Monday, September 30, 2013

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie (1924)

Poirot Investigates First Edition Cover 1924.jpg
The original cover.  After
only three books, Poirot already
has his distinct look and style.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Murder By Death, the spoof on detective novels.  As with all detective novels, there is a big reveal at the end where the true nature of the crime is revealed.  Lionel Twain reveals this little fact, that all readers of mysteries know:  "You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents. "  

That is how I felt about Poirot Investigates.  It's a collection of short stories, featuring Poirot and his (unlikable, in my opinion) sidekick Hastings.  The stories are all pretty weak; if you are trying to outwit Hercule Poirot and figure out "whodunnit" before he does, this isn't the book for you.  There certainly isn't the delightful twists and turns and red herrings of later (favorite books).  Like Lionel Twain's beef in Murder by Death, most of the "clues" are things only Hercule Poirot knows, clues he's withheld until he can dazzle us at the end of each story with the reveal - and prove what an idiot Hastings is, again.  That got really tiresome.  

This was certainly not one of my favorite Agatha Christie books.  I was actually pretty bored by the end.

Poirot's French Lesson
Au fond.  "Mr. Rolf was handsome, he had an air about him of romance.  But au fond, he is very businesslike, ce monsieur."  According to the all powerful Google translate, au fond means "at bottom."  Online dictionaries say is means "essentially" or "fundamentally."

Épantant.  Poirot "murmurs" this word twice.  In the first instance, he's looking at a jewel; in the second instance, he's talking about the mysterious story behind the same jewel.  I think synonyms for the first use of épantant might be "magnificent" while the second instance, he may be marveling at a splendidly romantic (if implausible) story.  

Dernier cri.  "But there is a fashionable detective.  Oui, my friend,  it is true - I am become the mode, the dernier cri."  A French phrase for "the latest thing."

Tout doucement.  "Tout doucement, mon ami!"  Slow down, Hastings; you are jumping to conclusions.   In his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot is already talking about his "little grey cells."  I'm surprised he didn't remind Hastings to use his little grey cells in this instance.

Bien entendu. "There, mon ami, I fear that you must forswear your beauty sleep to-night, and join me in my alll-night vigil in the flat below - armed with that excellent revolver of yours, bien entendu!"  Simply French for "of course."

Tourjours pratique.  "What are we going to do about it?"  "Tourjours pratique, the good Hastings!"  French and English may be pronounced differently, but often spelled similarly.  "Always practical, the good Hastings!" (of course, then you have a word like au fond which does translate to the same word in English at all).

"Enfantillage!" replied Poiort promptly.  "One can hardly take it seriously."  Enfantillage, according to Google translate, literally means "childishness."  An English idiom might be "child's play."

"Que faites vous lá, mon ami?"  Poirot asks Hastings "What are you doing, my friend?"

Dépêche.  "Which reminds me, we will return the compliment of a dépêche to  Japp."  A dépêche is a telegram.

Other Interesting Items of note.

"You will oblige me by refraining from talking so much, Hastings.  I can assure you that our friend will not shoot until I give the word."  "Youse sure o' dat, eh?" said the Italian leering unpleasantly.  Agatha Christie's character sketches are often broad, occasionally politically incorrect (Poirot Investigates includes Asian slurs), and ethnically dubious (Italians and foreigners, save Poirot, always seem to be swarthy).  In "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat," Poirot and Hastings become involved with the New York mafia, and Christie attempts to give us a picture of a typical Italian criminal, including what I suppose she thought Italian New Yorkers sounded like.  I'm not sure if by 1924 Agatha Christie had been to New York, or where she got her idea of the linguistics and accents of New Yorkers in the 1920s -- it couldn't have been from the movies, because talkies hadn't yet been invented; radio perhaps?  Or other books?  Her Italian mobster (who in another line says "Who was it dat croaked Luigi Valdarno?"; he also leers) sounds more like the son of a Bronxite and Patrick O'Flannigan.  

Car of fly.  My edition has an error - it's supposed to read "car or fly."  Which makes far more sense.

E.P.D.  "Money's confoundedly tight in the City.  All this infernal E.P.D."  E.P.D. stands for "Excess Profits Duty."  Introduced by David Lloyd George in 1915, 

Peace by negotiation.  One evening after dinner - I will not particularize the date; it suffices to say that it was at the time when "Peace by negotiation" was the parrot-cry of England's enemies..."    The only references I can find to "peace by negotiation" were from the struggling Central Powers in 1917.  

David MacAdam.  The fictionalized Prime Minister who appears in the story "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" and apparently in another short story, "The Submarine Plans" which I have not yet read (and which does not appear in this collection).  The actual prime minister in 1917, the approximate time period of this story, was David Lloyd George.  I'm curious as to why Agatha Christie just didn't use the real prime minster's name, although I assume there were some legal reasons this could not be done.  I would have thought this was related in some way to the famous disclaimer "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental" but according to Wikipedia, the disclaimer came about because of a lawsuit from 1932 between MGM and a Russian princess.  Of course, libel laws existed before the disclaimer, so I'm sure they were the culprit here.  

Leader of the House of Commons.  "I recognized no less a personage than Lord Estair, Leader of the House of Commons."  The actual leader of the House of Commons in 1917 was Andrew Bonar Law.  

Portiére.  "Behind a portiére in Mr. Davenheim's study stands a safe..."  A curtain hung over a door or doorway.  

"Pas de finesse, seulment de l'audace!"  Literally "No finesse, only the audacity."  Poirot was getting dissatisfied and restless in " The Veiled Lady" because the criminals of England are no longer trying to outwit him.  They commit blatant crimes without even trying to cover their tracks - they are shameless without being skillful or clever.

Sapastri.  Poirot says:  "Ah, sapistri, is Hercule Poirot to be beaten?" in "The Veiled Lady."    French slang, similar to English "Good heavens."

New Woman.   "I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favor."   Henry James coined the term "the new woman;" essentially she's the early feminist who works outside the home for a living and has gone to school beyond elementary education.   While Hastings makes his feeling clear about a "new woman" client in "The Case of the Missing Will," I wonder if he's parroting Agatha Christie's views, or she puts these words in his mouth to form his character as an old fashioned conservative?

Poirot InvestigatesPoirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of Agatha Christie's early Poirot books (only the third one), and one of the weakest.  Hastings is a tiresome sidekick - thank goodness Christie eventually dumps him; in these stories, Poirot has his usual confidence, but he isn't as developed as he later becomes (he's not so fussy as the Poirot of Evil Under the Sun, for example).  The stories aren't particularly interesting if you are trying to outwit Poirot either; most of the time, he's kept back information from us until the big reveal, making it nearly impossible to solve the case with him (something I enjoy doing, at least).  Poirot Investigates is certainly not the place to start if you're dipping into the Christie pool; I can imagine people starting here and never returning.  As with all books of short stories, some are better than others; in this case, the first stories in the book seem to be best, saving the mediocre ones until the end.  Good in a pinch, but if you have a choice, try another Christie.

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