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What Has Happened to Hercule Poirot?

July 5, 2019
Pen and ink wash sketch of actor John Malkovich in “The ABC Murders.” (Hahnemühle Travel Book.)

Actor John Malkovich takes on Hercule Poirot in “The ABC Murders” available on Amazon Prime.

I recommend watching this version of Agatha Christie’s book by the same name not just to keep abreast of how the interpretation of Christie’s work continues to morph with each new “generation,” but also because it is simply fun to watch Malkovich create a character others have done so well.

Why Does Poirot Matter?

For so many years I’ve been thinking about writing a post about the actresses who have played Jane Marple. I’ve thought about it so long and made so many drafts, and set them aside, that I forget if I have actually posted anything about it at all. 

Like the manifestations of Marple each new production of Poirot tells us something about the world we live in, or the world the screenwriters believe we live in. Acting styles, as well as story telling approaches, change overtime. 

I know I spend too much time in my head. I know I also spend too much time watching murder mysteries on TV, but I find them fascinating for the reasons stated. Ultimately murder mysteries are about loss and self-reflection or the lack of it, which leads to corruption of spirit and body.

In recent productions of Christie’s work the malice behind the menace is ramped up. We see more behind the curtain. The evil is more intense, beautiful or ugly as needed to tell the story, and much more vicious. It’s part of the time we live in, and part of what is now allowed in media.

Current adaptations follow current trends. Today’s trend for backstory insists on it for both the heroes and the villains. Sometimes we  find, like Milton, that the villain becomes more interesting than the hero.

[Don’t worry I’m not going to spill the beans and spoil your enjoyment if you watch, so read on.]

In this adaptation of Poirot we’re given a backstory that I don’t remember reading anywhere—something so simultaneously poignant and devastating that it would go quite a ways to explaining a life of monastic solitude and righteous puzzle solving that the Poirot we see in book after book lives. (Even if it doesn’t allow us to square this character with earlier screen manifestations. I’d always seen Poirot as existing somewhere on the high functioning end of Asperger’s. I already knew people with similar behaviors.)

I’m not a Christie scholar, so I may have missed some references in Christie to these character-forming events. But they work beautifully to give Malkovich a way to wrap himself in character.

My Relationship to Agatha Christie’s Work

All I knew about Christie, until February, was from reading her books as a child of 12 while traveling with my family around the world.

My dad liked to read or play gin rummy. My brother liked to take photographs and sometimes play gin rummy with my dad. My mom rested as we were quite a handful; and read and sometimes played gin rummy—but she’s pretty competitive so she kept that shit buttoned down in the public confines of an airplane cabin. 

When I wasn’t eavesdropping on people, observing people, and filling up my journals, I also read the Christie books that were passed around between us so that we would all always have something to read, and all have less books to carry.

Christie was something that united us. My father preferred the spy novels of John le Carré. My mother preferred “cozies” which didn’t even have a name at the time. My brother preferred the hard-boiled detective fiction of writers like Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler. I just loved to read and solve puzzles. 

But the Christie books were something we could all “settle” on. Let’s face it, no one in my family was going to pick up “David Copperfield” when I finished with it.

The other thing I knew about Christie was that for 11 days in 1926 she went missing. When I was a youngster in the 1960s people “joked” that she had been trying to frame her philandering husband for her murder. I didn’t give it much thought.

Now on Netflix you can watch “Agatha and the Truth of Murder” which posits a theory as to what actually happened. All I know is it’s a well done movie.

I only thought that her books weren’t vicious enough. The writing seemed too dainty. I’d already seen  violence in life. I’d observed a lot of malignant behavior. That happens when you look around yourself, watch, and overhear. 

In February I tried to read Christie’s autobiography. I found it unreadable. I found her hiding from her reader on almost every page. One quarter of the way in I found her more interested in burnishing her public image than letting the reader know what formed her mind. I put the book aside. 

At 12, after a trip around the world with my family, I stopped reading Christie all together. But I watched reruns of Dame Margaret Rutherford’s Marple movies on TV in Australia. Later, back in the US and in high school, I started watching whatever Marple Masterpiece Mystery offered up. And of course I watched for 25 years (or more?!) as David Suchet made Poirot his own. (I mean it as no disrespect to Suchet whose performances always delight me in a million small and large ways, and which I can always rewatch, but I find the Poirot of Peter Ustinov the Poirot I would most like to travel with, though empathy can be a scary thing at times.)

I think Christie is still listed as the bestselling author of all time. Generations of readers keep finding something new in the work. And now successive generations of screenwriters are finding ways to turn her writings into cautionary tales for the current moment. You may or may not like her writing but there is an immediacy about it that can’t be denied.

Whether you have read the Christie books or not you might want to watch the new adaptations and see a little bit of the present time reflected back as well.

On Amazon Prime you can also watch a new adaptation of “Ordeal by Innocence.” Expect to not be able to turn it off. Consider too 2015’s remake of “And Then There Were None” starring a strong cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, and Maeve Dermody. No Marple, no Poirot, just a lot of malevolence, suspicion, and ego. 

Epilog

In a funny epilog to my relationship with Christie, when my parents down sized and moved to warmer climes, they packed up all the Christies and sent them to me. I still wonder, given my ambivalence to her writing if they meant it as a kind and sentimental gesture ignoring my tastes as usual, or as a reminder of something I once set out to do—bring my own fictional detective to life, to give space to all those observations? Malevolence is sometimes as scary as a coin toss.

    • Tina Koyama
    • July 6, 2019
    Reply

    I read quite a few Christies in my pre-teen years too, and I remember thinking Poirot was kind of a clown or puppet through which we saw Christie’s cleverness. I was shocked by what a well-rounded character Malkovich’s Poirot was compared to anything I read on the page. I tend to think of books, in general, as being better than movies made from them, but more and more, that prejudice is being challenged. For example, I think the first couple seasons of Man in the High Castle were so much better than the book. And even The Handmaid’s Tale, which was so chillingly stunning in book form, is even better in its TV series form.

    1. Reply

      Tina, I think one of the best things about Christie is how screen-adaptable she is. You can bring a lot of nuance to it, with either more humor or more malevolence in the screenwriting. It sounds like you liked the new ABC Murders so you’ll probably like the “Innocence” one too. (I can see why you would see Poirot as a clown or puppet to show the author’s cleverness.)

      Like you I’ve always tended to think books are better than their screen adaptations. I think Christie is the notable exception. I have not seen “Man in the High Castle” I couldn’t face it or the TV adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale right now. The current political situation is generates so much stress.

      After college my college mentor suggested I read Atwood’s work including Handmaid’s Tale and I remember being so upset to the core by that book, so sure events were happening to make it a reality, that he had to come and visit me to discuss! I have never really had a soothing moment since reading that book. (I hope to watch the series at some later date, perhaps to cycle through it during the winter when I’m on the indoor bike.) Based on your recommendation I’ll also take a stab at MHC.

      Thanks so much.

        • Tina Koyama
        • July 8, 2019
        Reply

        I admit that both MHC and HT are very, very disturbing, especially now. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go there. I usually have to follow them up by watching “Nature” on PBS afterwards!

    • Libby Jane
    • July 6, 2019
    Reply

    Oh, fun! Thanks for this review and personal take. It wasn’t on my radar. I look forward to checking this out. Read “ABC Murders” aloud this winter with my husband, and it might be a fun common ground show. He likes dark and suspenseful sci-fi and mystery. I like the classic, clever, or eccentric but have a low tolerance for the scary.

    1. Reply

      The Innnocence show is also suspenseful and edgy so the two of you might enjoy that as well. Happy viewing!

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