POIROT’S SEX IS A REAL MYSTERY
January 21, 2000
‘A LITTLE man with a face like a rat.” Meet the villain of an Agatha Christie tale. ”In an Empire where rats ruled, he was the king of the rats.”
And guess what religion he was. ”His face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve in the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew, a journeyman tailor . . .”
The year was 1928 — though my paperback edition of The Mystery Of The Blue Train is 1975, shortly before Dame Agatha’s death.
Boris Ivanovitch Krassnine, king of rats, was an anarchist, of course. Jew, anarchist, rat — what was the difference in 1928?
Over 10 million miles of travelling or more, I have read dozens of Christies. The Poirots are my favourites — I love a character who is not afraid to boast. Miss Marple is self-deprecating, and I have always regarded modesty as an over-rated virtue.
In all those mysteries, I cannot remember that a Jew was ever unmasked as the murderer on the final page. As a villain, clearly stated from the start, Jews appear constantly, at least in the earlier books. They are fixers, fences, plotters, renegades and, obviously, anarchists.
But the murderer must be unsuspected, and Christie probably assumed that all Jews were automatically suspects. Even the better sorts, like Jim Lazarus in Peril At End House: ”He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.”
Her racism towards blacks was more blatant still. One of her most ingenious plots — one of my favourite detective stories ever — was called Ten Little Niggers until an American publisher, in a horribly bigoted stroke of political correctness, changed it to Ten Little Indians.
The book now sells as And Then There Were None, but the scene of the crimes is still Nigger Island —”Smelly sort of rock covered with gulls. It had got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head — a man with negroid lips.”
This sort of prejudice is impossible to ignore. It stops the reader dead on the page, in a novel that rattles along at 100 pages an hour. But it does not stop the sales.
When she died, it was estimated 250 million Christies had been printed, a record beaten only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
Dame Agatha did not set out to preach contempt for Jews and blacks. The attitude was ingrained, subconscious, and it seeped into her writing. Studying four or five of her best novels for this column, I discovered something else about Agatha Christie’s sub-conscious: it moulded her hero in her own likeness, far more than she ever guessed.
When she created Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian detective with the invincible brain, millions were dying in Belgium.
In 1916, six years before publication, Christie was writing: ”Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity.
”His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.
”The moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”
The ”I” was Captain Hastings, Poirot’s dim-but-brave disciple. The detective adored him. Later in this first adventure, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, he displays his affection —”suddenly clasping me in his arms, he kissed me warmly on both cheeks.”
Poirot loved Hastings, but Christie despised Poirot. ”Why,” she asked in the Daily Mail in 1938, ”why, why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature? . . . eternally straightening things, eternally boasting, eternally twirling his moustache and tilting his egg-shaped head . . . anyway, what is an egg-shaped head? . . . I am beholden to him financially . . . On the other hand, he owes his very existence to me.”
Poirot had no lady friends, though he liked to flirt and once, at the end of a cycle of short stories called The Labours Of Hercules, he sent a bunch of red roses to the villainous Countess Rossakoff.
But he understood women. He knew which men they would desire — usually the bad ones — and what would flatter them most. He knew when they would be loyal, and when treacherous.
He even knew, in Peril At End House, how best to style their hair: ”To me the natural thing seems to have a coiffure high and rigid — so — and the hat attached with many hatpins — la, la, la-et- la!”
And then he gave himself away: ”When the wind blew, it was agony — it gave you the migraine.”
It is not unknown for a woman to live as a man. Two fearsome pirates, Ann Bonny and Mary Read, were revealed as women at their trial, when both claimed to be pregnant. They were sentenced to death.
The secret of soldier Christian Davies’ sex was discovered by army surgeons after she was wounded in the battle of Ramilles.
And just 11 years ago jazz pianist and band leader Billy Tipton, the father of three children by adoption, was discovered during his autopsy to have been a woman. He had married three times. The truth then is shocking and hard to comprehend, but as in all the best Christie it remains the only possible solution. Hercule Poirot was a woman.
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