Book People | July 2022 | Nate Pedersen

Who Was the Inspiration for Hercule Poirot?

Agatha Christie fans have long puzzled over the existence of a real-life inspiration for Hercule Poirot. Did the author base Poirot on someone she knew? Or was he an entirely fictional invention?

A genealogist in Torquay believes he may have found the real deal: Jacques Hornais, a retired Belgian gendarme who fled World War I and settled in a community of refugee Belgians in Torquay. Monsieur Hornais billeted with one Mrs Potts Chatto who lived just down the road from Agatha Christie's family. 

The genealogist, retired British Navy commander Michael Clapp reported to The Guardian, "The coincidence came when I went to Torquay, and someone at the museum dug out an old newspaper article saying that Mrs Potts Chatto had held a meeting to raise money and clothing for the Belgian refugees, and a young girl played the piano there. She turned out to be Agatha Christie."

Clapp continued, "...[Hornais] was the only gendarme or detective of any kind I know of to have been sent there. So it's not proof, but it's a pretty good coincidence."

In Christie's own autobiography, she confesses to an internal debate over the character and nationality of her detective. "Then I remembered our Belgian refugees. We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish of Tor. Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer."

So was Monsieur Hornais the real-life inspiration for Monsieur Poirot? Or was he just part of the general milieu of Belgian refugees who Christie knew as a young girl? Not much else is yet known about Monsieur Hornais.  For example, did he help solve murders on country estates and in pastoral villages? Did he ever mention his "little grey cells"?  Did he curl his mustache? I'd love to hear more.

In the meantime, the mystery continues...