Beloved detective bids ‘au revoir’ to TV

The usual suspects: Four candidates for the greatest fictional detective of all time.

After playing Hercule Poirot for 25 years in 70 Agatha Christie stories, David Suchet is finally leaving the fastidious Belgian behind. Is Poirot the greatest fictional detective?

Hercule Poirot is no more. His nasal voice, his distinctive mincing shuffle and his immaculate moustache will no more grace our screens. The ‘little grey cells’ that foiled so many criminals in the stilted, theatrical and apparently rather bloodthirsty world of 1930s Europe have been extinguished. Oui, Poirot has, as you English say, kicked the bucket – or at least, the version of him portrayed by the actor David Suchet.

On Wednesday night, Suchet appeared for the final time in the role that has won him enduring affection and fame. In the past 25 years he has appeared in adaptations of all 70 of the Agatha Christie whodunnits that star Poirot. And the final episode had a dark twist, with the ‘little Belgian’ apparently turning vigilante just before his own final demise.

The detective’s death has left thousands of fans mourning. And the saddest of them all is Suchet himself: ‘Poirot has been my best friend, part of my family, part of my life,’ he said in a recent interview. On set he embodied the character as thoroughly as he could: from his insistence on being addressed as ‘Poirot’ to perfecting the walk by holding a penny between his buttocks.

Suchet’s virtuoso performances explain partly why the stories he appeared in were so loved. But Poirot has been one of the most celebrated fictional crime-solvers ever since he was first introduced to the public in 1920. So popular was he that when his creator Agatha Christie killed him off in 1975 The New York Times published an obituary.

Why are fictional detectives so beloved? Suchet has his own theory: Poirot ‘comforted people because they felt safe with him,’ he said. Like many of his fellow crime-solvers, he was brilliant nearly to the point of infallibility. But he could also be vain, rude and even a little ridiculous – a refined variation on a time-honoured stereotype of the French.

Others stay loyal to the characters they loved as children, such as the young super-sleuth Nancy Drew or even Hergé’s Tintin.

For those who like their whodunnits more hard-boiled, fast-talking American private eyes like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe win every time. Or perhaps a hero of Scandinavian noir, such as Lisbeth Salander from Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Then of course there are those who stick firmly by the most iconic detective of them all. ‘Elementary,’ they say: nobody gets the better of Sherlock Holmes.

Cards on the table

For many murder mystery fans, Poirot is the ultimate detective: strange, particular, irascible and sometimes rude, but moral and kind beneath all his eccentricities.

But some Agatha Christie fans prefer another of her creations. The fussy spinster Miss Marple might not be as showy as Poirot, they say, but it is exactly this seeming ordinariness that makes her hidden brilliance so thrilling.

You Decide

  1. Who is the greatest crime-solving hero of all time?
  2. Why is murder mystery so enormously popular as a genre?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with a set of characteristics to make up a perfect fictional detective. Compare your creation with what the rest of the class has produced.
  2. Write your own short murder mystery story.

Some People Say...

“The world is full of good people who do bad things.’Hercule Poirot”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t really like murder mysteries.
Really? Not Midsomer Murders? Morse? CSI, House or the new series of Sherlock? Even the Harry Potter books could be called whodunnits…
Fine, you win. But being a detective isn’t like that in real life, right?
Well, not quite – thankfully, perhaps, or we would live in a very murderous world indeed. But policing and forensics are worthwhile careers which really can be intellectually stimulating. If you find the problem-solving involved in murder mysteries exciting, perhaps you should give that some thought.

Word Watch

Agatha Christie
A prolific English crime writer who produced 66 novels, one of which has sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. Her stories have been labelled as formulaic, with one critic calling them ‘animated algebra’; but she also has an enormous and devoted following.
Whodunnits
Crime dramas in which the protagonist’s quest is to solve the mystery using clues to which the audience also has access.
Miss Marple
An elderly woman who seems fussy and unremarkable but uses her shrewd observations of everyday life to solve crimes as an amateur detective.
Hard-boiled
A literary style associated with film noir and murder mystery. The setting is typically an American city, with a fast-talking and cynical cast of femmes fatales and private eyes.
Scandinavian noir
The name given to a wave of crime dramas that have recently come out of Sweden, Denmark and Norway: Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series and the TV drama The Killing are typical examples.

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