I’ve been watching the Agatha Christie Poirot novels that have been televised by PBS over the last several years, and I’ve been struck by one rather odd aspect of the character of Hercule Poirot. At least the televised character. It’s an aspect that isn’t unique to Poirot, however. I’ve noticed it in at least one other fictitious private detective, Sherlock Holmes, and in one fictitious lawyer, Perry Mason. What I’m wondering about here is the total lack of–to put it as delicately as possible–sexuality. I don’t know if the authors of these works specifically intended for their characters to exhibit this deficiency of desire for the opposite sex, but it sure does come through in the televised versions. In short, I can’t imagine Poirot or Holmes having an affair, or any sort of amorous liaison at all, with a woman. Not at all.
I wonder why.
I’ve read Sherlock Holmes cover-to-cover at least twice, and individual stories even more often. I still like The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ve read only four Poirot novels though, and haven’t read any of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels so I can’t comment on those. But the televised versions have presented these legal investigators as some of the most sexually sterile individuals I’ve ever come across. Most of the other TV legal types are presented as much more rounded individuals. The characters on Law and Order-SVU, for example, have wives or husbands, children, or at least a girl or boy friend. They have a real life. The only exception to this might be Joe Friday of Dragnet, so long ago. I don’t think he ever had a girl friend or exhibited any desire to get one. What did he do after work?
Let’s take a closer look at Poirot here. Reading several of the novels, I was not struck by his lack of attraction to the opposite sex as much as in the televised versions. That, perhaps, is one of the advantages of a visual telling of a story. In reading a novel, the story plays out in the reader’s mind. All fictitious sites, people, events, and so forth are imaginary, guided by the words on the page. Only the reader knows what they look like. If the author fails to present the reader with sexual adventure of the main character, it may slip by unnoticed. If it isn’t specifically stated, a reader may not notice its absence.
Television, the premier visual medium, however, presents other details. We see a character in his style of dress, his apartment, his friends, his mannerisms, the people on his street, in short, the total of his milieu, things that may not have been explicitly stated in the book. A televised character can be a more complete person than in the novel. Yet, I still can’t see Poirot having an affair, and I’m still perplexed as to why these fictional characters are presented so, for lack of a better word, incomplete. Their totality of being is so lacking and imperfect, so out of touch with today’s society. I wouldn’t want to write a character like that.
Perry Mason is presented on TV as similar to Holmes and Poirot, though not as severely. He escorts his private secretary, Della Street, around during an investigation, yet they seem to have never consummated a relationship. Paul Drake, a private investigator on the Perry Mason series, frequently says “Hi, beautiful,” to Della Street when he enters a room, something he likely wouldn’t do if she was Mason’s love interest. Sherlock Holmes’ friend, Dr. John Watson, even got married and left Holmes alone in his flat at 221B Baker Street. But can you see Holmes ever having a sexual relationship with a woman? Taking her to dinner? On a date to the symphony? Saying “I love you?” I can’t. Yet Holmes, Mason and Poirot are some of the best known and most popular private investigators in fictional history. Just goes to show…