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”

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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.”

Missing out on domestic love: 15 moments of loss

One of the most touching aspects of Christie’s characterization of Poirot are those glimpses of loneliness inherent in a character who has missed out on the personal relationships that lead to marriage and family life. ***As always, spoilers for everything!***

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‘I, Madame, am not a husband,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘Alas!’ he added.

‘I’m sure there’s no alas about it. I’m sure you’re quite delighted to be a carefree bachelor.’

‘No, no, Madame, it is terrible all that I have missed in life.’

-Dead Man’s Folly 
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Viewers of the television series will notice that the theme develops and increases over time, especially in the filming of the novels. And yet, glimpses can be seen very early on in the series as well. Some are subtle, and others are blatantly obvious. There are nuances and shades of meaning in these fleeting and poignant moments, but they all share the same characteristic of wistful loss. Here I present 15 gloriously-rendered examples.

1) Third Floor Flat– Perhaps the first clear example in the series. It is unique, and pleasing for Christie readers, in that we get a glimpse of the nostalgic admiration of a girl who resembles an old flame of Poirot’s before the matter is explained to the viewer. So, readers who know the story are gratified to have “inside knowledge” of what lies behind the faraway smile, which will be explained in later scenes. ‘If I were your age, monsieur, without doubt, I too would be in love with her.’

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2) The Plymouth Express– Another early example, this is the first clear indication we have that Poirot would very much have liked to have been a father and a husband. The expression says it all, in response to Halliday’s: ‘You’re not a father, Poirot. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to bring up a daughter all on your own… no wife to talk it over with…’ Also, it is perhaps the first time the viewer becomes annoyed with the lack of tact of those who remind Poirot what he’s missed out on!

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3) The Double Clue– This one’s pretty obvious, of course, and it has the added novelty of a presently-kindled flame, with some returned affection, yet the impossibility of the relationship going anywhere. There are several other meditations on personal loss throughout the episode, from the loss of wealth to the loss of one’s homeland. But all the poignancy is concentrated in loss of a chance at love.

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4) The Chocolate Box– It’s fascinating that this particular story was, when scripted, turned into another sort of dead-end romance, this time from Poirot’s past. I suppose it gives Virginie a little more “connection” to the plot than she seems to have in the original story, and since the incident is buried long in the past, one can get away with adding romantic elements. An added nuance to the sadness-tinged reunion with her is that Poirot has a glimpse of what life could perhaps have looked like for him, had les Boches not driven him from his native Belgium as a refugee: sons in native uniform, and a wife of his own country. ‘…I was just saying to Jean-Louis that he was always the most fortunate of men.’

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5) Lord Edgware Dies– A rarity in that Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon are all together at dinner when the conversation turns to Poirot’s lamented bachelorhood. It’s a subject that is clearly uncomfortable for Poirot, made weirder with the flattering attentions recently given him by Jane Wilkinson. Also, we have another indication (suggested as early as Third Floor Flat) that Poirot considers himself too old, and that the time of la tentation is lost in the past. ‘But now, alas, I think it is too late.’

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6) The Mystery of the Blue Train– This is one of several examples of the awakening of loneliness and loss that comes, not from a romance of his own, but from some pretty young friend Poirot has met in the course of the case. In this instance, he has a travelling companion to whom he becomes an ‘avuncular.’ Like a daughter (in fact, she had lost her father and has a cry on his shoulder about it), Katherine Grey is a somewhat needy character who was taken under his wing. When she leaves him unexpectedly to go off on her own, he is struck again by the pain of solitude. The film ends when, after she leaves, he is left by the water’s edge, contemplating the happy, carefree family before him (consisting, incidentally, of an older woman, her much younger husband, and her grown daughter). This loss strikes me as resonating more with the parental sadness of the empty nest– although in Poirot’s case, his patronage came and went very quickly. I’m also reminded of one of Poirot’s iconic lines at the end of the book: ‘Life is like a train, Mademoiselle…’ And ultimately, he is fated to travel it alone. And we’re all sad.

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7) Death on the Nile– A classic example, and one that works beautifully with the plot, which is seething with the desperation to which love might drive a person. ‘Love is not everything,’ Poirot says to Jacqueline. When she disagrees, he is forced to admit that he does not really understand this on a personal level, and is faced once again with the great loss of his life. At other times in his literary journey a la Christie, Poirot has expressed relief that he does not have an ‘ardent temperament’ because it has saved him from many embarrassments. But in this case the overwhelming devotion to a lover– an alien experience to Poirot– sparks pity in him, and he permits the couple to commit suicide rather than face the executioner. The precise reasons why– Poirot always has precise reasons– are spelled out a little more thoroughly in the book than in the adaptation.

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8) After the Funeral– ‘The journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone, Mademoiselle.’ These are words, reminiscent of the theme in Blue Train, that Poirot states to the murderer– interestingly, very shortly after she has unknowingly incriminated herself with a fatal clue. In this context, the realization of loss and loneliness in life is displayed as a reality that transcends class, and the point of commonality Poirot finds here gives him an insight into the killer’s motive. To find another example of Poirot’s sympathy towards a woman who works as a lower-class companion and is driven to crime in a desperate bid for money, see “The Nemean Lion” from The Labours of Hercules.

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9) Taken at the Flood– In this story, Poirot finds himself as a sort of godfather-type figure to Lynn Marchmont, whose father was a good friend. And, Lynn happens to fall in love with a mass murderer (!)  This causes an awkwardness similar to Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy– “Er, I’ve kinda just sent the guy you love to the gallows… sorry/not sorry?” But I include this example here because Lynn, of whom Poirot is ‘most fond’ and who had been planning on staying in England permanently, decides to leave again. ‘Write me a letter, Monsieur. I like your letters.’ It is a familial sort of loss for Poirot, and one full of turmoil in light of the bizarre circumstances of her departure.

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10) Cat Among the Pigeons– This is one of the most curious and enigmatic moments of “wist” in the series. It is very fleeting moment in which Poirot, in the course of observing the various teachers at Meadowbank School, is watching a ballet lesson. A row of girls are at the barre and are practicing positions in pointe shoes. Poirot watches them with the most startling expression of bittersweet nostalgia on his face. Of what exactly is he thinking? The touching innocence of youth, uncorrupted by matters of crime? The disappointing fact that he himself was not to be the father of a daughter? Someone please ask David Suchet… he’s the only one who can read Poirot’s mind…

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11) Third Girl– Another case (and a particularly disturbing one) in which the young couple in love awakens in Poirot his own sense of loss. This is one of the most emotional reactions Poirot has in the series; even Mrs. Oliver comments on his tears. ‘…The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve… the nature of love…’

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12) The Big Four– Almost everything in the final series touches on this theme. There’s a really interesting moment in this script when the housekeeper describes the fastidious and irritating habits of the deceased man (a bachelor), and Poirot appears to have a moment of sober enlightenment concerning his own bachelorhood. It’s very subtle and lends a moment of personal poignancy to the scene where the viewer wasn’t expecting one. Japp: “Did he ever marry?” Housekeeper: “Oh, no! Can you imagine it? What woman would have him? Woe betide you if you tried to move one of his precious books, or tidy up his bloomin’ letters!”

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13) Elephants Can Remember– Poirot says to Zelie: ‘Mademoiselle, neither you nor I are married. We may never be married. But they should be.’ It’s the argument that finally persuades the chief witness to come forward with her story.

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14) The Labours of Hercules– The scriptwriters were going really, really heavy on the “wist” here. The first example of the theme is Poirot’s visit to his doctor. ‘You’ve had a remarkable career– at the expense of having a family! Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what you’ve chosen…’ This is adding insult to the injury of having “failed” as a detective, and these two horrible realities dovetail to serve as the impetus to reunite Poirot’s chauffeur Ted with his lost love. This successful reunion contrasts with the totally tanked relationship with Vera Rossakoff, another grievous “what might have been” in the realm of personal relationships. There’s also an unprecedented use of fake wistfulness, when the Countess speculates what’s going through Poirot’s mind when he sees Alice, her daughter. ‘He looks at you… and he sees the life he might have had.’ We learn later that this isn’t actually what Poirot is thinking– he’s too busy having his suspicions alerted by the girl’s biting of her thumb!

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15) Curtain– Was television ever as moving as this? Throughout his life, Poirot had never really brooded excessively on his regrets concerning love and family– rather, we see him repressing the pain and struggling past it. We don’t see this brooding in the final days of his life, either, as he focuses his attention on this most difficult of his cases. If anything, Hastings becomes the torch-bearer on the pain of loss in this episode– his wife, his daughter (to Franklin and Africa), and Poirot himself. In such a context, this line of Poirot’s, one of Christie’s own, is a most meaningful one: ‘My heart bleeds for you… my poor, lonely Hastings.’  Poirot knows, on every count, that Hastings is about to be left very much alone in the world. A lifetime of domestic loneliness endows him with sympathy for his friend’s losses, the blessings of which he had himself never enjoyed in the first place. Hastings finds himself choked up at this sentiment of Poirot’s, possibly because in spite of the fact that the man is near death and has struggled with loneliness for so many years– he will even die alone– it is Hastings’ loneliness, not his own, that most concerns him in those final moments.

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Poirot’s favorite painting was swiped from his apartment building in Brussels.

A couple of months ago I blogged about some of the reused paintings in Poirot episodes, and noted specifically that painting that resides over the fruit bowl in the Whitehaven Mansions sitting room. It was notable because it seemed to travel with Poirot, from his first residence in England at Leastways Cottage in Styles St. Mary to the (first) Whitehaven Mansions flat to his temporary retirement home of The Larches in King’s Abbot in the Roger Ackroyd era. And I speculated whether he had merely taken it away from Leastways Cottage with him, or whether it was a particularly special item he had shipped over from Belgium which came with him when he emigrated.

Well, now I know. The painting was spotted in today’s re-watch of The Chocolate Box, hanging in the hallway of his apartment building in Brussels!

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He swiped it from the building!!! Ahahahaha…

Okay, maybe he bought it. Hardly seems likely, though.

A mystery concerning Curtain… and The Princess Bride.

***Major spoilers, but for the record… if you’re on this site, assume that I’ll be regularly “spoiling” plots anyway because I assume you know them.***  😉

It is, perhaps, the one thing about the television adaptation of Curtain that baffles me completely.

In that striking scene where Poirot unmasks Norton one-on-one, and Norton begins funneling the venom into his rival, he makes this comment: “Murder me… And then what– suicide to avoid the ignominy of hanging?”

Poirot does not respond in words, but his eyes say something like, “Well yes, that’s basically what I had in mind.” That this was intended as a sincere reaction by Poirot seems to be confirmed by a statement Suchet makes backstage in the opening scenes of the documentary Being Poirot: “He knows he has to die. He could never take the ignominy of being accused of a murder and then [hanged].” It would seem from this that Poirot really means to help his death along in some way, to avoid the shame of both conviction of a crime and being sent to the gallows.

There is one small problem, though: Poirot is never in any danger of the gallows to begin with.

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It makes sense, perhaps, for a startled Norton to come up with this idea when he first realizes what’s going on. But Poirot has had months, possibly even years, to think this through. He must have known that he has no danger of being hanged.

Point #1: Poirot is in practically zero danger of being caught at all. And in fact, he isn’t caught. He’s worked this out with remarkable efficiency.

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In that awesome aforementioned scene, Poirot suggest to Norton that he himself might fail in his attempt to serve justice, but does Poirot really believe that he’s likely to fail? It reads more like a “humble-bluff” to me. Despite revealing himself to be a clever devil who “does his homework,” Poirot still comes across to Norton as a “pathetic, self-important little man.” As Christie often tells us, this is a favorite ruse of Poirot’s to cause his enemies to underestimate him.

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Whether he’s bluffing there or not, he certainly is by the time they get to the chocolate. Norton feels he has won a spar with Poirot (“Shots in the dark”) and is then apparently clever enough to take Poirot’s cup of chocolate instead of his own when suspiciously offered a drink. Unfortunately for Norton, he never saw The Princess Bride.

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He could have learned some important life lessons…

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I mean, Poirot’s ingenuity with drugged chocolate has already previously saved Hastings from worse than death.

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And of course, Poirot has other substantial tricks up his sleeve, including an intricate plan involving a fake moustache and (most importantly) full use of his limbs. No, I cannot believe that he really has any intentions at all of being caught. He’s going to hop out of the wheelchair and commit the deed, and no one will know the full truth– until he reveals it.

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Point #2: In the unlikely event that Poirot’s actions were discovered by the authorities, it seems that the most probable way would be if he actually turned himself over to the police. Supposing that he subsequently found his actions so unbearable that he felt he had to give himself up immediately. Would he have been hanged in that case? No. Would he have been hanged even if someone else had turned him in? No.

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Why? The simplest reason is that he would not have lived long enough for a trial. Christie knows this theme well; consider the following passage from the end of “Dead Man’s Mirror”:

    ‘That was– rather noble in a way. I hate to think of her going through a trial for murder.’
Poirot said gently:
‘Do not distress yourself. It will not come to that. The doctor, he tells me that she has serious heart trouble. She will not live many weeks.’

For good measure, here’s “Problem at Sea,” in which Poirot deliberately kills the murderer with an extra-shocking denouement:

    Ellie Henderson was beside him. Her eyes were dark and full of pain. ‘Did you know his heart was weak?’ she asked.
‘I guessed it…’
Ellie murmured: ‘So you thought– it might end– this way?’
‘The best way, don’t you think, mademoiselle?’ he said gently.

In “The Chocolate Box,” Poirot allows the killer to walk free, a very rare move, knowing she will die very shortly. In Curtain, Poirot knows he’s about to die from his heart condition. We know from the book that he has deliberately timed this crime so that it will be approximately the last thing he does.

   ‘I knew that my time was short– and for that I was glad. For the worst part of murder, Hastings, is its effect on the murderer. I, Hercule Poirot, might come to believe myself divinely appointed to deal out death to all and sundry… But mercifully there would not be time for that to happen. The end would come soon.’

‘I am very tired– and the exertions I have been through have strained me a good deal. It will not, I think, be long before…’

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In short, Poirot knows perfectly well that he is not going to live long beyond his murder, and he must have known that hanging was not a possibility for him. He was going to die first regardless.

Point #3: Let us speculate even further… even if Poirot was not likely to have a heart attack at any moment, would he have ever been convicted and hanged? I think that even that is questionable. Ironically, (movie-)Norton’s own words help explain why Poirot would not hang:  “You can see them now: ‘Went off his rocker, in the end, you can never trust a foreigner.’”

Poirot’s own opinion, in the book, is that he could have killed Norton quite openly with a “gun accident” and it would have never been suspected as murder; that Poirot indeed would have had the sympathy of people who considered him to be a poor, gaga old man who simply didn’t realize the gun was loaded. Such a person would not have been hanged. Of course, Poirot does not choose that route for one particular reason:

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And despite Norton’s dig at Poirot’s foreignness, and Poirot’s clear breaking of the law, he has the reader’s sympathy in his quest to protect the innocent, and would likely have a good deal of sympathy in England, too. He has an excellent long-standing reputation there in apprehending criminals, and again, he is a very old and ill man at this point. At worst, it might be said that his mind was going and he needed institutionalizing.

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But as Poirot is, in fact, at the brink of death, Point #3 is just added speculation on what could have been. In the end, Poirot is just smarter than Norton. And pretty much everyone else. And he knows it.

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So, in summary…

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#1: Poirot is in no great danger of being hanged because he probably won’t even get caught. #2: Even if he does get caught– or, more likely, turns himself in– he would be dead long before he gets a trial and sentence, assuming that the sentence IS death. #3: The sentence probably wouldn’t be death, since he’s a sick, very elderly man with a great track record in England and a provocation that is reasonable enough to draw plenty of sympathy from the reader– and the public. Poirot may, possibly, fear criminal conviction and a blow to that reputation, but surely not the shame of execution by hanging.

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How does this affect the reading of the film? Personally, to make sense of the scene, I have to read Poirot’s initial reaction of assent to Norton’s suggestion of “suicide to avoid hanging” as deliberately deceptive rather than sincere on Poirot’s part, and Norton’s mark only truly hitting home when he mentions the judgment of God a few moments later. There is enough of a difference in those wordless reactions that I think such an interpretation can stand. Funnily enough, the first two fans I discussed this with said that they read this scene exactly the same way, and NOT as Poirot actually intending to escape hanging via medicinal neglect. Yet, this preferred interpretation of mine seems to be at odds with Suchet’s own intentions for his performance. Am I missing some vital point? What say you, intrepid reader?

This strikes me as an important question for other reasons that seriously affect the story: Why does Poirot refrain from taking the meds? What are his words “Forgive me” exactly in reference to? To some extent, questions like that turn on this point.

(Continued later…)

Poirot brooch studies

Poirot brooch studies. Acrylic on paper.

Poirot brooch studies. Acrylic on paper.

Since I have a lot of catching up to do, what with posting (or re-posting) things I’ve concocted over the past year, I might as well start from the beginning. These little brooch studies (the flowers are a little over an inch wide) were possibly the first “fan art” kind of thing I made pertaining to Poirot, and were done about a year ago. Fans of the television series will recognize his silver-and-amethyst lapel brooch, which in the context of the series was presented to him by Virginie Mesnard in The Chocolate Box.

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I was actually thinking of Curtain when I made these little painted studies, and themes of death and life, which are represented by the poppy and the white rose. Poppies show up from time to time in my fan art, as they have some natural associations with Poirot: World War I, British-Belgian relations, Ypres, In Flanders Fields and that side of things. The flowers also commonly symbolize themes like drugs (e.g. opium) and death. White roses (as well as red) have associations with England, and signify truth and new life. Both poppies and white roses are considered to be “remembrance” flowers.

For more on the boutonniere in general, check out this article from The Art of Manliness blog. (The website’s symbol is, appropriately enough, a mustache.)  🙂