John Despard is the husband of Rhoda Despard. He is described as a "tall, lean, handsome man", whose face is "slightly marred by a scar on the temple". He walks with "a quick springing step", which reminds Poirot of a tiger. He appears in Cards on the Table and later in The Pale Horse.
He is an explorer and sport hunter. In Cards on the Table, he is one of the guests at Shaitana's dinner party. Mr Shaitana had met Poirot at an art exhibition and wanted Poirot to come to dinner to view his unique collection--a group of people he believed to be murderers who had gotten away with their crimes. Major Despard was part of Shaitana's "collection". Although Shaitana did not specify the kind of crime he believed Despard to be involved in, over dinner he alluded to a "shooting accident" as one of the possibilities.
Dr Roberts mentions that he has read a travel book that Major Despard wrote, and that it was "a jolly good yarn".
Major Despard says that he disliked Mr Shaitana. He had not wished to kill him, but would have thoroughly enjoyed kicking him, as Mr Shaitana was "the sort of Dago who needed kicking badly". However, he still accepted Mr Shaitana's invitation to dine at his house. Major Despard says that he likes society for very short periods. After a while, the insincerity of society sickens him, and he wants to be off again.
Major Despard visits Anne Meredith at Wendon Cottage, where he meets Rhoda. He explains to them that he came because he had the impression that Anne was alone in the world, and he wanted to recommend that she place herself in the hands of a good solicitor. He recommends his own solicitor, Mr Myherne. He later accompanies her when she goes to see Mr Myherne.
Major Despard says that he does not place as much value on human life as most people do. He feels that people are always in danger, from traffic, germs, and other things, and one may as well be killed one way as another. He is of the opinion that as soon as one starts living carefully, one might as well be dead. Similar statements are made by Michael Rogers from Endless Night and Superintendent Battle.
Major Despard is also of the opinion that people do too much rushing around, and there would be less mistakes made if people would sit tight and think things through before acting. He says that his own procedure in life is to get his bearings, figure out his route, weigh up the pros and cons, make a decision, and stick to it. However, if he makes a mistake, he will admit it, as there is no use being pig-headed.
Major Despard tells Poirot that Mr Shaitana was a "spiritual blackmailer", who enjoyed seeing people quail and flinch, and that this was a very effective pose with women. He would just have to hint that he knew everything, and they would start telling him a lot of things, which he may not have known before. Major Despard says that he happens to know that Mr Shaitana did this, but is unable to tell Poirot the details, as the information had come to him privately, because a woman was involved.
It is later revealed that Major Despard had accompanied Professor Luxmore and Mrs Luxmore on an expedition to the Amazon. The professor had died there, and had been buried by the Amazon. Poirot suspects that Mr Shaitana had some hold over Mrs Luxmore, and that she was the woman to whom Major Despard had been referring.
Major Despard later explains the circumstances of the professor's death to Poirot. He, the professor, and Mrs Luxmore, had all had a bout of fever, but the professor had it the worst. One night, Major Despard saw the professor staggering off into the bush by the river, delirious and unconscious of what he was doing. If he had gone into the river there would have been no chance of rescuing him. There was no time to rush after him, so Major Despard picked up his rifle, intending to shoot the professor in the leg. However, just as he fired, Mrs Luxmore flung herself on him and jerked his arm, causing the bullet to hit the professor in the back and kill him. They told everyone that the professor had died of fever, to spare Mrs Luxmore the publicity the story would attract if the truth came out.
Towards the end of the novel, Major Despard calls on Anne and Rhoda at Wendon Cottage, and finds that they have gone out on the river. He witnesses an accident which results in both girls falling into the water, and jumps in to save them. He saves Rhoda first, and then goes back for Anne. However, Anne goes under before he or Superintendent Battle can get there. They eventually get her out, but she is dead.
Years later, in The Pale Horse, his first name is changed to "Hugh". He is now a colonel and has married Rhoda Dawes whom he met in Cards on the Table. They have moved to the village to Much Deeping in Devon.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
In the film adaptation of Cards on the Table in Series 10 of ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot drama series, Major Despard is portrayed by Tristan Gemmill. His Amazonian backstory is slightly different. He had been a guide for the Luxmores expedition. In this case, Luxmore claimed to be collecting botanical specimens but was in fact searching for new types of psychotropic botanical substances. Luxmore tried the psychotropic drugs on himself and went berserk, slashing at his wife with a machete. Major Despard had to shoot him in the back to save his wife's life.
The ending of the adaptation is also slightly different. Part of the role of Rhoda Dawes and Anne Meredith is reversed. Rhoda tries to drown Anne but falls into the water herself. Despard rescues Anne but fails to find Rhoda in the water. at the end of the story, Despard pairs off with Anne instead of Rhoda. This may explain why in the ITV adaptation of The Pale Horse, the Despards are not featured, since if continuity with the adaptation of "Cards on the Table" is maintained, it would have to be Anne as Mrs Despard and not Rhoda.