THE FIRST POIROT

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Here is how Agatha Christie remembers it:

She and Madge were discussing one of the newly published mystery novels they had both read and enjoyed. Christie believes it was Gaston LeRoux’ The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which would place this event around 1908. At this time, the two sisters occasionally dabbled in writing; Madge was actually the more experienced of the two. Agatha was inspired by their mutual love of the detective story to try and write one herself.

“’I don’t think you could do it,’ said Madge. ‘They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.’                                                                                                                                                           “’I should like to try.’                                                                                                                          “’Well, I bet you couldn’t,’ said Madge.”                                                                                      “There the matter rested. It was never a definite bet; we never set out the terms – but the words had been said. From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story.”

Agatha was all of eighteen at the time, and the idea festered pleasantly in her mind for eight years until she began to work in a hospital during World War I:

“It was while I was working in the dispensary that I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story. The idea had remained in my mind since Madge’s earlier challenge – and my present work seemed to offer a favorable opportunity . . . I began considering what kind of a detective story I could write. Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected . . . It would have to be very much of an intime murder, owing to the particular way it was done; it would have to be all in the family, so to speak.”

Christie wrote the book in 1916, but it took several years – and many rejections – before The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, in 1920 in the U.S. and the following year in the U.K., where her publisher, The Bodley Head, cut Christie a rather poor deal. Six years later, they would lose her to William Collins (for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, no less. Take that, Bodley Head!)

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Why tell you all this? Because the Tuesday Night Bloggers have dedicated the month of January to “Firsts in Mystery.” And because Agatha Christie is my favorite mystery author, it seems appropriate to craft a post about her debut. It would be impossible to analyze the novel without some spoilers, so newcomers should be wary of what follows.

Christie’s autobiography is disappointingly scarce in information about her writing, but luckily the author does take us into the workings of her mind during the genesis of her first novel. For a mystery writer who would eventually break nearly all the rules of the genre, she claims to have started out with the idea of working comfortably within the framework. Her story would be a country house mystery involving a family whose members all harbor dangerous secrets.

“I could, of course, have a very unusual kind of murder for a very unusual motive, but that did not appeal to me artistically. The whole point of a good detective story was that (the killer) must be somebody obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. Though really, of course, he had done it.”

While populating her cast with victims, murderers and red herrings, Christie began to give thought to the all-important question of the detective. She was a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories but modestly felt she could never come up with quite so fine a sleuth. Besides, she thought, “I must invent one of my own,” although she did borrow Doyle’s invention of having the sleuth possess “a friend as a kind of butt or stooge – that would not be too difficult.”

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Looking about her community for inspiration, she remembered a nearby colony of Belgian refugees and conceived the idea of a retired police officer living amongst the refugees, “a tidy little man . . . very brainy – he should have little grey cells of the mind.”

Christie would later come to regret her invention. He was too old, too full of quirks and mannerisms, too fussy for anyone to love. On this point, the author and I strongly disagree. Besides, Christie’s secret passion for her creation is evident in her efforts to find a name for him that would call to mind the inspirational likes of a Sherlock Holmes or a C. Auguste Dupin:

“How about calling my little man Hercules? He would be a small man – Hercules: a good name. His last name was more difficult. I don’t know why I settled on the name Poirot; whether it just came into my head or whether I saw it in some newspaper or written on something – anyway it came. It went well not with Hercules but Hercule – Hercule Poirot. That was all right – settled, thank goodness.”

Of her first novel, Christie is charmingly self-critical. She felt it was over-complicated – “too many false clues” – and she decried the current fashion in mysteries for including love stories into “what should be a scientific process.” It caused her to expand the tribulations of two characters, John and Mary Cavendish. “I did my best with John and Mary, but they were poor creatures.” The manuscript was promptly rejected by two publishers and then languished for two years on the slush pile at The Bodley Head until the publisher, John Lane, read it and called Christie in for a meeting. He wanted her to change the ending: Poirot had originally exposed the killer while on the stand in court. Lane wanted the final reveal to take place in the library at Styles. It was a better idea, and Christie acquiesced. The rest is history.

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The blurb at the back of the PAN paperback edition that I own goes as follows:

“A shattered coffee cup . . . A dispatch-case with a key in the lock . . . A coffee stain on the floor . . . A fragment of dark green fabric . . . A large splash of candle grease . . . Five intriguing clues that Hercule Poirot found in the deceased Mrs. Inglethorpe’s bedroom, and which were to help him solve THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES!!!!”

There are far more than five clues discovered in Mrs. Inglethorpe’s bedroom. Christie was right – it’s all a bit much. Plus, few of the clues mentioned on the back cover are more than red herrings. The really clever bits go into the matter of how the victim received the poison, demonstrating the knowledge the author amassed working at the hospital dispensary.

On the one hand, the central trick of who murdered the rich old lady was one that Christie would return to again and again. It’s a good trick, and it only got better. The problem with it here is two-fold: first, without going into a lot of detail, the trick requires that Christie leave the truth behind and weave a series of events to point to false suspects. In this case, it all takes too long. Styles is easily one of Christie’s longest books. It contains one too many trials, and two or three too many red herring subplots. But the story of John and Mary’s marriage, which Christie herself dismissed, is not bad at all, particularly since Mary Cavendish is one of the best characters in the novel. And the interplay between Hastings and Poirot is not only entertaining, it’s important as a foundation for what was to come later.

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Still, there is the problem that, given the amount of evidence Poirot and the reader are faced with, the actual solution is not nearly as fairly clued as it could be. Yes, there’s a nice little description at the top of the novel that a careful reader could see explains how the main deception was accomplished. But the truth behind the biggest deceit is not arrived at fairly; rather, a deux ex machina in the form of a letter is most fortunately pulled out of a convenient hiding place in order to provide the proof needed to bring the killer to justice.

It was Christie’s first effort, okay? She got better at it! Meanwhile, the novel is easy to read and amply displays the promise of what a great mystery writer Agatha Christie was to become. And most wonderfully of all, it gives us Poirot:

 

“Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man, who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumph by unraveling some of the most baffling cases of the day.”

Poirot would lose the limp but not the flair. His moustache would become more luxuriant, but he would always affect a dandified appearance, wearing patent leather shoes to tromp through a muddy murder scene. Christie grew impatient with the quirks she bestowed upon him: his passion for geometric neatness, his overweening vanity, his fondness for sirop de cassis and crème de menthe over whiskey or wine.

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But Poirot actually saved Christie, particularly from the oft-hurled accusation that her works were drenched in racism. As a foreigner, Poirot understood and sympathized with other social outcasts. He was a friend to Jews, to artists, to everyone who had a problem or needed a sharp mind and a sympathetic ear. He often played the “foreign fool” in order to lull the suspicions of Englishmen, and Christie used their reactions to his antics to illustrate the stupidity of that narrow-minded colonial British tendency to denigrate other cultures and races.

Perhaps Christie’s keen plotting would have made her as great a success as she became even if her main sleuth had been the wooden-like Superintendent Battle, but I seriously doubt it. Poirot was the true gift Christie bestowed upon us in 1920, and she would repeat that effort ten years later in a pretty good mystery that first introduced us to perhaps the sharpest and best elderly spinster sleuth of them all. It was yet another great first for which all mystery fans should be grateful.

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13 thoughts on “THE FIRST POIROT

  1. Thanks, Brad, for calling attention to what went on ‘behind the scenes’ of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Not only is it really interesting to learn what goes in when a book is created, but also, it’s nice to know, when you’re an author, that all authors have to work hard, get rejected, and so on.

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  2. I love the thought of the manuscript sitting on a slush pile, and someone finally picking it up, glancing over it, and giving us the most successful, versatile, and important detective fiction author of all time. Goddamn, how many other amazing novelists were in that pile? How many other awesome careers never happened?!

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  3. Brad, what were the other clues found in Mrs. Inglethorp’s room aside from the five referred to on your backcover blurb? It’s been quite a while since I read The Mysterious Affair At Styles.

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    1. Can’t remember them all now, Brian, but there were clues connected to the medicine bottle and things in the roll top desk, including a secret panel that contained the incriminating letter. The desk MIGHT have been in Emily’s study. It’s been a little while since I read the book.

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  4. Agatha Christie used a great plot device of altering an incriminating letter and hiding it in plain sight and I love the idea with the “spills” as a prop to achieve this. Interestingly, this prop isn’t totally original and Christie wasn’t the main pioneer. She borrowed the spills prop from Anna Katharine Green, one of Christie’s favorite mystery writers. Green was the first to come up with the prop but not the actual plot device. Green borrowed the device from Edgar Allan Poe.

    Just goes to show that everything in a book isn’t 100% original, though there HAS to be some originality. As Agatha Christie was influenced by the mysteries she read which in turn lead to borrowing certain elements, for aspiring writers like me who sometimes fall into the trap of believing they have to be totally original, NO, you don’t have to. If you like a plot device or a certain technique from another author, use it (yes, it’s OK) BUT put a new spin on the story and take it in a new direction from within your own imagination.

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  5. Great article! I have always been so taken by Poirot and his character is just so readable. It’s interesting that she was frustrated with what she had made, and I agree with your disagreements with Christie, it is those things which frustrated her which make him so enigmatic. Poirot fits the great detective narrative, someone we can put trust into, yet his dandified elements and the fussiness – like the fact he takes to wearing a false moustache in Curtain, purely out of vanity – shows his unique vulnerability in a way which I have always felt drawn in by, and takes him down a peg. This makes him into the classic genius/clown character, and coupled with the idea you drew out about being ‘the foreign fool’ absolutely charges the Poirot stories with that wonderful knowingness. Everyone thinks the jokes on him, but it’s on them, and becomes great satire therefore.

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    1. Well said! I especially love M. Pontarlier, his alter ego in After the Funeral, and the most overt demonstration of his understanding – and taking advantage – of the British view of foreigners.

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