Regular readers will be aware of my long standing admiration for Sherlock Holmes and his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ve referred to him more than once in these columns as the most famous and most widely known character in all of fiction. I stand by that assertion, but I have to say there’s another fictional sleuth who runs him fairly close.
I am, of course, referring to M. Hercule Poirot–he of the little grey cells, the balding egg-shaped head, the mincing step, the impeccably foppish attire and the equally impeccable logic—the creation of best-selling crime novelist, Agatha Christie.
Christie is the world’s third best-selling author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, and her books have been translated into more than 150 languages. Even now, almost thirty years after her death, annual sales of her books run into millions.
My reason for mentioning the above is prompted by an event which occurred a few evenings ago—the UK TV screening of Christie’s final Poirot story Curtain, featuring David Suchet in the role of the great detective. This little piece is by way of being an appreciation of David’s achievement in completing the entire Poirot canon over a period of almost 25 years. That is a total of more than seventy novels and short stories!
I read Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles as a spotty eleven year-old and was totally captivated. Over the years I’ve become a devotee of her two principal characters, M Poirot and Miss Marple. As a plotter and creator of crime and detective novels she can have few equals.
You know how it is. As you read a book you tend to build up a mental picture of the hero or heroine. Usually when the follow-up movie comes out we are disappointed to find the actor chosen bears absolutely no resemblance to our preconceived notion of our favourite. A recent example of this would be Tom Cruise (all five feet seven of him) attempting to fill the shoes of Lee Child’s hunky six-five Jack Reacher.
By contrast Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot is nothing short of superb. Those fine actors Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov–both big-screen Poirots–were nothing like Christie’s original, any more than the otherwise brilliant Michael Caine could ever be a convincing Sherlock Holmes.
David Suchet was made for the part. To anyone who loves the books, he simply is the very personification of the little Belgian. Yet when he was offered the role back in 1986 he thought seriously about turning it down. Thank goodness he reconsidered and took up the challenge.
And a challenge it undoubtedly was. With a commendable thoroughness, which would have won the approval of the meticulous master sleuth himself, he spent months preparing for the role. He began by reading all the Christie novels and short stories. Then he made copious notes of the detective’s eccentricities and foibles, listing his many mannerisms and characteristics—his obsessive neatness, his compulsion to have everything arranged in a natural order, his detestation of being called French instead of Belgian and much more.
SEARCH FOR PERFECTION
He studied for weeks to perfect Poirot’s intonation and language, listening to countless tapes of different regional accents before selecting the one he considered just right. Fellow thespian Sir Laurence Olivier gave him an invaluable tip on how to capture Poirot’s mincing walk. “He told me to hold a penny tightly between my ass cheeks and take short steps to ensure it didn’t slip out,” David explains with a smile. “Mind you, Larry used an old pre-decimal penny which was much bigger than today’s coin. Anyway, it worked!”
He insisted on everything being depicted as Agatha Christie had written and would have wished. Poirot always politely doffed his hat to a lady and wore it at the precise angle the author had decreed. His distinctive moustaches (“he claimed they were the most beautiful in England”) had to be just so. His whole attire had to be free of dust, from his distinctive collar to his pearl-grey spats and shiny patent-leather shoes. He never sat on a chair or park bench without first dusting it with a spotless white handkerchief. He was never seen outdoors without his distinctive silver-topped walking cane.
Some forty pounds lighter than the Poirot he portrayed, David attained the rotund figure he wanted by helping to design a snugly-fitting padded body-costume to be worn under his suits. Interestingly enough, he had to shed three stones (42 pounds) in weight for his last performance as the dying detective in Curtain.
In his excellent book Poirot and Me which I am currently enjoying, Suchet provides a fascinating account of the last quarter-century portraying the well-loved little sleuth from Belgium. He explains that Agatha Christie was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, but wanted her hero to be a totally different character. This she achieved, although there are similarities.
Holmes had his sidekick Dr Watson, always ready to be amazed and impressed by his mentor’s skills. Captain Hastings was Poirot’s stooge and assistant. Holmes had his stalwart housekeeper Mrs Hudson and Poirot was equally well served by his secretary Ms Lemon. To both writers the official police were always second best. Poor Inspectors Lestrade and Japp always lagged far behind our heroes.
Which sleuth do I prefer, I hear you ask? I think Sherlock Holmes just shades it for me, but no actor ever portrayed him on screen with the accuracy, fluency and sheer dedication that David Suchet brought to his role of Poirot. Thank you Mr Suchet. You will be missed.