CIS: The perfect Poirot primer

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Classic_Crime_150x150Name three famous Belgians… A tough ask, I know, and one that may tax your little grey cells. Wait! There’s a clue! And as a lover of crime fiction, you’ll surely have used it to come up with the world’s number one Belgian. That’s right – Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie’s diminutive detective made his first appearance in print in 1920, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He bowed out in Curtain in 1975, and was such a famous character that his death received an obituary in the New York Times!

Like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot has been portrayed on radio, TV and the big screen by a range of fine actors. They include Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and Tony Randall. However, the most potent and best loved portrayal must surely be that of David Suchet, who between 1989 and 2013 played the role in adaptations of every novel and all but one of the short stories featuring the character that were written by Agatha Christie. As she wrote 33 novels and more than 50 short stories about Poirot, that is some achievement.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesIf you’ve never tried a Poirot novel before, now is the perfect time. Not only are we celebrating him during Classics in September, but author Sophie is reviving the character in The Monogram Murders, a new Poirot mystery that’s fully sanctioned by Agatha Christie’s estate. To gear up for the new Poirot, which will be reviewed on CFL soon, here’s a primer that takes you through five of his finest moments in crime fiction…

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
Dame Agatha Christie’s first novel was written in 1916 and published four years later. Given the date it was conceived, it’s not surprising that the story is set in the middle of World War I. It sets out the stall for Christie’s trademark labyrinthine plots – in fact, the Times Literary Supplement’s review judged: “The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious.” Set in Styles Court, an English country manor, Poirot is called in by his friend Hastings when the owner of the house, a rich widow, is murdered by way of strychnine poisoning. There is a long list of suspects to get our hero’s little grey cells working and to keep you guessing to the final denouement.
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The_Murder_of_Roger_Ackroyd_First_Edition_Cover_1926The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925)
This story first saw the light of day when it was serialised in the UK newspaper, The Evening News. Published as a novel the following year, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is feted as one of Christie’s best pieces of work and has been called one of the greatest crime novels of all time. No Hastings here, instead, the book is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, who becomes Poirot’s assistant as the little detective is called out of retirement to solve – you’ve guessed it – the murder of Roger Ackroyd. What sets this book apart from all others was the author’s cunning use of a dastardly twist in the tale. It was a device unheard of at the time, and which proved hugely popular with readers and critics alike.
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Murder On The OrientMurder on the Orient Express (1934)
Best known by its UK title, the book became Murder in the Calais Coach when it appeared in the USA. Its big screen adaptation, made in 1974 and with Albert Finney as Poirot, is considered by many to be the best movie version of a Christie novel. Poirot is urgently called back to England. His friend, Monsieur Bouc, pulls a few strings to get him a berth on the Orient Express train, where one particular passenger, Mr Ratchett, appeals for his help. He says his life is in danger, but Poirot is not impressed with the crude and brash American and refuses to help. The next day, Ratchett is found dead in his locked compartment. He has been stabbed 12 times. Bouc calls upon Poirot to investigate – and his conclusion is certainly a startling one!
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5littlepigsFive Little Pigs (1942)
Written at the end of a particularly prolific Poirot period – he featured in 13 of the 18 novels she wrote between 1935 and 1942 – Five Little Pigs is unusual because it recounts the same event from different viewpoints; that of the five people suspected of murdering artist Amyas Crale. His wife was convicted of the crime and died in prison, but her daughter wants to prove her mother’s innocence once and for all. Poirot comes to agree with her, but which of the five little pigs did the dirty deed? Christie was fond of using lines from nursery rhymes for book titles – One, Two Buckle My Shoe and Hickory Dickory Dock also feature in her canon. This one was called Murder in Retrospect in the USA.
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Death On The NileDeath on the Nile (1937)
This book opens in London before the action moves to Egypt, where Poirot becomes embroiled in solving a murder aboard a Nile river cruise. It is a story of love, deception, sleight of hand, dark deeds and, of course, death. Again, its large cast of characters leads to a complicated plot which throws up no end of red herrings before our diminutive hero reveals the culprits. The book was lauded by the Times Literary Supplement, its reviewer saying: “Hercule Poirot, as usual, digs out a truth so unforeseen that it would be unfair for a reviewer to hint at it.” It’s another novel that became a successful movie, this time starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
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What’s your favourite Poirot story? Let us know in the comments below. To read about more classics, click here.

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