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It's no secret that I've been watching a lot of Poirot lately. It's part of my growing obsession with the 1930s - in fact, in a sort of circularity, it's probably also part of the reason why I was so attracted to my house and its neighbours in the first place. For a girl drawn to the style moderne in any case, the luxuriant treatment which it gets via ITV's Poirot cemented that attraction, iconising it into something truly to be aspired to. And, once I moved in, how much more exciting the TV series became in its turn, as I could imagine myself inhabiting the same universe as the strange little Belgian detective.

Recently, though, I seem to have progressed beyond merely having it on as eye-candy on a Sunday afternoon while I sip coffee and browse LJ, only really looking up to drool over the Art Deco architecture. The truth is, Poirot is better television than to treat that way. It isn't just that they've bunged a few nice sets and costumes into the vehicle of an implausible plot. No - the ITV series is a thing of beauty. The screenplays are finely structured, the camera-work has from the beginning been artful and clever, the music is rich and appropriate without being intrusive, and the dialogue is sharp and well-honed, ranging from the hilarious to the touchingly profound in a manner which, sooner or later, you just can't help but sit up and pay attention to. And those costumes and sets are not merely decoration. They are breathtaking. Sometimes, the amount of money and effort which has clearly been poured into creating just the right world for the stories to flourish in has me literally gaping with awe at what they have achieved.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the characterisation which really sets it all on fire. All of the great detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Jonathan Creek, are other-worldly. They have to be in order to solve crimes which are beyond the comprehension of ordinary men. Poirot, with his exceptional fussiness of manner, his epicurean devotion to fine living, his pompous arrogance and of course his Belgian-ness is no exception. And on the small screen, David Suchet does so much with this. It's wonderful fun to laugh at his Poirot, especially when played off against Hugh Fraser's Hastings, and the screenplay frequently invites you to do so. But he is by no means merely a silly little man. Suchet makes it crystal clear that Poirot's attention to fine detail in particular is also exactly what makes him so adept at solving crimes: much like Monk of course, except that poor old Monk lacks the self-assurance which keeps Poirot off the psychiatrist's couch.

More importantly, Suchet also gives him a strong ethical core which I think is what has really won me over to the character. It's not just that Poirot solves the headline crime each week, bringing justice where no-one else can. Along the way he invariably uncovers multiple secondary instances of shoddy treatment, dodgy dealing and unrequited love, and he neatly puts each one to rights so that the good may prosper and the bad get their come-uppance. Suchet does this with such care and conviction - a disappointed look here, a righteous anger there, a gentle word in the right ear at the right moment - that his Poirot acquires immense depth and well-roundedness; even sometimes a philosophical aspect. For all his strangeness he is, in fact, a person of infinite kindness whom you would not hesitate to trust entirely with your life. And that makes for an incredibly comforting presence on your television screen.

Thus have I gone from half-watching Poirot whenever it happened to be on without really paying full attention, to being utterly caught up in it, and indeed last weekend finally deciding to invest in the DVD boxed set. And it seemed to me also that it was about time I extended my interest to actually reading some of the books. In fact I did read a Poirot novel some years ago, when I had just turned 17 and we were staying for a family holiday at a gîte in France. There on the bookshelf I found a copy of Le Crime de l'Orient Express, which I devoured during the long afternoons when it was too hot to go out. But while it taught me a great deal about how to use the past historic tense (the one tense we hadn't 'done' as part of our French GCSE, and which I felt disempowered without), it obviously wasn't an authentic encounter with Christie's original English prose.

This time instead, I've gone right to the root of the matter. I spent my Christmas book-token on a volume containing the first four of the Poirot novels to feature the character of Hastings, including the very first one of all, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Technically, I've seen the story on TV, but since it belonged firmly to my 'not-really-paying-attention' phase, I could remember very little about the plot. I knew there was something important about the spills on the mantelpiece, but I had no idea whatsoever who had committed the murder, so it didn't really spoil the 'whodunnit' aspect of the novel for me. Not that I think that will ever be the important thing for me anyway - as with my watching of Doctor Who, it is the (semi-)fantastical settings and the characterisation that attracts me to the Poirot stories.

Now, having read the novel, I am half-satisfied by what it offers on those fronts. The characterisation which I so love on the television is definitely nascent here. It isn't perhaps yet quite so rounded or so profound as what David Suchet does - but then, this is only the first novel, whereas he had the benefit of Christie's total Poirot corpus on which to base his characterisation from the beginning. There's definitely enough here, anyway, to make me want to return and read the other three volumes in my collection at some point.

The setting, though, is pretty deficient. Of course, Christie doesn't have the visual resources at her disposal which the ITV production team do. And fine clothes and elegant stream-line moderne houses don't really belong in a novel set at the end of the First World War. But, as I said above, the settings for these stories are not merely window-dressing in the television series. They are all about creating an appropriate world in which the characters can come to life, and an atmosphere to suit the developments of the plot. The same effect can be achieved on the printed page, as Thomas Hardy demonstrates so brilliantly. But Christie largely eschews it in favour of dialogue and action. The result is that although I do see that what she achieved in her novels was tremendously innovative and exciting and important, I'm left feeling that it was the ITV series which really added the richesse that now makes them masterpieces of the small screen.

I don't know whether that continued to be the case as she developed as a novelist - it's one of the things I hope to find out as I explore her other stories. But for the moment, I think their value to me will be largely as the foundation stones on which a beloved TV series has been so carefully constructed. And there's much to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
roobarb
Mar. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
I too love the tv series for the feel, the style and the atmosphere. I wanted a touch on that in my back room, think I managed a mix of 20s and 30s in there. I love it

If you ever go to the isle of wight visit the Royal York Hotel in Ryde, I've lost the photos I took but here's one



It's very run down but the feel is still there behind the tatty 70s decor and the naked ladies who hold up the handrail on the stairs
strange_complex
Mar. 1st, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
Ohhh, wow, that is so gorgeous! Thanks so much for the picture. Did you stay there, then? It is a sad truth that a lot of Art Deco buildings are in a bad way these days, though. They're not easy to look after with their flat roofs and constant need for re-painting, and the result is that a lot of people who aren't really wedded to the style can't be bothered to maintain them properly. I think society in general is gradually coming to realise how unique and interesting they are - I've certainly seen a lot of the ones near me being revamped recently. But there's a long way still to go.
captainlucy
Mar. 1st, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Poirot is among the very small cadre of ITV shows which are at least as good as anything the BBC do/have done. Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes is still, imho, head and shoulders above the rest, but Poirot gives it a good run for its money, and so much of that is down to David Suchet's wonderful performance.
strange_complex
Mar. 1st, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, heck yeah, Sherlock Holmes is teh aces, too. But Poirot has a nicer apartment. ;-)
katsmeat
Mar. 2nd, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
I just listened to Elephants do Remember on Radio 7 and was pretty taken aback to realize it seemed to be set in the early 70's with an elderly Poirot.

It just seems wierd that Christie allowed him to age and for time to pass when it's so hard for us to do the same.

Althought when I say she allows time to pass, it's not really. The milieu of the stories seems to remain precisely the same, there's just the occasional fleeting reference to some aspect of the post-war world. Which, I suppose, is how the David Suchet series can be set in an eternal 1934 and still work.
strange_complex
Mar. 2nd, 2009 09:18 am (UTC)
Yes, I think the ITV series did exactly the right thing there. Poirot exists in the same world as Jeeves and Wooster - i.e. one which never really existed in the first place. And Christie herself seems to have steered clear of chronological markers for the most part, because time does not really pass there. Apparently, if you take the occasional references to dates which do crop up in them, Poirot must be about 150 by the end of his last story. Which, again, makes him a lot like the Doctor!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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