of his character. First, though Poirot appears arrogant, he is justified by successfully solving crimes. In short stories, there is a reference to one crime he could not solve as a Belgian detective.
References to Poirot include physical descriptions of him: his elaborately waxed and curled mustache, his egg shaped head, his patent leather shoes, his neat mode of dress, and his eyes that glisten green like a cat’s. Several key phrases are associated with the character. None are better known than Poirot’s references to the genius of his “little grey cells,” or superior brain.
The novels mostly take place in England or abroad. Both British and American characters are apt to underestimate Poirot. They see his elaborate dressiness and his bravado as excessive and likely fraudulent. He’s often viewed as comical, and as he ages, he is especially viewed as an object of comedy to young ladies. They often dismiss his talents because of his appearance.
Two main characters, either one or the other, generally accompany Poirot. In many novels, and especially in his first and last, his “Watson” is Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings tends to help the detective by his usually completely incorrect suppositions, which lead Poirot to the truth.
Another frequent companion is Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who many have taken as a semi-autobiographical caricature of Christie. Mrs. Oliver is a mystery writer, who has a famous foreign detective character she frequently discusses killing. Like Poirot, she has a penchant for finding herself in situations where murders occur, and she frequently calls on him to help her solve them.
Some of the most famous Poirot novels include Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders and Death on the Nile. Many novels featuring this character have been turned into feature films or BBC adaptations. Numerous actors have lined up to play the detective, including Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm, Albert Finney, and Alfred Molina. Most found Poirot portrayals to be lacking in the essential description of the character. Ustinov, Finney and Molin, were generally thought too tall for the part.
In 1989, the BBC began producing Poirot films with David Suchet as the character. Most Christie fans feel Suchet represents the quintessential Poirot, because he gets all the detective's mannerisms and physical appearance perfectly right. Many of the BBC films are based on short stories, and while fans enjoy Suchet’s character, they do not always enjoy the liberties taken with Christie’s work, and would like to see some of the more famous novels turned into faithful teleplays.
Personally, I think Ustinov *was* Poirot while the others merely *played* Poirot. He, like Jeremy Brett with Sherlock Holmes, grew larger than the literary character and made it believable, something that doesn't quite happen with David Suchet, for example. You see, when a serial character is put onto paper, one tends to make it rather two-dimensional because it's easier to deal with in the long run. But when you want to make it live you need to give it the third dimension, the verisimilitude, the emotional aspect of a real person.
Many times, following the written directives only turns the character into a caricature because it is lacking real life personality. What Ustinov did was build a personality, good humoured
, yet shrewd, apparently normal but with a keen eye for detail. Unlike others who were too rigid, often ridiculous but not in a human fashion, rather on the unbelievable side.
David Suchet's walk is too recherché, Finney's attire and physique inadequate. And more could be said all in favor of Peter Ustinov's portrayals. But the best is to watch the movies like I did and abstract yourself from what might not be so good in his movies. When you manage to do it you'll find the true, inimitable Poirot.
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