Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Little Grey Cells

Being a fan of PBS’s ‘Mystery’ series and obituaries I was grinning the other night when Alan Cumming introduced a Poirot episode by telling us that Hercule was so popular that when Dame Agatha decided not to continue with him in 1975 the NYT wrote, on the front page no less, a Poirot obituary.

Think of that. 1975 and they were doing a bit of a spoof. I had to read this one.

I’ve been continuously employed since I was 19, and for just as long I’ve been buying the Times each day. Only in the last several years have I stopped buying the Sunday edition. Too much fluff, and it puts me even further behind in my reading. So, surely I read the 1975 story.

Library digital document retrieval has been added to my skill set. As easy as brushing my teeth, I secured and printed a copy of the August 6, 1975 Poirot “obituary,” written by Thomas Lask.

And there it was. And it was fairly quickly familiar. I remembered reading it.

The piece starts out with all the obituary phrases. Without knowing anything you’re not aware of his fictional origins. However, it quickly becomes apparent the story is about Dame Agatha’s forthcoming book using the Belgian detective for the last time. The piece goes on somewhat at length about Dame Agatha’s career of writing detective books, almost as if she died. Which she hadn’t. She’d live to be 85, but did pass away on January 12, 1976, soon after the news of Poirot’s death.

There’s a picture accompanying the article that is a portrait of Hercule as painted by W. Smithson Broadhead in the 1920s. The portrait is true to Christie’s description of the fussy Belgian, and serves to remind anyone who has watched David Suchet play the detective in the ‘Mystery’ series that Poirot does indeed look like a fried egg in a skillet.

There doesn’t really seem to be any precedent for writing about a person of fiction as if they really existed. We do know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did kill off Sherlock Holmes because he grew weary of him, but was forced to bring him back, JR-like, because he was so popular. A tongue-in-cheek obituary doesn’t seem to have been undertaken, either.

I suspect there are those who might think that because 1975 was so long ago in the past that it might represent a cultural high water mark when people read more and therefore were actually going to mourn the passing of a fictional character. Times were different, sort of thing. No.

I don’t buy into that. I can think of at least one fictional character, who if they were to be terminated today would create a “fuss extraordinaire.” Harry Potter.

By all accounts, he’s still with us.

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