Queen of whodunits
WHILE channel-surfing Astro earlier this year, this writer was delighted to come across the Agatha Christie's Poirot series on Sunday nights over the low-profile ITV Granada Channel 735.
As those familiar with the long-running Agatha Christie's Poirot would know, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot has been superbly portrayed by David Suchet since 1989, and there have been 65 episodes to date, all based on the original novels and short stories authored by Dame Agatha Christie, the queen of whodunits.
This year, British-born Suchet, who will turn 66 on May 2, will reprise as London-based Poirot for a final season, with feature-length adaptations of the remaining five novels for ITV Granada: The Big Four, Dead Man's Folly, Elephants Can Remember, The Labours of Hercules, and Curtain: Poirot's Last Case.
In completing these episodes, Suchet would have played Poirot in all his literary and stage exploits except merely two – Black Coffee (which originated as a 1930 play) and The Lemesurier Inheritance (a 1923 short story).
Suchet was 42 when he first acted as Poirot and by having the fortunate opportunity to continue in the role for 23 years, Suchet has thus firmly stamped him mark on this titan of fiction (who will reach his centennial eight years from now), more so than any other actor, including Albert Finney who was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor for portraying Poirot in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express, and Peter Ustinov who appeared as Poirot six times from 1978 to 1988.
British-born Christie (1890-1976) remains a towering figure in the "who done it" genre by virtue of her two enduring brainchilds, Poirot (featured in 33 novels and 51 short stories published from 1920 to 1975) and elderly British spinster-cum-amateur sleuth Jane Marple (12 novels and 21 short stories from 1926 to 1976).
In the world of fictive detectives, Poirot is, in fame and stature, second only to British sleuth Sherlock Holmes (created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887) and as for Marple, her closest rival in instant name-recognition is American teenager-cum-amateur sleuth Nancy Drew (created by Edward Stratemeyer in 1930).
Whodunits are murder mysteries in which the reader, or viewer, are provided verbal and visual clues on the likely murderer, and the harder it is to guess the villain, the more enjoyable the story is.
Of course, the name of the game is for the whodunit authors to throw red herrings around to mislead the reader, or viewer, and in this respect, few have done it more ingeniously than Christie.
Wilkie Collins' 1868 novel The Moonstone is generally considered the first true whodunit, and before Christie introduced Poirot in the 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the mere handful of other notable pioneers of this genre include Gaston Leroux's 1907 novel The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon (with murder in a locked room concept), Anna Katherine Green's 1911 novel Initials Only, and E.C. Bentley's 1913 novel Trent's Last Case.
Unlike her predecessors, however, Christie kept on concocting incredibly puzzling homicides for Poirot to solve and thus developed an ardent following.
While acknowledging being influenced by Doyle (who authored four novels and 56 short stories on Holmes), Christie deliberately eschewed having good-looking and glamorous heroes, settling for the plain and ordinary: moustachioed Poirot, whose native tongue is French, is short, rotund and egoistic, and white-haired Marple is matronly, nosy and seemingly frail.
Poirot and Marple have the same traits of all self-respecting sleuths, that is, shrewd powers of observation and deduction and the ability to make full use of their, as Poirot would often put it, "little grey cells".
In many of Christie's whodunits, the murders are caused by poison, and Christie wrote with authority on various types of poison which she became familiar with due to her having worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) during World War I and also subsequently at a hospital pharmacy.
Pistols, knives and objects which can be used to bludgeon are the usual weapons of choice of murderers, of course.
And who are the perpetrators of the murders most foul in Christie's whodunits? People of all walks of life, mainly of the middle class and upper class, with an extreme grudge or motive, whether romantic, financial or out of revenge... and they include jilted lovers, greedy blood relatives, business associates, vigilante justice, maids and butlers, even two or more killers acting in concert.
Spoiler alert: skip the next three paragraphs if you do not want to know the endings of some of Poirot's most outstanding cases, so you have been warned!
Time and time again, Christie would pull the rug from under the readers with shocking denouements: the narrator of the story done it! (1926's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), all of them done it! (1934's Murder on the Orient Express), the married couple done it! (1941's Evil Under the Sun) and Poirot himself done it! (in 1975's Curtain: Poirot's Last Case).
The dandily-attired Poirot, who had retired as chief of the Belgian police force before he moved to England, also applies psychology to flush out the culprits, including resorting to lies.
Often, Poirot would reveal and denounce the killer after gathering the suspect and others into a living room to elaborate on what he believes happened, and a few times the exposed killer would even try to kill Poirot.
Interestingly, on one occasion, Poirot could not prevent the murderer from escaping justice (1942's Five Little Pigs) and on another occasion, Poirot approves of the murder (Murder on the Orient Express, because the victim was a gangster), and in Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, Poirot kills an elusive serial murderer, and Poirot then deliberately does not take his heart medicine and writes a confession before he dies.
Curtain: Poirot's Last Case was written by Christie during World War II, along with Marple's final outing in Sleeping Murder, as Christie was unsure whether she would survive the war and wanted those two novels to be the final cases of her brainchilds.
Both manuscripts were sealed in a bank vault for over three decades and Christie intended that they be published posthumously.
But the critical and box-office success of 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express was said to have convinced Christie to allow the publication of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case in 1975, and thus she got to bask in renewed adulation before her death in early 1976.
Sleeping Murder was published posthumously in 1976, and at the end of the story, Marple, a woman of independent means who does not have to work throughout her life, lives on in her English countryside home, lovingly tending to her garden.
However, in Christie's will, she forbade her estate from allowing Poirot and Marple to appear in new stories authored by others.
Marple, introduced in 1926 short story The Tuesday Night Club, has also been dramatised on both big and small screens, the most outstanding being Margaret Rutherford in four movies from 1961 to 1964, Angela Lansbury only once in 1980's The Mirror Crack'd (but British-born Lansbury did it so splendidly such that TV series Murder, She Wrote was tailor-made for Lansbury in a Christie-cum-Marple-like role as mystery author-cum-amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, a series which ran from 1984 to 1996), and Joan Hickson in BBC's Miss Marple TV series from 1984 to 1992, adapting all 12 Marple novels.
Christie authored altogether 66 novels and 14 short story collections and her books have been translated into 103 languages and sold over four billion copies, making her the bestselling novelist of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Her stage play, The Mousetrap is the longest running play ever, having opened on Nov 25, 1952 in London and still running today after more than 24,600 performances.
But even Christie, who plots her whodunits to water-tight perfection, could not foresee one loophole: the Marple franchise has been bought by Hollywood studio Disney which plans to Americanise the character and setting, make her younger, and cast American actress Jennifer Garner in the role.