Of Agatha Christie’s two most famous detectives, I prefer Miss Marple by a wide margin. The Poirot stories and novels (I haven’t read all of them) are all too focused on Poirot himself, a character I have a hard time warming up to. I can almost feel Christie’s famous dislike of her most famous creation as the damned little self-satisfied twerp lords it over everybody as he’s infuriatingly right again. He also tends to prevent other characters from emerging to share the stage. The only one I remember clearly was the imperious, abusive matron in Appointment with Death. And even when he’s travelling it’s hard for the rest of the milieu to come into focus as the little Belgian is prancing about center stage like Nellie Melba, eblowing other cast members out of the spotlight. Of the regular supporting cast the best is probably Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s proxy and a lot of fun.
Miss Marple’s more relaxed nature lets her fade a bit into the background and the Marple novels are much better at setting up interesting micro-universes whether a single house or a village of the interaction of the housemates with a village with interestng interactions by more memorable characters. The one time she was in an exotic locale, in A Caribbean Mystery the more believable human interactions were still front and center. I also like that Miss Marple solved mysteries through judgement of character rather than clues – she quietly finds the person capable of murder (often indirectly) and then figures out the rest. In one novel she realizes she can’t trust her own perceptions and when she realizes whose perceptions can be trusted that bit of knowledge leads her to the solution. That said, the famous twist endings of Christie are sometimes not fully worked out in the Marple novels and the reader isn’t given enough information (or is denied crucial information) which doesn’t happen in the Poirot books I’ve read.
That said I tremendously enjoyed the British TV series with David Suchet as Poirot. They wisely filled out the characters in the supporting cast a bit more (Hastings and Miss Lemon are much better in the show than the books and Zoë Wanamaker is a delight as Ariadne). And Suchet, after the first few episodes nailed the character and made him much more interesting and likeable than he ever was in the books. Suchet did such a good job I don’t feel the need of seeing any another actor in the role ever again. I’m fairly sure I’ll eventually get around to watching the new movie of Murder on the Orient Express starring a ridiculous looking moustache as Poirot but my heart won’t be in it.
On the other hand I enjoyed different actress as Miss Marple. Joan Hickson was the closest to Christie’s, all fussy politeness and maddening absent minded indirectness until she honed in on the truth like a bloodhound. Geraldine McEwan was a more modern take, loathe to hid her intellect or judgemental nature and clearly delighted at discovering fault lines in relationships or characters (the adaptions she was in however were often terribly misguided in other ways). I have a soft spot for Julia McKenzie’s less popular no nonsense business-like manner. She seemed well aware of her marginalized status as an elderly woman and knows people won’t pay attention to her unless she gets to the point and doesn’t waste their time.
That’s the final difference between the characters for me. Poirot is less a character than a set of irritating personal quirks to get used to and having gone through the trouble of getting used to and attached to one version I just don’t want to go through the adjustment process again. Marple is less defined more protean and leaves a lot more room for re-interpretation.