Little Grey Cells and le bon Dieu

Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot and the Church

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The release of the latest movie remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery Murder on the Orient Express, directed and starring Academy Award winner Kenneth Branagh, is a moment of celebration for all of her fans around the world. Not only does it mark the return of the beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the big screen it is also a reminder both that Christie’s writings remain truly enduring and that the theological lessons of the murder mystery are also as relevant as ever.

A Moral Order

One of the most meaningful characteristics of great detective writing is the way that any novel or short story that is faithful to the genre will deal with the fundamental questions of evil, death and especially mercy and justice.  The grotesque violations of the Ten Commandments are the building blocks of murder mysteries. Study the Commandments, and any reader will witness the way that their rejection by a character cause  misery, crime and death. And as students and scholars of detective literature have noted for many years, beneath the surface of any decent murder mystery is the need to re-establish moral order for the good of society and the characters themselves but also coming to grips with the reality of Original Sin.  This all makes the murder mystery especially conducive to a Catholic worldview.  As Nick Baldock wrote in a brilliant 2009 commentary in First Things:

From a theological perspective, the detective genre is inclined towards a Catholic interpretation in contrast to the more Protestant thriller; the former deals with the community, the latter the individual protagonist. The community has been shattered in the whodunit, usually by the primal sin of murder, and the overriding question is one of innocence and guilt. Where leftish and non-religious commentators stumble is their belief that the genre seeks to restore innocence lost; that, with the identification of the culprit, she can be expelled, punished and the innocent return to Eden. The radical flaw at the heart of this interpretation is the failure to see that the whodunit is premised on the doctrine of Original Sin. Everybody is guilty of something; it may offer hope that the problem has a solution, but evil will not be expunged as a result. It is one problem with one solution; it is a small victory in a much larger, indeed an eternal, war. The detective novel is the world’s most Augustinian genre and not, in consequence, especially reassuring.

But beyond the Ten Commandments and Original Sin, murder mysteries and detective fiction turn frequently to the Christian faith for inspiration and also for providing a moral framework for characters.  Many of the foremost detectives in history were created at a time when Christianity was still woven intimately into the society and the lives of ordinary people, and the baseline expectations of conduct and decency were all the clearer to the average reader. Seen through the lens of Christian morality, the impact of sin, depravity and murder is even sharper and provides a greater sense of urgency for the solution. 

It can be argued as well that partly what has made the greatest of detective writers so enduring is their ability to place their stories within this Christian ethos and to have their characters intersecting with the Christian faith even in subtle but meaningful ways. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for example, himself the descendant of Protestant Huguenots, had dealings with the Church and also spoke against suicide. We shall never know the details, alas, of his cases involving the death of Cardinal Tosca and the Vatican Cameos, but Holmes knew scripture and the importance of the moral order as part of his methodical approach to crime solving, despite the susceptibility of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the charlatans of Spiritualism.

Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James and G.K. Chesterton, to name just a few, embraced a Christian worldview in their detective writings.

But special mention must be made of Agatha Christie.

The Agatha Christie Indult

The most successful detective writer of all time, Dame Agatha was born in Torquay, Devon, England, into a family of Anglicans and was herself a conservative member of the Church of England.  Her familiarity with Anglican life is apparent in her writings, especially in such characters as the Vicar Leonard Clement and his redoubtable wife Griselda from such novels as Murder in the Vicarage and The Body in the Library, and she was herself raised in a clearly Christian environment.

Christie’s detective stories and novels also dealt regularly with the themes of justice, mercy, Original Sin and scriptural imagery.  She was opposed to the very notion of suicide, for example. In her short story, “Wasps’ Nest,” one of her characters is prevented by Poirot from committing murder – by framing a rival – and suicide in the face of a painful death from an incurable disease.  In the end, the would-be killer realizes the immensity of what he was planning and cries out to Poirot with thanks for the detective’s intervention.

Christie, too, was no stranger to Catholicism. She kept a copy of the Imitation of Christ by her bedside and read it every night, a habit she bestowed on her favorite literary creation, Miss Marple.

Her fascination with Catholicism did not end there. Like so many conservative Anglicans, she was captivated by the Mass in the era before the Second Vatican Council. Her interest in the Latin Mass was such, in fact, that she added her name – despite not being Catholic – to a petition of English notables in 1971 to Pope Blessed Paul VI asking for an indult for the Catholic Church in England and Wales to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass at a time when the Novus Ordo had been introduced.  The list of signatories included the Catholics Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge (a convert in the early 1980s), but it also boasted non-Catholics, such as Robert Graves, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, Yehudi Menuhin, Ralph Richardson and two Anglican bishops.

According to a perhaps apocryphal story, Pope Paul received the list and perused the names. He supposedly stopped at the name Agatha Christie, expressed his familiarity with her work and agreed to the indult. To this day, the permission is remembered as the Agatha Christie Indult.

The Catholic Belgian

While Christie much preferred Miss Marple over Hercule Poirot, the brilliant and eccentric Belgian sleuth clams the honor of appearing in 33 novels and over 50 short stories, outdistancing Miss Marple’s appearances in 12 novels and 20 short stories. Poirot was also unique in receiving an obituary in the New York Times.

Poirot was a practicing Catholic from birth and declared in a number of works, “I am a good Catholic.” His Catholicism was noted in particular in the short story “The Apples of the Hesperides” and Taken at the Flood, where he declared that he was educated and raised by nuns. In the same novel, Poirot speaks to a suspect about sin and the sacrament of confession, just as his conversations are often laced with references to “le bon Dieu.”

Poirot’s Catholicism informed his pursuit of justice and also of truth.  As he put it, “You want beauty. Beauty at any price. For me, it is truth. I want always truth.”

In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot is confronted with one of the most complex moral conundrums of his career, not to mention one of the most challenging cases for his “little grey cells.” But the Orient Express pales in comparison to his last case, featured in Curtain, that forced the dying sleuth to grapple with an enormous moral choice that challenged his pursuit of justice and his relationship with le bon Dieu.

As one of the most eccentric but brilliant sleuths in all of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot is the perfect embodiment Christie’s ability to capture humanity in all of its complexities and also its genius. And his Catholicism was a major part of it.