Everyone seems to know of Sherlock Holmes, fewer know of Hercule Poirot, though he is just as intelligent and odd as his predecessor. If both fictional detectives were real and living today, they would be world famous celebrities. At the beginning, Sir Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie probably didn’t fathom how much society would take to their characters. The popularity of both are testaments to just how great Doyle and Christie were at telling mystery stories. It was never about the mystery, really, but about the detectives.
What makes a good mystery, anyway? Some would say if one can guess who did it and/or how then the writer didn’t do their job right. In some cases, this is true, but one could argue just as strongly that a poor writer is also one who writes a story in which there is no way for the reader to figure out by themselves who did it. Which view is right? Neither. The best mysteries I have read have always been about the detectives. And if the detectives are insufferable, so’s the story.
Since this musing is about Poirot, I’ll save Holmes for another day. Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, a short, dandified and fussy older gentleman with pointy mustaches, is my favorite literary detective. I like him because he’s a thinking man, because he’s a romantic, because he’s a traveler, and because he’s at turns, funny, kind, and understanding. He senses the struggles people are going through sometimes even before they do. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles we are introduced to this Belgian through a younger friend who has admiration for Poirot, but at this point doesn’t really grasp how intelligent the old man is.
Even though I’m an American, reading Agatha Christie mysteries have always felt a little bit like going home. When I lived in China for a few years, I was elated that the high school where I taught English had a few English copies of her books. I devoured them and they helped to stave of loneliness and homesickness. With Christie (and Doyle) the mysteries are comforting. You know they will be solved even if the murderer doesn’t get his or her due. The stories are about solving the mystery, but not necessarily about punishing the wrongdoer, as that’s simply not the detective’s job. With that in mind, the stories have a sense of lightheartedness despite their morbid plots.
Some people may think of Agatha Christie as the stuffy writer of stories that only take place in old mansions full of rich people. While it is true that many of her stories are in those settings, The Mysterious Affair at Styles included, they are missing the forest of her genius for the trees. Even with this first Hercule Poirot mystery, she was thinking outside the box. The murder is straight forward and yet not, so wonderfully not. In this, her first published novel, she showed right away her affinity for poison as the murder weapon, for intricate plots that at first seem very simple, for paying attention to motivations of the heart, and for small group dynamics.
Christie is also anything but stuffy, in my opinion. Her stories take place in a variety of locations and with a variety of detectives. She was a romantic and also had a wild imagination. And not all of her stories are mysteries, some are simply adventures, some are explorations of the human heart. One of the most tragic books I ever read is Absent in the Spring which Christie penned under the name Mary Westmacott. It’s a long exploration in self-delusion, of a woman stranded at a station in Mesopotamia who has a self-realization that could change her entire life, and who ultimately chooses the easier path of keeping things as they are.
The Mysterious Affair and Styles was Christie’s first book, but thankfully not her only one. She is a reader’s writer, in my opinion. Her goal is not to stump us, but to get us to think (even while she may be stumping us) and to think like detectives. Her mysteries are at once simple and complicated, much like life. The motivations for the murders aren’t always horrible, sometimes justice is served outright or through oblique channels, and sometimes it’s not. Good mysteries, and good stories too, are more about the journey than about the ending (though a bad ending is sure to sink any story no matter how well told), and Agatha Christie understood this. She also for the most part was brief and didn’t waste words, something she has in common with another classic writer, Jane Austen.
Poirot is her best and most endearing character because he has the ability to see straight through to a person’s heart and sympathize with the struggles he sees there, no matter what they are. He encourages people to take the high road, to live in light, truth, peace and happiness. Although particular about how he dresses, eats, etc., he isn’t plagued by the personal baggage or drama of more modern detectives. He is, like Sherlock, his own man, beholden to none and helping others because he feels compelled and called to do so. His pride and vanity are of those blessed with self-sufficiency and intelligence and almost always explored with a wink and a smile to the reader.
If you have not yet read Agatha Christie, I encourage you to do so. Her best works are On the Orient Express, The Man in the Brown Suit, and And Then There Were None (formerly Ten Little Indians), though all of her books, especially the Hercule Poirot series and the Miss Marple series are great reads. Also, I am excited to see on imdb.com that And Then There Were None is getting the miniseries treatment from the BBC in 2015.