Thursday 24 March 2011

Hercule Poirot and Stephanie Plum - Crime can be FUN: by Bryony Pearce

I’ll say upfront that I don’t mean criminal activities should be undertaken as a form of entertainment (please nobody sue me). What I mean is that for well over a century, certain writers have proven that crime fiction can (and sometimes should) be FUNNY.

Reading ‘fun’ crime gives us a nice break from everyday life – a laugh along with the suggestion that we live in a comprehensible universe and that even death is a mystery that can be solved. Fun crime is worth reading.

At first glance Poirot and Plum are worlds apart. Christie’s first Poirot novel was published in 1920, the thirty-ninth in 1975. Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel was published in 1994 and the seventeenth just last year.

Poirot is an apparently asexual, utterly fastidious French speaking Belgian private detective, perhaps best embodied by David Suchet who played the role in the successful nineties television series.

Stephanie Plum is a ditzy Bounty Hunter from Trenton New Jersey, who constantly ends up in disgusting messes and perilous situations and whose love triangle with fellow bounty hunter Ranger and cop Morelli form the backbone of the series of books. She is due to be played by Katherine Heigl in the upcoming film of the first book ‘One for the Money’ (although I always imagined her as more of a Sandra Bullock).

Poirot travels, solving mysteries in places from an English country house to Mesopotamia and the Nile; Plum remains in Trenton, New Jersey, solving mysteries at the local funeral parlour or ice-cream shop. In seventeen novels the furthest she gets from home is a trip to Las Vegas.

And yet both Poirot and Plum are totally beloved of fans (I’m one of them) and I can say that I love both, partly because there are similarities that tie the books together.

Both writers are easy to read (I regularly recommend Evanovich / Plum to reluctant adult readers). In both sets of books the narratives are well-paced, the dialogue is lively and the setting is described with the minimum of description, but oh so effectively.

Both Poirot and Plum solve mysteries, both are in the ‘eccentric detective’ mould (like Sherlock Holmes), both have ‘a stooge assistant’ (Hastings and Lula) and both have real police to deal with (although Poirot’s relationship with Japp is strikingly different from Plum’s with Morelli).

Most other characters are stereotypes. In Christie we have the rich newcomer with his mysterious butler or secretary or the ne'er-do-well relative, in Evanovich we have the prostitute with the heart of gold, the crazy grandmother, the long suffering parents, the slimy pervert, the hot mystery guy, the roguish cop. All of these have a wonderful universality that means the stereotype is always welcome.

And the descriptions themselves are genius. Poirot as first described by Hastings

"He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.”

We can see Poirot with perfect clarity and there is a wonderful comical element to the way Christie puts the bird-like pose and pink tipped nose next to his ‘dignity’.

Evanovich has similarly wonderful descriptive passages, spare, yet telling us so much.

"My professional aspirations were simple - I wanted to be an intergalactic princess."

One of Plum’s less attractive suitors is described as having a tent in his fly made by his zipper. That’s pretty much all the description you get, but isn’t it enough?

It is the characters drawn by Christie and Evanovich that are so vital to the success of the books. And because the characters are so easy to imagine it is perhaps not surprising that Poirot and Plum have spawned films.

If One for the Money is as good as the book, I reckon you’ll enjoy it.

Bryony's debut novel ANGEL'S FURY will be published on the 4th July by Egmont Books


  1. I did not enjoy 'Plum' and did not bother to read the second book. Far more interesting to me was Kinsey Millhone, PI of Sue Grafton's Alphabet crime series. Kinsey seemed like flesh and blood to me whereas 'Plum' just a sugary confection.

  2. I haven't read Grafton's Alphabet crime series - is it crime comedy? If so, thank you for the recommendation.