We regularly require the intellectual equivalent of “fresh air,” but there are times when that need becomes particularly urgent. If that’s the case for you just now, I have a book to recommend: The Importance of Being Poirot, by Jeremy Black, published last fall by St. Augustine’s Press. It will be especially tonic for readers fond of Poirot and of Agatha Christie’s fiction more generally, for its focus is not limited to the Belgian detective.
Jeremy Black is an almost unbelievably prolific historian. He is best known for his work on military subjects, but he ranges more widely as well. In the last several months alone, in addition to the book on Poirot, he has published A Short History of War and The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Strategies for a World War. Unsurprisingly, in The Importance of Being Poirot he emphasizes the effect of the two world wars on Christie and her British contemporaries.
A couple of caveats before we go further. First, St. Augustine’s Press, publisher of a wonderfully varied list over the years, is run on a shoestring. Evidently the budget doesn’t allow for as much proofreading and such as we might expect. It is dismaying to pick up a new book, look at the first endorsement on the back cover, and notice a glaring typo. The main text isn’t free of such blemishes. Second, Black’s manner (laying down the law, as it were, often with a manifest sense of impatience) will not be to every reader’s taste. There were times when I was irritated (starting on the very first page of the preface, when Black surprised me by expressing his great dislike for the Poirot television series starring David Suchet), but in general I found the book wonderfully readable; Black’s “voice” on the page fairly hurtles along, offering unfamiliar angles on familiar subjects and above all radiating immense intellectual energy.
Black’s first chapter (“Introduction: The Writer as Moralist”) is invaluable in its emphasis on Christie as a “practicing Anglican” with “a strong religious sensibility” that deeply informs her entire body of work. This tends to be played down or completely ignored in many adaptations of Christie (though not in David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot), and indeed it is rare to see Christie discussed as a Christian writer, which she manifestly was. Many Christian readers of Christie will be both surprised and heartened by this chapter, I think.
Here and throughout the book, Black challenges patronizing perceptions of Christie as “cozy,” countering with a sort of condensed social history of Britain over the span of Christie’s lifetime. He is an endlessly observant guide, equally adept at providing background to menus and meals in the Christie canon and at summarizing the history of the British railway industry and railway travel (which figures so prominently in her fiction) in the relevant period.
At the same time, while Black corrects misperceptions and outright untruths about his subject, his critical faculties are not at all disabled. At the start of Chapter 10, “To the End, 1970–6,” Black writes:
Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), written to mark her 80th birthday, is not Christie’s best novel. As opposed to her detective novels, such as Nemesis (1971), her spy thrillers do not age well, but the later they were written, the worse they became, in part because they appeared more anachronistic.
My dear late friend Bill Tunilla introduced me to the notion of “contagious reading.” Jeremy Black’s The Importance of Being Poirot is splendidly contagious. Even before I finished Black’s book, he had prompted me to create a stack of Christie novels for rereading, several of which I hadn’t looked at for decades. Your mileage may vary, but I will be surprised if you don’t end up with a stack as well.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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