Fictional detectives take many different forms, yet the good ones have a common, defining trait which is that we remember them and we come back to them time and again. We don’t always like them as people, but as characters, they fascinate us. We’ve read their stories and celebrated their successes, but we’ve also tolerated their vices and their questionable morality. For some, these characters are as close to real people as it is possible to get. To others, they are real people. In August 1975 just before the publication of Curtain, which was to be Agatha Christie’s last Hercule Poirot novel and the famous Belgian’s last case, The New York Times did something extraordinary. It printed Poirot’s obituary…on the front page.
I can think of no greater tribute to either Hercule Poirot or Dame Agatha. Fictional creations are so much more than words and crime fiction is flooded with some of the most famous, most iconic characters that have ever been created. We know so much about them and in certain cases they have become as famous as their creators, perhaps even more so. Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe… These aren’t just characters, they are legends. I know more about Sherlock Holmes than I do about members of my own family. I’ve marvelled at how hardboiled detectives can survive on such little sleep, been confused when they turn down money for cases and not known whether to laugh or despair when they’ve ended up in the arms of a femme fatale. Yet I have no idea what my neighbour is called. I know that Hercule Poirot is an obsessive-compulsive, with colour coded socks, a system for organising his desk, a bank account that contains 444 pounds, 4 shillings and 4 pence and the most sensitive stomach you will ever come across. I know that Agatha Christie detested him but kept him alive because he was so popular. I know the ending of Murder on the Orient Express (1934) isn’t just a denouement, it is a master class in character creation and a stunning depiction of questionable morality. You don’t know who Poirot is until you’ve read it. I know all this, and yet I also know that he is not real.
The fact that The New York Times saw the fictional death of a work of fiction as being worthy of its front page tells you all you need to know about the power of a well-developed character. The nicest comment I have ever received about the Mark Dewar novels which are featured on this site came from an editor. She read two early drafts of the first novel and on reading the updated draft she wrote
Thank you for letting me hold these people in my hands again.
Not an obituary in The New York Times I grant you, but that comment made my day. That comment made me feel like a writer.