Poirot as linguist

“There is not much against him, except the fact that nothing is known of his antecedents, and that he speaks too many languages for a good Englishman! (Pardon me, mon ami, but, as linguists, you are deplorable!)”
-“The Kidnapped Prime Minister”

* * * * *

Based on what is explicitly stated in Christie’s own books, we can know that Poirot is fluent in at least four languages: French, English, German, and Italian. The French and English are self-evident. In Murder on the Orient Express, he conducts interviews with the passengers in three languages; this is where we learn that he is conversant in German. In the episode The Clocks, Poirot uses his knowledge of the construction of the German language to clear a certain English-speaking (but actually German) couple from suspicion.

We know he speaks Italian from this charming moment in Christie’s play, Black Coffee:

Carelli: Ah! Monsieur Poirot. Vous voulez me questionner?
Poirot: Si, Signor Dottore, si lei permette.
Carelli. Ah! Lei parla Italiano?
Poirot: Si, ma preferisco parlare in Francese.
Carelli: Alors, qu est-ce que vous voulex me demander?
Hastings: I say, what the hell is all this?
Poirot: Ah, the poor Hastings! We had better speak English.

It is also perfectly possible that Poirot was fluent in Flemish (that is, Belgian Dutch), which would seem a useful asset as head of police in the city of Brussels. But to my recollection, nothing is mentioned of this in the books. Hastings once or twice describes Poirot’s habits as “Flemish,” but the language is not commented upon. Only in the televised adaptation of The Chocolate Box is there a conversation at the Déroulard house about the use of the Flemish language.

The television series adds further glimpses of Poirot’s cosmopolitan linguistic skills in episodes such as Triangle at Rhodes, in which he ably poses some questions to the locals in Greek…

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…And in Murder in Mesopotamia, which has the following:

Hastings: “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Just a few words that I have picked up, Hastings. One should never squander the opportunity that travel affords.”

In The Labours of Hercules, it is revealed that Poirot had never studied the Classics, having “got on very well without them,” at which point he is treated to a Homeric epithet in the original Greek, quoted by his friend Dr. Burton. However, in one of his labours, that of the Stymphalean Birds, he is able to solve the crime with his understanding of the average Englishman’s ignorance of foreign languages, inspiring a young man to up his linguistic game.

Poirot also admits that he knows no Russian in the case of “The Double Clue,” which is why he purchases First Steps in Russian to study the Cyrillic alphabet on a hunch. He learns enough of the alphabet to be ready when another Cyrillic clue of the same type– this time a monogrammed handkerchief instead of a cigarette case– presents itself to him in his adventure on the Orient Express some years later.

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Poirot’s English vocabulary is pretty extraordinary– not terribly surprising, considering his long-term residency in London. All the same, there are several funny moments in the books in which he expresses bewilderment at some colloquial turn of phrase. For example, there’s this little conversation with Hastings from The A.B.C. Murders:

“Perhaps some convivial idiot who had had one over the eight.”

Comment? Nine? Nine what?”

“Nothing– just an expression. I meant a fellow who was tight. No, damn it, a fellow who had had a spot too much to drink.”

Merci, Hastings– the expression ‘tight’ I am acquainted with…”

Peter Ustinov, when playing the detective in the 1980s, took issue somewhat with the dialogue that Christie wrote for her detective. “On the printed page, Poirot is no more Belgian than Major Thompson is English. In language terms we probably see him as one of those foreign schoolmasters whose English is too correct– all very fluent and fluid and quite artificial. Remember that Poirot only puts the simplest words into French, the complex ones are always left in English.” Christie herself sometimes describes Poirot, through other characters, as appearing as a sort of “parody” of a Frenchman. For my part, Ustinov’s critique does not deter my (and presumably many fans’) enjoyment of the character’s dialogue. When Poirot uses simple French phrases like “mon ami,” it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t because he doesn’t know how to say “my friend” in English– rather, he relapses into French for comfortable phrases, or idioms that are better expressed in his native tongue and perhaps also known to his English hearers (e.g., “cherchez la femme” or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”). Also, as the detective explains to Mr. Satterthwaite at the end of Three Act Tragedy:

“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly… And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”

Of twin sisters and seeing double

Two Poirot novels prominently feature twin sisters as a central point of the mystery: The Murder on the Links and Elephants Can Remember. In other words, Christie’s second published Poirot novel, and her-second-to-last-published Poirot novel. (2, 2, 2…) The twin sisters of The Murder on the Links, as Poirot readers know, feature largely in the life and the future of Hastings. He marries “Cinderella” a.k.a. Dulcie Duveen, whose sister Bella marries Jack Renauld. Because of the South American interests of the Renauld family, the latter couple inevitably relocates there, and Hastings and Dulcie decide to join them as well to start a ranch.

There’s a strange little passage in Peril at End House when, as Poirot is getting on Hastings’ nerves, the following dialog ensues.

‘Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I was the kind of credulous fool you make out?’

‘Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it– you and your wife.’

‘Bella,’ I said, ‘always goes by judgment.’

‘She is as wise as she is charming,’ said Poirot.

Um, have Hastings and Poirot forgotten to which twin sister Hastings is married?

I don’t know if this has been written about or explained by Agatha Christie or anyone else, but it seems most likely that it is a mere mistake. If one is determined to resolve the problem “within the canon,” it’s just possible, I suppose, that Hastings’ sister-in-law is known to be the business brain behind all the entrepreneurial affairs of the family in South America, and he’s changing the subject to impress upon Poirot that even she trusts his judgment implicitly. But that is not really the context of the conversation. It’s a very bizarre moment.

It’s additionally funny– and weird– because in the television series, of course, one of the sisters is cut out altogether and Hastings and Bella Duveen do end up together!

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Weirdness. Weirdness everywhere.

Hypochondria, and patronizing Poirot to your peril (a.k.a. “Hastings gets told”)

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the paternalistic tendency of Poirot to organize other people’s lives for them, and the condescending way this sometimes played out in his interactions with Hastings in the series.

What happens when a character dares to do the same with Poirot? Much entertainment!  In short, whenever there is fuss, Hastings invariably gets told off.

In the books, Poirot sometimes allows himself to be condescended to by behaving more naively “foreign” than he really is, to deceive others in the course of an investigation. For all his vanity, he is willing to buy success by (temporarily) enduring scorn, or being thought a mountebank.

‘It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say– a foreigner– he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people– instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard.’

-Three Act Tragedy

Not much of this particular quality makes itself blatant in the course of the series, but other forms of condescension present themselves– sometimes welcome, and sometimes not.

Hypochondria is just one of Poirot’s irritating-but-much-loved traits, and one particular expression of his vanity. Generally, he is only too delighted to be fussed over. But there are various scenarios in which he dislikes the attentions, such as when his personal dignity is affronted, or when being fussed over prevents him from doing what he would rather be doing (such as investigating), or when blatant opportunists want to take advantage of him. In those situations, coddlers, fussers, and patronizers beware. Unless you’re Miss Lemon, who can get away with anything.

Classic examples in The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge…

Hastings: “You get back into bed now. You can leave this to me.”
Poirot: “Comment?”
Hastings: “This investigation. You can leave it to me. I’ll report back to you, of course. I know these people, Poirot. I’ve got one or two ideas already.”
Poirot: “What are these ideas, Hastings?”
Hastings (holding up a finger): “You just relax.”
Poirot: “Hastings, will you please stop tapping your nose in that theatrical manner and tell me all that you know!”

Hastings gets told.

Likewise, he later snaps at Japp who asks him if shouldn’t be in bed: “Possibly, but please, do not fuss!” But he happily accepts blackberry tea from a paternal railway operator as he wheedles information out of him for the sake of the case.

Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan is comprehensive in showing how Poirot deals with “fusses” of both the patronizing and non-patronizing variety. The first time he encounters someone playing the newspaper game of hunting for “Lucky Len,” he is pleased at being recognized as someone whose face has often been in the papers (later to be disillusioned). But when Mr. Opalsen uses Poirot’s presence at his play for the sake of newspaper publicity, he is outraged and takes his revenge by later getting the otherwise innocent Mr. Opalsen arrested. Comparatively, in The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot receives somewhat unflattering newspaper coverage to Hastings’ concern, but does not himself seem to mind, as he hopes it will help the murderer relax his guard.

Jewel Robbery suggests something else of Hastings’ very occasional patronizing air. Extremely laid-back compared to his ever-interfering and micro-organizing friend, Hastings only seems to present this attitude in the case of serious illness or, notably, faced with the terrifying prospect of Miss Lemon coming down on him like a ton of bricks for dereliction of duty.

Hastings: “This was meant to be a rest, you know. Heaven knows what Miss Lemon’s going to say when she arrives.”

Miss Lemon (arriving later and meeting Hastings with a snarl): “I thought this was meant to be a holiday, Captain Hastings. I’ll talk to you later.”

Hastings gets told... again. Chap just can't win.

Hastings gets told… again. Chap just can’t win.

Then there’s Evil Under the Sun, in which the script writers decided to invent the pretext of a health concern for sending Poirot and Hastings off to the Sandy Cove Hotel. While Poirot sits in leisure, conversely moaning pitifully and then complaining that everyone knows he’s ill, Miss Lemon is at her most sternly efficient. Call it maternal rather than paternal– she’s in league with the doctor and brooks no denial as she arranges for the pair to head to the island without a word of consent from either of them. Undoubtably, Hastings’ subsequent hovering at the hotel is due largely to the fear of the wrath of Miss Lemon.

Hastings: “How are you feeling, Poirot? Not too tired after the journey?”
Poirot: “Hastings, I am recovered, I am not the invalid. There’s no need to act like a mother chicken.”

No longer under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot tells off Hastings. Again.

No longer directly under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot– surprise– tells off Hastings.

Later, we have further evidence of what lies behind Hastings’ concern…

Hastings: “So, how are you feeling, Poirot?”
Poirot: “Do you refer to my health, Hastings, or to my feelings concerning the events on this island to which I am confined?”
Hastings: “Well, both, really. I’m going to have to phone Miss Lemon today. She wanted a daily report.”
Poirot: “You may tell to her that I am not sure.”

Miss Lemon eventually shows up, grumbling: “He was meant to be having a rest.” But as Christie readers (and viewers) know, Poirot does not actually need coddling to get better– just opportunities to exercise the little grey cells, a tisane or two, and a good boost to the ego. The opening scenes of The Third Floor Flat feature more of Miss Lemon making a fuss.

Miss Lemon: “Ah– Mr. Poirot. You’ve only done seven minutes. You’ll never cure your cold if you don’t obey the instructions.”
Poirot: “I can’t imagine a method so undignified can cure anything, Miss Lemon. And now also I have the backache, eh!”

Hastings doesn't get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his "present malady." #BlameHastings

Hastings doesn’t get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his “present malady.” #BlameHastings

Sure enough, the stimulation of the case soon has him on his feet again: “Poirot does not have colds, Miss Lemon. It is well-known that Poirot scorns all but the gravest afflictions.”

Then, again, there’s Curtain. So many of these themes that wind through the Poirot canon come full circle in that book and episode. In the final story, Poirot is faced with the ultimate in coddling, and expresses his disgust openly at being treated like a child– although some of it is a ruse. And of course, he’s forever howling at Hastings, alternately for his stubbornness, his denseness, or even his inability to coddle properly.

One thing is not a ruse: Poirot’s arthritis. In the critical scene of Hastings’ confession to Poirot of his nearly-attempted murder, something is happening throughout the course of the conversation. It is not commented on, but in many ways, it is just as meaningful and gut-wrenching as the dialog. Poirot is sitting in front of an ancient mirror, attempting to tie his perfect bow tie. He can’t quite manage it. Finally, wordlessly, he appeals to Hastings for help– the one whose tie he had been straightening for so many years.

Full circle.

Full circle.

The paternalistic Poirot

Such is Poirot’s passion and enthusiasm for order, tidiness, and his own successful methods of operation, that he takes a frequent paternalistic interest in organizing the lives of other people for them. Whether it is rearranging crooked ties or engaging in matchmaking between timid parties, Poirot (himself of indeterminate but mature age) manages to treat many of the adults around him rather like wayward or slightly foolish children.

“Going to marry James Bentley? Deirdre Henderson? Who says so?”

“I say so,” said Poirot. “I occupy myself with the affair. I have, now that our little problem is over, too much time on my hands. I shall employ myself in forwarding this marriage. As yet, the two concerned have no idea of such a thing. But they are attracted. Left to themselves, nothing would happen– but they have to reckon with Hercule Poirot. You will see! The affair will march.”

Spence grinned.

“Don’t mind sticking your fingers in other people’s pies, do you?”

-Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

It is not surprising that a character like Hastings, who Christie writes as naive and boyishly eager, would be subjected to a great deal of paternalism, if not outright patronization, by his mentor. The fact that Poirot has (regrettably) had no family of his own, and Hastings has no near relations, probably heightens the dynamic.

The treatment in the television series is interesting, as the characters are cast very closely in age and thus perhaps present more of an air of domestic fraternity than one sees in the books. The character of Hastings is never infantilized in either book or television, but in the series the scriptwriters have allowed themselves several charming moments of parental condescension where– consistent with the books– Poirot clearly views himself as the wiser and more authoritative pater familias, and Hastings as hopelessly jejune.

Poirot: “Hastings, this is a recipe of my mother. Rabbit cooked in the style of Liège.”
Hastings: “Well, I bet it’s better than rabbit cooked in the style of Hastings.”
Poirot (pause): “Yes, that is quite funny, Hastings. However, when you are grown up, you will find that food is not really the subject suitable for the humour.”
-Four and Twenty Blackbirds

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Hastings: “Have you got a lot of plasticine? I could do with a bit.”
Poirot: “Hastings… you are of too great an age to play with plasticine.”
-Murder in Mesopotamia

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Poirot: “Hastings.”
Hastings: “Yes, old chap?”
Poirot: “I have worked hard, Hastings, to prepare for you the delicious dinner. I have searched the shops for the exotic herbs. I have argued with the butcher, who is a fool. I have beaten the escalopes with a little mallet until my arm, it aches! And you sit there shoveling food in your mouth and writing in your little book!”
Hastings: “Oh, I’m sorry…”

Poirot: “Now close your little book and eat your dinner!”
-The Adventure of the Western Star

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Hastings: “Running like a bird since I fitted those new gaskets.”
Poirot: “Birds do not run, Hastings. When you were little you should have paid more attention to your lessons in biology.”
-The Third Floor Flat

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Hastings (moving things into Poirot’s flat): “This is awfully decent of you, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Oh, not at all, mon ami. I need you where I can keep an eye on you. To protect you from the beauties with the auburn hair, no?”
-The A.B.C. Murders

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Poirot: “Hastings. Sometimes you are like a little child. So innocent, so trusting.”
-Curtain

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What is so interesting about Hastings’ reminiscences after Poirot’s death, as he sits in the drawing room of Styles Court with his daughter Judith, is that his thoughts seem to be largely occupied with moments of this sort. The paternal touch might have felt slight or unimportant to many viewers over the years, but it seems to have had a great impact on the character of Hastings. Of all the many things he could have said about his life and friendship with Poirot, this is how he sums it up…

Hastings: “He was my dearest friend, you know. He was always there– keeping an eye on me, ticking me off– like a father, really. I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope without him.”
-Curtain

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Curtain: Why Hastings really dashes back upstairs.

***Spoilers, but if you’ve been here before, you know that! Watch Curtain already!  😛 ***

Anyway.

You know the scene where Elizabeth Cole is playing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude right after Hastings has had his final chat with Poirot? Hastings walks in on her; she stops playing when she sees him; Hastings has a few moments of pause, then dashes back upstairs to find his friend dead in bed.

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What exactly is it that triggers the dash upstairs? Instinct? The simple fact that the music has stopped dead is what immediately leaps to the eye (or ear), and that is an important part of it. But there’s another component that is more pointed.

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“La musique cesse.” Charcoal sketch on paper.

The fact is that this scene exactly parallels the scene where Hastings first meets Poirot again there at Styles, all those years later, at the beginning of the episode. Elizabeth Cole is sitting at the piano, playing the very same piece. Hastings opens the drawing room door, and there is his friend. Poirot turns to face him, and as he opens his mouth in greeting…

The music stops. And Poirot speaks: “Hastings?”

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The reason, I humbly and speculatively propose, that Hastings stands there awkwardly at the drawing room door when he opens it on the day of Poirot’s death, is that he feels déjà vu, as though he’s waiting for something to happen. And something does happen. Once again, the music stops. Once again, he hears his name: “Captain Hastings?” But it is not Poirot who greets him. That’s when it occurs to him that there is only one difference in the two scenes: Poirot is gone.

Poirot is gone. And when he realizes this, it is then that he rushes upstairs again to see if it is true… and it is.

Hastings returns to the drawing room to ruminate in grief with his daughter, Judith, afterwards.

 

 

The “dispatch case triptych”

I decided to add one more little canvas panel to this series of images… all of which feature Hastings seeking clues (in vain) from dispatch cases, beginning and ending at Styles Court.

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This new panel in the center is an image from Double Sin.

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I liked the poignant way in which these images seemed to offset each other, moving through time with Poirot “vanishing” into the background. One feels not only sorry that those dispatch cases never seemed to yield up their secrets to Hastings, but that despite a long and memorable friendship with Poirot, a wall of sorts stayed between them to the bitter end. There is a ghostly parallel there. Och, the sad!