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Author Agatha Christie is seen in this undated still image. Courtesy of BritBox (Unfinished Portrait Documentary)/BBC Studios/Handout via Reuters.
Author Agatha Christie is seen in this undated still image. Courtesy of BritBox (Unfinished Portrait Documentary)/BBC Studios/Handout via Reuters.

It’s 100 years of the egg-headed detective who stole our hearts

A perfect murder: Agatha Christie killed Hercule Poirot and revealed the deed only 35 years later

Not too may people would have noticed it, other than literary critics who don’t turn up their noses at anyone beyond Margaret Atwood or Colson Whitehead, but this October marked the 100th anniversary of a man with an upward-curled pair of moustaches and a head shaped exactly like an egg. I speak, of course, of that Belgian detective who possibly suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, lived in Flat 203 at 56B Whitehaven Mansions, before retiring briefly to the English countryside to grow marrows. But the murders followed him.

A 25-year-old Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, while working as a nurse in World War I, and drawing from her experiences with Belgian refugees. It took her four years to find a publisher, before The Bodley Head decided to go with it. In Styles, Christie mentioned that her odd hero had retired as the head of police of Brussels at the age of 55 in 1905. So when we came to know him, he was already in his mid-60s. According to H.R.F. Keating, another great British detective fiction writer, when that elegant and self-important sleuth took his own life in 1975 in Curtain, he must have been about 130 years old.

Readers did not mind. Christie remains one of the top selling authors of all time. I must admit here that my favourite detective, however, remains Sherlock Holmes. One of the reasons is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a better writer than Christie by several orders of magnitude. More broadly, I gravitate towards American writers—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the now-forgotten (but absolutely brilliant) Ross Macdonald, James Lee Burke, and the new kid on the block, Joe Ide, whose novels feature a very Holmesian African-American gumshoe.

The classic British detective story that takes place in a mansion (a closed system), with a fixed number of suspects and the detective conducting a triumphant—and long—denouement in the library with everyone present, to me, is akin to a sudoku puzzle. After some time and hard work, you can master it. American detective fiction is different, where it’s mean streets and not manors, but the British sudokus retain their own peculiar charm.

So too that Belgian, whose exploits you read not for the language, not for deep character analysis, not for dialogue (his French is faulty), but for the uber-clever plotting and how his little grey cells work out the machinations of murderers.

Christie was a devilish plotter (much better than Doyle), peppering her stories with red herrings and decoys. She loved playing cat-and-mouse with the reader. If her five-feet-four-inches-tall portly sleuth had to deal with the most devious criminals, she was no better than them when dealing with her readers. If I remember correctly, in One Two Buckle My Shoe, she had given enough throwaway clues to make it perfectly plausible for someone else to be the killer and not the one who is revealed as the perpetrator. The reader pits her wits against the author, who, in fact, is challenging her, like a Cheshire cat whose wicked disembodied smile hangs in the air as one reaches the end of the book.

No wonder that a critic, reviewing Christie’s most celebrated novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, wrote, in a mixture of admiration and frustration, that in Christie’s next book, the reader would be the murderer. And no one even dares to attempt her break-all-the-rules ingenuity of Murder On The Orient Express. She also invented the serial killer (though very different from today’s psychopaths), more or less, in The ABC Murder Mysteries.

In one of her early novels, Murder on the Links, Christie’s detective makes fun of a rival “bloodhound" detective who focuses on the traditional trail of clues established by Sherlock Holmes—footprints, fingerprints, cigar ash, and so on. Rather than painstakingly examining crime scenes, crawling around with a magnifying glass, our preening friend tries to surmise the psychology of the murderer. His belief is that particular crimes are committed by particular types of people.

Yet, even as she enjoyed great success as a writer, much like Conan Doyle, Christie got tired of her little detective. She said that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep". Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, but was forced to resurrect him after a huge public outcry. Christie chose a more sneaky strategy. She wrote Curtain, a novel in which her man would die, in the 1940s and sealed the manuscript in a bank vault. And then she continued to write books featuring the “creep".

Curtain was published in 1975 (Christie died soon after). Whatever the disputable merits of the book, she had had her last laugh at her fans. Her hero revealed that his moustaches, that people had marvelled at for 60 years, were false. On 6 August 1975, The New York Times published its only-ever obituary of a fictional character. In Curtain, read the obituary: “(Hercule Poirot) managed, in one final gesture, to perform one more act of cerebration that saved an innocent bystander from disaster. ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it,’ to quote Shakespeare, whom Poirot frequently misquoted." Happy 100th birthday, mon ami.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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