August 6, 1975, is the only day in its history that The New York Times ran an obituary for a fictional character. And it was on PAGE ONE! You will find this factoid in absolutely every article about the character and in most about Agatha Christie. What is not on record is: why did the NYT do it?
[UPDATE: Walter White has joined Hercule Poirot as a fictional character with a real obituary. For Walt it was the Albuquerque Journal.]
Christie introduced Poirot in 1920 in the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It's set in Essex in 1916 (when she wrote it), where Captain Hastings is at a country house party. In the village he runs into Poirot, who is a World War 1 refugee. When someone is murdered, Hastings calls upon Poirot, mirroring how they met in Belgium when the Brussels police had called Poirot into a case years before. The rest is a history of 33 novels and more than 50 short stories that spanned 55 years.
Christie killed off Poirot in the novel Curtain, written in 1945. She seemed to have the similar feelings toward her creation that Conan Doyle felt for Sherlock. A line that is oft quoted is that by 1930 Christie found Poirot "insufferable." But she locked Curtain away in a vault because he was so very popular and a cash cow for her. The rest of the oft quoted line is that by 1960 she felt he was a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep." I find her distaste fascinating, because she had control over how he "was," didn't she? She could have made him different in many ways.
Then, in 1975 with her own health failing, Christie asked Dodd, Mead to publish Curtain on October 15, and she died herself just months later in January 1976, at the age of 85.
The New York Times ran the obituary on August 6. Why that day? No idea. And I haven't been able to find any information about who made the decision to use a RL convention for a fictional character.
One interesting note is that the position of executive editor was vacant at the time, from 1969, after James Reston left, until 1977 when A.M. Rosenthal assumed the responsibility. So, there may have been a little more flexibility about what was going on. . . .
Thomas Lask, who wrote the obit, was a leading culture, arts, book reviewer for the Times and NYRB. He's just who you would want to write such an obit, and it's spot on:
Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904.
Mr. Poirot, who was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, went to England from Belgium during World War 1 as a refugee.
The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May.
His death was confirmed by Dodd, Mead, Dame Agatha's publishers, who will put out Curtain, the novel that chronicles his last days, on Oct. 15.
The Poirot of the final volume is only a shadow of the well-turned out, agile investigator who, with a charming but immense ego and fractured English, solved uncounted mysteries in 37 full-length novels and colections of short stories in which he appeared.
Dame Agatha reports in Curtain that he managed, in one final gesture, to perform one more act of cerebration that saved an innocent bystander from disaster. "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it," to quote Shakespeare, whom Poirot frequently misquoted.
[The entire obit is available for purchase here]
What the Heck Was Going on in the Zeitgeist of 1975?
What interests me so much about this is that Poirot doesn't seem a big enough pop cultural icon to warrant, or inspire, such creative attention.
Here are some touch points, mostly courtesy of Wiki, of the 1975 landscape upon which this obituary was first seen. It was the days of Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and a failing, crime-ridden almost bankrupt New York City (although the famous "Ford to NYC: Drop Dead" didn't come until October 1975.)
January 1 - Watergate: John N. Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman are found guilty of the Watergate cover-up.
January 20 - Michael Ovitz founds the Creative Artists Agency.
January 29 – The Weather Underground bombs the U.S. State Department main office in Washington, D.C.
February 11 - Margaret Thatcher defeats Edward Heath for the leadership of the opposition UK Conservative Party. Thatcher, 49, is Britain's first female leader of any political party.
February 21 – Watergte: Former United States Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and former White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, are sentenced to between 30 months and 8 years in prison.
March 4 - Charlie Chaplin is knighted by Elizabeth II.
March 10 - Vietnam War: North Vietnamese troops attack Ban Me Thuot, South Vietnam, on their way to capturing Saigon.
April 4 - Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
April 30 – Vietnam War and the Fall of Saigon: The Vietnam War ends as Communist forces from North Vietnam take Saigon, resulting in mass evacuations of Americans and South Vietnamese. As the capital is taken, South Vietnam surrenders unconditionally.
July 30 – In Detroit, Michigan, former Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa is reported missing.
On TV: The Jeffersons, Barney Miller, and Baretta debuted; MacLean Stevenson's Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H died on March 18.
In Literature: The heavy hitters were at it. Martin Amis Dead Babies (a parody of an Agatha Christie country house mystery); Saul Bellow Humboldt's Gift; James Clavell Shogun; E.L. Doctorow Ragtime
In Film: Jaws, Shampoo, Tommy, Rollerball, Love and Death, Funny Lady, and Nashville all opened before Aug. 6.
The truly all-star Murder on the Orient Express came out in November 1974, but besides that, there doesn't seem to be much in the zeitgeist that would suggest that the death of Hercule Poirot would land him on the front page of the New York Times.
What About Today?
Leave it to the AV Club to have posed a related question to their editors and writers in 2010: What fictional character's death has had an impact on you?
Not surprisingly Leonard Pierce brings up The Wire, and the first 100 or so comments are people arguing which of the different characters' deaths was the most memorable. Then someone brings up Charlotte of Charlotte's web, and lots of people agree. Quite a contrast.
Of course with media more fractured—or more positively put, serving niches—consensus of any type would be hard.
And the Times is not likely to break implicit protocol these days, that obituaries are for real people who have died.
It's a nice footnote to literary history that a Belgian sleuth, written by an English mystery writer, ended up on the front page of America's paper of record. Why? I like to think that the people who had the power to make such a thing happen were just such huge fans, they couldn't resist.
(Hercule Poirot obituary & headline are ©The New York Times)