The Queen of detective fiction (1890-1976) was in 1971 bestowed the title - Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to literature by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As with the British reigning monarch, Agatha Christie’s reign continues uninterrupted. Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, Christie remains the best-selling novelist in history. It was John Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies (1865) who declared: “ All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Her first novel was The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which she introduced Hercule Poirot in 1921. In her creation of the illustrious, dandified, egoistic Belgian detective, she has immortalised Hercule Poirot. Yet, this character of brilliance and discretion also led her to exclaim: “There are moments when I have felt: ‘Why-Why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?...Eternally straightening things, eternally boasting, eternally twirling his moustaches and tilting his egg-shaped head’...I point out that by a few strokes of the pen...I could destroy him utterly. He replies, grandiloquently: “Impossible to get rid of Poirot like that! He is much too clever.” Anne Hart adds: “Indeed he was. Poirot knew a supreme story-teller when he found one and never let go. For him she set her most perfect puzzles, thereby achieving immortality for them both.” With such an opening paragraph in the Preface, any ardent Agatha Christie admirer remains hooked.
The author has sifted through 33 novels and 56 short stories, to present her biography of Hercule Poirot, a character that amuses, beguiles, challenges, engulfs and fascinates his followers. After all, “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Who is there to challenge him? His “own little grey cells” solve some of the most intriguing crimes in his times. Engrossing, Poirot is always on the hunt for the compelling mystery murderer. The suave sleuth of small stature, impeccably dressed, loves himself. We are told by Sir Charles Cartwright in “Three Act Tragedy” that “The fellow is the most conceited little devil I ever met.” In the short story “Poirot and the Regatta” first published in 1943, the smooth operator regarding a missing diamond declares: “Will you call again in three days time? I think the whole thing will be quite satisfactorily cleared up by then.” “Are you joking, M. Poirot?” “I never joke on professional matters” said Poirot with dignity. “This matter is serious. Shall we say Friday at 11:30?”
As Poirot’s professional fame expands, he finds himself on call by the chosen-few of the English country-side cultural nexus. Yet, the inquisitive Belgian is more interested in what goes on inside the manor house than the country-life style surrounding it, remarks the author. “Poirot never could appreciate the English mania for the country life” we are told in Evil Under the Sun. And then there was the upstairs/downstairs element. While lords and ladies were aplenty; so were butlers, chauffeurs, maids, nannies, governesses and gardeners; also the poor distant cousin, a disgruntled employee, a spurned admirer. And thereby lay the scenario that brought out the best of the Belgian’s meticulous whodunnit skills. His credo: “Trust no one, suspect everyone.”
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was the novelist’s swan song delivery. Agatha Christie, dubbed the “Queen of Crime” “buried” Poirot in the 1940s. However, the indomitable individual refused to rest in eternal sleep. The book made a publishing debut in 1975, ironically some months prior to the author’s own demise in 1976. Hercule Poirot, the feisty fictional detective and one of the most enduring characters in all of fiction received a front page obituary along with a portrait in the New York Times daily of 6 August 1975.
A comprehensive inclusion appears following Anne Hart’s last chapter “The Curtain Falls.” Titled A Poirot Bibliography, the first publication entry is The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1921. Equally impressively informative for all Hercule Poirot fans is the following appendix Poirot Films and Television. In 1931, the film Alibi with Austin Trevor as Hercule Poirot was adapted from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Austin Trevor continued his role as the one and only Hercule Poirot in another three films in the 1930s. Albert Finney took over in 1974 as the demanding detective in the cinematic adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. The first film version had appeared in 1934. Peter Ustinov remains for many the face of Poirot; having portrayed him in Murder on the Orient Express in the 1978 release, in Evil Under the Sun in 1982 and in 1988 in Appointment with Death. Into the twenty-first century, Poirot remains very much alive and kicking. Famed British director and actor, Kenneth Branagh starred as the mastermind sleuth in the latest screen version (2017) of Murder on the Orient Express. Due for release in 2020, Branagh holds both roles of director and detective. The first film of this landmark novel was released in 1937.
Rs. 175 was handed over to the salesperson at Faqir-Chand & Sons, established in 1951 in the Khan Market, New Delhi for the 341 page paper-back that features the inimitable Monsieur Hercule Poirot on its cover. He would be mortified to find himself; discounted and relegated to the back corner of a book-store. Notwithstanding this humiliating placement, Poirot would be smugly delighted and continue to twirl his moustaches knowing that the accompanying book page marker states: “I HAVE BEEN TO TAJ-MAHAL AND FAQIR-CHAND & SONS.”
My deep bucket list of books now includes Anne Hart’s first book, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Here I expect to follow in the footsteps of the other legendary fictional detective character - Miss Marple. It was been hailed as “the perfect companion...an engaging work with much of the fascination of an Agatha Christie mystery and a charm of its own.”
Raana Haider is a literary pilgrim.