Summer Suits and Straw Hats: Poirot, Agatha Christie, and Archaeology

With a somewhat smaller budget than Indiana Jones and, admittedly, a much smaller fan-base, the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 – 2013), starring David Suchet, masterfully captures an imaginative sense of time and space. Whether the murder happens in a manor houses or an archaeological dig, the 1920s and 30s look far more stylish on screen than they perhaps ever did in reality, even for the most wealthy aesthetes.

In the episodes set in Egypt (“Death on the Nile,” “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”), Iraq (“Murder in Mesopotamia”), or Syria (“Appointment with Death” though the book is set at Petra), Poirot typically wears a three-piece summer suit in varying shades of sandstone, a straw homburg, and a small lapel pin shaped like a vase with flowers, which is as much of a trademark as his waxed mustache.

AgathaandMaxPoirot’s dapper attire is not so unlike the sartorial sensibilities of Sir Max Mallowan, renown English archaeologist and second husband of Agatha Christie. Her first marriage, to Archibald Christie, had ended badly, with her husband’s infidelity followed by her own mysterious disappearance. Afterwards, and perhaps to escape the scandal, Christie went on an extensive tour of Mesopotamia, or present-day Iraq. It was at Ur, famous for its ziggurat and as the birthplace of Abraham, that she met Mallowan. They were married from 1930 until her death in 1976, and their decades of travel together, and her close involvement with excavations, informs Christie’s novels and, to a lesser extent, the television series.

But the novels aren’t really about archaeology, and even Christie’s Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir uses archaeology as a metaphor for digging in the past rather than treating it as a subject matter. She writes in the preface, “A final warning, so that there will be no disappointment. This is not a profound book–it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economical problems, no racial reflections, no history.” This kind of disclaimer is standard boiler-plate language for any woman writing a non-fiction book in the early twentieth century: women must remind their readers that they are not real experts in the field. Their books aren’t scientific or factual. They’re not male writers, after all. Instead, women writers often stress subjectivity and, of course, modesty.

Poirot is Christie’s alterego, the male subject through which she can be clever, egotistical, and above all classy. The television series doesn’t just do a great job of conveying the glamour of the novels, in many ways, the show creates the glamour. Even the episodes that seem the most dated–those filmed in the late 80s and early 90s–are still remarkably elegant. Regardless of however remote the locale, the characters still enjoy buffet breakfasts and dress for dinner. Their tents are arranged with furniture, their furniture with knickknacks, for what I believe the youths call glamping. 

Appointment with Death starring Elizabeth McGovern, John Hannah, Tim Curry, Mark Gatiss, and David Suchet

On this point, the set designers weren’t too far from the truth. British tourists in Egypt were urged by their guidebooks to pack any luxury they might not be able to acquire in Egypt. A few generations before Poirot, John Murray recommended that readers of his 1847 Handbook for Travellers in Egypt pack or purchase several long, onion-skin pages worth of goods, including (but by no means limited to): iron bedsteads, brooms, sheets, pillows, gridirons, potatoes, salt, pepper, butter, flower, macaroni, washing tub, tents, saddles and bridles, a telescope, two sheets of Mackintosh, and an iron rat-trap if travelling by boat.

By the early 1900s, guidebooks recommended packing lighter, but definitely include English clothes, several hundred books, and photographic materials, but everything else could be purchased either in Cairo or Alexandria. That didn’t stop the tourists who could afford it from packing their refrigerators. Literally. Their refrigerators. As late as 1926, Vita Sackville-West wrote, “My own luggage had increased considerably…I had acquired a gramophone, an ice-box, and and a large canvas bag which took the overflow of my books. The gramophone and ice-box I had accepted in Cairo to save them from being thrown into the Nile; as they had already travelled with forty-seven other pieces of luggage over Tibet on the backs of yaks, I thought it a pity they should not continue their career.” I’ve always wondered how many gramophones you could find at the bottom of the Nile.
As Poirot’s props and problematic baggage go, perhaps none are as ubiquitous, but insignificant to the narrative, as the local population. In the archaeology episodes,  we see the (almost always male) locals in three classic aesthetic models: large crowds of manual laborers or diggers to add a sense of sublime scale to the digs; the simple rustic to add a sense of the picturesque; or the shadowy figure to add intrigue. These are the same archetypes used throughout British travel literature. In other words, locals are simply racial stereotypes, used as props and plot devises to push along the narratives of the largely Anglo ensemble. In order to buy into the romance of archaeology, we must ignore the fact that it is (or at least was) largely a colonial project, and that the discoveries we praise would not be possible without the invisible labor of the local population. In order for the fantasy to work, we must excise the problematic aspects that make us uncomfortable.

At least part of the show’s aesthetic originates in its source material, but Christie’s novels give us very little setting (but ample racism!) to work from. Christie is great at dialogue (though some of the best lines in the show, as when Dr. Leidner says in “Murder in Mesopotamia, “All I ever wanted to do was dig in the earth and find the secrets that time has buried there,” never appear in the books), but her descriptions of place are rather sparse. This might be surprising given the show’s lush sets, but Christie’s novels are very much of their time and genre. Popular fiction after World War I abandoned the rich detail associated with Victorian literature; instead, Christie’s novels read almost like plays–there is plenty of dialogue, a few stage directions, and everything else is just backdrop. The ITV series works so well because, as paradoxical as it might seem, the modern television camera sees the world through a strangely Victorian eye–every detail is captured, every object is in focus, and every textile preserves its texture.
I’ve said before that nothing captures the imagination like a well-articulated aesthetic. That, I believe, is the first axiom for explaining the relationship between imagination and aesthetics. My second axiom is that imagination is activated by visual stimuli: the more details we can see, the more believable that environment is, and the more easily we can imagine ourselves within it. One corollary to this axiom (to continue with the geometric language) is that we erase any (or at least most) details that make us uncomfortable or unpleasantly complicit. We have to acknowledge the fact that our idealization of archaeology in the early twentieth century is closely related to nostalgia–we only remember what we want to remember–and nostalgia is frequently only accessible via white privilege. When these rules are followed by films such as the Indiana Jones trilogy (Let’s just forget Crystal Skull exists.) and tv shows like Poirot, the spatio-temporal effect appeals to us on such a visceral level that we cannot even imagine archaeology without superimposing our favorite scenes.
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