On March 14 of this anno horribilus, I suggested to all of you that whatever comes our way could be mitigated by reading a classic mystery. I suggested this because . . . well, that’s kind of what they were written for! Not that Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts and Sayers and Berkeley and the rest put out their product with the thought of calming the populace down; still, that seems to have been the beneficent side effect of reading detective stories between the wars and beyond.
I’m afraid I underestimated how difficult this advice would be to take – at least for the man who doled it out. 2020 has pummeled me like no other year ever did. If I was a more religious man, I might attach a Biblical plague-like significance to the events that have unfolded over the past twelve months: the “thunderstorms of hail and fire” that bombarded both coasts of the U.S., in the form of tornados in the east and wildfires in the west (and the “darkness for three days” that literally accompanied the first round of fires in California); the “pestilence of livestock” that gripped our nation – and I liken our public to livestock because that’s how our president treated us as he submitted our nation to this devastating “herd immunity” theory; the swarms of insects (I think they were killer hornets this year) that made us all duck for cover; and, of course, the most disastrous event of all: the “remodeling” of WordPress, which is so bizarre, so user-unfriendly, so impossible, that my brain, already addled by fear and isolation, nearly gives out every time I create a post.
I don’t want to belabor this metaphor, partly because we still have four days to go before 2021, and I happen to be a first-born son. Let’s look toward the light for a moment! I have two posts left in me this week: the next one will chart out my ambitious plan for the coming year, in the hopes that the promise of a vaccine by late spring will help clear my mind of this fug it’s almost constantly in. And today, I want to talk about a book that has seen me through the holidays: Mark Aldridge’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. Many of my European friends have already got their copy, and should my American followers not want to wait until March or April when it drops on our shores, I recommend ordering it through the Book Depository.
If you know anything about Hercule Poirot, one of the most iconic moments in his biographie occurs in Murder on the Orient Express, arguably the most famous of his cases, when the sleuth presents those gathered before him with twosolutions to the murder of Mr. Ratchett. The “easy” solution places the blame on an outside intruder and thus relieves the passengers in the Calais coach of moral culpability and emotional fallout. But then life is never easy, and the truth turns out to be far more complex . . . and, for Agatha Christie’s readers, far more rewarding.
An “easy” review of Aldridge’s book might go something like this:
Poirot is a delightfully written chronological examination of Agatha Christie’s first and most popular sleuth, from his genesis through a case-by-case discourse of the thirty-three novels in which he appeared, as well as a discussion of the numerous short stories, plays, movies, radio programs, manga, video games, everything that has made Hercule Poirot a household name around the world. Every page gives evidence both of Aldridge’s skill as a researcher and his avid passion for his subject. In many ways, the book serves as much as a biography of Poirot’s creator as of the sleuth himself, and Aldridge utilizes numerous first-hand sources, including content that Christie wrote for her autobiography but did not include, all to reveal the effect, both professional and personal that inventing and writing about Poirot had on the author.
Even at 488 pages, the book moves at a rapid clip, with nary a spoiler included, so it is safe for the most casual readers of Christie to read. Aldridge encourages such readers not to feel compelled to read the book from beginning to end; instead, it can serve as a guide toward which novel to read first – or next – or which adaptation to watch (Aldridge’s previous work was the must-have reference, Agatha Christie on Screen.) I, of course, started at page one and galloped to the end, a perfect way to once again enjoy my “Christie for Christmas” and to celebrate the centennial of Poirot’s first appearance in Christie’s first novel, 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Highly recommended!
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If my job were to write blurbs for the local rag, the above is what you might see. And I mean every word of it! However, I’m a blogger, not a reviewer. Bloggers tend to write as much from experience as opinion, and my own experience informs the way I reacted to Aldridge’s book. And it’s . . . complex.
Many years ago, I had a friend, an author, in fact, of non-fiction books that ran the gamut from gay sociology to ghost-written biographies of sports stars. He lived in New York with his partner, a literary agent who represented some very important writers of modern mystery fiction. On a visit to the Big Apple, I had a lovely dinner with them in their home. The talk, of course, often centered around books, and after the wine had flowed, I – well, I didn’t make an actual pitch, but I had this idea that had been brewing in my head for the longest time, and I wanted to know what the author and the agent thought of them. My idea was for a book about classic mysteries: what they’re made up of, how they’re structured, what constitutes a good suspect, clue, solution. More than just a history – although Golden Age history couldn’t help but be a big part of this – it would be a fanboy’s breakdown of what makes his favorite genre tick.
The author and the agent didn’t think much of my idea. “Who’s your audience?” they asked. “Thirty or so people? Nobody would buy this. You can’t go into a project with a small, niche audience in mind. You have to write for the masses.”
Obviously, I didn’t write the book. If I had, I might have bought my condo fifteen years earlier and been known to some of you. And, yes, I also might have 5000 copies gathering dust in the back of my parents’ garage; I’d be happy to send you one if you’ll chip in for postage. Still, I mention this story because it brings up two things: first, be careful how much you let your friends get into your head. More importantly, however, my experience inspired a question that kept niggling at my head as I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Mark Aldridge’s book about Hercule Poirot:
“Who is this book for?”
The easy answer would be that this book is for people like me – avid fans of the author and the character, who want to spend a few hours engaged in pleasurable recall about the media in which he appeared and perhaps find out a few things we didn’t know.
To some extent, the book works that way, especially through the information Aldridge has gleaned about the inspiration for certain works, the contemporary response, and, best of all, some of the ways in which Agatha Christie blended in with the world of popular culture during her lifetime. For example, in 1949, she provided the material a short story contest provided by The Yorkshire Magazine. Readers were invited to finish, in 800 words or less, Christie’s opening paragraphs of “The Clock Stops.” What is so fascinating is that, fourteen years later, Christie provided her own solution (in considerably more than 800 words!) with the novel, The Clocks.
This sort of information is gold to me, and I know from listening to interviews with Aldridge that he was determined to provide new facts and new takes on this shy woman whose work has been examined and critiqued a great deal, both in her lifetime and in the nearly forty-years since her death. The more I ran into tidbits like this one, the more fun I had. Still, I’ve been reading and studying Agatha Christie since she published At Bertram’s Hotel. I knew a lot of the stuff in this book. And while some of the most unusual details centered around the non-book material – the movies, TV shows, games and such – most of this and more can be found in Aldridge’s other book, Agatha Christie On Screen, a must-have reference for any fan of the Queen of Crime.
In many ways, what Poirot felt like as I read it was a sort of inscribed conversation between the author (Aldridge) and the reader (me) about our shared love for the subjects (Poirot and Christie). It felt like this for two reasons: first, Aldridge chose to reveal no spoilers when discussing the novels and stories, which results in a focus on their preparation and reception, on a few vague details of the plot and the workings behind it, and Aldridge’s own opinion of each work. As a reader who knows the Christie canon like the back of my hand, I therefore would fill in the blanks as Aldridge dropped little clues (which I warn clever readers could serve as general spoilers) about such things as the “specialness” of the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the significance of reducing the characters in Murder on the Orient Express to a panoply of international types, or the full name of a significant character in Peril at End House.
When points like these came up, I would smile and nod my head in recognition of their significance. I would also smile when Aldridge agreed with me in his opinion of a novel or smirk when he disagreed (meaning his opinion was wrong!) It made me appreciate the attempt Aldridge was making to create here a reference that a casual reader of Christie might want to put on their shelves. My friend the Puzzle Doctor just reviewed this and admitted he did not read it cover to cover; thus, I could almost imagine someone having watched a few episodes of Suchet’s Poirot, and/or seen the Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Orient Express or Death on the Nile and then having read these books decide to pick up this book as a reference for future choices.
I said almost imagine because I wonder who but the strongest fan wants to get into this much detail about a fictional character? There’s also the challenge a casual reader will face dealing with Aldridge’s allusions to problems he found in certain books. The most telling example would be Murder in Mesopotamia. One day, I hope, Moira, JJ and I will get into a deep conversation about this book, and everyone who knows Christie can pretty much imagine how and why the sparks will fly. Mark Aldridge certainly knows what I’m talking about: he alludes to it throughout most of the chapter on the book, but I have a feeling anyone who hasn’t read it yet would come away confused.
This is – well, is it even a quibble? The book is a labor of love for lovers of the many labors of Hercule and an enjoyable and informative history for more casual readers. It is thoroughly researched but never dry, a bit gossipy in the best of ways; in short, a lovely gift to the fans of the little Belgian who, under the auspices of Agatha Christie, Ltd., continues to entertain and surprise us a hundred years later.
One point I would like to make, since Aldridge does come from the generation of fans who most likely first encountered Poirot onscreen: I have been privileged to see David Suchet, Albert Finney, and Peter Ustinov interpret the character. I have been baffled by Alfred Molina and Tony Randall’s odd portrayals, bemused by Kenneth Branagh and John Malkovich, and delighted listening to John Moffatt on BBC radio.
I have had the good fortune to talk to Mark Aldridge himself for a bit about the adaptations and the willingness we must show as fans of Christie to be open to new interpretations of her work and her characters.
I’m good with all that, but my greatest hope is that Poirot is one of those books, like Laura Thompson’s biography or John Curran’s analysis of Christie’s notebooks, that will prompt new fans to truly delight themselves by reading the books. Poirot may be a good resource for those not sure about how deeply they want to delve into another past author’s work. Rest assured that Mark and John . . . and Moira and JJ and Kate and Victoria and Brad! . . . would be overjoyed to help guide you in your choosing. In a current world where bizarre conspiracy theories have run rampant, our “conspiracy” is simple and benign: to create a new base of fans for Christie and to celebrate her work, both in its original format and in new creations, for many years to come. Aldridge’s Poirot is a fine tool for our use.
Join the conspiracy! And happy reading!
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More Poirot . . .