Last fall, I spent a long weekend in the Outer Banks region, a few hours south of Washington, DC, reading a collection of Agatha Christie pastiches called Malice Domestic, Volume 1 (now the title of an annual mystery conference). The summer tourist season was over, and the hordes had moved on to Maine and Vermont to chase the Fall colors. The days were gray, windy, rainy and chilly. The beach front properties had mostly emptied out, and most of the summer attractions were closed. We had a large three-level beach front house to ourselves, with a porch facing the troubled, ominous sea.
The ocean view from our hotel at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks
Perfect conditions for bundling up in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and a mystery. Reading Malice Domestic was a revelation. None of the included writers even came close to creating Christie-like magic. Which led me to wonder: does Poirot endure because he represents certain truths about how to think effectively, which lesser fictional detectives lack? I think so.
I learned from the varied failures in Malice Domestic that period settings, isolated cozy contexts (such as locked libraries) and quirky detective personalities are not necessary, let alone sufficient, for an effective mystery story. Neither is parlor-trick deductive rationality of the Holmes variety.
What makes Poirot endure is his capacity for what I call narrative rationality (the title of a chapter of the book I am writing): the ability to understand and influence a situation through stories. What saves the quirks of his character (such as his penchant for "merely arranging facts," borderline obsessive-compulsive fastidiousness and sybarite comfort-seeking) from seeming arbitrary is that they integrate seamlessly and logically into his thinking style.
One element of narrative rationality is particularly important in Poirot’s style, the fact that it is strongly driven by a doctrine, a set of beliefs about how the world works and should work. Poirot’s doctrine constrains and defines his narrative imagination, which helps drive the plot.
Poirot’s doctrine comprises several sorts of right-brained, left-brained and moral beliefs that allow him to quickly get beyond a myopic Holmesian preoccupation with footprints and cigarette ash. He can therefore think more effectively at higher levels of abstraction and ambiguity. Sure, as a literary creation, Poirot is rather crude, and yes, the contrived nature of his cases can make his thinking style itself seem contrived. Still, his thought processes, unlike those of Sherlock Holmes say, are surprisingly useful as a model for us non-fictional humans in the real world.
Poirot’s psychological doctrine in particular, is a robustly intelligent one, based on subtle ideas about human behavior and skepticism of jargon-happy Freudian-technical theorizing. An example is the assertion he offers (I forget in which novel): "women are sometimes tender, but they are never kind." I forget how Poirot uses the idea in his reasoning, but I remember immediately feeling a great sense of clarity and relief when I read it. It is a personality heuristic — one that I find to be true — that requires the vocabulary of a storyteller rather than that of the theorist or experimentalist, and proves powerful in reasoning about human (in this case, female) behavior.
This is a right-brained sort of doctrinal element, one that enables him to recognize patterns. But Poirot can go left-brained as well. For instance, at one point he explains his bachelorhood to Captain Hastings as follows: "In my experience, I know of five cases of wives being murdered by their devoted husbands. And twenty-two husbands being murdered by their devoted wives. So thank you, no. Marriage, it is not for me." Poirot is a Bayesian rationalist: he applies the spouse-as-prime-suspect principle frequently in stories. In fact it is so likely that a husband or wife will turn out to be the murderer in a Christie novel that she has to expend much of her ingenuity in muddying marital equations.
Poirot’s Moral-Philosophical Universe
But even right and left-brained tendencies do not add up to whole-brained narrative rationality. This is where Poirot truly rises above other fictional detectives: there is a moral-philosophical dimension to his thinking that is at once fatalistic ("people do not change") and normative. Though he is Catholic, his views are actually closer to the Protestant doctrine of predestination, and the Poirot plots are, as a consequence often Greek-tragic in their inevitability (Death on the Nile is a good example). His most frequent normative doctrinal utterance is probably "I do not approve of murder." The line usually appears after Poirot has provided a nuanced and sympathetic exposition of the motives and actions of all concerned, and it seems like he has practically justified the murderer’s actions. But once he presents his compelling theory of the case, he draws his line in the sand. Unlike the non-fictional francophone, Madame de Stael, who is credited with the quote "to understand all is to forgive all" ("Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent"), Poirot never allows the murkiness of psychology to cloud his moral vision, thereby saving the Poirot stories from the tedious and self-absorbed agonies of many modern fictional detectives.
Poirot’s moral philosophy mostly seems to be inherited from Christie herself — Poirot, like Christie, is a religious conservative who is deeply suspicious of socialist save-the-world tendencies. Curiously, some of his moral strengths seem to arise from Christie’s subconscious awareness of, and overcompensation for, her own moral flaws. Christie herself is blatantly xenophobic and racist (see Hickory Dickory Dock for instance). Poirot began his career in The Mysterious Affair at Styles like any other xenophobia-inspired Christie caricature, full of ridiculous, unreconstructed Latin pomposity. But he evolves through later novels into an ironically self-aware egoist. By the time of his death in Curtain, he has evolved in ways that the English, with their misguided sense of modesty and self-deprecation, never can.
To the extent that the moral elements of Poirot’s doctrine represent philosophical truths, they simplify his detective work and allow him to drive events towards decisive outcomes. This again, is an element of his thinking style that I find useful in the real world: keep your psychology complex, but your morality simple. Otherwise you’ll never get anything done.
There is one last element in Poirot’s doctrine: the recognition and exploitation of the flaws of others’ doctrines. The best known exploit, of course, is his tendency to exaggerate his foreignness and play on the xenophobic prejudices and assumptions of civilizational superiority on the part of the English characters (who always seem to describe him with archaic words like mountebank and jackanapes). The key moment of redemption in a Poirot novel, the one that anchors the reader’s identification with him, is when a shrewd English character calls Poirot out on his charade, at which point he can assume his fully-realized character. But this is not just a recurring motif of exposition and identification in the Poirot canon. The very point of a Poirot novel is to validate and reinforce the superiority of Poirot’s doctrine over lesser doctrines. The moment of truth is not really the revelation of the murderer, but the point in the story at which it becomes clear that Poirot’s world view provides the best perspective with which to make moral sense of the plot. The solution to the murder validates the doctrine.
The whole-brained Poirot doctrine — right-brained, left-brained and moral — allows him to reason around more ambiguous situations than any other fictional detective. The integrated unit of thought in Poirot-style thinking is the story. He urges witnesses to talk freely, speculate, and tell their story as they please, correctly understanding that people think, remember and talk (whether they are lying or telling the truth) through narratives. His own theories in turn, take the form of evolving stories, which he continually tests for both psychological and empirical plausibility. Though he has the dramatic imagination of a playwright, he never loses sight of the distinction between bald facts and the accounts of those facts; he never hesitates to kill beautiful theories if they fail to account for even a single trivial observation or psychological implausibility. And of course, like any good fictional detective, the significance he assigns to specific facts in his stories is often very different from the significance attributed to them by his witnesses in their stories. Poirot stories are really stories about stories.
Christie frequently highlights the complexities of Poirot’s thought processes by juxtaposing them against those of other characters, who operate by simpler doctrines. Compared to the lurid and sensationalist imagination of Captain Hastings and the damn-the-facts fantasies of Ariadne Oliver, Poirot’s own theories of the case can appear very prosaic. On the other hand, the lack of imagination of Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon can make Poirot seem like Shakespeare. Again, this is not to say that Poirot is not capable of fantastic imagination when the situation warrants it, as it does in Murder on the Orient Express. When the facts justify bold leaps of faith, Poirot leaps.
Perhaps I am backward-looking, but to my mind, Poirot has never been topped in the annals of fictional detection. Christie’s other creations can mostly be dismissed. Tommy and Tuppence are the worst secret agent characters ever, Parker Pyne is a bore and Superintendent Battle rarely does anything except look enigmatic while others solve the crime. Even Miss Marple is pretty much a one-trick right-brained pony. Her stock-in-trade is identifying similarities in personality patterns across widely disparate social situations (an urbane Duke in London might remind her of Tommy The Butcher’s Boy). The entire holographic Marple universe is based on the dubious one-element doctrine, people are much the same everywhere, which allows for specious extrapolations of the social psychology of St. Mary’s Mead to the rest of the world.
Within the Christie universe, only the mysterious Mr. Quin is something of a match for Poirot, when it comes to doctrine-driven detection. In many ways, thanks to being partly a supernatural-allegorical construct, Mr. Quin is often more sublime than Poirot. If you haven’t read the Mr. Quin books (there are only a few), you should.
Among fictional detectives who have appeared since Poirot (at least the ones I’ve read/watched on TV), only Dr. House, solver of medical mysteries, comes close. Though nominally a Holmes-inspired character (the show is full of insider Holmes references), the character of House is much closer to that of Poirot, once you discard the superficial Holmes connections. Like Poirot, House is an ironic-doctrinaire mix of right-brained intuition, left-brained statistical skepticism, and a complex-but-black-and-white moral compass. The fact that most of us understand absolutely nothing of the medical jargon in the show underlines the fact that House’s appeal lies at a doctrinal level.
The Short Version
Trust your right-brained pattern-spotting. Be a skeptical, data-driven empiricist. Add a moral compass. Tie it all together with storytelling. Be aware of, and exploit, the flawed doctrines of others. Do not be concerned about the morality of this: doctrinal flaws provide the moral justification for their own exploitation.