Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It’s the one with David Suchet in the title role. I remember watching it when it first came out; I was blown away by Suchet in the part. I was used to Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express and Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile. Although I liked both of those films, I didn’t feel that either actor captured the essence of Hercule Poirot. But Suchet really brought the character to life.
This is very important. The truth is that the plots of Agatha Christie really aren’t that interesting. They are often far fetched. What’s more, they are so mechanical. Christie had a formula and she stuck by it. The only real question from half way through one of her stories is what bit of arcane knowledge she will pull out of her bag of research to justify the conclusion. It is very rarely a surprise exactly who done it, only how they done it. And that surprise is pretty much never interesting.
What is perhaps most problematic about her plots is how Poirot’s evidence is so weak. I am almost always left with the idea that even the worst defense attorney would manage to get the murderer off. To make up for this, the plots usually involve the murderer confessing under the power of Poirot’s narrative. And this is often combined with the murderer’s suicide. All of this is brilliantly lampooned in “The Evil Voice” from The Mitchell and Webb Look:
So all we are left with to really appreciate is Poirot himself. And he is an awful character. Agatha Christie herself said that he was “insufferable” and “an egocentric creep.” And I think this is why Suchet is so great at the character. Poirot is a man who is very good at one thing, but is blessed in only valuing that one thing. So he’s perfectly happy being the very limited person that he is. And Suchet plays the character fearlessly in this regard.
So it isn’t that Poirot doesn’t care that other people look down on him for being a coward. It is that he doesn’t even know. There is only one Good and he happens to have cornered the market in it. Lucky him! Interestingly, in my travels in academia, I have met more than a few Poirot types. They are kind of sad in their very limited appreciation of the complexities of life. And so is Poirot. But we get to see him at his best.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot has been produced for almost 25 years now. They’ve made 70 episodes. Half of them are 50 minutes long and the other half are feature length. I think that speaks well of their quality. If you haven’t seen the series, you really do owe it to yourself to at least check out a few.