Poirot's Voice

In Masters of Mystery, by H. Douglas Thomson, there’s a chapter called The Orthodox Detective (as opposed to “the realistic detective story,” “the domestic detective story,” “the thriller,” etc). Curiously, it is entirely about Agatha Christie. I suppose that this is almost fitting, as in 1930 she was something of a genre unto herself.

In some ways, she still is.

Anyway, there’s a section where Thomson talks about Poirot’s voice, in the sense of how he speaks, and he translates a small section from the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze into how it would read as a Poirot story. I think he does a excellent job of it, so I wanted to quote it here as it’s very interesting to compare and contrast.

In Silver Blaze:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing int he night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”

In translation:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“There is the dog,” he said. “Always I think of that dog in the night. Always it perplexes, that one. It is of a mystery the most profound.”
“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Précisément,” he replied softly. “That is the mystery, mon ami.”

Thomson goes on to note that when Poirot is in the thick of things, his language becomes more direct and even “mon ami” gets softened to “my friend”.

This is intentional on the part of Christie, she talked about it outside of the stories and even Poirot occasionally talked about it within his stories. Poirot tended to speak in Frenglish in one of two circumstances:

  1. When he wanted to disarm people. A man who has difficulty speaking the language will presumably have difficulty understanding the language and so he can’t be much of a threat.
  2. When he was dealing with people who disliked foreigners. He found that with such people the best way forward was to be very frankly a foreigner and so to give them the opportunity of forgiving him for it.

To some degree Poirot’s being a Belgian refuge from “The War” (i.e. World War I) served to explain why he was a private detective rather than a police officer—he had been a police officer in his native country but could hardly become a police detective in England.

His being a Belgian refuge also helped to make him interesting, and moreover, exotic enough to feel realistic in the unrealistic genre of the murder mystery. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as one sees it—crimes are rarely plotted out with brilliant intricacy and still less often are they unraveled by a brilliant detective who puts together the clues which other people miss. Whether this is because of the rarity of the brilliant crime or simply the rarity of catching the brilliant criminal, we cannot say for we do not know. It may be that brilliant people never commit carefully planned out murders. It may be that carefully planned murders happen all the time and people either do not suspect that the deaths are murders or the patsy who was framed is framed successfully and pays for the crime he didn’t commit, or perhaps these are just unsolved crimes where we know the crime was committed but have no leads.

Be that as it may, the brilliant detective solving a murder simply does not happen in real life (or at least nowhere near often enough for a man to build up a reputation, to say nothing of supporting himself on the proceeds of investigating such crimes). This creates a sort of tension in detective fiction because the fun comes from most of the story being realistic.

The solution generally seems to be to make the detective eccentric in some fashion. Not just any eccentricity will do, however. It has to be an eccentricity which pervades his interactions with his fellow creatures. If the reader’s normal experience of the detective is outside of the reader’s normal experience of real life, then the unreality of him being a detective at all is much easier to forget.

A Great Map Projection Joke

Today’s XKCD on the South America map projection is pretty funny:

The thing is, you have to read the alt text to really get the joke. It is:

The projection does a good job preserving both distance and azimuth, at the cost of really exaggerating how many South Americas there are.

(If you aren’t familiar with the debates over map projections, the fundamental problem a map has is that it’s impossible to correctly project the surface of a sphere onto a flat (uniform) 2-dimensional surface like a piece of paper. Something must be distorted in order to do it; the typical Mercator map greatly exaggerates the size of things at extreme latitudes. Other projections, such as the orange peel projection, tend to get relative sizes more correct at the expense of not being able to measure distances accurately. There are other kinds of map projection with other tradeoffs, too, each with those who strongly favor them while criticizing the rest.)

Weird Al's CNR

My post yesterday about Chuck Norris Facts reminded me of a song by Weird Al about Charles Neson Reilly:

The song is a bit hit or miss, and I’d never heard of Charles Nelson Reilly prior to the Weird Al song and so have grave doubts that the man lives up to the legend nearly as much as Chuck Norris lives up to his. Still, I do like one of CNR’s achievements mentioned in the song:

Charles Nelson Reilly won the tour de france with two flat tires and a missing chain.

(If you don’t know, the tour de france is a bicycle race, possibly the premier bicycle race in the world.)

Chuck Norris Facts

I recently introduced my children to the style of humor called Chuck Norris “facts”. If you don’t know who Chuck Norris is, here’s him as a young man fighting Bruce Lee:

And here is an older Chuck Norris playing Walker, Texas Ranger:

Since he (that is, his character) eventually loses in the fight with Bruce Lee, I presume that Walker, Texas Ranger has more to do with Chuck Norris’s reputation. Be that as it may, there is a popular style of humor which is a list of facts about Chuck Norris that describes how tough and good at fighting he is. For example

A cobra once bit Chuck Norris on the leg. After five agonizing days, the cobra finally died.

Another great Chuck Norris fact is:

Chuck Norris’s periodic table only has one element on it: the element of surprise.

My boys (at the time of writing, 10 and 7) have really taken to these facts, and even tried inventing their own. The seven year old understands the element of exaggeration, but he (unsurprisingly) has difficulty with the element of setting up an expectation. So his versions tend to be things like:

Chuck Norris can punch a black hole and blow it up.

I’m not normally one for puns, but it lacks punch. Anyway, there are a lot of great Chuck Norris facts. I’m not going to reprint an entire archive of them (many of which can be found with a simple google search), but here is a selection of my favorites:

  • On a math test, Chuck Norris answered “violence” for every problem and got an A+, because Chuck Norris can solve every problem with violence.
  • Chuck Norris can speak French, in Russian.
  • Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird.
  • Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
  • Chuck Norris can pick apples from an orange tree and make the best lemonade you’ve ever tasted.
  • Chuck Norris tells Simon what to do.
  • When the Bogeyman goes to sleep at night, he checks under his bed for Chuck Norris.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.
  • Bigfoot claims he once saw Chuck Norris.
  • Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris pajamas.
  • Chuck Norris once won a staring context with the sun.
  • Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia, fear of confined spaces is called claustrophobia, and fear of Chuck Norris is called common sense.