Sherlock Holmes, as sired by Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, is a character that is terse, dashing, and looks as competent as he is. His aide, the poor Dr Watson, has difficulty getting past the “elementary” with him. Holmes seems to rely upon little else other than mysteries to provide him the joie de vivre of life.
With this bowl of curd hung tight in the background, Agatha Christie enters the detective novel scene and starts stirring things up. Her Belgian egghead sleuth Hercule Poirot doesn’t inspire face-value confidence in his clientele. The local sheriff is prone to shooting himself when he spots Poirot’s waxed moustache twitch at the scent of evidence invisible to the cops’ naked eyes. Hercule is as particular about his egg as about his tie, and is allergic to asymmetry. Other characters take these apparent peculiarities as a mark of Poirot being out of focus, when he is actually the precise opposite. He believes in maintaining the order of things, and is greatly perturbed when a crime sets the world in disarray. With his clear goal of restoring this lost order, he proceeds through backward design and succeeds in shining the spotlight on the wrongs done and the culprit behind it.
Christie achieves a brilliant stroke in drawing Poirot’s character, because with it she proves that the hero is the chap with the “little grey cells”, not the fine grey suit. This immediately makes him more relatable to readers, makes him more human.
Poirot isn’t the only sketch, which makes look pale detectives to have come before him. Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie is also the genius behind Jane Marple, in many ways an even more radical conception than that of Poirot. A frail, old, lady is not someone a person usually imagines when thinking of a nimble private eye. Christie knows this and dear Miss Marple unapologetically exploits this typecasting to her advantage. Looking for clues, she wanders into bedrooms and apologises for being lost when someone spots her. People around her expect her to gossip because she is a woman, and she doesn’t let them suspect she is onto something as she lures them with her wide eyed wonder into sharing confidences and rumours.
Tommy and Tuppence, two young investigators also produced by the author, rely on wits and not weapons. They are fallible enough to have started their careers with blackmailing.
All of these characters devised by Christie are trained by her not just to conduct a mechanised unravelling of the case but to probe into the very heart of human condition. Parker Pyne, the hero of some of her novels, “investigates” but calls himself a “heart specialist”. His advertisement is an advisory: “Are you happy? If not, consult Parker Pyne.” In some of the books, the person who decodes the mystery is not a detective at all.
Christie’s characters and their methods tell us that heroes are not extraordinary in themselves but become heroes because of what they are able to make of the ordinary with their wit, presence of mind and understanding of human nature. Neither are villains manifestations of evil descended upon the earth, which is why the author writes: “There is too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will.” Christie shows us our potential and our possibilities through her detectives, and warns us against some of our frailties and foibles through her villains. She reminds us that it is we who make the choice each time, oftentimes by a narrow margin.
First published in Distinguished Magazine, Mar 2018.