The Immodesty of Hercule Poirot

One of the things which comes up in Poirot novels and short stories is how immodest Poirot is. He is very willing to say that he is the greatest detective ever, since it’s an indisputable fact and is often relevant to clients. Hastings, whose ideas of modesty are more English, frequently teases Poirot about this. I find this aspect of the stories very interesting, especially because Agatha Christie seemed to think it was funny enough to include quite often.

It is also curious to consider the contrast: Poirot was immodest but humble. Captain Hastings was modest but not humble.

I’m not really sure what to make of this; sometimes Agatha Christie seemed to hold it against Poirot and other times she seemed to side with him. Poirot has asked, quite reasonably, why it is considered better for a man who is good at something to lie and say that he is not. At other times Poirot seems to stray out of merely stating relevant facts and becoming boastful. I suppose to some degree we cannot expect a character written over the course of more than forty years to be entirely consistent. For that matter, real people are not always consistent even within a day, to say nothing of being consistent in many different circumstances over the course of forty years.

(Actually, the duration of Poirot stories is not really calculable; as Agatha Christie observed in her autobiography, given how she made Poirot of retirement age in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must have been well over 100 by his later cases, since they were all—or at least, mostly—set contemporaneously.)

A curious contrast to this is Miss Marple, who is extraordinarily modest. In a most Victorian style, she will not allow anyone to say anything positive about her without some sort of disclaiming it; the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth is a qualification to her disclaimer (“though it is true that I’ve been of some little assistance once or twice…”).

Modesty can, of course, be an enormously useful social grace. Being boastful can come at enormous social cost. That said, there is a danger of these things being confused with the far more important moral virtue of humility. Captain Hastings, in the books, frequently thought himself far more clever than he was, though he never said so except in his memoirs. In consequence he made all sorts of mistakes and occasionally made situations worse. In contrast, Poirot’s boasting was always in service of a practical point; he wanted clients to trust him because it was to their benefit to trust him. He wanted police inspectors to trust him, because their cases would go better if they trusted him. He never boasted of his abilities for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of those to whom he boasted.

Agatha Christie was, in her temperament, closer to Miss Marple than to Poirot, though based on her biography she was not greatly like either. Still, I do wonder how much she was actually able to see Poirot’s point of view. Authors cannot give characters what they do not have, but authors can give characters what they do not know that they have. It would be curious to know how much this is a case of that.

Some Thoughts on Murder On the Nile

I recently watched the David Suchet version of Murder On the Nile with my oldest son, then out of curiosity read the novel so I could compare. While the movie version was quite faithful to a lot of the story, it did have some changes, I think mostly to make it shorter. Unfortunately, I think it cut some of the best parts.

The novel was published in 1937 and is, by my count, the fourteenth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie would have been approximately forty six years old when she wrote it, and the depth of characterization in it reflect both her experience as a writer as well as her greater experience of life. It is still, fundamentally, a murder mystery more than a novel—in distinction to Dorothy L. Sayers later work, especially Gaudy Night. That said, it certainly has a lot more meat on its bones than does, say, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. To be clear, this is in no way a knock against Styles; for that matter Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body? was, as she put it, conventional to the last degree. My point is just that Agatha Christie has really developed as a writer; this book has not only the sort of brilliant plot that Christie’s books have always had, but also several human themes.

(As a warning, spoilers follow.)

The main theme of the book, of course, is how dangerous love is. Jacqueline really loved Simon Doyle too much, so she was willing to use her brains in service of his evil ends. Simon nearly got away with murder because she loved him too much. Jacqueline was willing to murder two people—one by stabbing—in order to protect Simon and help him to get away with his murder. Poirot tried to warn Jacqueline off from her course, but it was too late because she loved Simon too much. And then, finally, at the end, where Mrs. Allerton said, “Love can be a very frightening thing,” and Poirot replied, “That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”

This is all quite true. What’s really being described, of course, is not love, but idolatry. Jacqueline would do anything for Simon because, to her, he was God. A most inadequate God, to be sure. She recognized his flaws. Yet, she made her choice and would not go back on it.

Another interesting theme in the book is the immorality of Mr. Ferguson. He has the full measure of loathesomeness of a communist, and in one sense is merely a realistic portrayal of how bad such a man is, down to complaining about everything while he takes a pleasure cruise and pretends that he is “studying conditions”. It is interesting, though, that he is not merely malign. He has a curious trick of getting to know people; he relates all sorts of personal information about various people at different times. He has no pity and cares only for himself; his communism is merely an expression of that. This can also be seen, I think, in the way that his clothes were shabby but his underclothes were high quality.

Another aspect of his evil is his refrain that it is not the past that matters, but the future. (This is evil because it can be used to justify anything, and only people who want to justify evil use justifications that will justify anything. For people who mean well, ordinary justifications will suffice.) He has no pity for anyone, and no loyalty. All that matters is what people can do for him, now.

(As a side note, I also find it curious that this—presented slightly differently—is the theme of the Star Wars sequel Episode VIII: he Least Jedi.)

It is very interesting that the book ends with Mr. Furguson, and his philosophy of life.

[News of Linnet Ridgeway’s death spread.] …and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand Nationa. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.

Some Thoughts on Murder on the Links

I recently re-read Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder On The Links. It is the second of her novels featuring Hercule Poirot. I will, at some point, write a full analysis of it, but I wanted to share a few thoughts while they were fresh. (There are spoilers ahead, but you’ve had up to 99 years to read it, depending on your age.)

The first is that I must say that I like the love story in it featuring Captain Hastings. It is by no means the greatest love story ever told, but the character of Dulcie Duveen was a good fit for Hastings. She was an interesting character whose fondness for Hastings was developed in a natural and believable way, strengthened throughout the story by his devotion to her. She was given natural virtues beyond beauty, and, though clever enough, beyond intelligence, too. Hastings was no genius, and a brilliant woman would not fall in love with him.

Their love story was well paced and given twists and turns to develop in a way that felt natural. Initial attraction leading nowhere, to a second chance meeting where that attraction could strengthen, difficult circumstances, the opportunity for self-sacrifice, and the demonstration on the part of each of virtue (more natural virtue than moral virtue, but still, something).

It was also interesting how this romance was tangled up with the romantic lives of several other couples; of Jack Renaud and Bella Duveen, of M. Renaud and Mrs. Renaud, and of Jack Renaud and Marthe Daubreuil. Each pair, in the devotion of at least one to the other, got in the way of the other pairs. This tangle was fundamentally realistic, though of course compressed in time as novels will tend to do. Life is kind of like that; everyone acting at cross-purposes.

Detective stories are unrealistic, in the sense that real life rarely has crimes that were carefully plotted out by a highly intelligent criminal. They also tend to be unrealistic in that life rarely has so many clues which can actually be figured out. That said, where they are very realistic indeed is in their red herrings. Life is complicated. Life is not the story of just one person; life is not just one story. Life is many stories running simultaneously, intertwining to make each story complicated.

Shifting subjects, I find the main idea of the plot—an old crime coming back to haunt the present—very interesting. There’s something especially appealing in a detective needing to learn the distant past as well as the present. I also find interesting the idea of trying a clever crime a second time, this time fixing the one thing that went wrong the first time. On this point Poirot was, I think, a little unsatisfactory in his explanation—he claimed that human beings are fundamentally unoriginal. There may be some truth to this, but I think it would be a much better explanation to say that he learned from his past mistakes and re-used this scheme because it came so close to working the first time except for a few small problems. Briefly, all that went wrong the first time was that he tied the ropes too loosely, and Jeanne Beroldy had an ordinary past and no connection with Russians. In this case, both of those would be fixed. M. Renauld had a past that was unquestionably connected with Chile and South America more generally, for he really did live there for years. And he tied the ropes very tightly on Mrs. Renauld. This is the more interesting aspect, rather than speculations about the unoriginality of human beings.

The one problem here—and it applies no matter which explanation you use for the selection of M. Renauld’s plot—is that he was using it to escape the one person he could be sure would recognize it. In any context other than escaping his former accomplice, re-trying an old plot that nearly worked would make sense. What could Jeanne Beroldy think happened to M Renauld when the plot was nearly identical to the one she went through with the same man, except that this was another scam? And what could the object of that scam be other than to fake his death to escape her?

On a related note, the fundamental underlying coincidence—that in all of France Georges Conneau happened to buy the villa neighboring the one in which Jeanne Beroldy lived—is a bit far fetched. This isn’t a critical flaw because it is a inaugural coincidence. Coincidences are only a problem when they help the detective; they are not intrinsically objectionable when they are why the murder happened. Coincidences do happen, and properly looked at all of life rests on coincidences. No one ever married a person with whom they did not have the coincidence of coming into contact with. Everyone who interacts must, ultimately, be thrown into contact with the people with whom they interact by some sort of coincidence.

Still, that a wanted man who lived abroad for more than two decades should happen, by chance, to buy a villa that is literally adjoining the villa in which his accomplice lived for many years is… bordering on too much of a coincidence. It would have been easier on the imagination had he returned to France, and she somehow seen him, found out where he lived, and bought the villa next to his. This would have accomplished everything the plot required without quite as much of a stretch. Still, this is a very minor thing, especially since it could be changed with no impact on the rest of the plot.

Shifting subjects again, something I really appreciated—given my fondness for Captain Hastings at his better moments—was that there was a moment in the story where he wasn’t an idiot.

“Think, my friend,” said Poirot’s voice encouragingly. “Arrange your ideas. Be methodical. Be orderly. There is the secret of success.”

I endeavoured to obey him, casting my mind back over all the details of the case. And reluctantly it seemed to me that the only clear and possible solution was that of Giraud—which Poirot despised. I reflected anew. If there was daylight anywhere it was in the direction of Madame Daubreuil. Giraud was ignorant of her connection with the Beroldy Case. Poirot had declared the Beroldy Case to be all important. It was there I must seek. I was on the right track now. And suddenly I started as an idea of bewildering luminosity shot into my brain. Trembling I built up my hypothesis.

“You have a little idea, I see, mon ami! Capital. We progress.”

I sat up, and lit a pipe.

“Poirot,” I said, “it seems to me we have been strangely remiss. I say we—although I dare say I would be nearer the mark. But you must pay the penalty of your determined secrecy. So I say again we have been strangely remiss. There is some one we have forgotten.”

“And who is that?” inquired Poirot, with twinkling eyes.

“Georges Conneau!”

The next moment Poirot embraced me warmly. “Enfin! You have arrived. And all by yourself. It is superb! Continue your reasoning. You are right. Decidedly we have done wrong to forget Georges Conneau.”

I was so flattered by the little man’s approval that I could hardly continue. But at last I collected my thoughts and went on.

“Georges Conneau disappeared twenty years ago, but we have no reason to believe that he is dead.”

Aucunement,” agreed Poirot. “Proceed.”

“Therefore we will assume that he is alive.”

“Exactly.”

“Or that he was alive until recently.”

De mieux en mieux!

Hasting ran off the rail after this, but for a few moments he was able to think. That was a very nice piece of character development, even if it was mostly ignored afterwards. If only Mrs. Christie had followed this up, turning Hastings into more of a real character!

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

I recently re-read the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Some day I will write a full, detailed analysis of it, but right now I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts. It’s a very interesting book, both in itself and because of its historical significance.

One of the things that is very striking—especially for a person whose first introduction to Poirot was through the David Suchet adaptations—is how much of an idiot Captain Hastings is. One of the Fr. Ronald Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction was “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.” Christie seemed to take the idea of the “stupid friend” to rather extraordinary lengths. Hastings is constantly making unwarranted assumptions, thinking Poirot is senile, saying that inexplicable things don’t matter, taking offense, telling Poirot that he did the wrong thing, etc.

Despite all of this, there is a kernel of a character inside the depiction which is quite intriguing, and which I think that Hugh Frasier and the writer who did the David Suchet adaptation of Poirot really got hold of. This kernel is the “beautiful soul” which Hastings had; it explains why Poirot is so fond of him and why he keeps him around. Hastings is not clever, but he is simple and earnest. He is innocent and means well.

I can’t help but think that Agatha Christie did not see this in Hastings; it seems to be as much an excuse to have Hastings around as it is anything else. He was there because Watson was there before him; he was stupid because Watson being mystified by Holmes made Holmes more impressive. I think these two issues go some of the way to explaining why she got rid of Hastings and immediately brought him back.

Moving on: Agatha Christie is rightly known as a master of mystery plots, but I can’t help think that the final proof in this case was not her best work. That Alfred should write to Evelyn when the plan didn’t go off at the right time is defensible, if it stretches the imagination a little bit. That Mrs. Inglethorpe found the letter is not a problem, and given that she found it, that Alfred had to get it back after her death makes perfect sense. The problem comes in with the way he hid it in the spills.

He had a very small number of minutes in which to recover the letter and had to reveal that someone had broken into the despatch case, so in consequence he had to hide it in a hurry, fine. Putting it into the spills rather than sliding it under his own door was… iffy, but I think defensible because if he was caught and it was revealed that he must have stolen something, his room might be searched. It is something of a difficulty that he was not caught; if he could get away so easily, it takes away considerably from his fear of being caught. Still, this is defensible.

I think it much more difficult to justify why he never recovered the letter from the spills. Poirot explained this as a result of his taking the household into his confidence that a document had been stolen from the despatch case, and in consequence Alfred could not enter the room without being observed. I find this a bit thin—there were only four of five servants inside the house, and they had duties which would in all probability make for moments when Alfred could move unobserved. What I really can’t see, though, is what would have prevented Alfred from entering his wife’s room during the night. The servants would all be asleep, and the only person in his wing of the house would be Cynthia. Even when not drugged, she was not described to be an especially light sleeper. And he had more than one night to try. He did not move out of the house and into the hotel until the day after the funeral, and was not really forced to even then. His being in the house during this time, however, was not necessary for anything within the plot. I think this could have been solved by having Alfred be forced to leave the house the day of the murder. It would not have been difficult to come up with something which would force John to tell Alfred that Mrs. Inglethorp only had a life interest in the house and now it’s his and under the circumstances it would be better if Alfred removed himself, etc. etc.

Captain Hastings in Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness (originally titled Poirot Loses a Client), published in 1937, is the seventh and penultimate appearance of Captain Hastings in a Poirot novel. (The last would be the final Poirot novel, Curtain, which was written in the early 1940s and put in a bank vault until 1975, when Agatha Christie knew she would write no more novels.) The portrayal of Captain Hastings, in Dumb Witness, represents something of a strange development of the character.

The Wikipedia article on Dumb Witness has a quote from an E.R. Punshon, in a review of the novel, who said that Poirot, “shows all of his usual acumen; Captain Hastings – happily once more at Poirot’s side – more than all his usual stupidity…” This seems an adequate description. His stupidity is only slightly more pronounced than it was in the previous novel with him, The A.B.C. Murders. In fact, I wrote about this aspect of the portrayal of Hastings in it. In both, Hastings seems to have had a turn for the worse, compared to his earlier portrayals. I find myself wondering all the more why he did.

One thing I will say for Hastings in Dumb Witness over The A.B.C. Murders is that he does not, at least, lose his head over pretty women. This may be that Christie only put one beautiful woman in Dumb Witness and she was engaged, but happily Captain Hastings at least behaved like a married man. he seems to have become even dumber, though.

Hastings’ stupidity in Dumb Witness seems to be channeled primarily into one action—complete certainty that Emily Arundel died of natural causes. Why he is so certain is given no explanation whatever. He at first bases this certainty on the casual word of a real estate agent—and one who only got his news from local gossip, at that. Each person who had no better knowledge of Miss Arundel’s death thinking it was natural causes would have strengthened this conviction if it didn’t start out as complete certainty, but it certainly didn’t weaken it. This feels like it is here to serve some practical purpose, but I can’t imagine what that practical purpose is.

Hastings started off as a Watson, that is, as a character of ordinary intelligence who narrated the stories, was impressed by the detective, and asked questions which gave the detective an opportunity to explain clues to the reader. As a mild variation, the Watson can have an intelligence very slightly below the average reader, as commanded in the decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

Hastings seems, here, to be a complete idiot. He is, until about three quarters of the way through the book, unable to consider the possibility that Emily Arundel might have been murdered. He holds as absolutely certain, for no reason whatever, that a rich old woman, upon whose life one attempt had been made, must have died of completely natural causes. This might have served some literary function if it prompted Poirot to explain why there is doubt, but it long-since lost that purpose after the first such explanation. Especially since Hastings’ doubts were often in the narrator’s commentary, it took on the character of a simple monomania.

I suppose that this might have been meant to produce a contrast when Poirot turned out to be right, except that we already knew that. There is not going to be a Poirot novel in which Poirot turned out to be wasting his time and there was nothing whatever to discover. This is as implausible as a Poirot novel in which Poirot doesn’t appear, or shave his mustache, or dies on the first page. So why spend so much time and effort suggesting such a thing?

Even stranger, this seems to be at odds with the character’s function as a Watson. Watson admires Holmes. He all but worships Holmes. He doesn’t bemusedly play chauffeur all the while thinking his friend is senile and wasting his time. This is all the more the case given that this is a late case of Poirot’s and Hastings should, by now, have an ample store of experience to draw on that Poirot’s instincts are usually right. What’s the point of bringing a character back if he isn’t the same character from the previous stories—or acts like he wasn’t in them. What’s the purpose of a close friend of Poirot’s who grows to trust Poirot less and less as time wears on?

I think that there must be an answer because Agatha Christie was an intelligent, thoughtful woman. I don’t think that writing Hastings this way was a good choice but it seems very likely that it was at least an intelligible idea. Of course, given that this was his last appearance before the final Poirot novel, I suspect that Mrs. Christie also came to think that it wasn’t a good choice. But what on earth was the goal with him that didn’t work out? She did, after all, pack him off to Argentina in Murder on the Links. Bringing him back was a choice.

I’m in some danger of repeating myself, but I find the whole thing very perplexing. Approximately every character but Hastings has a reasonably consistent psychology to them. Hastings, alone, seems more a collection of a pointless literary devices than a character. Even Poirot seems to tire of him. Since Hastings refuses to think, Poirot doesn’t explain anything to him. His function even as a literary device seems to be lost.

Perhaps Hastings was merely meant as comic relief? There is some possibility here, except that for the most part he isn’t funny.

Perhaps I’m merely biased because Hugh Frasier’s portrayal of him in the David Suchet Poirot is so compelling. It just seems like such a pity. Captain Hastings had the potential to be so interesting but he simply wasn’t used. Perhaps Mrs. Christie thought that he was beloved by the fans and so brought him back for their sake, but reluctantly, and that’s why she didn’t make any use of him. If so, it’s a great pity. It is an explanation which explains, at least.

I hope it’s not true, though.

Murderers Call In Poirot a Lot…

As I’ve been reading the Poirot short stories and novels, it’s struck me that it’s not just once or twice that it was the murderer who called Poirot into the case. I don’t want to go into a list, since merely to name them would consist of spoilers, but off the top of my head I can think of at least four novels and a short story in which the murderer called Poirot into the case and two more short stories about robbery rather than murder in which the thief called Poirot in. I’m confident that this is not an exhaustive list. I’m really not sure what to make of this.

If it happened merely once, it would be an interesting twist. Happening so often, it feels like something else. What, I’m not entirely sure. A few possibilities recommend themselves.

One possibility is that by frequently having the person who called Poirot in be the criminal it keeps the reader more on his toes. I’m not sure this really works, though; there’s a certain foolishness in calling in the world’s greatest detective to investigate your crime. It becomes more foolish still after reading about his cases in the newspaper (or in Captain Hastings’ records of them) and seeing how often he’s willing to accuse the person who hired him. If I murdered someone in the 1930s and I was determined to call a detective in to investigate the case, I would far rather call in Giraud than Poirot.

Another possibility is that this was merely a solution to the problem that all mystery writers face of how on earth you get your detective in on the case. It is, of course, possible to go the Jessica Fletcher route and simply have the astonishing coincidence that the detective just happens to be around murders ten to twenty times per year. Those who want a little more realism need to be more creative. The problem with calling a detective in before the crime is committed is that, in general, there is only one person who knows that the crime will be committed—the criminal. The major alternative I can think of is a person who suspects that attempts have been made before against his life calling in the detective. This works, but requires either a remarkably incompetent murderer or slow poisoning. The murderer calling in Poirot does open the field a bit.

The tradeoff is that it is mostly not in the murderer’s interest to call the world’s greatest detective in, which makes it very hard to make this plausible. Of all the times that it happened with Poirot, I’m inclined to say that the A.B.C. Murders was probably the most plausible. The murderer had a legitimate (from his perspective) reason for it to be Poirot and not someone less well known. The murderer also produced a very clever series of murders, complete with a scapegoat who believed that he did it, so it was plausible that Poirot might have been fooled, or else that he would have been overruled by the police.

As for the other times, the criminal calling in Poirot seems far less excusable. It was mostly pretty gratuitous. Granted, Poirot tries to be underestimated by criminals, but it seems odd for so many criminals to take such an unnecessary risk. Especially because it’s usually with very little gained by bringing him in.

Which leads me to suspect that it really is done merely as a way of bringing Poirot into the story. I’m hesitant to believe that’s the case, though, since Agatha Christie is such a master of plotting. Overall, I’m not sure what to make of it. All I’m sure of is that it’s strange.

Captain Hastings In the ABC Murders

Having recently finished reading The A.B.C. Murders (and I must remark, in passing, that the David Suchet adaptation was remarkably faithful to the book, in this case) I find myself confused by the character of Captain Hastings. As I mentioned before, he started out as a near-clone of Dr. Watson. In only the second Poirot novel, Agatha Christie gave him a wife and sent him off to Argentina. She then used him in more than twenty short stories and another dozen short stories that would become the novel The Big Four. He then periodically showed up in the novels a few more times, the second-to-last of which was The A.B.C. Murders. He’s an odd character, there.

Captain Hastings is an odd character in The A.B.C. Murders for two reasons:

  1. He’s changed in ways that don’t quite make sense.
  2. He’s stayed the same in ways that make no sense at all.

To give an example of the second one first, Captain Hastings still hankers after beautiful women. It’s natural enough that he would notice them, or even to be a bit weak-minded about them. What isn’t natural is the way he does so exactly as if he was still twenty years old and unmarried. He never mentions his wife. He openly wants to escort the young and pretty Miss Thora Grey when he should, in fact, be actively avoiding her. Now, it’s no good to say that Hastings was always weak for a pretty face, because he was so in the context of being a completely decent and honorable man. That’s what made it charming. Moreover, that’s what drew Poirot to Hastings. Hastings had a beautiful nature which Poirot admired. He really should have been on the point of refusing to accompany Miss Grey.

Further, he really should have mentioned his wife when Poirot was teasing him about being weak-headed to Miss Grey’s pretty face. “I’m off the market, old chap” or some such line really should have come to his lips. So, for that matter, should some talk about how wonderful his wife is and how happy they are together. That’s just the sort of man that Hastings was.

Similarly, Hastings has learned next to nothing in all of his years with Poirot. That’s not quite 100% true, as he does mention on some of Poirot’s more strange actions that he’d learned that when Poirot was least explicable was when Poirot was hunting down an especially important clue. Still, you’d think that after so many years following the great detective around, he would have learned a little bit. He might have occasionally made a prosaic guess just because Poirot had so frequently told him that he went wrong by being too romantic in his imagination. It’s hard to take the age of their relationship entirely seriously when it seems to have had no effect whatever on Hastings.

The changes that don’t quite make sense are, perhaps, stranger. In some sense they are related to Hastings not changing with his changing circumstances, but he no longer has that beautiful nature which Poirot so admired in Hastings’ youth. His instincts are no longer pure, if for that reason frequently misleading. To some degree I suppose Hastings is merely out of his element. The murderer being presumed to be a madman, the inordinately sane Hastings has nothing really to say. But that brings me to my main question: why on earth did Agatha Christie bring Captain Hastings back for this story? He doesn’t really seem to have a place in it.

The thing that Captain Hastings has to contribute to a story that he’s in is common humanity. He’s a thoroughly decent man. He’s honest, honorable, and generous. He is also romantic. To Poirot, he gives two things. The first is that, never being cynical, he counterbalanced Poirot’s own cynicism. Poirot sees through everything; Hastings sees through nothing. Hastings, therefore, reminds Poirot of the value of the surface. This is related to the second thing he offers Poirot: the perspective of an ordinary person. It is something that Poirot, in his brilliance, is apt to miss on the rare occasions when he forgets to take it into account.

We do get a little bit of that in The A.B.C. Murders. It is Hastings who wonders whether the third note might have had the wrong address written on it intentionally. It’s not much, though, and the story seems to barely notice it.

Overall, I don’t know what to make of it. There was no need to bring Hastings back from Argentina for this story, but little use seems to have been made of him. The problem seems to me that anything which explains the second part will run aground of the first. If there was some reason not to make use of Hastings, why not just leave in him Argentina? He was made much better use of in Peril at End House, and that was written before The A.B.C. Muders. Perhaps Mrs. Christie was so preoccupied with the clever plot that she forgot the good captain. In favor of this hypothesis, she didn’t seem to pay that much attention to the other characters, either.

Murder On The Links: Sniffing For Clues

Murder On The Links is the second novel featuring the detective Hercule Poirot. Published in March of 1923, it came very slighty after the first few Poirot short stories published in The Sketch magazine. However, publishing schedules being what they are, it was probably written before they were. It’s a very interesting story both in its own right and for its place within the history of detective stories. (If you haven’t read it yet and dislike spoilers, go read it now.)

One of the very curious elements of the story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the famous detective from the Sureté of Paris. Giraud focuses with single-minded determination on finding minute clues, like remnants of footprints and a match discarded in the grass. He painstakingly combs every inch of every crime scene on his hands and knees, looking closely at every surface. This is in strong distinction to Poirot, who lets others find the small clues while he remains standing and contents himself with figuring out what the clues mean. There is a wonderful section of dialog with Hastings in which Poirot defends his method (Hastings, who narrates the story, begins):

“But surely the study of finger-prints and footprints, cigarette ash, different kinds of mud, and other clues that comprise the minute observation of details—all these are of vital importance?”

“But certainly. I have never said otherwise. The trained observer, the expert, without doubt he is useful! But the others, the Hercules Poirots, they are above the experts! To them the experts bring the facts, their business is the method of the crime, its logical deduction, the proper sequence and order of the facts; above all, the true psychology of the case. You have hunted the fox, yes?”

“I have hunted a bit, now and again,” I said, rather bewildered by this abrupt change of subject. “Why?”

“Eh bien, this hunting of the fox, you need the dogs, no?”

“Hounds,” I corrected gently. “Yes, of course.”

“But yet,” Poirot wagged his finger at me. “You did not descend from your horse and run along the ground smelling with your nose and uttering loud Ow Ows?”

There is another section, in which Giraud discounted a two foot section of lead pipe because it did not fit into his theory of the case, but scoured the ground for other clues such as an unburnt match. Poirot remarks:

Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal!

You also see this in the much later Five Little Pigs, where the client uses this very fact that Poirot does not crawl on his knees in the dirt for clues to persuade him to take a seventeen year old case. He objected that after so much time there would be no clues to find, and she pointed out that he doesn’t use those clues anyway. (He had just boasted of that when she was taken aback by how old Poirot was.)

The context of all of this disparagement of physical clues is interesting to consider. Sherlock Holmes started the detective crazy in 1891 and was known for his magnifying glass, chemical analyses, and sharp eye for detail. He was, perhaps, more known for it than was entirely fair; he certainly did consider psychology, at least on occasion. That said, he was famous for his monograph on cigar ash, for being able to distinguish the tread of every make of bicycle tire, etc. And in 1923 the Holmes stories were by no means complete. Holmes Short stories were published in the 1920s until the last one was published in 1927.

There is also the at-the-time popular detective Dr. Thorndyke, whose entire stock-and-trade was careful observation, extensive medical knowledge, and for-the-time high tech experiments. (The for-the-time high tech may in part explain why he was enormously popular in his day and has had very little staying power after it.) He was relatively early on in his career at this point, having started in 1909 and appearing in five novels by the end of 1922.

I should also mention that from things I’ve read in the time period, there was something of a flood of works that have not generally been remembered but which imitated Sherlock Holmes to greater or lesser extents (often greater). These often, I get the impression, focused on physical evidence to seem clever. Imitation frequently involves exaggeration, especially when it is imitation by writers who are not extraordinary.

Standing against this context, however, is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Father Brown did not crawl about with a magnifying glass any more than Poirot did, and he started solving cases in 1910. Father Brown was immensely popular in his day (and is still beloved at least by fans of Chesterton). I am not certain of the history but I believe that Father Brown formed the other end of the spectrum from Sherlock Holmes, being primarily a psychological sleuth.

What, then, should we make of Poirot’s looking down on the gathering of minute physical evidence? I think it is probably best classed as a preference among the existing spectrum of detective stories, rather than as anything new, even though it is presented as something of a novelty to the people in the story. Detective stories have something of a tradition of commenting on detective stories as a genre. Especially during the golden age, it is common for detectives to do this by discussing their “theory of detection”. Another common approach was what we see here—for some character to have a rival theory of detection. I think it was most often the Watson character, but police detectives also commonly would clash with the brilliant detective over the right way to go about solving a case.

This commentary had two main purposes, but I think that the second was far more important than the first. The less important purpose was as a commentary on the genre. The more important purpose was to make the brilliant detective seem brilliant. He could not, after all, be all that brilliant if he went about things in the same manner as everyone around him but was merely luckier. Or to put it another way: in order to achieve magical results, one must have some magic. The detective’s commentary on the theory of detection provides this magic; it is his unique theory of detection which is the key to his success.

I think, therefore, the rivalry between Poirot in Giraud should be taken primarily in this light. Instead of as commentary on other fictional detectives, it is meant primarily to be a humorous way to make the brilliance of Hercule Poirot shine. It just happens to be funny, too.

The Poirot Short Stories Are Interesting

A few weeks ago I bought a book of the complete Poirot short stories. I’m not through it; there are a lot of them. I’ve made a lot of progress, though.

Interestingly, the short stories are in three major groups. The first is a series of short stories written for The Sketch magazine. This comprises possibly the majority of short stories, by number, since it was a weekly magazine. The next grouping consists of various short stories that came out as one-offs. A good example of this is the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which was originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, and was, so far as I know, the only Poirot story ever published there. (To be fair, that was in America; it was published in Strand magazine in the UK a few months later.) Finally there was the collection of twelve short stories which made up the collection The Labours of Hercules. Each of these bore a tenuous relationship to one of the twelve labors of Hercules from Greek mythology.

(There was a series of short stories right after the ones in The Sketch magazine which then formed the novel The Big Four, but they’re a connected series of short stories rather than traditional, independent, short stories, so I’m not counting them. They’re closer to a novel first being published in serialized form than true short stories.)

One of the things I’ve found interesting about the Poirot short stories is how often they are not fair play mysteries; in many cases they’re not even so much mysteries as they are tales of something interesting. They are told in a mystery format. In The Nemean Lion, for example, (spoiler alert) the reader has no real way to guess that one of the lady’s companions has a trained Pekingese dog which gets substituted for the real one and is trained, once its leash is cut, to run home. Frankly, there was no need for such a solution; if the Lady’s Companion was in on it, a confederate to walk the Pekingese home would have worked just as well. Further, that Poirot’s client was poisoning his wife in order to be able to marry his secretary was justified by what was said, but was a shot in the dark even for Poirot. It was an entertaining story to read, but mostly because of the revelations and not because of any sort of detection. It was interesting to find out the unusual criminal enterprise and the revelation that the apparently dumb Lady’s companion—who herself complained about being untrained and unskilled—was an organizational criminal genius.

I find this sort of short story curious because I had been used to thinking of short stories as being primarily about setting up complex puzzles with ingenious solutions. On the other hand, The Labours of Hercules dates from 1939 through 1947 (though most were published in 1940), and short stories were probably changing by then. It would be a while before the market for short stories fell out, but tastes were undoubtedly changing, especially as we’re getting into early World War II, here.

To some degree this is just a historical curiosity. I think that the market for short stories is never coming back. It’s moved into television and the streaming that is replacing television. It’s interesting to look at short stories, though, since they were so influential in the early development of the mystery genre.

Intelligent Murder Mystery Suspects

I’ve recently watched the episodes in the thirteenth and final series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. It included Curtain, which of course must be the last episode, but it had several episodes which differed very greatly from their source material. In particular, The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.

The former was described by the screenwriter as an unadaptable mess, which it certainly seems to be looking at the plot summary. It is basically a spy thriller with dozens of characters set throughout Europe, which is not very viable for a TV show, even if it is nearly two hours long. The one which really interests me, though, is The Labours of Hercules. The original is a collection of twelve unrelated short stories, which the screenwriter turned into a single long-form mystery by taking one of the stories as the central one and using several of the other stories as the red herrings which one expects in a Christie novel. At this point, I should warn you that this post will include spoilers. You have been warned.

Given what a challenging prospect that is, the writer did a good job, but there were problems in the story which I do not think were avoidable for structural reasons. As everyone knows, a murder mystery must have suspects, with the plural being imperative. Every man having free will, anyone who was anywhere near the victim is a suspect, which is why an isolated setting—a mansion, a private island, etc.—is so interesting. Unless the author is cheating, the suspect list is known at the outset. When doing this, the author must be very careful to make all of the suspects believable suspects. That’s a universal criteria, but a murder in the middle of a city means that we see a great deal less of the suspects, so each one has far greater scope for unseen action, including accomplices we don’t know about yet, than people in an isolated setting.

The episode, The Labours of Hercules, was set in a hotel on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, with the funicular train that is their only link to the outside world having been shut down by an avalanche. Short of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean or an aeroplane in the sky, it’s about as isolated as it is possible to get.

The central mystery, though Poirot stumbles onto it almost by accident, is the identity of a psychopathic killer and thief called Marrascaud. The mystery was set up in the beginning where Marrascaud managed to kill several people and steal several valuable items—one of them a large painting—from a crowded building, with disguised policemen and Poirot himself protecting them. From this we know that Marrascaud is a genius on a level with Poirot, and this forms the central problem once we get to the hotel.

As has been observed in countless murder mysteries, the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest; to hide a genius one must really put them amongst other geniuses, but the characters at the hotel were taken from other stories and thus had qualities appropriate to those stories, none of which involved unique genius. In this case, the beautiful daughter of Poirot’s former love interest who is fascinated with criminology stands out almost like a sore thumb; the only other person who comes close is the Countess Rossakoff, her mother, but it was very clearly established in the previous episode where we met the Countess that the character is not a murderer. Marrascaud kills for the pleasure of it, brutally, which is not something one degenerates to in old age. It is true that one can be cruel vicariously, through underlings, in old age, but it does not make sense as a personality change to go from an honorable thief to a psychopath who delights in killing.

An interest in criminology is also something of a red flag in a suspect. Though everything has by this time been used as a false flag in detective fiction, none the less the similarity of the violent nature of both crime and law enforcement is unavoidable. As the saying goes, the main thing which distinguishes a sheep dog from a wolf is who it bites. None of the other guests seemed sufficiently… canine.

I think that this is the reason why Conan Doyle put Moriarty as the mastermind, behind the scenes. The proxy of an evil genius need only be of ordinary intelligence, which makes it far easier for him to blend in. Indeed, executing a plan which requires greater intelligence than he himself possesses serves as a form of camouflage for the immediate villain. Still, as bumbling accomplices have long shown, it is best to choose someone intelligent enough to understand the plan once it has been created; an accomplice who can understand only his part and not what it fits into will make mistakes that will prove the undoing of both.

I think that fact is why some villains have tried to manipulate their accomplice into helping without realizing it; if done well the mistakes of the unwitting accomplice actually hide the involvement of the mastermind. I suspect that this is the ideal strategy for the criminal mastermind; it is the safest type of plan if a brilliant detective shows up. If done extremely skillfully, it is possible to conceal that there even is a brilliant plan at work; the brilliance can be disguised as coincidence.

Of course, mysteries can go the other way—the more realistic way—where the detective must make sense of genuine coincidences. The problem with writing this sort of mystery is that it is extremely difficult to pull off without the detective himself getting lucky. And while a comedic detective—Inspector Clouseau, for example, or taking the idea of a detective very loosely, Maxwell Smart—can stumble onto all of his solutions, it’s not entertaining if a serious detective does that. Though, I should mention that this is why Jessica Fletcher almost invariably figures out the solution of most episodes by chance. In order to make Murder, She Wrote accessible to a general audience, the writers would tend to throw in enough clues that one should be able to figure out the solution before Jessica does. Since Jessica does have to figure out the mystery, something must make her realize the solution, and because we the audience are supposed to already get it, it can’t be the last piece of critical evidence, but nor can it be slam-dunk evidence, because then you couldn’t feel smart during the reveal. So it’s usually something silly somebody says, and then Jessica says, “Wait, say that again? Of course! That’s it!” That’s not literally every episode, but it is basically a structural requirement imposed by the show’s relationship with its audience.

The solution to the mystery depending on figuring out coincidence without the detective merely getting lucky is typically easiest to pull off through exhaustive leg-work—checking every chemist’s shop in a 30 mile radius, that sort of thing. This is why that sort of mystery is most common when the detective is a public detective (i.e. a member of the police) rather than a private detective, or at least when the police and the detective are working together, rather than separately. And even then, Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street irregulars.

The other approach, which is a compromise that keeps things closer to a  detective the reader can relate to, is for the detective to have something to go upon which through intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom allows him to rank coincidental possibilities according to an order they are likely to have happened, and to be right according to a Poisson distribution (basically, they usually get an answer by their third try to verify a coincidence, sometimes it takes a lot of tries, and because no one has infinite effort to give, sometimes they don’t get an answer). Fundamentally this is still the detective getting lucky, but it is a way for the detective to earn his luck. Since the detective doesn’t create the clues but only discovers them, that’s the best he can do in any case.