After revisiting the very final David Suchet TV adaptations on ITV3 fairly recently, I chanced upon a four-novel Poirot omnibus — actually two omnibuses, eight novels in total — in a local charity shop. Serendipity. Time to acquaint myself for the first time with Poirot in print.
Though a random selection — the novels are not sequential and, beyond the obvious, there is no linking theme — one omnibus did at least begin with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first book of the Poirot series. That matters — a lot. A desire for completeness, perhaps. Begin at the beginning: Book One, Volume I, Series One, Episode One. It feels rude not to.
First, a little background. The detective novel was already an established and lucrative publishing phenomenon by the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins are sometimes cited as pioneers of the genre — Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841 and Collins’s The Moonstone in 1868 — and characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown were familiar to readers by the time Poirot first appeared in 1920. As literacy rates soared, the detective novel fed a growing popular appetite for sensational, lightweight (in more than one sense) reading.
The historian AJP Taylor described Agatha Christie, who was writing mainly in the so-called ‘golden age’ of detective fiction between the wars, as “the acknowledged queen in this art”. Having sampled so little of Christie’s writing (though plenty of film and television adaptations of her work), it seems prudent to heed the wise counsel of the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, who famously cautioned against rushing to judgement:
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887)
I will therefore go no further than the tentative but tame and unsurprising observation that The Mysterious Affair at Styles seems entirely typical of the genre at that time: the country-house setting; the simmering family tensions and jealousies, with legacy disputes the default motive for murder; the long list of likely suspects. Christie’s directness and economy of style are remarkable, a counterblast, perhaps, to the weighty, sprawling novels so typical of the nineteenth century — Dickens, Elliot, Hugo. Indeed, the entire Styles novel took just six hours to read.
There is little attempt at literary craftmanship — no descriptive digressions immersing the reader in location and atmosphere, no cleverly interwoven sub-plots or carefully constructed layers of meaning. The murder plot is (almost) all. Detail is provided insofar as it serves the needs of the plot, principally to widen the net of suspicion and usually to misdirect the reader — all the better to build suspense before the Big Reveal. Equally striking (to this reader, at least) is the poverty of language employed by Christie: I lost count of the number of times, for example, she refers to Hastings’s “lively curiosity”.
Consider the opening chapter, ‘I Go to Styles’ — the ‘I’ being Captain Hastings, who, like Holmes’s Watson, is our narrator and a casualty of war. In ten whirlwind pages, we are introduced to the Cavendish family, family friend Evie, and Cynthia, a foster child of sorts. Though the murder is yet to occur, the soon-to-be victim is obvious, as are at least three likely suspects: the husband, the brooding, troubled brother and a “sinister” (Hastings’s word) doctor, who happens (luckily for us) to be an expert in poisons. Indeed. the efficacy of poison as a modus operandi for dispatching someone is matter-of-factly discussed over afternoon tea. Poirot’s little grey cells will not be required to work out how the murder was committed.
Styles is a world apart: it is a gentrified world of privilege and entitlement, of property and inherited wealth, of starched-collar formality and strict etiquette. Women are referred to throughout as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. John Cavendish refers to his mother not as ‘mother’, ‘mum’ or even ‘mummy’ — but as ‘mater’. Endless summer days are spent lounging around the pool, playing tennis or going for long walks.
The landscape is sketched from the pages of William Blake. The industrial revolution, the most tumultuous and transformative event in our history, has by-passed this particular corner of England’s green and pleasant land. There is little or no factory-based work, no pollution, no cramped, stifling urban life. The few labourers we encounter are rough and ready but nonetheless deferential to their social superiors, like the gardener who doffs his cap on entering the boudoir. The servants, respectful and loyal, know their place and freely accept this ‘natural’ order of things, though (helpfully) they do like to listen at doors as their masters and mistresses bicker.
Set (and in fact written) during the First World War, the novel describes a world on which the sun was slowly setting, of course. Despite the trappings of privilege, the younger women are gainfully employed in war-related work: John’s wife works as a farmhand and Cynthia is a VAD, working in a dispensary — perfect for the poisonous plot! These details — and Hastings’s convalescence — notwithstanding, the war screams its absence. Like industrialisation, even total war cannot sully this pastoral idyll. The faithful parlourmaid Dorcas, described by Hastings as “a fine specimen … of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out”, bemoans at one point the presence of a female gardener wearing breeches — surely the end of civilisation as we know it.
Novels are invaluable as windows into the attitudes, values and social mores of the time — and into peculiarities of speech and language. People ‘ejaculate’ and have ‘a queer way’. Cheerful people are ‘gay’. Women are ‘handsome’. Unpleasant men are ‘bounders’ and ‘rascally’. Bad things are ‘damnable’.
Less quaint is the unmistakeable whiff of casual racism and xenophobia. At least one of the comic-book suspects will invariably be sinister, somehow foreign-looking and ‘alien’ – a word that Hastings actually uses. Inglethorp, the main suspect, has an enormous black beard. Dr Bauerstein, an expert in poisons, is “a Polish Jew”. The supposedly sluttish temptress Mrs Raikes is a “gipsy” girl. It is worth noting that the 1990 television adaptation omits Dr Bauerstein completely, and Mrs Raikes becomes merely a farmer’s wife.
An obsession with race was central to Nazi ideology, ending in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that concerns about the mental and physical health of the population also preoccupied inter-war Britain. The question of how to improve the racial ‘stock’ was not confined to the outer fringes of political debate; genetics, eugenics, sterilization and birth control were high up the agenda. Indeed, the historian Richard Overy has written:
“…the high point of the British eugenics movement, and of eugenics internationally, came in the years between the two world wars.”Richard Overy, The Morbid Age
In a society rigidly defined by class, social snobbery is not hard to uncover, but the language of everyday discourse often betrays this wider obsession with racial hygiene and race improvement. For example, the overwhelming importance of maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip even in the face of calamity — the death of Mrs Inglethorp — is expressed thus:
“Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual…”Captain Hastings, Chapter V
An absence of backbone, on the other hand, merits Hastings’s disdain:
“Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.”Captain Hastings, Chapter III
Lest we think this is merely the sneering of a snobbish Hastings, consider Poirot’s comment on an argument involving Lucy Cavendish:
“It was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”Hercule Poirot, Chapter V
Later, reflecting upon the actions of Evie Howard, he comments thus:
“There is nothing weak-minded or degenerate about Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself.”Hercule Poirot, Chapter VIII
The cast of supporting characters are mere cardboard cut-outs; only the two principals — Hastings and Poirot himself — are given space to breathe and come alive. His friends might well have described Hastings as a ‘good sort’ — loyal, trustworthy and thoroughly decent. A true Englishman, they would doubtless have said. Confronted with a damsel in distress — a woman he has in fact known for barely a day — he impulsively proposes marriage. Like Nigel Bruce’s Watson, he is rather credulous and dim-witted. Fancying himself as something of a private detective, he is initially dismissive of Poirot’s thought-processes and obscure lines of questioning. Similar to the Holmes-Watson relationship, ‘the master’ sometimes treats ‘the assistant’ rudely, dismissively and thoughtlessly, only to offer profuse apologies later.
“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all … There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”Poirot to Hastings, Chapter VIII
Hastings interprets this remark as a compliment, a recognition of his “true worth”. As with the earlier Holmes stories, the assistant-as-narrator device allows the novelist to engage in obfuscation and misdirection, withholding reveals in order to build mystery and suspense.
And what of Poirot himself? A Belgian refugee from his war-torn homeland, he is conveniently living with other compatriots in the village that Hastings (who knew him before the war) happens to be visiting. He is meticulous and particular, to be sure, but perhaps not yet quite the fully drawn dandy portrayed by Suchet, Ustinov and Finney, and certainly not the athletic swashbuckler depicted in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film. Of the John Malkovitch portrayal, I offer no comment.
Holmes felt so strongly about the dangers of leaping to judgement that he later reiterated the point almost word for word:
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia (1892)
So my quest to uncover the original Poirot will go on. The omnibuses contain several other novels in addition to this first adventure. A reservation on the Orient Express awaits, as does an evening of bridge (Cards on the Table) and a visit to End House to confront the peril that lies therein. John Buchan’s thirty-nine steps are also yet to be climbed, and, going further back in time, the multi-layered, Benedictine world of Umberto Eco is long overdue a revisit. Yet the lure of Baker Street — the pipe, the violin, Mrs Hudson’s cooking — is impossible to ignore for long. The game is afoot.