IT was a tantalizing question: Was this man shaking my hand in the lobby of the Grand Hotel the world's greatest detective, or merely the world's second greatest?
David Suchet, alias Hercule Poirot, was certain of the answer. With a characteristic twinkle in his brown eyes, he said flatly: "Hercule Poirot ... believes he is the world's greatest detective" and certainly a notch above the equally famous Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Suchet, whose Belgian-French accent, mincing step, and perfumed mustache give him great authenticity with Agatha Christie readers, has made Poirot one of the most popular figures of all time with "Mystery!" fans on PBS television.
Poirot may have many annoying qualities - "I find him irritating, insufferable, egotistic, pompous," Suchet says with a chuckle - but Poirot is also a man of "enormous charm."
Matched against the great Holmes, Suchet is sure Poirot comes out on top. "Poirot investigates in such a unique way," he says. "He is, if you like, a walking brain." Even more important, "he adores people. And I think this is the big difference between Holmes and Poirot.... Poirot is very, very fond of his [lesser mortals]. He likes people and he likes to treat them kindly. He is also firm. But he's very much a humanist in his attitude toward people," Suchet says. "I haven't, as you noticed, said that he
finds out more criminals. It's just the way that he goes about it."
Suchet was in town recently to raise money for Washington's biggest public television station, WETA, and to share his insights on Poirot with his many American fans. He was amazed by the response.
"I have to say, in all honesty, I am totally overwhelmed with the reception that I've had in Washington. It's extraordinary.... Washington has welcomed me and treated me like a king."
Suchet gives Poirot the credit. People around the world "respond to the same appeal [of] that strange little man." Though he has "very irritating qualities," viewers "can't switch off" their TV sets, he says.
Suchet and his fellow actors - Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon, and Phillip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp - have filmed 30 Poirot mysteries based on Christie's short stories and novels.
Eight short stories, which make one-hour shows, and about 20 novels remain to be done. Since the books will each make two-hour shows, Suchet figures that altogether, it's enough work for the next seven years.
Filming of "Agatha Christie's Poirot" takes place during the spring and summer, when outdoor scenes are possible in oft-drizzly Britain. Suchet says each one-hour episode takes approximately 13 days of shooting.
The cast works on a five/six-day schedule - five days one week, six days the next. On a typical day, Suchet leaves home at 6 a.m., arrives at the studio by 6:45, then spends the next hour-and-a-half in makeup.
"The shooting day is supposed to finish about 7 [p.m.], but I think most days somebody comes up and says, 'We're overrunning a little bit, Mr. Suchet, would you mind very much?' And of course, you sigh a little bit and tut a bit, and say, 'No, not at all.' "
Suchet does this last little sentence in his Belgian accent, which he says was difficult to perfect. To remain true to Poirot's mannerisms and speech, he remains in character at all times on the set, even during breaks.
Suchet's goal is to portray Poirot exactly as Christie wrote of him, right down to the smallest detail. He has read every short story, every book, and taken a large stack of notes about the Belgian detective. The most important ones he keeps on a few sheets of paper folded neatly in his jacket pocket.
But one day on the set, Suchet suddenly found himself without his notes - and with a critical question. How many lumps of sugar does Poirot take in his tea? The director wouldn't delay, so Suchet guessed - three lumps. Only later when he called his wife to check his notes at home did he confirm that Poirot usually takes four lumps of sugar, but sometimes three.
"The Hercule Poirot that you see on television I hope will be the Hercule Poirot that Agatha Christie wrote. I never knew Agatha Christie personally, but I know her daughter, and I know her grandson, and they tell me that Mother would have been delighted.... That pleases me more than any other compliment that I could ever receive," Suchet says.
He admits there are some similarities between himself and the Belgian, and that sometimes characteristics can rub off.
"I like myself to have an ordered mind [like Poirot]. I'm affected by what I see, so I don't like disharmony.... I'm fairly fussy about how I look. I don't like to be late; he doesn't like to be late. Little things like that."
But Suchet insists he is no Poirot. "I certainly wouldn't send my boiled eggs that I ordered for breakfast back if they weren't of identical size. And I would not cut up my toast into absolutely exact symmetrical squares."
Well, not yet anyway. But there are still seven more years of filming ahead.