The ghost that took over his life: Poirot’s handwriting in Curtain

“I am writing a letter to Hastings to explain all that has happened, and what makes it extraordinary is that the art department have discovered a way to create my handwriting so that I do not have to write every word myself time after time. It is as though a ghost has taken over my life.”

-David Suchet, Poirot and Me

This little detail about the final scenes of Curtain, mentioned in passing in Suchet’s book, intrigued me when I first read it. Art departments and handwriting are always of special interest! But it was only when I took a close look at what is shown on screen in this episode that his meaning became clear. (In advance: please understand that in this post, I’m not attempting any sort of “gotcha!” to said fine art department– I may have never noticed, had it not been obliquely pointed out by Suchet himself. I merely note this as something that interests me.)

It began simply by noticing that the letter that Poirot was writing to Hastings looked an awful lot, but not quite, like Suchet’s own handwriting. Curious, because the letters all looked like he wrote them, but something seemed a bit off about it. Then I remembered the quote from his book. Do you notice?

Font-lovers may notice what is so curious about the FIRST sentence of Poirot’s writing here: what we’re looking at is essentially a “David Suchet’s Poirot” font. Zoom in (click on the picture) and look at any single letter– try the lower-case “h,” “y,” “m,” for easy examples. Every one of those letters looks exactly the same as every other in that sentence! That’s what looks unusual– the first part of the page is uncommonly smooth and regularized. Now starting at “But really, my friend,” look at the rest of the words. Those are hand-written by Suchet himself, and contain variations on the letters rather than uniformity, appearing much looser that the words that came before. The camera had to show him actually writing with his own hand for these shots, but a font was made of his handwriting for the first part of a paragraph so he wouldn’t have to write it all out each time. Presumably print-outs were made to which he added. This is what his quote at the top of the post meant. If you look carefully, you may even notice that the color of the ink appears slightly different between the “font” and the true handwriting.

Once you see this pattern, you can’t un-see it in the other paragraphs of writing shown. I’ve highlighted the real handwriting in blue brackets; the rest is a printed font.

There are at least two possible reasons I can think of as to why the art department would go to the bother of creating this font in the first place. Either it really was merely to convenience their actor; or it might be that doing too much handwriting in those arthritis-heavy prosthetics does not-nice things to them. There may have been other reasons.

The font works perfectly well for the few moments it appears on screen. If, however, you really wish to forge someone’s writing successfully (or even to create a slightly more believable handwriting font for closer scrutiny, though it is far more expensive to do so), always remember to use multiple variants of letters.  Poirot himself knows enough about forgery to let you in on that.  😉

Black Coffee at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Last week, Alex and I took a spin up to Winnipeg’s Exchange District to see Black Coffee, Christie’s first play (and her only one with Poirot). The Royal MTC put on this play in contribution to the 17th annual Master Playwright Fest, which this year featured Agatha Christie (dubbed ChristieFest). Many Winnipeg theatre companies tried their hand at Christie plays, including The Mousetrap and The Hollow. Free events during ChristieFest included public viewings of the PBS documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie (with David Suchet) and the films Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

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Now, I was very excited, as this was my own first Christie play. I’d read both the script of Black Coffee as well as Charles Osborne’s novelization– but of course, plays really do need to be seen! The reviews had been a bit lackluster, but their critique was more directed toward a perceived dullness in Christie’s play itself, not the performance. Well, knowing what to anticipate, I could live with that.  🙂

The cast included Lorne Kennedy as Poirot, Arne MacPherson as Hastings, Ross McMillan as Sir Claud Amory (and Japp), and Claire Armstrong as Lucia Amory. Kennedy gave an especially good performance of Poirot– sometimes, I swear, channeling Suchet. And MacPherson was a likeable, if highly excitable, Hastings. 🙂  One particularly noticeable deviation from the original play is that the secretary Raynor was changed to a woman– “Edwina,” played by Miriam Smith. This was perhaps to balance the male/female ratio.

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The pince-nez and lapel vase are distinctively Suchet’s Poirot. But Lorne Kennedy wore them well.

The set and lighting were really beautiful. Having myself specialized in trompe l’oeil in university and having done some set painting, I was particularly interested in the forced perspective garden scene beyond the French windows. For some reason, I was also mesmerized by the reproduction of a painting of Samuel Johnson high on the wall. It seemed to lend a comfortable, fitting, 18th-century “Sir Joshua Reynolds” sort of air to the distinguished country house set.

Christie herself was not particularly fond of this play, and by all accounts it’s not among her best. It’s a typical cozy mystery with conventional stock characters– the noted scientist, the misunderstood girl, the blackmailer, the vamp, etc. Anyone who is familiar with the story The Mysterious Affair at Styles will notice some pretty obvious plot-borrowing. Christie also borrowed the occasional quote from her own stories. This line in Black Coffee can be found almost verbatim in the story “The Chocolate Box.”

POIROT: Madame, it is sometimes difficult to set a dog on the scent. But once he has found it, nothing on earth will make him leave it. Not if he is a good dog. And I, madame, I, Hercule Poirot, am a very good dog!

Charles Osborne’s adaptation included even more lifting of dialog from Christie stories, including “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star'” and several others. C’est curieux! Also curious is Hastings’ apparent eagerness to be vamped, considering that he’s already been out in Argentina which means he’s already married at the time this play is set. Oh, Hastings…

It was an enjoyable evening and the audience seemed to have fun with the performance. The program was cute, too, including not only Christie facts but suggestions on how to make great coffee!

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My only real regret was not being able to get to more of ChristieFest this February. We didn’t learn of most of the events until it was too late, and being the self-professed greatest Poirot fan in at least Manitoba  😉  this was an embarrassing oversight on my part. But well done, Royal MTC, on an enjoyable interpretation of Black Coffee.  🙂

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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.”

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.

“Well, I’m jiggered”: a discrepancy most curious in “Murder in the Mews”

In Christie’s story, “Murder in the Mews,” we have this quote from Poirot…

“That man is now in prison, he will serve a long sentence for other matters. Do you really wish, of your own volition, to destroy the life– the life, mind– of any human being?”

In the television episode of Poirot, we have this interesting variation on the quote…

“The man you wish to trap is already in prison. Do you really wish to destroy him? Do you really wish to destroy the life– the mind– of any human being?”


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The word “mind,” you may have noticed, is being used in two completely different senses. Christie has Poirot saying “the life, mind [you]”; Suchet delivers the line as though Poirot is speaking about the destruction of the human mind by murder.

So the mystery is: accidental or intentional? Did the script writer misread the story and write the script exactly as it was delivered? Did Suchet misread the script and deliver an alternate meaning by accident? Or was it a deliberate choice on the part of either of those people to depart from Christie slightly, and have Poirot equate the tragedy of murder with the destruction of that most prized faculty, the human mind?

I will never have the guts to ask, so I fear I shall never know.

“Well, I’m jiggered.”