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…

triangle18

…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.

doubleclue20

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.”

The Lost Mine, and the actors who make a fool of me

I keep tripping over silly little details about The Lost Mine, ranging from “oops… didn’t notice” to “OH MY GRACIOUS HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT I’M A TRIPLE IMBECILE!!!”

lostmine16

Take, for example, Mrs. Charles Lester. I will be honest: this performance by Barbara Barnes from The Lost Mine is one of my least favorite in the entire Poirot series. Her voice (sorry) makes me want to rip my hair out. I don’t care for the delivery and don’t find it particularly convincing. So maybe that’s why I was blocking her out and didn’t even recognize, until quite recently, the same actress when she appeared as “Lovely Louise” Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia (giving, I think, a much better performance).

meso25

Generally speaking, I’m not the most astute at recognizing actors from one project to another. When I first watched through the Poirot series, which I did all in one shot, I had been thoroughly convinced that I’d NEVER seen Philip Jackson on screen before. But there was a character in The Lost Mine I knew I’d seen before: Anthony Bate, who played Lord Pearson. I recognized him from another “banker” role he played in the mid-80s in this weird little cult film by Paul McCartney, Give My Regards to Broad Street. And crikey, I SHOULD recognize him, having seen GMRTBS countless times since I was about 16 (though it’s admittedly an awful film in almost every respect, but of interest to big McCartney fans and containing good music). Yay, I’ve recognized someone! Only…

broadstreet1

Well, here’s another shot from GMRTBS, with Bate on the right and… this other guy… on the left…

broadstreet5

Yeah, this guy…

broadstreet4

Yes, that is Philip. Freaking. Jackson. Who was one of the MAIN CHARACTERS in GMRTBS. Which I’ve been watching for half of my life. And who I didn’t recognize once when watching him play a main character throughout the ENTIRE Poirot series, though I recognized a single lesser role played by Anthony Bate from the same film.

“I am an imbecile.”

lostmine15

Speaking of Give My Regards to Broad Street and its Poirot connections, here’s something I did notice. In that film, the infamous Ralph Richardson makes an appearance as a batty pub proprietor who owns a little pet monkey. It was his second-to-last film credit, and the project was released posthumously. His last film, also a posthumous release, was Greystoke, a re-telling of the Tarzan story. Guess who else features in that last film with Richardson… in the role of a seedy inn proprietor… and who has a friend who owns a little pet monkey…

This guy.

greystoke12

And in this scene, Suchet is playing opposite Ian Holm, whose character (Capitaine Phillippe D’Arnot) is a normally dapper little Belgian gent.

Did I mention that Ian Holm has also portrayed Poirot on screen?

Holy crumb. Say it with me, friends…

incroyable

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

blackbirds13

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

meso24

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

westernstar1

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

thirdfloor7

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

abc14

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

curtain51

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

curtain43

 

The painted miniature books (9)

Here’s a set of four Christie covers that depict somewhat exotic locations…

Appointment With Death is set in Jordan, but was filmed in Morocco. In this still, a tiny Tim Curry and David Suchet contemplate an ancient text unearthed in the archaeological dig. This episode was full of so many incredibly gorgeous sets, locations, and shots that it was hard to choose a cover. But the unique lighting in this image made it the winner. It was incredibly easy to paint, easier than it might look. Even the tiny rosary is visible.

appointmentwithdeathmontage

Murder in Mesopotamia is another of Christie’s Middle Eastern archaeological digs, taking place this time in Iraq and Syria but filmed in Tunisia. On this cover I had to avoid Hastings, since he does not feature in the book but was written into the script. I decided on this marvelous shot of Poirot walking away from the camera beneath an arch in a dusty alley. The angle, coloring, and everything else about the image tickled my fancy. Poirot-walking-away shots are always fun, anyway.

murderinmesopotamiamontage

Death in the Clouds features a fair bit of action in Paris. Instead of an episode still, I ended up using this image that I think I spotted somewhere online, which (as far as I know) is not actually part of the episode, but looks good. Poirot, Eiffel Tower… what more do you want? I love his outfit here, too– wonderfully dapper.

deathinthecloudsmontage

Finally, I include Evil Under the Sun in this set of exotic locales, although the location is English– the Burgh Island Hotel off the south Devon coast. I watched through the episode to get a still for the cover and could not find ONE that I thought would work. The episode and story are fantastic (actually I think it might be my husband’s favorite episode), but again, I couldn’t use an image with Hastings, since he is not in the main action of the novel, although he is mentioned. And film-Hastings likes to hover over Poirot’s shoulder; in this episode he is particularly “mother chicken”-esque. I watched through the episode a second time searching for a shot. Finally, I cheated. I took a head shot of Poirot looking down from the hotel, and layered it onto a different background which included some of the landscape. In the end I was very satisfied with the result, and I think the cover ties in well with the chosen eponymous quote.

evilunderthesunmontage