|Actor Maurice Denham, as Mr. Parker Pyne|
"One day, having lunch at a Corner House, I was enraptured by a conversation on statistics going on at a table behind me. I turned my head and caught a vague glimpse of a bald head, glasses, and a beaming smile--I caught sight, that is, of Mr. Parker Pyne."
--Agatha Christie, from the introduction to the 1953 Penguin U.K. edition of Parker Pyne Investigates
As an American, when I read the opening sentences of Agatha Christie's introduction, I have one small question. What is a Corner House? It's a colloquial term that no doubt meant something to her English readers, but conveys little to someone from the United States. At a guess, I'd say it referred to a public house, or a tea shop. But perhaps I'm wrong on both counts. Perhaps there was a chain of lunch restaurants called Corner House that was popular in England at that time. That would certainly explain why Christie capitalized the term.
At any rate, Mr. Parker Pyne initially seems the opposite of Hercule Poirot. In his first story, "The Case of the Middle-aged Wife," he's not an investigator, at least not in the sense of Miss Marple or Poirot. He doesn't work from a crime backwards, tracing the events that led to a final result. Instead, he contemplates existing facts and circumstances, and projects a probable outcome. Whereas Agatha Christie's most famous detectives spend their days contemplating the past, Parker Pyne gazes into the future, considering likely outcomes, and how best to tailor those outcomes to suit his client's needs.
Did I mention his clients? Oh yes, Parker Pyne uses his years of being shut up in a government office, and his formidable talent for statistics, as an enterprising businessman. Unlike Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, he doesn't wait for his clients to seek him out. Instead, he advertises for them. Unlike a detective, he operates more as a therapist. His advertisement:
Are you Happy? If not, consult me.
Simple, brief, and to the point. And again, unlike Hercule Poirot (and a certain literary creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Christie continually references in her mystery novels), Mr. Parker Pyne doesn't pick and choose those he would deign to help. He doesn't demand that a case "interest" him. In fact, he'd prefer that his clients have problems he can sort into easily definable categories. For example, when the middle-aged wife walks into his office in the first story, he's happy that her ailment fits neatly into a previously categorized course of treatment.
That is not to say that her easy-to-solve problem earns the middle-aged wife a discount on his usual fee. If Parker Pyne decides he can help a person be happy, he will help him or her, but only if the client is willing to pay his fee. His fee, incidentally, is nonnegotiable. The cost is substantial, the cost equivalent to what the client might pay to have a doctor perform an operation. The client must pay the stated fee in advance, and hope that Mr. Pyne's operation will be successful. If Mr. Pyne's methods fail to achieve the desired end, and the client is still unhappy at the end of the "treatment", well, not all medical procedures are successful either, are they?
I can't help but wonder how Hercule Poirot would view Parker Pyne. Would he see him as a manipulator, as someone who preys on the weaknesses of others? As a mercenary, even? Or would he view the statistician as a worthy member of England's service industry, providing valuable services to the community. Imagine the two meeting, perhaps at a "Corner House", and having lunch together. Parker Pyne's enthusiasm for statistics would doubtless bring a smile to Hercule Poirot's face. As to the nature of his services, the prices he charges, and the feelings of those he manipulates to achieve his client's desired results, Poirot's smile might fade a trifle, or perhaps disappear all together.
What do you think? Is Mr. Parker Pyne a benefit to the community? And would Hercule Poirot esteem or detest him? It's a worthy scenario to contemplate. It might take some effort to envision, but who knows? Following the prescribed procedure might even make you happy!