New versions of Hercule Poirot keep coming, and that's a good thing

 
By Sophie Hannah
Washington Post
Posted8/25/2018 7:28 AM
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  • "The Mystery of Three Quarters," a Hercule Poirot novel by Sophie Hannah

    "The Mystery of Three Quarters," a Hercule Poirot novel by Sophie Hannah

Long before I saw the recent Hollywood version of "Murder on the Orient Express," I was aware of the controversy surrounding Hercule Poirot's mustache. First, there was the color (gray, when Agatha Christie's books specified that it was black); then there was its ostentatious shape and size. Christie superfans were concerned -- understandably. When you love a thing, you fear alteration, and fans worry especially about the changing of anything laid down in black and white by the Queen of Crime herself. The mustache was interpreted by some as evidence that Kenneth Branagh, the new on-screen Poirot, might take other liberties.

Despite being a Christie superfan myself, I wasn't worried. I trusted Branagh, having loved his work for years, and when I watched the movie, I saw that my instincts had been correct: Branagh's Poirot was convincing. Others might disagree -- but might they, nevertheless, be inspired to wonder how they would play Poirot or how they would wish to see him brought to life? Such speculation, I would argue, gives this iconic character more vitality and energy in our collective imagination.

That is the beauty of the legendary Belgian sleuth, a nearly century-old character who still inspires both devotion and reinvention. His obsessive search for the truth, in story after story, feels at once timeless and profoundly relevant to this moment in our history. These days, truth is something we fight for the right to define. We're all aware of how much it matters.

It can only be a good thing, therefore, that the Poirots keep coming. Next up is John Malkovich, who will play the detective in the BBC's "The ABC Murders" this year (which airs on Amazon Prime stateside). Malkovich won't replace either David Suchet (whose Poirot is still beloved all over the world) or Kenneth Branagh, who has a new Christie adaptation, "Death on the Nile," coming out next year, but he will add a layer of his own to the great detective. How will his Poirot be different? We already know that his mustache will be white and accompanied by a beard.

More important to me than the physicality of Poirot's mustache is the inner truth of his character. I have tried, in my continuation novels, to write about the Poirot that Christie created. It would be sacrilege to amend him in any way. But, since my invented narrator Edward Catchpool and I are new people writing about him, our Poirot -- my Poirot -- is likely to strike readers as slightly different from the original.

Watching Branagh and Suchet, I felt that both must have studied the books and the character carefully and that they must have loved both. In their different ways, they emit a tangible and affectionate conscientiousness in their portrayals, while at the same time inhabiting the character completely. And what a character! Poirot is such a compelling creation precisely because he is simultaneously a superhero and a plausible human. As a superhero, he arrives when needed, like Mary Poppins floating down from the sky with her umbrella. He is the only person capable of doing what he does, and he is a scrupulous moral arbiter. But he is no perfect, untouchable savior.

When I wrote about Poirot as the ultimate life coach, including nuggets of his wisdom -- "If you are going into exile, a good cook may be of more comfort than a pretty face!" "The important thing is that you have a good heart and a certain amount of ingenuity" -- it struck me that Poirot is not always wise or good, because he is human and flawed. His tantrums when he gets things wrong, his willingness to break rules and even laws, his vanity and occasional tactlessness are all part of what makes him lovable. We love him because he shows us that people, flawed as we are, can be heroic, if only we use our brains.

Christie never spelled out the emotional dramas in Poirot's past life that powered his understanding of human nature, life and love. Her novels and stories left him with a secret, inner life, which may be what makes him such a tantalizing character to portray. That's the space an actor can inhabit and imaginatively enhance. Fans should welcome every person who takes on the challenge. The collage of many different Poirot incarnations demonstrates the richness of the character. He is world-famous. No one can doubt that he has arrived -- and yet, he still has so much potential.

Note: Sophie Hannah is the author of "The Mystery of Three Quarters," among other new Hercule Poirot novels.

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