In October 1920 a phenomenon began with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a sophisticated murder-mystery with a protagonist by the name of Hercule Poirot. A century later, Agatha Christie’s works – and Poirot in particular – are as popular as ever. STEVE CAIN examines the evidence.
Defined by his fastidious habits, dapper attire and conceited confidence in the abilities of his own “little grey cells”, Hercule Poirot is an instantly recognisable character.
He was created when Agatha Christie first decided she wanted to write a detective novel and her elder sister, Madge, bet her that she couldn’t. The rest is history.
However, the road to success would not be an easy one. Upon completion of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916, Christie sent it to four publishers who all rejected it. When the fifth, John Lane, didn’t even acknowledge receipt of it, she almost gave up.
The manuscript simply languished at the bottom of a drawer in the publisher’s office, forgotten about until, in 1919, out of the blue, Christie received a letter from Lane accepting it. The novel was published the following year and met with enthusiastic reviews.
The definitive Poirot: David Suchet poses during the photocall for Poirot in Cannes, France, in 2013 (photo: Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)
A second Poirot novel, Murder on the Links, firmly established the moustachioed Belgian as one of the most popular characters in crime fiction and its serialisation resulted in Christie being persuaded to write short stories featuring Poirot.
Finding herself committed to an unlikely hero whose fads and foibles increasingly irritated her, by 1930 she asked, despairingly, “Why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?”Yet the public – and, indeed, her agents and publishers – loved him. So, despite feeling that he restricted her style, Christie referred to the character as her “bread and butter” and continued to “churn out” Poirot novels.
Christie’s detailed description of Poirot, as a “quaint dandified little man” with a head “exactly the shape of an egg” and a moustache that “was very stiff and military”, undoubtedly brought him vividly to life in the minds of her readers. However, it presented the greatest of difficulties for actors from Charles Laughton to Peter Ustinov when portraying the character on stage or screen.
Christie was reported to have been dissatisfied with the 1928 West End production, Alibi (based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Charles Laughton, the first stage Poirot wasn’t an obvious choice for the role as he was too young and physically stockier than Christie had described him.
Parting his hair in the middle didn’t make his head particularly egg-shaped and his lip carried an upturned toothbrush rather than a florid pair of waxed mustachios. Nevertheless, the production ran for more than 250 performances in London and, in 1932, it transferred to Broadway.
Despite the fact that Francis L Sullivan was even larger than Laughton, Christie was fond of the actor and his wife. As such, she concealed any disapproval she may have had for his portrayal of Poirot when he appeared in Black Coffee, her first play, in 1930.
Poirot’s screen debut came in 1931 when Austin Trevor played him in Alibi and Black Coffee. A third film, Lord Edgware Dies, was released in 1934. Poirot was depicted as a good-looking, clean-shaven typical 1930s sleuth.
Surprisingly, it would be four decades before Poirot would make his next appearance on the silver screen. In 1974, Albert Finney starred in the cinematic version of Murder on the Orient Express and was nominated for an Academy Award. Being just 38 when he played the role, Finney had to undergo hours of make-up to resemble the character. Although Christie was said to have enjoyed the film, she did remark: “I wrote that my detective had the finest moustache in England, but he didn’t in the film.”
Four years after Finney, Peter Ustinov appeared as Poirot in Death on the Nile, before taking on the role in a further two big screen films (Evil Under The Sun and Appointment with Death) and three television adaptations (Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly and Murder in Three Acts). Having observed Ustinov rehearsing, Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks remarked: “That’s not Poirot, he isn’t at all like that.” Ustinov retorted, “He is now!”
Arguably, the definitive depiction of Poirot came in 1989 when David Suchet was cast in ITV’s long-running television series. The programme ran for 13 series and 70 episodes over a period of 25 years. Each episode was adapted from a Poirot novel or short story, with Suchet having completed the entire canon of Christie’s work by the time the final episode was broadcast in 2013. The series was watched by 700 million viewers in over 100 countries worldwide.
Like Joan Hickson had done with Miss Marple, David Suchet combined firmly defined characterisation with cool understatement. The wardrobe department provided an array of immaculately tailored suits which perfectly conveyed the dapper dandy who, as his sidekick Hastings once said, “would be more distressed by a speck of dust on his coat than a bullet wound”.
Suchet prepared for the role by reading all thirty-three Poirot novels and every short story (of which there are more than 50). He made detailed notes of Poirot’s personal eccentricities and character traits. With reference to this painstaking approach, Suchet commented, “It was my business not only to know what he was like, but to gradually become him”.
Consequently, David Suchet’s performance as Poirot garnered praise from critics and the Christie family alike. Agatha’s grandson Mathew Prichard commented: “I think that visually he is the most convincing and perhaps manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist to be convincing.”
Five years after the ITV series ended, John Malkovich took on the role of Poirot in a positively-received BBC TV three-part adaptation of The ABC Murders, shown at Christmas 2018.
Poirot’s return to the big screen came in 2017 when Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. Despite a stellar cast, including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz and Olivia Colman, the movie received mixed reviews from the critics.
Nevertheless, a sequel film, Death on the Nile, was made and scheduled for release in October 2020 (presumably to coincide with the centenary of the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles). However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the release date to be pushed back to December.
Branagh has hinted that he may play the famous Belgian detective in more movie adaptations.“You feel as though there is a world – just like with Dickens, there’s a complete world that Christie’s created – that I think has real possibilities.”
Indeed, Agatha Christie’s world of quiet reserve, stiff upper lips, cricket on the village green, gossipy old ladies, tea at the vicarage and murder most foul has entertained and enthralled for a century.
And, with appetite for her ingeniously baffling whodunits enjoying something of a renaissance, it’s a world that looks set to endure for a long time to come.