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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Second Coming

Agatha Christie’s much-loved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is set to make a comeback. What direction will the retelling take?

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: September 22, 2013 12:23:45 am

Agatha Christie’s much-loved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is set to make a comeback. What direction will the retelling take?

William Boyd’s Solo,the third James Bond novel by a literary writer,is due out on Thursday but Hercule Poirot,who will be reborn in 2014 in the hands of British writer Sophie Hannah,is all the rage. Fittingly,the announcement that Christie’s estate had commissioned a new work came shortly after Poirot’s current avatar took his last bow. In June,David Suchet,who has been the face of Poirot for a quarter of a century,packed up the last episode of the Belgian’s oeuvre.

How will Hannah take Poirot forward? Or will she take him back in time? The James Bond franchise has explored both options. Two British writers with extraordinary literary powers have applied completely different treatments to their Bond books. In 1968,Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun,the first Bond after the death of Ian Fleming four years earlier. Though faithful to Fleming’s world,the book introduced the element of global conspiracy,which would be amplified in the Seventies by writers like Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth. Amis seemed to be asserting his independence from Fleming and indeed,the name on the cover was Robert Markham,an imagined third party who stood somewhere between Lucky Jim and Casino Royale.

The last literary Bond was published on May 28,2008,the 100th birthday of Ian Fleming. Devil May Care was channel fiction,written “by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks had chosen to stay very close to the original,even setting his novel in 1967 and rolling back the characterisation developed in intervening books,including the two series by John Gardner and Raymond Benson. William Boyd’s Solo,releasing in the UK next Thursday,is set in 1968 and may follow on from Faulks.

For Poirot,Hannah seems to have chosen the traditional route that Faulks led Bond back to. Her novel will apparently be set in the 1920s to maintain the integrity of the world according to Agatha Christie. There will be no need for a Holmes-like Return of Hercule Poirot,a miraculous revival after his death in Curtain during the London Blitz.

That’s a remarkable departure from the Sherlock Holmes tradition,where Poirot has his structural roots. Both traditions were built around a detective who would be absurd,were he not brilliant. Both detectives have personal links with the police force,Holmes via Mr Lestrade and Poirot via Deputy Chief Inspector Japp — and he had served in the Belgian police himself. Both have a sidekick,an amateur who reports the methods of the master. Poirot has Arthur Hastings who,early in the very first Poirot novel,A Mysterious Affair at Styles (John Lane,1920) confessed to an admiration for Sherlock Holmes.

The novel was written in 1916 but there are only tangential references to the horrors of the Great War. Hastings is convalescing from a war wound in the country home of Mrs Inglethorpe,who is about to be poisoned. In a tranquil idyll where teas,suppers and rounds of tennis mark the passage of time,he marvels at the contrast with the slaughter in progress just across the Channel.

But it isn’t half as weird as Pride and Prejudice,a brilliant story in which the grim political realities of the time find no place — two decades of war with France,extreme poverty and food riots. War and want had touched every stratum of Austen’s society but she chose to keep this reality out of her books. An unusual choice for an intelligent writer.

In Styles,the reality of war may not be visible but its shadow is seen in the form of the convalescing Hastings and the charitable activities that preoccupy Mrs Inglethorpe’s household. But the tallest shadow is cast by a diminutive man. Hercule Poirot is one of a few Belgian refugees given a new home in England by Mrs Inglethorpe’s charity. England had entered the war in response to the Rape of Belgium,and all things Belgian were to be supported at the time,even if they looked absurd.

Years later,an exasperated Christie had admitted to finding Poirot insupportable. It is hard to live with a caricature,an improbably exquisite Francophone Walloon. “The neatness of his attire was almost incredible,” reported Hastings in Styles. “I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” Like pre-1971 Pakistan,Belgium is a living linguistic two-nation theory. The other nation is the Dutch-speaking Flemish. What if Poirot was Flemish? Instead of embodying the British caricature of the Frogs,would he have spoken Double Dutch,another British stereotype?

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