The Christie Mystery

Raffaella Sero considers why Agatha Christie's characters still enthral us in the present day

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Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express must be at least the third adaptation I have seen of the famous novel. When I first watched the trailer, I was so captured with Branagh’s facial hair (the moustache is formidable, and rightly so, but what on earth does he have on his chin?) that I hardly noticed the pompous grandiosity of the production’s cast. I must admit it was with some misgiving that I found my way into the cinema one Saturday afternoon.

My fears were not in the least dispelled by the first, action-packed, ten minutes or so of the film , eggs-measuring scene notwithstanding. It seemed to me that, while the Belgian detective’s little quirks had been picked on and exaggerated, all of the real charm of a Poirot mystery had been sacrificed to the construction of a flashier, rather incredible and perhaps more popular sort of character, a character who was not Hercule Poirot. To my delight, I soon discovered that I was wrong. It was a detail in Branagh’s performance that, slowly sinking in, gave me hope as to the insight his new adaptation could offer into one of Christie’s most beloved masterpieces. For, all through the film, Branagh’s eyes have the right sparkle.

In the books, Poirot’s small green eyes are of great importance. They are always full of expression – they are cat’s eyes, shrewd and vigilant, and the light that animates them is often the light of secret knowledge, of a private joke. This knowledge often corresponds with the solution of the crime at hand, and the joke is invariably on Hastings, or on whoever, including the reader, is witnessing Poirot’s display of genius. At one point in An Autobiography, Christie muses: “Do you instinctively need something to combat, to overcome – to, as it were, prove yourself to yourself?” This question is one that one could easily apply to the enduring charm her novels have had, and still do have, on generations of readers.

There is indeed something incredibly satisfying in an Agatha Christie mystery, at least when one uses one’s ‘little grey cells’ and gets the solution right. John Curran, the editor of Christie’s notebooks, ascribes her long-lasting, boundless popularity to the fact that “no other crime writer did it so well, so often or for so long; no one else matched her combination of readability, plotting, fairness and productivity. And no one ever will”. While all these elements are certainly true, and would be enough (and to spare) to grant any author eternal fame, however, they are far from being Christie’s only charm. They are the mechanics of her greatness, its sinews and bones – they are not its heart and soul.

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Similarly, one is usually given the impression that, behind the little sparkle in Poirot’s eyes, there is something more than the solution to a problem, something more than the frantic working of his ‘little grey cells’ and the serene application of ‘order and method’. And indeed, all through his series of exploits, there is some greater, deeper secret ‘papa Poirot’ is in the knowledge of: that is the secret of understanding life and its power, as much as murder and its appearance.

For there is a real appreciation of life in Poirot’s character. It is something that goes beyond the mere insight in human nature that is essential for the solving of all Christie’s mysteries. When I first started reading Christie, I pledged my full devotion to Miss Marple over Poirot. I suppose I pictured her, and kept on picturing her for some time even against the evidence of the novels, as this sweet old lady who happened to solve crimes. To me, her personality was not really affected by the murders she came across, which she only bothered with because she was too clever to let them pass her by; not to mention that, of course, she felt more British. To a certain extent, this first impression was correct, for Jane Marple is indeed too clever to let murders go unsolved. The extraordinary working of her mind is something she certainly shares with Poirot.

A crucial aspect, however, differentiates Miss Marple from Poirot: while both revel in solving crime, the sweet old lady genuinely enjoys pointing her wrinkled finger towards those who have committed it. For Miss Marple, that the murderer should be punished is as crucial as that the murder should be solved. Not so for Hercule Poirot, who cares for justice and believes in the existence of good and evil, but who also understands compassion. This is not to say that Poirot would lightly let a criminal go unpunished, but he does recognize that there are many more and multicolored layers to justice than Miss Marple would grant for. In 4.50 from Paddington, the unyielding old lady regrets the fact that death penalty is no longer available for punishing the abominable murderer she has just exposed. By contrast, on different occasions Poirot mercifully allows his murders the shortcut of suicide.

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This ability to recognize the complexity of the world, to hate the murder and, at the same time, feel pity for the murder, stems from the same source as Poirot’s contempt for bloodshed: it stems from his joie de vivre. This is something Miss Marple lacks, but which the little Belgian detective shares with his creator. In An Autobiography, Christie writes: “Always when I woke up, I had the feeling which I am sure must be natural to all of us, a joy of being alive … there you are, you are alive, and you open your eyes and here is another day; another step, as it were, on your journey to an unknown place. That very exciting journey which is your life.” This deep love, this true enjoyment of life is present as an undercurrent in all of Christie’s most enduring successes. Paradoxically, it is what serves to make them such: that the success of a murder story should rest upon its tribute to life, is Christie’s greatest achievement, and her greatest mystery.