The Most Popular Detective in History

Posted on November 16, 2017 by Martin Oaks under Community
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To the best of our knowledge, none of the people interred in Martin Oaks Cemetery has ever been featured in a New York Times obituary. This is not meant in any way to devalue those who rest here – they have just not received international recognition.

Murder on the Orient Express

Last weekend we saw the new film, “Murder on the Orient Express:” ironically, the lead character, the fictional detective Hercule Poirot, managed to rate a front page New York Times obituary on August 6th 1975, the only fictional character ever to be featured in a Times obit.

For those who are not familiar with the work of Agatha Christie, Poirot was a “famed” Belgian private investigator who was the lead character in over 30 of Christie’s novels, 50 short stories, and 1 play. Without a doubt, he is one of the most popular figures ever created in the history of human literature.

Christie, of course, is one of the most prodigious forces in all of publishing history. Her sales total in the billions: Christie’s own website notes that only the Bible and William Shakespeare have outpaced her in rankings of published books. She is easily the most translated individual author of all time; her work appears in more than 100 different languages.

In addition to her novels, she is also remembered as one of the most successful playwrights ever: “Mousetrap,” a meticulously plotted whodunit, debut in London in 1952, and it is still running at St. Martin’s Theater. As of this writing, ticket sales for “Mousetrap” extend into January 2019. Fittingly, the slogan for “Mousetrap” (as expressed on posters, sweatshirts, and other memorabilia) is “suspect everyone” – if you have ever seen the show, there has never been a more appropriate catchphrase.

The Mousetrap

Poirot is a special case: he ranks with the most well-known sleuths on the printed page. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade are very familiar, but Poirot truly stands in a different category.

Actors who have played him include such famous stars as Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Martin Gabel, Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, and most recently, Kenneth Branagh.

Christie saw a previous film incarnation (1974) of “Murder on the Orient Express,” which starred Finney as Poirot. She was apparently pleased with his performance, although she did not like the detective’s signature mustache.

The other actor who is well associated with the part of Poirot is Peter Ustinov, having played him some 6 times. Although Ustinov was a fine player, Christie aficionados are divided about how well he delivered the Poirot character.

What is particularly interesting about Christie’s popularity is that her writing has never been anything exceptional: pedestrian is a word that comes to mind. For example, in spite of Poirot’s ubiquitous presence, the reader never really gets inside the character. Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade are much more thoroughly drawn – compared to them, Poirot is taken in from a distance.

What sets Christie apart, of course, are her absolutely ingenious plots. The supporting characters sometimes are thinly executed stereotypes – but taken together, the cast blends in perfectly with masterful story twists.

The current “Murder on the Orient Express” is a classic example of her work and of Poirot’s appeal. If you don’t know the conclusion, it has been long recognized as one of the most creative finales in any mystery story.

One can only imagine what Christie would think of the strides moviemaking has taken since her passing. She found the Finney version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to have “lavish” production values. This current Kenneth Branagn effort is spectacular, especially if you are fond of CGI. Still, the basic integrity of the story is what carries the movie, and we found it to be quite enjoyable.

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