I've seen Hercule Poirot before. What Agatha Christie fan hasn't? Poirot, the Belgian detective who stars in 33 of Christie's novels, is such a vividly rendered character that one could point out his twin on the street. Christie herself said that she saw the "living embodiment" of Poirot twice. The iconic sleuth always sports a carefully groomed, curled mustache. Tailored suits drape faultlessly over his 5'4" frame. And, much to the envy of other men, Poirot has maintained a full head of black hair over the years.
Poirot's appearance has been tweaked across TV and film adaptations. In the BBC's engrossing new adaptation of Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, which just landed to Amazon Prime Video on February 1, Poirot (John Malkovitch) has gone gray and lost a bit of his joie de vivre. Still, despite his newfound glumness, he maintains that essential Poirot quality. Given how distinct this character is, one wonders: Did Christie model her detective off of a real person?
In her autobiography, the British author speaks to the invention of Poirot. "I remembered our Belgian refugees. We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish of Tor. Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer," Christie wrote.
Though there's a chance Poirot's genesis is even more specific. A recent investigation into Christie's childhood indicates that Poirot may be based on an individual Christie had met as a young woman.
In a May 2014 article for The Telegraph, researcher Michael Clapp argued that a young Christie encountered Jacques Hornais during a wartime fundraising event in Torquay, England. Like Poirot, Hornais was a Belgian gendarme who fled Belgium for Britain in 1914, when the Germans invaded. Michael Clapp's grandmother, Alice Graham Clapp was instrumental in finding homes for 500 Belgian refugees, including Hornais. In January 1915, Alice Clapp hosted an event at the home where Poirot was staying. A 24-year-old Christie was brought on to play the piano at said event.
"It's seems quite plausible that Christie met him at the event and may have been intrigued by his stories," Michael Clapp argues in his article. He also claims that Hornais was the only detective living in Torquay at the time.
Clapp's theory is especially plausible considering Christie had mined her past for character inspiration before. Miss Marple, the other key detective in her novels, was modeled from the elderly women in her life – including her grandmother. In a series of tapes discovered after her death, Christie speaks about the parallels between Jane Marple and her grandmother. "Although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything. And with almost frightening accuracy (she was) usually proved right," Christie says. Apparently, her grandmother would make proclamations about what was happening in people's lives, and those assumptions were true, just like Marple.
Poirot and Marple are so distinct they've become characters used in other people's stories. Writer Sophie Hannah has taken on the helm of rebooting Christie's Poirot in a new series of books. Screenwriters like Sarah Phelps, who created the recent A.B.C. Murders, also can interpret his character. After countless novels, animated series, movies, plays and spoofs, Poirot and Marple have achieved a kind of immortal status. Even if they're not based on real people, they're so ubiquitous it seems they are real.