The Little Grey Cells and Hercule Poirot


In keeping with this month’s theme at Whiskers on Kittens- March Madness: Murder Mysteries-  (and as it’s also Moustache March…) today’s post, mon ami, is fully dedicated to that diminutive, moustachioed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Whether it is his meticulous dress, fastidious attention to detail, or gusto with which he enjoys his hot chocolate, I think Hercule is the perfect holidaying companion, particularly as he goes to so many glamorous places. 

At the onset, I feel it only fair to tell you that I have read very few of the Agatha Christie books featuring this punctilious PI. However, I have watched nearly all of the Poirots starring David Suchet as well as the handful of films that Hercule has been portrayed in. 

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I have been thinking about Hercule— not to be confused with Hercules, of mythical Romanesque origin. Although, in 1947, Christie did publish a collection of 12 short stories in which Hercule undertakes a series of 12 labors that mirror the Herculean ones of epic acclaim. The collection is aptly titled The Labours of Hercules, but I digress. He’s been on my mind ever since I wrote the post An Homage to the Moustache. If there is anything slightly more famous that this Belgian’s little grey cells, it’s the man’s moustache. Lest we forget, Hercule did say:

If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache – a thing of beauty such as mine.

And, like his moustache, Hercule is precise at all times. He abhors imbalance of any sort, and it is that very quirk that allows him to polish his laurels by solving seemingly unsolvable cases. I particularly like what Hercule said in the latest release of Murder on the Orient Express, helmed by Kenneth Branagh:

I have the advantage. I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out, like the nose in the middle of a face. It makes most of life unbearable. But it is useful in the detection of crime. 

Although, Hercule did admit to Miss Lemon in The Double Clue:

I am an imbecile. I see only half the picture.

I think Miss Lemon’s response to that observation is quite telling. 

I don’t even see that.

Hatched in Torquay, Agatha’s egg-headed detective first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Now, I do recalling having read this book because I usually like to start at the beginning where series are concerned. (The Poirot novels don’t need to be read in order; they each stand on their own.) This novel is narrated by Hercule Poirot’s friend, Captain Hastings. I particularly love his description of Hercule: 

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible, I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. 

There is a sophisticated luxuriousness that goes along with Hercule Poirot. So many of his mysteries take place in exotic locations. In fact, when I feel the yen to travel, I find myself drawn to the Poirot films that take me to such locales as the Isles of Greece, Egypt, or across Europe on the Orient Express. And, as he’s traveling through these places, he’s enjoying - with verve, zeal, and gusto- the food (as best he can, there is his displeasure with breakfast as he finds it “really unsupportable that every hen lays an egg of a different size! What symmetry can there be on the breakfast table?”). 

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Many great actors have portrayed him. Charles Laughton was the first, and I dearly wish it had been preserved on a film. Alas, it was not. However, the play Alibi, based on Christie’s book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was a smashing success in London and later on Broadway in New York. It’s a shame we never got to see Laughton portray Poirot. While he doesn’t fit the bill precisely, Charles was such a superb actor that he would have invariably added his hallmark to the character. However, we were given a chance to see Charlie in an Agatha Christie film: Witness for the Prosecution. That performance is listed among my favorites. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. (Amongst the cast is Elsa Lanchester, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich.)

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One of the most famous portrayals of Hercule has to go to Albert Finney. Although younger than the detective should have been, Finney resorted to make-up and prosthetics to harness the full effect of Hercule in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). With his meticulousness and attention to method and order, Finney breathed life into the character in the manner in which he was written. However, while I applaud and enjoy the film, there is one element that I do not care for; Albert Finney looks greasy to me. At the premiere of this film, Agatha Christie’s last public appearance before her death, she had one point to quibble (although she liked the movie overall): 

I wrote that my detective had the finest moustache in England, but he didn’t in the film. I thought that was a pity. Why shouldn’t he have the best moustache?
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However, with the new remake of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh seems to have rectified this oversight. While critics and reviewers might scoff at the luxurious enormity of this Hercule’s facial hair, I think Branagh got it bang on. His moustache in this film is the grandest, most opulent, truly, the finest moustache in England. I believe Agatha would approve of it, as well as the film itself, although I wonder if she would quibble with the two action sequences. Those felt very unlike Hercule. But, aren’t we just modern?

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Now, my favorite portrayal of Hercule must be shared between two exemplary actors. I’ll start with the eldest. That would be Peter Ustinov. I met Peter Ustinov’s Hercule first in Egypt in the film Death on the Nile. With appearances from Mia Farrow, David Niven, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, this movie is among one of my favorites. The location is full of grandeur— the Sphinx, the Temple of Abu Simbal, Karnak, the Pyramids. And then there’s Hercule. Ustinov infuses this incarnation with such charm and delight that it is impossible not to love him. He does the same in Evil Under the Sun, which takes place in the Greek Isles to a soundtrack of Cole Porter (learn more about him here). It’s simply wonderful!

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The other actor is David Suchet, who has made a career of playing Poirot. If any actor has indelibly left his mark on the character, it is Suchet. He plays Hercule with charm, with perspicacity, demonstrating a man who enjoys his life, but who, even in the face of the horror of learning it, quests after the truth. For, as Hercule said, 

The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it.
— The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Now, mon ami, as Hercule would say, before I leave you, I wish to impart one or two pieces of wisdom I have learned from Poirot. 

The first comes from Christie’s book, Death on the Nile, in which Hercule is pleading with Jackie to cease and desist her stalking, menacing behavior: 

Mademoiselle, I beseech you, do not do what you are doing.” 
“Leave dear Linnet alone, you mean!” 
“It is deeper than that. Do not open your heart to evil.” 
Her lips fell apart; a look of bewilderment came into her eyes. 
Poirot went on gravely: “Because—if you do—evil will come…Yes, very surely evil will come…It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.

The second’s source I do not know. However, that does not diminish the truth of it. 

It is the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within— not without.

And, because I love Hercule so much, I must leave you with this gem:

You tell lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes— two people. One is le bon Dieu— and the other is Hercule Poirot. 

Now, it’s your turn, mon ami. Who is your favorite, literary or cinematic, murder mystery detective?

Or, perhaps, Hercule is your favorite. In that case, do you have a favorite Hercule quote?