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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The Double Clue, Marc Chagall, the elusive lovers’ dream, and guilt expiation

Well… that’s the direction that my convoluted brain wanders while watching this Poirot episode… (Note: associations are my own and are not intended to reflect genuine intent on the part of script writers or art departments.)  🙂

The only thing that comes as close to the awesomeness of the famously-moustachioed Dying Gaul as a focal statue in the chess tournament scene of The Big Four, is the use of Chagall’s “Feathers in Bloom” in The Double Clue.

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Before reaching the gallery interior, previous conversations with the Countess had emphasized certain points of commonality between the characters: the sad and lonely aspects of foreign exile. Despite the mutual appreciation of the painting and the reference to Chagall’s own “exile” from Russia, the gallery scene in general focuses more on the differences in personality and background between the pair. Poirot offers to take the Countess to the Tate to see the Turner landscapes– sublime, comparatively bourgeois,  and quintessentially English. She voices a preference for the more “exciting” and avant-garde continental Expressionists, which Poirot only appreciates “in part.” (At this point, he gently chides her for using his first name, maintaining a wholly formal address between them.) The scene concludes with Poirot demonstrating his cred as “the most famous detective in England” by hinting that he already knows of her guilt. This all resolves with Poirot maintaining himself on the side of England, as it were, while able (as a fellow foreign refugee) to grasp something of the psychology of the criminal.

That’s about as far as the episode goes with Chagall. But there are some other interesting things about it that come to bear on some of the story’s themes.

“Feathers in Bloom” features some of Chagall’s most commonly-used symbols. The moon is usually present at the meeting of lovers. The horse (in this case, with the legs of a man) represents ideas such as strength, virility, and freedom. The chicken or rooster is used throughout his work in two senses: first, in terms of fertility and also associated with lovers; secondly, as a Jewish symbol (along with the goat) for the expiation of guilt and sin, in connection with Yom Kippur. More on that later.

You can see typical examples of all of these symbols together in Chagall’s works, such as the following:

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…But of course, those Chagalls all share another iconic visual that is (perhaps sadly) lacking in the “Feathers in Bloom” painting encountered by Poirot and the Countess. Namely, this one:

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One could, perhaps, read “Feathers in Bloom” in this context as a meeting of love interests that will not result in that idyllic, dream-like state with bride and groom flying off into the sunset.

But speaking of goats and chickens…

Chagall’s Hasidic Jewish background is one of the preeminent influences of his artwork, and the goat (or, by more modern parallel, the chicken) as symbols of sacrifice and atonement happen to come to bear on some of the story’s themes, as well. In ancient times, the Day of Atonement would involve the sacrifice of a goat, and the binding of a second goat in scarlet which would then be driven away into the remote wilderness as a sign of the expiation of guilt. This is where we get the term scapegoat. The scapegoat appears throughout The Double Clue.

Japp: “The Commissioner’s come down on me. He wants action. If not, he’s going to have to give them a scapegoat.”
Poirot: “A goat?”
Japp: “Me.”

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In the episode, the propitiation takes the form of the Countess relinquishing her stolen goods, Poirot “covering” for her, and transferring the guilt onto the tramp as a scapegoat. However, like the scapegoat, the Countess herself must be driven away, never to return to the society.

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Yes, I know I’m reading a lot into it. Blame whoever thought to stick Marc Chagall into the script!!  🙂  🙂  🙂  Where there is Chagall, the symbols start flying!

Speaking of Chagall and all the random mental associations he seems to conjure up, we could finally note a few coincidences of his family history. Born and raised in Russia, of a Lithuanian Jewish family (Moishe Shagal russified to Mark Shagalov). Found his way to Paris and its creative epicenters, where the family name was rendered as the French-sounding Chagall. From Paris, moved on again into the English-speaking world, where he settled for good. If that doesn’t remind you of a certain unnamed actor’s family history, well…

The Double Cigarette Case

If you’ve fled Russia and intend to lead a life of international crime, always make sure to pack an extra cigarette case, just in case you plan to accidentally leave behind your other specially-monogrammed case near one of the safes you mean to rob.

Those Russian aristocrats– they practice the prodigality!

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Additional wacky bit of speculation: one of the reasons Poirot suspects the Countess, despite the fact that everyone and their aunt has the initials of B.P., is that by giving these cigarettes a careful sniff, he recognizes the smell of the contents of the empty monogrammed case. He is subsequently so taken by the smell of these exotic Russian cigarettes that he himself smokes nothing else for the rest of his fictional life. (But he cuts his cigarettes in half because Belgians, they practice the thrift.)  😉

Hastings and Poirot, a pencil sketch

Hastings and Poirot; pencil on paper.

Hastings and Poirot; pencil on paper.

Just a little pencil sketch of our favorite duo, based on a still from The Double Clue. It has to be a favorite series shot of mine, but turned out to present a certain difficulty in drawing, as the lighting was of a low-contrast sort that wanted to wash out Hugh Fraser. It’s a consistent challenge when finding a shot to draw Hastings; good lighting makes all the difference. Poirot is different, because no matter the lighting, the face is extremely high-contrast. As Christie wrote, you’d recognize the features a mile away, not least of which are those very black mustaches. The other challenge with Hastings is that he is very frequently perched a little behind Poirot’s shoulder in the shots, so his features are often less distinct. But this shot is nice and clear.