Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie originally conceived her Belgian sleuth as little more than a collection of foibles, yet today he is acknowledged as second only to Sherlock Holmes in the Pantheon of Great Detectives. His distinctive appearance, habits and techniques were established in Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Short and very dignified, with an egg shaped head and waxed moustaches, he has an obsession for neatness, order and method. Formerly with the Belgian police, he came to England during 1916 and soon bumped into Captain Arthur Hastings, whom he had previously met in his home country. Poirot's English was fractured and his use of idiom particularly eccentric, but the sharpness of his mind was undeniable. Although comically immodest, as a detective he had a great deal to be immodest about and by applying "the little grey cells" of his brain, he solved a complex poisoning mystery at Styles Court and thereafter embarked on a second career as a private inquiry agent in England.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles and several later novels as well as many stories, Poirot is seen through the eyes of his narrator friend Hastings. The relationship between the men resembles that of Holmes and Watson and many other of Christie's touches in the early cases including the pair's shared rooms at 14 Farraway Street as well as several of the puzzles themselves have echoes of Conan Doyle. As her skill and confidence developed, Christie recognised that Hastings was hardly capable of plausible growth and banished him, following marriage, to the Argentine. When Poirot moved to a large luxury flat, he was assisted by an efficient secretary, Miss Lemon and his man servant George; his friends and acquaintances included police officers and the detective novelist Ariadne Oliver.

Christie came in time to tire of Poirot, but she did not make Conan Doyle's mistake and seek to discard her most popular character; indeed, his flair for penetrating to the heart of a mystery continued to spark his creator's imagination and he is the central figure in many of her best books, including The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1926), The ABC Murders (1936; The Alphabet Murders) and Cards On The Table (1936), in which there are only four suspects, yet the revelation of the truth still comes as a surprise. Although a conceited elderly bachelor such as Poirot had limited scope for development, Christie abandoned the Holmesian ambience and turned her detective's traits cleverly to advantage. In Three Act Tragedy (1935; Murder In Three Acts), he acknowledged that speaking broken English was an enormous asset, which tempted suspects to under estimate him and thus let their guard slip. Christie was not afraid to poke fun at him, but in his "bourgeois" disapproval of murder he reflected her attitudes. In Hallow'en Party (1969), Christie emphasises that Poirot thought first always of justice and was suspicious of an excess of mercy. In One, Two Buckle My Shoe (1940; The Patriotic Murders, An Overdose Of Death), he was prepared to see the downfall of a pillar of the establishment rather than allow the deaths of insignificant, and in some cases odious, individuals to go unavenged. He often spoke of the need to understand psychology, but his principal gift was for relentless logic even though in his classic essay "The Simple Art of Murder" (1950), Raymond Chandler said of the remarkable solution to Murder On The Orient Express (1934; Murder On The Calais Coach) that the "only a halfwit could guess it." An acute observer of people, Poirot had a particular interest in the nature of murder victims, explaining that without an understanding of the individual who had been killed, it was impossible to see the circumstances of a crime clearly. He developed a taste for fictional crime and in The Clocks (1963), he treated his friend Colin Lamb to an entertaining discourse on the subject. In Curtain (1975), he took his last bow; this is an under estimated book written more than thirty years prior to its publication, when Christie's powers were at their peak. The unique plot takes to its ultimate conclusion the belief that, in order to do justice, a great detective may need to act outside the law. "Murder is a drama," Poirot said in one of his subtlest investigations, Five Little Pigs (1943; Murder In Retrospect) and no sleuth ever left the stage with a more dramatic flourish.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing.)