Feb 022009

I have not read all of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, but he’s such a timeless character, the series not needing to be read in order, that I recently devoured the very last Poirot book: Curtain.

I’ve been reading Christie for as long as I can remember. Well, maybe not since the age of 2, but at least since my early teens. I’ve enjoyed her books as light reading, not-so-easy mysteries to solve, escapism, but never as social commentary. But as I was reading Curtain, I started to see that a very real discussion was under way in Christie’s mind about the worth of life. She several times brings up the idea of lives that are sick, injured, in pain, old, disabled in some way — in other words “weak” — as not really worthy of life, and she culminates it in a big discussion between several of her characters in chapter 11. She has one character say, rather shockingly, “Unfit lives, useless lives — they should be got out of the way.” Isn’t that how many perceived Robert Latimer’s daughter? And not just her?

I had always thought euthanasia was a fairly recent trend, but given she wrote this 60 years ago, apparently not.

Christie wrote Curtain during World War II, when bombs and guns snuffed out lives in hundreds of thousands in a never-ending barrage. The sanctity of life must’ve become rather theoretical when so many people were dying, when so many made daily decisions about who would die. War makes one nation a bit god-like over deciding the human worth of another nation. Yet living in peace does not seem to have changed attitudes much. Despite society deciding to close institutions for the mentally ill 30 or so years ago and recently institutions for the intellectually disabled, on the basis that these lives are worth more than being shut up in a warehouse, the public showed more sympathy to Latimer the murderer than to his daughter the victim. People are averse to disease, afraid of weakness, and this showed up blatently over the Latimer reaction. His life was worth more than hers, the Canadian public decided.

Christie hammers over and over the idea of euthanasia as good, the value of playing god and snuffing out weak lives, the idea that “Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live.” But in the end, she neatly flips all those ideas on their head in Poirot’s own mortal-taking decision. Any Poirot fan knows how immodest he is. He is supremely confident always in his “little grey cells,” his deductions, his decisions. Poirot is the antonym of humble. Yet after his final act, he expresses doubt, soul-deep doubt: “But now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…'”

Curtain. After finishing this book, that simple, single word means so much more than Poirot’s last case. Curtain: the last of Poirot. Curtain, the end of a famous life. Curtain, the end of the idea of human life being sacred. Curtain: healthy, god-like humans bring it down on the weak. And yet Curtain: the worth of life is not black and white, not so easy to decide.

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  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “euthanasia” first came into usage in the seventeenth century, when it meant merely “a gentle and easy death” without necessarily denoting the means of that death. That happened about a hundred years later, with the current meaning becoming common in the late nineteenth century.

    Curtain is by far my favourite Poirot mystery and probably the most memorable. Christie managed to bring Poirot’s life, and thus his story, to a dramatic and tender conclusion. The death of Poirot was apparently such a big deal that real newspapers ran obituaries about him. I greatly respect that she turned Poirot into a murderer–and not a “it’s you or me” life-or-death struggle over Reichenbach Falls, but a calculated decision to murder a murderer before he can commit another crime. This final act confirms Poirot as a three dimensional, complex character and not just a stock detective. No wonder she’s still being published five billion years from now (according to Doctor Who). :O

  • Shireen

    Thanks for the info. I did not know that. I think many feel that euthanasia offers a “gentle and easy” death, yet the obvious abuse that happens when people play god, when those slated for death don’t want to die but feel obligated to, belies that as we see in the Netherlands.

    I am a late fan of Poirot’s. Before my brain injury, I was a Marple fan, only liking Poirot when played by David Suchet; after, I became a huge Poirot fan. I agree, I liked the fact he used his “little grey cells” to resolve the dilemma but that he also experienced great doubt about the decision that very intellect — that had served him so well — had led him to. Doctor Who will be right!

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