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Book News: Was A Belgian Policeman The Real-Life Hercule Poirot?

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • A retired British navy commander thinks he may have found the inspiration for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in a Belgian refugee and retired policeman named Jacques Hornais who lived near Christie's home in England. Christie wrote in her autobiography, "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." Michael Clapp, the retired commander, was researching family history when he came across an old newspaper clipping showing that Christie and Hornais likely knew each other. But novelist Sophie Hannah, whose Poirot adaptation is coming out this fall, tells The Guardian she is skeptical, calling it "an interesting story, but the fact that Agatha never mentioned it makes me wonder why not? Perhaps unreasonably, I tend only to take things as Agatha gospel if they come from either Agatha's own words, her family, or her ace archivist Dr John Curran." Perhaps we can't have Poirot's origin story, but we can buy his mustache, "made with genuine, healthy human hair."
  • The Vault, Slate's history blog, features a letter of recommendation that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1863 for Walt Whitman, who was applying for a government job: "Will you permit me to say that he is known to me as a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character: a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic & benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice. If his writings are in certain points open to criticism, they show extraordinary power, & are more deeply American, democratic, & in the interest of political liberty, than those of any other poet."
  • The New Yorker has a great interview with Peggy McIntosh, the women's studies scholar whose writing on "white privilege" helped to popularize the phrase among white Americans in the '80s. Asked how she came up with her list of 46 indicators of white privilege, McIntosh says, "I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn't earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time." Other indicators of racial privilege she listed included: "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented," and "I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the worlds' majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion."
  • Dave Eggers writes about travel, nationality and fear in an essay for The New Statesman: "I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. ... But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.