The Belgian connection in Agatha Christie’s novels.
In October 1916 Agatha Christie put the finishing touches to her novel “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, the first of many books in which the detective would play the leading role. Although the book was not published until 1920, the success story started already before.
In 2020, Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian with his bowler hat and ever-perfect moustache, celebrated his 100th birthday. The ideal moment indeed for our association to pay a visit to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s home, and now a property of the National Trust. Unfortunately, Covid threw a spanner in that project and the trip had to be postponed to this year.
According to the author, Hercule Poirot was a Brussels Police Chief who, after his retirement, started a career as a private detective. In her novel “The Big Four” Christie strongly implies Hercule Poirot to be a native of the City of Spa .
Why did Christie go for a Belgian detective as one of her main fictional characters?
Belgium’s occupation by Germany during WWI provides a plausible explanation why she presented a Belgian as a skilled detective to solve mysteries in an English context. At the time of Christie’s writing, it was considered a patriotic gesture to express sympathy towards the Belgians, since the invasion of their country had constituted Britain’s casus belli for entering WWI, and British wartime propaganda emphasized the “Rape of Belgium”.
The first description of the Belgian detective we owe to Arthur Hastings, also a character featuring in Christie’s novels and best friend of Poirot and who appears with him in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”.
“He was barely taller than 1.60m and carried himself with great dignity. His head was shaped like an egg and he always perched it a little to one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust on his clothes would pain him more than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint and dandified little man who I was sorry to say limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police”.
Poirot had an enormous aversion to disorder. He even found it intolerable that chicken’s eggs have different shape. How then can your breakfast table be symmetrical? Tip-top, that is how he should look at any time of the day. Stylishly dressed, with bowler hat and patent leather shoes. And with a moustache of which every hair had to lay perfectly. He was so vain that he used a special preparation “Revivit” to dye his grey hair.
Poirot doesn’t drink just anything. His favourite drink is hot chocolate although he sometimes ventures into herbal mixtures for health reasons.
Vera Rossakoff, a flamboyant Russian countess is the great love of Poirot. The countess is initially a jewel thief but makes amends and later becomes the manageress of a night club.
In addition to the books, Hercule Poirot became known to us through the TV-series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” starring the English actor David Suchet. The series ran for 13 seasons, from 1989 to 2013.
Oscar winner, Peter Ustinov, also played the role of the little Belgian several times.
In the last episode of the TV-series Poirot dies of a heart attack. His best friend Hastings was with him when he took his last breath. His last words were “Cher Ami “.
Poirot is one of the few fictional characters to have an obituary published on the first page of the New York Times. The obituary appeared in 1975 after the publication of “Curtain: Poirot’s last case”.
In “Death on the Nile”, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories, the leading role would normally have been attributed to Miss Marple that other iconic character, but in the end the author chose Poirot…
According to Christie, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” was the detective’s favourite case. “He was really at his best then” she declared in 1938 to the Daily Mail.
The fictional character of Ariadne Oliver, who mysteriously communicates with Poirot and accompanies him on several of his most famous cases actually is a parody of Agatha Christie herself. “I laugh all the time with myself but who knows me well enough to know this”.
Hercule Poirot remains hugely popular to this day. In total the Belgian detective appeared in more than 33 books, 51 short stories and 2 plays (“Black Coffee” and “Alibi”) written by Agatha Christie. The British thriller writer, Sophie Hannah, now carries on the legend with the permission of Christie’s family. One of her more famous books is “Closed Casket”.
Although Poirot himself preferred a bottle of wine or fine liquor, a Belgian beer was named after him: Hercule.
Something else to know: every year since 1998 the best Flemish mystery novel is awarded the Hercule Poirot price. Anne-Laure van Neer won the price in 2022 with her book “Joséphine”. An amount of €5000 is associated with the price.