The headline in the New York Times read: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead: Famed Belgian Detective, Hercule Poirot, Dies.” The Times obituary, the first ever published for a fictional character, appeared on August 6, 1975 and read as follows
“Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown. Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904. His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, was one of the most illustrious in fiction. At the end of his life, he was arthritic and had a bad heart. He was in a wheelchair often, and was carried from his bedroom to the public lounge at Styles Court, a nursing home in Essex, wearing a wig and false moustaches to mask the signs of age that offended his vanity. In his active days, he was always impeccably dressed. The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May. Dame Agatha reports in Curtain that he managed, in one final gesture, to perform one more act of cerebration that saved an innocent bystander from disaster. ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it,’ to quote Shakespeare, whom Poirot frequently misquoted.”
Included with the obituary was a reprint of a portrait of Poirot painted by the British painter W. Smithson Broadhead (1888-1960) for The Sketch magazine in 1923.
Agatha Christie wrote the novel Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in the 1940s, and locked it in a bank vault. She intended that it should be published after her death, but decided to release it before her death when she realized she would no longer be able to write. The novel was published in Great Britain and the United States in late 1975. Christie died on January 12, 1976 at age 85 from natural causes.
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Should you decide to write a detective story you might keep in mind these rules formulated by crime writer, essayist, priest and theologian Ronald Knox:
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure into the plot.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
If you think about it, the above rules might also help you to determine who did it (and who couldn’t possibly have done it) in any detective story that you read – assuming that the author is aware of and follows Knox’s rules.