There is no mystery about who killed Hercule Poirot: it was Agatha Christie, in the study, with the fountain pen. But, as the little Belgian himself might say, “His death, it has been the most protracted, n’est-ce pas?”
For TV viewers, this momentous event will occur tomorrow, when ITV air the first adaptation of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (no spoilers follow, but the title rather gives away his fate).
Yet the book was published in 1975, while the fatal blow fell during the Second World War, when Christie wrote the manuscript and had it locked away in a bank vault.
Accounts vary as to why: it’s been suggested that it was to ensure a fitting end for her detective if she was killed in the Blitz (although she also hid away a Miss Marple novel which doesn’t conclude her story, similarly unpublished until shortly before Christie’s own death, in 1976).
The author may have been thinking of providing for her daughter, whose husband was killed on active service. Or, after being forced to churn out two disappointing novels in the wake of her divorce, she may have wanted to keep a few up her sleeve in case inspiration again refused to follow her publisher’s schedule.
More likely, she simply thought up an irresistible plot which it wouldn’t have made commercial sense to publish at the time. And Curtain, with its string of murders and one of her most sinister, elusive villains, certainly feels like a wartime novel, being a companion piece to her very first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles.
Written while her husband was away in the first World War with the RAF, as Agatha volunteered at a soldier’s hospital, it introduced Poirot as a refugee from the German invasion of Belgium.
When he returns to the country house Styles in Curtain, “a second and more desperate war” (as Captain Hastings puts it) is raging; as Christie wrote the later book, her second husband was overseas with the RAF and she was volunteering again in a pharmacy. It’s no wonder she felt the urge to revisit her debut, but Curtain is a more mature story which turns on the way that ordinary people can become murderers in certain circumstances – a theme especially relevant as millions died across Europe.
As the definitive Poirot, David Suchet, ends his 24-year run in the role, the curtain finally falls. But repeats, remakes and the continued popularity of Christie’s novels mean that Hercule Poirot will be alive for quite some time to come.
• Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, ITV tomorrow, 8pm