Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Appreciations: Agatha Christie Takes Poirot to the West of Ireland

“Hercule Poirot had the feeling, not uncommon in those who come to Inishgowlen for the first time, that he had reached the end of the world. He had never in his life imagined anything so remote, so desolate, so abandoned. It had beauty, a melancholy, haunted beauty, the beauty of a remote and incredible past. Here, in the west of Ireland, the Romans had never marched, tramp, tramp, tramp: had never fortified a camp: had never built a well-ordered, sensible, useful road. It was a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.

“Hercule Poirot looked down at the tips of his patent-leather shoes and sighed. He felt forlorn and very much alone. The standards by which he lived were here not appreciated.”—English mystery writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976), “The Apples of the Hesperides,” originally printed in The Strand, September 1940, reprinted in Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories (2013)

I have been meaning to write about this passage for a while. As today happens to be what would have been the 130th birthday of Dame Agatha Christie, what better time than now?

I came across this passage the same way I seem to have with so much other reading matter in these months of COVID-19:  at random, picking up a book lying around my home—in this case, a compilation of more than 50 Christie short stories featuring Hercule Poirot.

I started reading this because it was short enough to finish in one very quick sitting—something increasingly important these days with my attention tugged in so many directions.

Much to my surprise, more than halfway through the tale, I came upon the above passage. I was immediately hooked—a feeling that would surely have delighted Dame Agatha, but for a reason she might not have expected.

As near as I can tell, there is no place called “Inishgowlen” in Ireland. There are some that sound close: Inishgowla, in County Mayo; Inishowen. in County Donegal; and the island Inishfallen in the three Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry.

But the scene that the Queen of Crime describes is in the West of Ireland. To be more exact, with its description of that craggy cliff, this sounds like the Cliffs of Moher, not far from where my dad lived for his first three decades in County Clare, Ireland.

To say I was astounded by this is putting it mildly. I was used to Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple solving mysteries in her village of St. Mary Mead. I even know that Poirot had identified murderers on the Nile and on the Orient Express. But the west coast of Ireland? It might as well have been the far side of the moon, as far as I was concerned.

“The Apples of the Hesperides” is not the only Poirot short story in which Ireland figures. In “The Kidnapped Prime Minister,” the driver of the title character hails from County Clare and, as if to ensure that English readers know he’s Irish, is named O’Murphy.

(An event from the Irish War of Independence may have led Christie to include this plot point: Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, an Irish Unionist politician, had been assassinated, rumor had it, on orders from Irish Free State Commander in Chief Michael Collins, a year before the story was published.)

I groaned when I read Christie’s description of this area as disorderly and backward. It could only appeal to a certain faction of the British public that had long regarded their onetime colony with loathing and distrust even as they hold so firmly onto it.

My feelings were not immediately assuaged when I read Christie’s depiction of a Poirot encounter with a nun in an Inishgowlen convent. As she greets the detective, she is as intimidating a figure as “The Penguin,” the orphanage nun who continues to beat John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers.

But the story overturns expectations in its conclusion. Poirot might be put out by the denial of his creature comforts in this region of Ireland, but as a practicing Catholic he shares the essential worldview of the nun in the convent: that man is a sinful creature who must atone for this fallen world.  The detective would get one of the biggest sinners of all to commit an action that, though isolated, remains one of epic self-denial for a criminal.

Christie’s family relationships may have informed her attitude of respectful, if remote, curiosity about both Ireland and Catholicism. Her mother was of Irish and German descent. While the writer herself was not Catholic, her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, was.

Even after “The Apples of the Hesperides,” Christie was not done with Ireland. In the 1950s, she, like Miss Marple in the novel Nemesis, toured the Great Gardens of Ireland.

Though she devoted only meager space to Ireland, her fans in the Emerald Isle still embrace her fiction. Irish academic John Curran plumbed 73 of her notebooks for insights into her work. A couple of years ago, the stunning Grey Abbey House in Northern Ireland was used as a location for the Christmas whodunnit Agatha and the Truth of Murder, featuring Christie as the tale’s detective.

(The image accompanying this post shows David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, in the PBS series about the Belgian detective exercising his "little gray cells.")

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