Aside from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, formerly of the Belgian police, is probably the world's most famous fictional detective. He appears in 33 novels and 54 short stories by the British mystery writer. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot uses his famed powers of observation and his deep knowledge of the human psyche to uncover the plot that did in nasty old Mr. Ratchett.
Ah, "the little grey cells of the mind" (1.5.141). Poirot and other characters in many of Christie's books use this phrase, and it refers to the part of your brain that does all the heavy lifting. Doctors call this area of the brain grey matter, and it's the area of your noodle that deals with sensory perception and memory. When Poirot and others wave the "grey cells" flag, they're telling us readers that we have to use our brains to solve the mystery at hand.
The frequent mention of "little grey cells" also gives us some insight into our man Poirot: his major strength is his brainpower. That means he's not a really a CSI kind of guy, collecting a lot of physical evidence, or even a buff super-cop, running around toting a gun. Nope – he's pretty different from contemporary detectives on Law and Order and Homicide. Poirot relies almost exclusively upon his reason and rationality, along with whatever he can find out about a person's temperament and individual psychology.
Poirot's character is a testament to the powers of observation and reason. That Christie created a detective with an invincible brain suggests that she's incredibly optimistic about the power and potential of the human intellect.
One of the reasons we love Poirot so much is that he's not just a total brainiac. He has a few flaws, to be sure, including a little bit of fussiness and maybe more than a little vanity. He is referred to as "dandified" in the novel (1.5.34), meaning he cares a little too much about his clothes or appearance, and has a silly little mustache to boot. He's also, as you may have noticed, incredibly proud of his reputation.
We know that Christie loves and respects her detective, but she definitely doesn't ask us to completely worship him. We often get a little comic relief from his fastidious attitude and concern for his reputation, as when MacQueen thinks Poirot is insulted that MacQueen thinks Poirot's name is that of a ladies' dressmaker (1.6.38). Remember, though, that because of his crazy detective skills, we never actually laugh at Poirot. He's not an object of satire, but we can still find him – and his quirks – to be endearing.
As he reveals in this conversation with the Countess, Hercule Poirot sees himself as a detective of the world, rather than just a Belgian detective:
"I thought there were no detectives on the train when it passed through Yugo-Slavia – not until one got to Italy."
"I am not a Yugo-Slavian detective, Madame. I am an international detective."
"You belong to the League of Nations?"
"I belong to the world, Madame," said Poirot dramatically. (2.7.78-81)
The statement is probably part of Poirot's characteristic pride, but we think his words ring true, in a sense. Poirot is from Belgium, but he lives in England. He's a cosmopolitan kind of guy, traveling frequently to take on cases in distant locations. (That's why he was in Syria, after all.) Because the murder on the Orient Express involves people of many different nationalities and backgrounds, he's the perfect detective to tackle the mystery.
Since he's one of the most loved detectives of all time, it's not surprising that Poirot has been brought to life on both the small and big screen a bunch of times. He's currently played by the actor David Suchet on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery series. Check out this recent adaptation. We think Suchet is just about perfect as the Belgian detective. Other actors who have played Poirot include Albert Finney and Alfred Molina.
Okay, okay, so we all love us some Poirot, but let's not get carried away here. Poirot is cool and all, but we should also face some of the problems that his character presents. Poirot relies very, very heavily on psychology, but his psychological observations are often connected to things like ethnicity. For example, he thinks that only a cool and rational "Anglo-Saxon brain" could have plotted such an intricate murder (2.10.54). Poirot sometimes relies on cultural stereotypes that are pretty dated and waaaay politically incorrect, and passes it off as "science."
Also, do you really think you could tell if a person is "evil" just by looking at him (1.2.56)? How might this kind of reliance on one's own powers of observation lead to big trouble?