How to Capture a Sleuth

Kenneth Branagh wishes to create an Agatha Christie-themed cinematic universe. 

It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Young people need to be excited about something, and the Queen of Crime may really be due for a resurgence. Puzzles are in fashion nowadays, as are glamorous period dramas. Both trends seem fundamentally healthy, and it is pleasantly amusing to imagine my sons a few years hence, heading off to murder-mystery parties in top hats and tails. I’ll be happy to host a few, dressed as Ariadne Oliver, Hercule Poirot’s eccentric writer friend. 

Branagh needs to up his game, though, if he wants to be a creator of universes. His first two efforts to grab the public’s attention have fallen somewhat short. Murder on the Orient Express (2017) was enjoyable enough, but just a week later I was struggling to remember the details. This year’s Death on the Nile has struggled at the box office, barely covering costs. Branagh really wants to become the face of Hercule Poirot, and I applaud this admirable goal. But he hasn’t fully understood what the tiny Belgian represents, to Christie fans and the world at large. Poirot is not just a master sleuth. He is a master psychologist, as well as a moral physician. He specializes, not in chemistry and bite mark analysis, but in the human soul.  A “Christieverse” that jettisons the moral element might as well just fling away the formalwear, and join forces with Harlequin.com

Decrepitude on the Nile

Death on the Nile was a cursed film. It was completed in 2019, but the release was long delayed, owing first to the Covid pandemic, and then to sexual assault allegations against actor Armie Hammer. In February of this year, Branagh’s latest finally hit the big screen, just in time for a Russian invasion. This may not really affect ticket sales all that much (outside of Kyiv), but I felt pretty strange heading off to enjoy two hours of glitzy costumes and bubbling champagne, just as the world started burning. The movie limped its way to 100 million in box office sales, but it wasn’t a smash hit. From start to finish, the shadow of Tutankhamun seemed to be lurking over this production. 

Unfortunately, the film’s troubles cannot all be blamed on the ghost of King Tut. It was pleasantly escapist and packed with eye candy: gorgeous costumes, sweeping vistas, towering Egyptian temples. Still, it felt diffuse and drifting. The Nile is in fact a fairly slow-moving river, but a good murder mystery should be more tightly knit and suspenseful. This could have happened, if the film had kept a more disciplined focus on the crime itself. In a Christie mystery, the plot twists and character development all extend outwards from the crime that defines the story. That’s why it’s so much fun to try to guess whodunit.

Christie’s genius lay in her ability to use one dastardly sin as a window into a broken human community. She writes about murder, not because she is morbidly fascinated with violence, but because she understands what it signifies when one human being kills another. It rips an ugly hole in the social fabric. That hole must be repaired.

It’s easy and fun for creators of period pieces to score virtue points at the expense of our less-enlightened forbears, but Christie’s stories revolve around the recognition that sin is a perennial problem.

This is the central drama of every Christie story. A crime is committed, and the detective sets out to solve it. His search for suspects draws him into the orbit of the people whose lives have been most affected: people they love, people they hate, and people they have perhaps neglected or overlooked.  A rash of modern police procedurals have turned crime into a technological puzzle, solved jointly by quants and action heroes. For Christie, the case is never solved in a high-tech crime lab. Rather, the detective must analyze the relationships of the relevant people, diagnosing the rivalries, resentments, or venial desires that precipitated the crime.

Christie’s murderers are never simply excused for their sin. At the same time, they are not Iago-like specters of evil. They must be caught, because murder is deeply wrong, but also because the truth opens the path to repentance and healing. The detective offers this service for all concerned parties, including the perpetrator. In a sense, each Christie mystery is the story of human salvation writ small. This dynamic cannot be captured unless the crime is left where it belongs: at the center of the story.   

Death on the Nile was a Christie classic that very much exemplifies this pattern. The story is built around an ugly love triangle. Simon Doyle (played by Hammer in Branagh’s production) and Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), are lovers who plan to wed, until the glamorous and fantastically wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) sweeps in to steal Simon from under Jacqueline’s nose. Jacqueline and Linnet have been best friends for years, so there are some hard feelings. Simon and Linnet quickly marry and set off on a lavish honeymoon; Jacqueline follows in a vengeful effort to make their lives miserable. In the book, Poirot stumbles into this unhappy scene before any murder has occurred, and he recognizes immediately that something is seriously amiss. All three of the lovers have serious flaws, which have collided to create an unstable and dangerous situation. The book then revolves around his methodical effort to diagnose the problem, and address the consequences. 

Branagh’s Poirot shows no such insight. In the film’s early scenes, we see him blandly assuring the slighted Jacqueline that her former lover has moved on and now “loves his wife.” He advises the newlyweds to go back to their home in England, where they will be safer, sentimentally remarking that a lost honeymoon is a small price to pay for true love. He seems as shocked as anyone when the murders start.

Like superheroes, detectives are necessarily liminal figures.

Meanwhile, Branagh’s Poirot meanders around doing random things, of marginal relevance to the main story. He reconciles a bigoted mother to her son’s miscegenated relationship, and reassures a closeted lesbian couple that he sees and celebrates their secret love. Obviously, those subplots were not taken from the book, but the social-justice undertone would only be mildly annoying if it didn’t represent such a serious distraction. It’s easy and fun for creators of period pieces to score virtue points at the expense of our less-enlightened forbears, but Christie’s stories revolve around the recognition that sin is a perennial problem. Human beings kill one another because we are fallen, not because we have yet to be initiated into a culture of diversity and inclusion. A Poirot who fails to see that cannot really stand at the center of a compelling “Christieverse.”

It was amusing to note, in reviews of Death on the Nile, that many people were upset about the lack of romantic chemistry between Gadot and Hammer. This complaint is truly absurd when one knows the full plotline of Death on the Nile, which emphatically does not depict “a love for the ages.” Branagh is partly to blame, though. If he had maintained focus on the actual storyline, reviewers might not have forgotten the plot by the time they got to their laptops. 

Detective as Superhero

Branagh will get another chance. It is said that a third Branagh-as-Poirot film is in the works, and he also hopes to bring Miss Marple to the screen in the near future. This isn’t over yet. At 60, Branagh still may have time for several more ventures as Poirot, and I hope he does, because it is really delightful to watch an actor of his talents bring the great sleuth to life. Poirot is a difficult character, requiring a careful balance of the admirable and the absurd. Branagh hits the right notes. David Suchet was a superb Poirot, and watching Murder on the Orient Express (2017) I found myself missing Suchet. (He retired in 2013 after playing Poirot for 24 years in a popular British television series.) By the time I saw Death on the Nile, I was over it. Branagh is a worthy successor, who could do great things in the role of Poirot. 

Their interpretations are quite different, however. Suchet was a character actor through and through. He owned Poirot’s eccentricities, making him into a kind of charming Dutch uncle. Branagh’s Poirot is more of a superhero-sleuth, sometimes humorous, but also intense and purposeful. This enraged at least some reviewers. They prefer their detectives without layers, and found Branagh too intense and insufficiently charming. Branagh excited particular controversy among Christie fans by giving the detective an origin story, involving military heroics, a lost love, and a tragi-comic explanation of Poirot’s famous mustache. It was interesting to see how this detail sparked outrage. I can understand it, because the twinkly-eyed “Papa Poirot” is more comforting without a backstory. It’s always disconcerting to discover that our parents have personal lives. It is also admittedly difficult to picture the fastidious Poirot on a battlefield, but I am nevertheless prepared to be patient with Branagh’s unfolding interpretation. It really is not unreasonable to make Poirot into a superhero of sorts. Superheroes and detectives have many things in common. 

Like superheroes, detectives are necessarily liminal figures. They step in from outside, seeing things that are invisible to people who are enmeshed in human affairs in the ordinary way. Normally, the detective himself has few enduring personal ties, which frees him in practical ways, but also enables him to attain the needed objectivity. This is why detectives tend to be highly eccentric. It’s also why they so often have assistants or sidekicks, who can voice what the rest of us are thinking, and elicit explanations of the method in the madness. Origin stories help us to understand how superheroes became so alienated, and why, in their particular cases, their combination of remarkable powers and traumatic personal memories have spurred them into becoming super-altruists, instead of power-hungry maniacs or embittered loners. Poirot’s backstory serves a similar function, placing Poirot in the position of a hyper-talented humanitarian who uses his gifts for good, in obeisance to an inwardly-felt sense of mission.

The story Branagh invented for Poirot is somewhat over-the-top, but we usually accept some level of clownish hyperbole in character studies of Batman or Captain America. I think this can work. It may also be a good entry-point for younger audiences who already know a lot about superheroes, and far less about detective stories. 

If Poirot is to become a puzzle-solving superhero, however, his human host needs to understand that the “little gray cells” do more than analyze clues. Poirot does not, like Sherlock Holmes, mix mysterious chemicals. He does not crawl through woods and fields, magnifying glass in hand. Penetrating psychological and moral insight must be his superpower. In Christie’s novels, Poirot’s time seems primarily to be spent in conversations, which only occasionally happen in interrogation rooms. Charm and sympathy are potent tools for him, because they motivate people to tell the tiny Belgian exactly what’s on their mind. G.K. Chesterton and Ralph McInerny wrote stories about detective-priests, which also makes a great deal of sense; priests are liminal figures too, and sin and redemption are their primary business. Christie did not give her sleuth a collar, but you might almost think he had one, given people’s penchant for confessing to him.  

Next time, Branagh must dispense with the social-justice subplots, and focus his energy on an older and more compelling story. All human cultures have shared in it. As an archaeologist’s wife, Christie had a keen interest in the human condition, and that civilization-spanning sense of mystery is essential to the success of any “Christieverse.”

Poirot, to me, is like an old friend. I devoured Christie mysteries as a teenager, and in moments of gloom or anxiety, I will still occasionally indulge myself with a reread. If I haven’t read a particular mystery for more than 20 years, I’ve generally forgotten whodunit. With luck, I might be able to enjoy some of these stories four times before I die.

In my old age, I might even want to participate in Branagh’s virtual “Christieverse.” He’s got to get it right, though. It’s time for Branagh to exercise his little gray cells, and embrace the moral vision of the Queen of Crime.