Papa Pontivy is an agent with French Intelligence.
It might be more accurate to state which organization he actually worked for but as we will discover through the many adventures we have of him, he works for, it seems, all of them at one time or another.
As he tells it himself, "When there is a dispute between the Deuxieme Bureau de l'Etat Major and the Surete Nationale - when they dispute between themselves as to who should take control of a case, they always compromise by saying, 'Send for Papa Pontivy and let him do it'; for Papa Pontivy has been both in the Deuxieme Bureau and the Surete Nationale."
When we first meet him, he is already being described as "old Papa Pontivy" which means that when we finally say goodbye to him many years later, he has to be very old indeed. Our initial encounter is just several years before the start of WWII and our last meeting will be in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Pontivy is always called Papa. Undoubtedly that was not his given name but what that might have been is never mentioned (as I could find). He is always Papa to everyone, a mercurial man who is not only highly respected in France but is also greatly esteemed by British Intelligence "though his unconventional methods often occasioned hectic moments".
The adventures of Pontivy are also the adventures of Captain Bernard Newman, the fellow who is not only the narrator for all the cases the two work together on but is also the man whose name is applied to each of the publications. The relationship between Newman and Pontivy is a close and deep one; sometimes it is Newman who will bring a matter to Pontivy's attention for assistance and sometimes it will be Pontivy who places a call to Newman for help. There are also times when of the Special Branch will be the summoner of both of them.
"In some ways Papa Pontivy was a most remarkable detective. He did not look like a detective - which may have been one explanation of his success. Imagine a nondescript man of middle height and scanty frame; a thin weather-beaten face typical of the French provinces: a drooping moustache which had once been brown, but was now grey above and a dirty red below. I suspect that he bought his clothes ready-made: if not, his tailor ought to have been executed. You would have passed him in the street and never noticed him - an excellent attribute for a police officer, but one not normally encouraged by the standards of size and strength usually considered essential.
"In the theory of police work he was amazingly ignorant. I doubt if he would ever have passed out of the police college at Hendon. He had nothing of the Frenchman's natural logic. I have heard him contradict himself twice in a single sentence. Regulations and routine meant little to him; he admitted their importance but left the observance to other people. Once I heard him describe the English Judges' Rules as the finest piece of comic literature he had ever read. Chicago could teach him nothing about third degree; once he had decided that a man was guilty, there were no rules in the fight."
Newman indicated that it had been "suggested that Papa Pontivy must have been the original of Mrs. Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot" though he disagreed, not just because they were so dissimilar in appearance but because Poirot was "a personality and has a sense of drama" which showed best during the expected denouement". Pontivy "was at the other end of the mental world" in that he has "no mannerisms to speak of - he was just ordinary". He also "had no streak of logic in him. He had an untidy mind and no great erudition: he claimed to get his results by his '"instinct'", not logic or brilliant deduction. "He broke every rule in the policeman's manual but he usually got his man".
All this talk, though, of whether he was a good or not so good policeman is really misleading for when it comes down to brass tacks, Pontivy has no real interest in catching crooks. It is spies that he is after and at that, Pontivy is superb, even if he is notorious for being "old and curmudgeonly" and cantankerous. Still, Newman's wife Margaret liked Papa Pontivy except for his moustache which had an occasional tendency to dribble.
After his retirement, Pontivy will choose to stay in London rather than back in his beloved France due to a "serious difference of opinion with General Charles de Gaulle". This is quite alright with both MI5 and Special Branch who would not hesitate to call upon him for assistance.
- On why he will catch spies but not appear for their trials, Pontivy explains, "Your lawyers ask ridiculous questions."
- Observing Papa Pontivy's annoyance with Inspector Marshall's lateness for a dinner and decrying the English had no idea of time, Newman rebuts, "I have known [Pontivy] to forget the day, not merely the hour".