This week Thrillerfest is being held in New York City. The event includes master classes, seminars on the craft of writing, and advice from pros on how to pitch thrillers to agents and editors. It also includes a banquet at which the International Thriller Awards will be presented. This year four of the nominees in the short story category are from EQMM. One of them is a story from our Passport to Crime department: “Russian for Beginners” by Dominique Biebau. In this post, Dominique talks about the relevance of crime fiction to today’s world. We wish him and all of the other nominees from EQMM—Smita Harish Jain, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anna Scotti—good luck on Saturday night, when the award winners will be announced! —Janet Hutchings
Sometimes, writing crime fiction seems an irrelevant, even somewhat banal, occupation in a world that verges on catastrophe. The war in Ukraine, pandemics, climate change . . . As a thriller author, it is hard not to feel like a violin player on the Titanic. Do these times really need stories about fictional crimes when there is no shortage of real problems? How relevant is the thriller genre? Is it still morally acceptable to read crime stories, let alone write them?
In moments of existential doubt, I always turn to Hercule Poirot.
As a teacher and a Belgian thriller writer, I spend one third of my life apologizing for the fact that I have too many holidays. Another third is spent apologizing for investing my time in something as frivolous as crime stories. The final third, however, I spend pointing at maps, showing where my native country is situated and explaining that, no, it’s not a part of France, and—God forbid!—I am not Dutch.
Belgium is a bit like Delaware. No-one actually knows anything about us. We only have three famous people, two of whom are fictional: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tintin, and Hercule Poirot. (Yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme is, despite appearances, a real person.)
Of these three, Hercule Poirot has influenced me the most.
An egg with a moustache. That’s how I got to know Agatha Christie’s top detective. For me—as for so many others—the British actor David Suchet is the ultimate Hercule Poirot. Suchet portrayed the sleuth the way his creator probably intended him to be. Vain, cool, but with a mild benevolence towards anyone with fewer little grey cells than himself.
Later in life, I continued to devour Agatha Christie’s crime novels and—as I became a crime writer myself—Poirot started to symbolize the way the world looks at crime fiction. At the beginning of most of Christie’s novels, Poirot is perceived as a clown, an eccentric buffoon. This appraisal, however, changes as the quirky little man morphs into an avenging angel bringing down the hammer of justice on his former mockers. The same can be said about crime stories in general: Seemingly innocuous and trivial, they too contain more than meets the eye.
My favorite Poirot book is, without a doubt, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. In this book (written in the 1940s, published in 1975), an old, ailing Poirot goes after an unremarkable man who has committed five murders without raising any suspicion. Poirot throws himself into the case with the ferocity of a Nemean lion, something that will ultimately cost him his life—and that of the murderer. The book shows Poirot at the apex of his powers, a master leaving the stage with one final bow. By killing the murderer himself, the detective outpaces fate. He becomes fate.
In Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, as in all of Agatha Christie’s books, nothing happens without good cause. The book is a meticulously constructed game of dominoes, where each stone topples another. Personally, I find that a particularly comforting thought. In real life, fate may strike with blind hunger, but in the Queen of Crime’s books, fate always has its reasons. Wanton, senseless violence has no place in Poirot’s universe and in the end, every question gets a satisfactory answer.
During his time as an inspector with the Brussels police, Poirot has learned the tricks of his trade and he applies this knowledge with an almost autistic thoroughness. He takes his time. That idea, too, can be particularly comforting. In Agatha Christie’s books, no one dies unseen. Every life gets the attention it deserves, even if that attention often comes too late: in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, for instance, it takes decades before the crime is punished.
Finally, Agatha Christie gave her famous detective the background of a refugee, a Belgian who has fled the ravages of the First World War. Poirot’s status as an exile makes him an outsider, someone who is regularly subjected to ridicule because of his outlandish ways. His foreign background, however, enables him to puncture the social delusions underpinning early 20th-century English society.
The reader may find it strange that Poirot, having fled the horrors of war, throws himself into fighting crime with apparent pleasure. Hadn’t he grown tired of misery by then? Yet, on a deeper level, his choice is understandable. Wars are hard to stop, even a genius like Poirot can do nothing but flee. This inability forces him to shift his field of action to a level he can handle: the world of personal conflict. This shift contains a poignant message: Poirot, faced with the inevitability of history, only picks the battles he can win. He takes personal responsibility, but also meekly bows his head when reality exceeds his capabilities. This way, he creates isles of justice in a world that is engulfed by violence and indifference. Too often, thrillers are accused of being nothing more than escapist entertainment. Those who read them would do so to escape reality or to marvel at someone else’s misery. The Hercule Poirot books have taught me that this is not so. Even though his adventures deal with murder and mayhem, they also create a vision of a world that is intrinsically better than ours: a place where every victim gets justice and every villain their comeuppance; a world where—on the rubble left by wars and climate change—poppies of justice can grow and flourish.