I’ve recently been reading the Poirot short stories and one of the things which has struck me about the early Poirot short stories is how Captain Hastings figures into them. He is far more of a Watson character than I had expected.
Agatha Christie would publish Poirot short stories of Poirot throughout her career, but of particular interest to me are the first ones, a series of twenty five that were published in the weekly magazine The Sketch in the year 1923, starting on the seventh of March. This places them, in terms of publication, right after the first two Poirot novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in October of 1920 and The Murder on the Links published in March of 1923. Both of those would involve Captain Hastings, though not many of the subsequent novels would. (He is given a wife at the end of The Murder on the Links and packed off to Argentina.) Christie’s eagerness to get rid of Captain Hastings is interesting, but I will return to that later. What I really find interesting is how Hastings was portrayed in those 1923 stories.
To begin with, the Poirot short stories are reminiscences written by Captain Hastings of his friend Poirot. They read, in this way, much like the stories of Doctor Watson of his friend Holmes. Captain Hastings is, like Dr. Watson, an army man who was invalided out of the service. Further, he was, in these short stories, a roommate of Poirot. Like Watson in the later stories, he routinely accompanied Poirot on his investigations. There is even in the stories a housekeeper who lets clients in, though she is not named. Within the stories Hastings frequently makes guesses—not infrequently invited by the detective—which Poirot frequently insults for their lack of imagination and deplorable lack of method.
In short, at first Captain Hastings lacks only Watson’s medical degree and name. He is, in all other respects, basically Dr. Watson. Of course, I knew that he was “a Watson”, in the sense of Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment in his decalogue. (“The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”) How extremely like Watson he was in detail, though, I hadn’t realized.
I gained my first familiarity with Poirot from the excellent television adaptations of the Poirot stories starring David Suchet. In those, the character of Captain Hastings is softened a bit, and Hugh Frasier’s excellent portrayal of him is so different from the typical portrayal of Watson that I did not originally catch the similarities. (The adaptations also introduce Miss Lemon from the beginning and do not feature Hastings and Poirot as roommates.)
I find this start so interesting because Agatha Christie is known for the brilliant originality of her plots. She is justifiably known for them. And yet, here we are with Captain Hastings being unmistakably Dr. Watson with the minor change that doesn’t give anyone brandy as medicine.
I’ve previously written about the Holmes/Watson similarities one can see in Dr. Thorndyke and his chronicler, Dr. Christopher Jervis. Seeing the same thing in Poirot and Hastings makes me wonder if, through the early 1920s, this setup was simply considered to be part of the genre. (For more on this distinction, see my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) From the perspective of a century later, with a wide variety in detectives, it does not feel to us like a Watson character is necessary even in the Knox Decalogue sense. We do not need a stupid character to constantly demand explanations and still less do we need a chronicler whose thoughts we are told. We don’t even need someone to constantly admire the detective. In the early 1920s, though, They did not have such a wide variety of detectives.
Some prior art such as Poe’s Murders of the Rue Morgue notwithstanding, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle basically invented the genre of the detective story in 1891 (in the Holmes short stories). The Poirot short stories come a scant thirty two years later. Conan Doyle was not even done with writing Holmes stories at this point (the last Holmes Story Conan Doyle would write was The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, published in March of 1927). To be fair, though, the first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Whose Body?, was also published in 1923, and did not involve a Watson character, unless you want to class Charles Parker as one, but he was neither the chronicler nor a stupid friend. There was also G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, of course, which only occasionally had Flambeau as a companion, but he was very clearly no Watson. And as Dorothy L. Sayers said in a slightly different context, G.K. Chesterton was an acknowledged genius, renowned for fantastical paradox. Writing a detective story with no Watson in it, in 1910, might simply have been, to use Ms. Sayers words, “just one paradox more to his credit.”
Another possibility is that Agatha Christie originally included Captain Hastings as merely a feature of the genre, but then decided that he was not really a necessary part of it. It might be for this reason she wanted to marry him off of her hands and pension him off to a happy married life in the safe removes of Argentina. If so, though, it’s curious that she kept him around for twenty five short stories after giving him the wife. It was actually more than that; in 1924 she published half has many short stories in The Sketch which would, in 1927, become the novel The Big Four. These were set eighteen months after The Murder on the Links and featured Captain Hastings returning from Argentina to visit his old friend. Her first story without Captain Hastings was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in 1926. Her next novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train, published in 1928, did not feature Captain Hastings, and even more curiously it was adapted from a previous short story (The Plymouth Express) which did feature him. This run did not last long, however. Her next novel, Peril at End House (1932), featured the good Captain. He also features in Christie’s next novel, Lord Edgeware Dies (1933). The next three novels did not have him, and he would return in The A.B.C. Murders in 1936. This is a sufficient recounting of the history, I think; Captain Hasting was still appearing thirteen years after Christie had given him a wife and sent him to Argentina.
What are we to make of this? Frankly, I don’t really know. Hastings would not show up much more in the Poirot stories, but a run of at least thirteen years after he was done away with is pretty good. After The Murder on the Links, until 1936, there were five stories with Captain Hastings and five without him. She clearly didn’t need him, but also seemed to want him. Perhaps most curious in this is that the final Poirot story, Curtain, features Captain Hastings very prominently. Written in the early 1940s and put in a vault until its publication in 1975, it was the first time that Hastings appeared in a Poirot novel in more than thirty years. Evidently she considered him important, in some way. Perhaps with Curtain it was just that the man who was there at the beginning of Poirot’s career should also be there at the end of it. Whatever it was, Hastings did come to have significance past being a mere literary requirement.
Ultimately, I don’t know what to make of Captain Hastings. He was certainly a good character, though perhaps not one of the great characters in literature. I suppose at least he does go to show that it is not a character’s beginning that defines him but his ending.