Wednesday, July 28, 2010

little grey cells

Exactly! It is absurd—improbable—it cannot be. So I myself have said. And yet, my friend, there it is! one cannot escape from the facts.—Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express

Like Audrey at Born for Geekdom I have been enjoying the latest Poirot movies on Masterpiece Mystery. These last three are so good in fact, that I am already experiencing some Hercule withdrawal. Luckily they are available on-demand through early August, as well as on the PBS website. A quick peek on imdb reveals three more Poirots already filmed, so I'm trying not to be upset that these Suchet/Poirots are done airing. The next three renditions in the pipeline should be Hallowe'en Party, Three Act Tragedy and The Clocks. The Clocks, one of the first Christies I ever read, is also one of her most confusing and gimmicky puzzles, but still rich in detail—I'm eager to see it transposed into Suchet's 30s-era Poirot's world. Watching these movies has also been a nice companion piece to the book I'm reading, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, which provides a glimpse into the prolific author's methods.

I have a long history with Agatha Christie and her master detective, Hercule Poirot. One summer when I was a kid of about ten or eleven and had read all the children's books in the house—before there was a young adult fiction category or a Barnes and Noble or Borders or even Amazon at my disposal—I rifled through my mom's bookcase and discovered Agatha Christie. I think the first book I tried to read was a Miss Marple mystery, The Moving Finger. I was attracted to my mom's Christie collection equally by the garish cover art as well as the creepy titles. I liked The Moving Finger enough to try another, this one featuring the little Belgian (don't call him French!) sleuth Poirot. Probably The Hollow, which still remains one of my favorite Christies, with its expert blend of art, mystery, murder and romance.

Over the years I have, I think, read them all, some numerous times. A Poirot is always on my summer re-reading list. Agatha Christie is like comfort food. No matter how many times you have read a mystery there is continued enjoyment to be found in the re-reading—in the characters and how they interact, in her careful use of location, dialogue and human nature to provide the setting for the crimes. If you can remember the solution of the mystery from the last time you read it, you can follow Christie's trail of clues. And, once you know how to look at things, you realize that she always leaves a clue. There are no cheats in her novels. Sometimes, like Poirot, once you know, so many things that were interpreted one way before now seem obvious. Sapristi!

I am not keeping back facts. Every fact that I know is in your possession. You can draw your own deductions from them.—Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Another fun thing about Christie is her reworking of patterns in her plots. Her entire oeuvre could be looked at as a tapestry, where she works a motif again and again, but each time slightly differently, with different results. Sometimes she reworks a plot very obviously—Sparkling Cyanide is a novel-length version of a Poirot short story, Yellow Iris. The husband-wife dynamic in another one of my favorites,  Murder in Mesopotamia shares similarities to The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Evil Under the Sun is similar to another short story, Triangle at Rhodes.

Christie herself led an interesting life. Her experiences during both world wars as a nurse and in a pharmacy laid the foundation for her use of poison as a murder weapon in so many of her books. Her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan leant itself to the exotic settings of many of her novels and gave Hercule Poirot the ability to travel and solve crimes on a global scale.

I don't think I shall ever forget my first sight of Hercule Poirot. Of course, I got used to him later on, but to begin with it was a shock, and I think everyone else must have felt the same! I don't know what I'd imagined—something like Sherlock Holmes—[...] Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn't expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean. When you saw him you just wanted to laugh! He was like something on the stage or at the pictures. [...] He looked like a hairdresser in a comic play!—Murder in Mesopotamia

I have always assumed that Poirot must be a Virgo—his desire to help people while always being convinced he knows what's best, his passion for order and symmetry, his meticulous appearance. Christie, as a matter of fact, was a Virgo. Christie may have felt slightly trapped by Poirot, but he became real and beloved by her readers—he even got his own obituary in the New York Times.

Poirot has been depicted on stage and screen numerous times, but no one has so completely captured Christie's great detective as actor David Suchet. Suchet is Poirot, and, happily, has expressed his desire to film all of the Christie Poirot stories and novels. What a treat for us and an accomplishment for this actor. Apart from his talent, one of the aspects that make the Suchet Poirots work so well is the decision to set them all in one era, the time of the output of her greatest novels, the 1930s. Christie's career spanned many decades, and her readers get an interesting glimpse of England and how it has changed (in her eyes) over the years. But sometimes this leads, in her later books, to an all-too-apparent effort of an older person to appear "contemporary." By transposing all of the filmed Poirots back to the time of the author and her detective's greatest accomplishments, it gives the whole series a classic look and style. This especially benefits the recently broadcast Third Girl. While reading the book it is amusing to see swinging seventies London (sometimes awkwardly depicted) through Christie's eyes, but that never would have transferred successfully to film.

As July winds to a close I have yet to decide on a summer Poirot. Should I choose all-time favorite Murder in Mesopotamia? Death on the Nile? Or maybe Dead Man's Folly, which is supposed to be set at Christie's home, Greenway House. Maybe all three . . .


The Mysterious Affair at Styles (free at Daily Lit)
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