A real-life Belgian policeman who came to Britain’s West Country as a refugee during World War 1 could have been the inspiration for one of the literary world’s most famous fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot.

Retired Devon Navy commander Michael Clapp was researching his family history when he discovered that hundreds of Belgian refugees came to the region after the war started. One of them was retired gendarme Jacques Hornais, who lived down the road from Agatha Christie’s family when the writer was a young girl.  Clapp said that Christie had “always said her inspiration for Poirot came from a Belgian refugee, and 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 her autobiography, Christie writes of her dilemma over which character she should choose for the detective stories she was planning. “Then I remembered our Belgian refugees, and I settled on a Belgian detective.”

The novelist Sophie Hannah, whose own take on Poirot, The Monogram Murders, is due out in September, said that Clapp’s discovery made for “an interesting story, but the fact that Agatha never mentioned it makes me wonder why not?”  If Hornais does turn out to be the inspiration for Poirot, “then it’s fascinating,” said Hannah. “I love to find out the gossip behind fictional stories and characters.”

The author’s authorized new Christie novel – the first ever – will ask the famous detective to solve a troubling series of murders. Poirot is collared by a young woman who tells him she is about to be murdered. Later, Poirot will find that three guests at a London hotel have been murdered, “and a cufflink had been placed in each one’s mouth.”


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