Over the past year Agatha Christie’s Poirot has become possibly my favorite show on television ever, besting old favorites like Breaking Bad and LOST. For whatever reason, this long-running show (1989-2013) about a Belgian detective has captured my imagination like few other shows have.
Why do I find it so appealing? I suspect for many of the same reasons I love Harry Potter. Both feature elegantly crafted mysteries set in a timeless world of trains and pubs and handsome estates and murderous intrigue. Both series grew increasingly darker and more ambiguous as their characters aged and were forced to contend with the depths of human evil and the darkness in their own hearts. The early Harry Potter books, with their whodunit structures, owe a clear debt to Agatha Christie’s novels, and the television series acknowledged this debt in its later seasons by borrowing the look and tone of the movies.
I’ve just finished my first run through the series (well, almost… I still haven’t gotten around to that final episode). But I’ll be watching the show and reading the novels on which it was based for a long time to come. For any aspiring writer of mystery novels, this series is indispensable. I loved almost every episode—and I find myself loving them even more on second viewing—so coming up with a list of my 10 favorites was especially challenging. Consider this a first attempt.
- The Veiled Lady (Season 2)
In its early seasons Poirot oscillated between 50-minute short story adaptations and feature-length novel adaptations. While the latter are generally more complex and rewarding, the hour-long episodes are fun to watch just to see what mad adventures Poirot and his friend Hastings get into from week to week. It’s very formulaic, and that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. In the first season the show was still developing this formula, but by the beginning of the second it had perfected it. “The Veiled Lady” is a showcase of everything that makes Poirot great, and features two of the series’ most memorable moments: Poirot and Hastings getting arrested for burglary, and a climactic scene involving a hall of statues and a cat.
- The Cornish Mystery (Season 2)
Possibly the quintessential Poirot episode, this was the first episode I watched where I realized the show was turning into something truly special. Poirot and Hastings take a trip via train to Cornwall, where they meet a woman who fears she’s being poisoned by her husband. “The Cornish Mystery” beautifully cements the rivalry between Poirot and Inspector Japp, the no-nonsense police inspector with whom the Belgian detective develops a competitive but enduring friendship.
- Hickory Dickory Dock (Season 6)
This is one of several feature-length Poirot adaptations to improve on the original novel; Christie’s plots were generally inspired but her prose was lackluster and her characterization shallow. The TV adaptation unceremoniously dispenses with several extraneous and somewhat offensive foreign characters, which makes for a tighter plot that allows the true beauty of the surprises Christie throws at us in the second half to shine all the more clearly. (Just ignore the mouse, and the choir that starts chanting anytime the mouse appears onscreen).
- Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Season 6)
In the novels, Poirot sometimes only shows up about midway through the story once a murder has already been committed; the series invariably has him present from the very beginning, which raises questions about why death and mayhem seem to follow him wherever he goes. Christie excelled at holiday-themed stories, and in this Christmas episode Poirot is visiting a family estate when the avaricious and unloved Simeon Lee is found dead in a locked room.
- Death on the Nile (Season 9)
My friend Hannah and I have an ongoing debate about which is better, the more formulaic and light-hearted early seasons or the later ones (roughly seasons 9-13) with their higher production values, darker themes and more complicated plotting. While I prefer the earlier seasons as a whole, I love the plots of the later episodes, and “Death on the Nile” is a great example of why. During its first half it seems to be the story of a couple being stalked by a jealous woman, but not everything is what it seems and the final scenes, in which Poirot reveals a conspiracy most intricate, are both intellectually thrilling and emotionally poignant. Also features Emily Blunt in one of her first roles.
- Evil under the Sun (Season 8)
Another ingeniously plotted murder mystery set in an exotic locale, with a seemingly ordinary premise (a woman who has numerous enemies is found lying dead on a beach) that becomes more layered and disturbing with each new revelation. Like “Death on the Nile,” so much of the brilliance of this episode lies in its final 20 minutes that to say too much would ruin the surprises, and there are many.
- Five Little Pigs (Season 9)
The first episode of the “new” series also has the distinction of being the most gorgeous, with a flashback structure that avoids being overly complicated and a tragic history that picks up emotional weight as we see the sins and mistakes of the past casting their shadows into the present. An initially disturbing but ultimately very moving story of deceit, betrayal, violence and a single redemptive act of unbelievable courage.
- Murder on the Orient Express (Season 12)
One of Christie’s best-known and most beloved stories became one of the best Poirot adaptations. Poirot is traveling through Europe via the Orient Express when a certain wealthy and despised passenger is found dead in his cabin. Mysteriously, everyone on the train bears some connection to the victim. This adaptation is chilling not only because of the cold that seeps through every frame but because of the moral dilemma Poirot faces, one that ultimately breaks his spirit. Watch out for Jessica Chastain in another “before she was famous” role.
- Murder on the Links (Season 6)
Poirot and Hastings are summoned to the French countryside and one of the more bizarre mysteries of his career, when a man is found lying dead in a shallow grave on a golf course. Soon another man turns up dead in the same area, and a woman voluntarily confesses to murder. But everyone involved in the case is lying about something and Poirot must exercise his considerable ingenuity to find out how and why. By turns tragic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, this episode also provides an overwhelmingly moving resolution for one of the series’ most beloved characters.
- Peril at End House (Season 2)
The first novel to be adapted into a feature-length film is also one of the definitive Poirot adaptations, featuring an old estate in the country, a wealthy but vulnerable heiress and a series of disturbing murders. This episode is everything that makes Poirot great distilled into 90 minutes, including an ingenious method for catching forgers, one of the all-time great line readings—“You’re all so… STUPID!”—and a conclusion that sees Poirot, Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s assistant Miss Lemon eating ice cream on the beach. The way all mysteries should end.