Hercule Poirot's Peculiar Vision of Justice
I grew up surrounded by books. My grandfather, a botany professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was a polymath and an autodidact. His library, which he bequeathed to my mother, contained a complete set of Agatha Christie detective stories. Since I was a child, I have read them over and over again.
Her work was an education in itself, but I did not realize it at the time. I thought I was indulging in a guilty pleasure, but instead I was ingesting Christie’s mastery of form, psychological insight, cultural commentary, rules of civility, and penetrating wit. Most of all, I absorbed Christie’s musings upon the nature of justice, which are keenly astute, in spite of the generally light tone of her work. The question of justice is the underlying contemplation of detective stories, and Agatha Christie wove her deliberations into the fabric of her pop fiction so skillfully that it took me until adulthood to recognize their profundity.
This is particularly evident in the stories featuring her most famous protagonist, the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who was Christie’s champion of a peculiar but deeply moral justice. Poirot’s view of justice was complex, often based on individual situations rather than simplistic moralism, his actions driven by robust humanism rather than cheap idealism or social convention.
Poirot’s vision of justice begins with his oft-repeated phrase, “I do not approve of murder.” Readers laugh at the quaint understatement, but it embodies an underlying Augustinian ethic. In Poirot's mind, crime is less an evil to rage against than an obstacle which disorders human happiness and therefore must be punished. Poirot is not a high minded idealist. Instead, he is supremely practical, ordering the world to a wider vision of human flourishing. Poirot disapproves of murder as he does a skewed necktie because they each disrupt proper order. Though atypical, Poirot’s prim rejection of the heinous crime reflects the ancient Christian ethic: the world is a disordered place and we should participate in reconciling it to its true nature.
Poirot’s obsession with order in all areas of his life reflects a fundamental motivation to restore harmony to a disordered world.
Poirot’s most recognizable attribute is his extreme fastidiousness. He is obsessed with “order and method,” whether it is his careful grooming, epicurean lifestyle, or systematic approach to solving crime. Readers tend to find his meticulous nature either irritating or endearing, but everybody acknowledges that it is integral to his success. Indeed, Poirot’s obsession with order in all areas of his life reflects a fundamental motivation to restore harmony to a disordered world.
If that is the case, then the next question is obvious: What is the nature of a properly ordered world? To Poirot, the answer distills to human happiness. In the short story collection, The Labors of Hercules, Poirot solves twelve crimes. Each story confronts a problem that represents an obstacle to a character’s happiness. From capturing a serial-killing cult leader to restoring a missing Pekingese dog, these short stories explore how one man can perceive truth through the distortions and darkness surrounding those who act upon disordered desires.
Poirot believes that when justice is done, people can be happy. In “The Arcadian Deer,” Poirot hunts all over the globe, at his own expense, for a young mechanic’s missing lover. When he finally discovers her at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, she is suffering from anorexia. She tells him that she will die, speaking to him in “the voice of one without hope.” Poirot is beside himself. “It is quite unnecessary!” he tells her sternly. “You need not die. You can fight for your life, can you not? . . . Why should you not be the wife of a garage hand in a country village?” The exorbitant expense spent to solve this mystery may seem extravagant, but to Poirot, it is worth solving a global mystery to bring lovers together. Justice, Poirot believes, is a catalyst of human happiness.
In “The Nemean Lion,” a rich lord hires Poirot to find his wife’s kidnapped dog. When Poirot solves the puzzle, he discovers that the criminal is a poverty-stricken middle-aged woman with a chronically ill sister, who had been treated with contempt by vulgar members of the nouveau riche. Instead of publicly exposing her dog-napping racket, Poirot confronts her privately, then donates the lord’s detective fee to cover the sick sister’s medical bill. It turns out that by locating his wife’s Pekingese, Poirot uncovered the lord’s plot to murder his wife and marry his platinum blonde secretary.
Trite elements of lurid detective fiction notwithstanding, “The Nemean Lion” reveals a great deal about Poirot’s vision for justice, which has more to do with intentionally restoring harmony than blindly solving cases. The subversive denouement demonstrates that Poirot will follow his conscience rather than social convention. He understands that his actions generate consequences for all the people involved in his cases: clients, victims, and perpetrators. The victim in “The Nemean Lion” was not the wealthy lord who sought Poirot’s services, but the marginalized dog-napper whom he deems worthy of compassion. Lest we interpret this as superficial sentimentality, though, another victim is the spoiled, unpleasant wife of the lord, who was deeply unkind to the sympathetic dog-napper. Thus, Poirot’s justice is not cheap, but protects the ugly innocent as well. Poirot’s peculiar vision of justice includes the practical impact of his actions upon his sphere of influence. Poirot wants his intervention to promote individual and social tranquility.
It is no secret that Poirot’s ego is a defining characteristic. “There is no question of failure,” he tells his client in “The Nemean Lion.” “Hercule Poirot does not fail.” But his arrogance is an asset in his pursuit of justice. For one thing, Poirot’s immense self-confidence enables him to assume success. Perhaps more importantly, however, Poirot believes himself entitled to the truth, by which he means the facts and underlying motivations of his cases. He knows his own capacity for greatness, which, combined with a zeal for order and a thirst for truth, engenders a fundamental orientation toward the unity of truth and justice. To Poirot, truth and justice are intrinsically connected. “You want beauty at any price,” he says in Hallowe’en Party, “For me it is truth. Always truth.” It is his vocation to promote justice and his inclination to revere truth. The combination is a formidable one. The unity of truth and justice is an essential element of Poirot’s professional ethic.
However, even truth is subordinate to Poirot’s peculiar vision of justice. In “The Augean Stables,” Poirot subverts an immanent political scandal by diverting public attention to a false scandal in order to minimize interest in a real one. That is to say, he deceives the public. Poirot believed that a bigger truth was at stake. The true scandal would almost certainly have destroyed a sound politician along with the guilty one, so Poirot chose to save what was good instead of destroy what was evil. “Eh bien, that was my task! First to put my hands in the mud like Hercules . . . and the result? Virtue vindicated!” So we see that Poirot’s definition of justice includes his fundamental confidence in his ability to dispense it based on the individual circumstances of each case.
Throughout the course of his career, the obsessively orderly Poirot systematically applies himself to ridding the world of crime just as he orders his man, George, to rid his dinner jackets of grease stains. He relies on a curious alchemy of self-assurance, moral fortitude, and vigorous humanism. These three strands form Hercule Poirot’s peculiar sense of justice, which is a vision worthy of contemplation.
Heidi White is FORMA’s deputy editor. She teachers and writes from Colorado Springs, where she lives with her family.