by Sandra Parshall
During an interview on Suspense Magazine Radio (listen to it here), interviewer John Raab asked which Agatha Christie sleuth I find more intriguing, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Pressed to choose, I said Poirot. But the truth is that I don’t find either of them intriguing.
Christie’s protagonists are flat characters who don’t evolve over the course of the two long, long series they anchor. We know little about the past or private life of either. Many of us have mental images of Poirot and Marple that are influenced more by actors’ portrayals than by Christie’s text.
These days, few authors of mystery series could get away with writing such hollow protagonists. Thriller writers may come close – how much does Lee Child reveal about Jack Reacher? – but mystery authors have an ingrained belief that people read their books more for the characters than the plots. Fans want to “keep up with what’s happening” in a favorite character’s life. They want to watch protagonists “grow and change” over the course of a series. Readers want to know what made characters the people they’ve become. They enjoy the secrets, big and little, that are revealed as a series goes on. They love stories in which problems from the past show up on the doorstep of the present, ready to cause trouble.
Poirot and Marple are more symbols of justice than living, breathing people.
What do we know about Poirot beyond his appearance (“a quaint, dandified little man... hardly more than five feet four inches... his head was exactly the shape of an egg... his moustache was very stiff and military), his fussy mannerisms, and his high regard for his own “little gray cells”? He “had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police," according to the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that debut novel, he walks with a pronounced limp, but the disability disappears in later installments. He comes from a large family about which we are told virtually nothing. Poirot himself provides false autobiography in a number of books, the deception always in service of his investigation. Christie said that she envisioned the detective as old from the beginning. At various times, she expressed her dislike of her creation, calling Poirot "insufferable" and a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep" whose popularity seemed to mystify her.
Christie apparently concocted Poirot from bits of other fictional detectives of the early 20th century, including Marie Belloc Lowndes' Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans' Monsieur Poirot, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.
Christie gives us bits and pieces of Jane Marple’s background in the books, and the character in the later novels is strikingly different from the snarky village gossip in the first, The Murder at the Vicarage. However, the change was the author’s attempt to make the character more likable for readers, and it wasn’t due to any soul-shaking experiences Miss Marple endures on the page. She has never married, never held a job, has some sort of independent income and also receives help from her nephew (and only living relative), the author Raymond West. She grew up in a Cathedral Close, is well-read, and attended an Italian finishing school. She is always described as old, and she continues to age in the novels.
How would today’s editors react if they encountered Marple and Poirot for the first time in fresh submissions? A few mysteries with “senior” protagonists are being published, so careful research into niche markets might lead to a receptive editor or two. But most editors would want the characters younger, perhaps a lot younger, and intriguing back stories would be a must.
In modern cozies, maybe messy divorces would be enough to add a little color to both characters’ private lives. If the ex-spouses are nearby and keep showing up at inopportune times, all the better. Maybe there’s still a spark in both relationships, enough to disrupt any new romances.
A single/divorced woman who has never worked a day in her life is almost unheard of now, so Jane Marple needs a cute job if the books are cozies and something more substantial if they take a turn toward darker traditional mystery. Maybe her husband divorced her because she’s never gotten over her love for her first fiancé, who died in car crash three days before their scheduled wedding. Jane, of course, was driving, and she dreams about the accident at least every night, always waking with tears pouring down her cheeks. Give her a couple of cats and she’s ready to meet readers.
Poirot needs a good reason for leaving the police force. (But honestly, can you imagine this man as a cop, even in his youth?) Maybe his partner was shot and he feels responsible. Or he was shot, and now he feels like a coward because he's afraid to risk life-threatening injury again and takes refuge in solving what are essentially mental puzzles. Maybe he drinks too much. Don’t all modern detectives drink too much? Ditch the mincing walk, but the mustache might work if it’s bigger, bushier, and left unwaxed. To round him off, Poirot needs a big dog who senses his every mood and always lays a fuzzy chin on Poirot’s knee at the right moment.
What do you think? With a little updating, could Christie’s characters make it as modern sleuths?