These are some of Agatha Christie’s thoughts on creating Hercule Poirot, taken from her Autobiography.
She had decided to write a detective story whilst working in a hospital dispensary during World War 1. Surrounded by poisons it seemed natural that death by poisoning would be the method. She then decided who should be poisoned, who would be the poisoner, when, where and how. And then who should be the detective? She was steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition but decided she had to invent a detective of her own and he had to have a friend as a ‘kind of butt or stooge’. He had to be unique, a character that hadn’t been used before. She considered a schoolboy, or a scientist, but when she remembered the Belgian refugees who were living in a colony in Tor that is who she settled on.
She decided her detective should be a Belgian – a refugee and a retired police officer and only later realised what a mistake she had made:
What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must be well over a hundred by now.
Anyway, I settled on a Belgian detective. I allowed him to grow slowly into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many untidy odds and ends in my own bedroom. A tidy little man, I could see him as a tidy little man, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round. And he should be very brainy – he should have little grey cells of the mind – that was a good phrase: I must remember that – yes he would have the little grey cells. (page 263 -4)
And then he had to have a name, rather a grand name. She wondered about calling her little man Hercules but his last name was more difficult. She didn’t know how the name Poirot came to her – whether it just came into her head or whether she saw it in a newspaper or written down somewhere, but it didn’t go with Hercules; eventually she decided that it should be Hercule – Hercule Poirot. So, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was conceived and eventually published. She was jubilant – her book was going to appear in print. She didn’t know that this was the start of her long writing career and that
Hercule Poirot, my Belgian invention, was hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea. (page 285)
Because Poirot had been quite a success in The Mysterious Affair at Styles she was encouraged to use him again and then she realised that she was tied to both Poirot and his Watson: Captain Hastings.
I quite enjoyed Captain Hastings. He was a stereotyped creation, but he and Poirot represented my idea of a detective team. I was still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, eccentric detective, stooge assistant, with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Japp – and now I added a ‘human foxhound’, Inspector Giraud, of the French police. Giraud despises Poirot as being old and passé.
Now I saw what a terrible mistake I had made in starting with Hercule Poirot so old – I ought to have abandoned him after the first three or four books, and begun with someone much younger. (page 290)
Poirot, whatever Agatha Christie thought of him is one of her most famous characters, vying in popularity with Miss Marple. Each time I read on of the 33 novels he appears in or see him portrayed by David Suchet (who is Poirot for me) I think he is my favourite. But then I’m equally as fond of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson fitted the part to perfection) and she too is my favourite. I can’t pick one over the other – they are both outstanding creations.