Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

1924 was a very good year for rising young author Agatha Christie. Following the success of her first three novels (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, “The Secret Adversary” and “The Murder on the Links”), she produced during the year in question her first stand-alone thriller novel “The Man in the Brown Suit”, as well as a collection of short stories featuring the exploits of her most famous detective – Hercule Poirot.

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“Poirot Investigates” gathers together eleven stories which were originally published in The Sketch magazine, and their history is fascinating. It was the magazine’s editor, Bruce Ingram, who suggested that Christie wrote them, as he’d been so impressed with “Styles”, and they appeared as follows:

The Adventure of “The Western Star” – 11 April 1923, Issue 1576
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor – 18 April 1923, Issue 1577
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat – 9 May 1923, Issue 1580
The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge – 16 May 1923, Issue 1581
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery – 2 May 1923, Issue 1579
The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb – 26 September 1923, Issue 1600
The Jewel Robbery at the “Grand Metropolitan” – 14 March 1923, Issue 1572 (under the title The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls)
The Kidnapped Prime Minister – 25 April 1923, Issue 1578
The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim – 28 March 1923, Issue 1574
The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – 24 October 1923, Issue 1604
The Case of the Missing Will – 31 October 1923, Issue 1605

When published by Bodley Head in 1924 Christie was astute enough to insist that Bodley’s accept this as one of the books she was contracted to do with them. The stories feature Poirot and Captain Hastings, with Inspector Japp making appearances, and so you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re in traditional Poirot territory – well, not quite…

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All of these tales are excellent of course; full of Christie’s misdirection, wonderful puzzles, sparkling repartee between Poirot and Hastings, plenty of twists and turns and satisfying solutions – one even has a little map! However, what’s particularly fascinating is that we’re seeing an *early* version of Poirot, before all the characteristics we think we know him for have developed (although much of the Poirot we know is already there). His lodgings are anonymous, on a street described as “not aristocratic”; and when he and Hastings arrive at Marsdon Leigh in “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”, Poirot decides they will *walk* the mile from the station to the manor house. We even see, in “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat”, Poirot and Hastings lowering themselves down a chute in a coal lift! Miss Lemon and the more palatial Whitehaven Mansions are absent, and in these early tales, Christie’s debt to Conan Doyle is much clearer, and the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is noticeably Holmesian

However, it seems that as Christie was writing the stories, she was developing and refining her character. By “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”, one of the later 1923 works, Poirot is suffering in the Egyptian heat and sand, and exclaims at one point, in recognisable Poirot fashion:

“And my boots”, he wailed. “Regard them, Hastings. My boots, of the neat patent leather, usually so smart and shining. See, the sand is inside them, which is painful, and outside them, which outrages the eyesight. Also the heat, it causes my moustaches to become limp – but limp!”

By the time we reach the end of the stories, Poirot has settled into the detective we know and love, with his vanity intact, his amused tolerance of Hastings’ blunders and his ability to predict events and prevent disasters. He may not quite have the majesty of the Hercule of, say, “Murder on the Orient Express” , but he is still Poirot. But even in one of the early stories, “The Kidnapped Prime Minister”, Poirot states his credo as a detective strongly:

“It is not so that the good detective should act, eh? I perceive your thought. He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road the seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end, the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not? … But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here! … All that matters is the little grey cells within.”

And needless to say, in several stories Poirot solves the mystery by just sitting still and exercising them. As Hastings says, in exasperated fashion at the end of one of the tales, “Poirot was right. He always is, confound him!”

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There is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt; and although I could never feel contempt for Poirot there’s the risk that he’s become so familiar to us nowadays that we see him as a bit of a caricature and don’t look past the surface image. However, rereading “Poirot Investigates” has been something of a revelation; I’ve reconnected with Christie and her creation in a big way and I’ve rediscovered how much I love her books. So thank goodness for Simon’s wonderful idea for the 1924 club…!

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