Today’s read came out late last year, in conjunction with 2020 being the centenary of Poirot’s first published case. Mark Aldridge has written before about the Queen of Crime, in Agatha Christie on Screen (2016), which focuses on the adaptations made of her many stories. His latest book centres on Christie’s most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, as the title suggests. Working chronologically, decade by decade, this new publication, takes the reader through each of Poirot’s published cases, providing a very readable synopsis for each, alongside information pertaining to their publication history and the contemporary reviews they received. As time progresses, drawing upon Aldridge’s earlier book, the work also offers information on the various adaptations Poirot has had across different media, including the stage, radio, TV, the big Screen and even computer games.
Mark Gatiss, who writes the foreword, opines that ‘it’s a feast for both the dyed-in-the-moustache fan and the newcomer alike.’ However, I feel it leans more towards the latter group than the former, as some of the information will be familiar to those who have read Aldridge’s previous book, the two books released by John Curran on Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks and Christie’s own autobiography. The book is at its most interesting for the ‘dyed-in-the-moustache fan’ when it deals with hitherto unpublished material and less accessible interviews and correspondences. Thankfully there is quite a bit of such information, as the latter part of my review will attest to, and I thought this demonstrated the depth of research that had gone into the creation of this book. Additionally, I think Aldridge not only offers the reader interesting pieces of information, but also offers it in a very engaging way, making this a book you can read a lot of in one go.
This book also came more into its own when it was discussing the varying ways Poirot’s investigations have been adapted, as it is here I felt we could glimpse the author’s personal opinions more readily. They become less visible when discussing the texts themselves, which is a shame, but I can appreciate there was probably space limitations on how much the writer could say about each book.
Finally, the book is definitely a wonderful experience visually, from the cover artwork to the numerous photos and pictures included inside. I loved seeing all the different editions of the Poirot stories, especially the more humorous ones and David Brawn’s captions certainly added to the comedy from time to time. I will be interested to see whether a Miss Marple companion book is forthcoming.
I thought it would be nice to conclude my review with a collection of interesting things I found out whilst reading this book.
New-To-Me Quotes from Christie
This was one of several features that I enjoyed in this book, as I felt they provided a more personal exploration of Poirot and its publication history.
For instance, when reflecting on the long time it took to get her first Poirot published, Christie said that:
‘I had really forgotten about it. In fact I had by that time written off The Mysterious Affair at Styles as being just as much as failure as the first novel I had tried to write. It was no good, I evidently had not got the knack. Still I might try something else some day for fun if I had the time.’
The slightly off-hand tone made me smile! Her lack of enthusiasm for Hastings equally raised a smile from me:
‘If I had to have a love interest in the book, I thought I might as well marry off Hastings! […] Truth to tell, I think I was getting a little tired of him. I might be stuck with Poirot, but no need to be stuck with Hastings too.’
Aldridge also raises the interesting point that Christie ‘saw some elements of Poirot’s character as a reaction against her own personality,’ drawing upon her own comment that:
‘If you are double damned – first by acute shyness and secondly by only seeing the right thing to do or say twenty-four hours late what can you do? Only write about quick witted men and resourceful girls whose reactions are like greased lightning!’
We also get Christie’s opinions on specific titles such as with The Mystery of the Blue Train, which in unpublished material she wrote: ‘I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train. Presumably I turned out a fairly decent piece of work, since some people say it is their favourite book (and if they say so they always go down in my estimation.)’
Furthermore, I enjoyed seeing some of the letters Christie received from her readers, for their entertainment factor alone. For instance, Christie received a complaint after the publication of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, which said that ‘Poirot had become “wearisome” and “insufferable”’. I rather liked Christie’s response back: ‘Poirot is rather insufferable. Most public men are who have lived too long. But none of them like retiring! So I’m afraid Poirot won’t either – certainly not while he is my chief source of income!’ One of my other favourite letters from a reader was one where the correspondent was convinced that Christie had used their mother as a basis for Mrs Nicoletis in Hickory Dickory Dock.
Another particularly interesting piece of correspondence we get a peek at, is a letter Christie wrote to Edmund Cork, her agent, in 1970, which talks about the abduction of Muriel McKay in 1969. According to Aldridge this was ‘an apparent case of mistaken identity in an attempt to extort money from media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose wife was the intended target.’ The reason Christie mentions it in her letter though is because she was rung up by the BBC who asked her if she ‘would like to comment on the disappearance of Mrs McKay “as disappearing tricks are right up your street, aren’t they?”’
Whilst that might be one of the rudest requests Christie received from the Press, the most unusual can arguably be found in a questionnaire an Italian imprint sent her, which asked her what Poirot would say if he saw the Beatles. Her reply was: ‘Congratulate them warmly on their success and popularity; shudder inwardly at the general untidiness of their appearance; possibly consider of any of them had considered growing a very fine moustache.’
Things That Made Me Laugh
I didn’t really have any strict criteria for this group, though the bizarre along with amusing word choices, tend to feature a lot…
- Before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie had an ongoing argument with her publisher over the spelling of cocoa, as they insisted it was spelt coco. Christie: 1 Publishers: 0 – I would say!
- Christie was less than impressed with the cover artwork for The Murder on the Links, recalling that: ‘Apart from being in ugly colours, it was badly drawn, and represented, as far as I could make out, a man in pyjamas on golf-links, dying of an epileptic fit.’
- On reviewing Sad Cypress, The Manchester Guardian, wrote that Poirot was ‘as successful and perky as ever.’ It was the last word that got me really. My brain just can’t put Poirot and ‘perky’ together!
- Whilst in an earlier review, of The ABC Murders, the same newspaper described Christie as ‘the Noel Coward of the detective novel.’ Not an epithet you hear everyday…
- Continuing with reviewers, Nancy Spain got into bother with one reader when she named the killer in her review of Dead Man’s Folly for the Daily Express. Mrs E. O. D. demanded she, ‘write out 200 times “I promise not to do it again” or accept a challenge to a duel.’ Aldridge also managed to uncover that ‘the newspaper responded “Nancy Spain accepts. And chooses a pistol.”’
- In Lord Edgware Dies there is a character called the Duke of Merton and he is said to be an ‘Anglo-Catholic […] completely under the thumb of his mother.’ The Church Times, in its review of this title, comments on this aspect of book writing that, ‘Of course, all Anglo-Catholics, violent or not, are under the thumbs of their mother, their grandmother, or the curate’
- This next review came from for the Observer, on Christie’s After the Funeral, and it certainly wins the prize for most memorable imagery:
‘Never mind whether the [method] would have worked, roll over on your back like a wasp immobilised by a spider bite in the thoracic ganglion, and enjoy the unfair, paralysing stab of surprise.’
- Meanwhile the prize for most alarming fan letter goes to one Christie received from someone in West Africa. They wrote: ‘I’m filled with enthusiasm for you and want you to be my mother. I’m arriving in England next month.’ To which Christie replied that she was ‘going abroad indefinitely’…
Things I hadn’t Really Thought About Before
I find it engaging when books provide a new lens through which to consider familiar material, so I enjoyed it when I had the chance to consider things anew in Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
One of the first things I hadn’t really contemplated before, was how much my impressions of Captain Hastings may be influenced by the David Suchet adaptations, as Aldridge brings out at the beginning of his book, how the earlier stories evidence Hastings’ ‘misanthropic side.’ This is not an aspect of his character which the adaptations bring out. Moreover, it had not dawned on me that it took quite a long time, for Murder on the Orient Express, to appear in any form of adaptation, in comparison to other famous works such as Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Another key area which I was less familiar with was the impact magazine/newspaper serialisation had on the construction of some of Christie’s mysteries. At times she had to change the structure of the story for serialisation in order for the central death to appear quicker and in the case of Death on the Nile one publication passed on serialising it because the murder took too long to occur. Other requests included giving Dumb Witness a ‘Hastings-less opening’ and one magazine wanted Christie to change the title of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, as they preferred to not include such unsettling words like dead, death etc. in the titles of the stories they published.
Once Aldridge’s book reaches the 1950s and beyond, one of the topics which interested me quite a bit, was how Christie turned herself into a company, in order to solve her tax problems. I don’t blame her, as one year she made £30,000 from her writing but had to pay £25,000 in tax! Moreover, this decision enabled her to receive more of the money she was receiving through American sales. I was definitely astonished to read that when it came to the American paperback rights to Curtain, Pocket Books paid $925,000! Creating a company though did cause some new problems, some more predictable than others. One of the less predictable ones was when Collins, her publishers, bought her a car. This was ‘seemingly […] a way to reduce tax liability.’ Yet Aldridge goes on to reveal that ‘tax decisions rarely ran smoothly for Christie, and the maintenance and actual ownership of the vehicle was the cause of much head scratching, especially when something went wrong such as when the passenger window spontaneously exploded one day.’ Hopefully no one now has to go out in their car for a bit…
Finally, I was quite surprised to learn that when the short story, ‘The Chocolate Box’ was originally serialised for the newspapers, it included a reference to Poirot having a sister! Unless I have forgotten it, I don’t think I have come across this before. Though interestingly, this detail was removed for its publication in a short story collection in the 1970s.
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.