Thursday, 6 October 2016

OUT NOW: Gothic Studies 18:1 (May 2016)

The May 2016 issue of Gothic Studies is now out.


Playing the Man: Manliness and Mesmerism in Richard Marsh's The Beetle
Natasha Rebry

'Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine Already': Criminal Female Sexuality in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Beth Shane

'Mensonge': The Rejection of Enlightenment in the Unreliable 'Souvenirs' of Charles Nodier
Matthew Gibson

The Mirror and the Window: The Seduction of Innocence and Gothic Coming of Age in Låt Den Rätte Komma In/Let The Right One In
Amanda Howell

Labyrinths of Conjecture: The Gothic Elsewhere in Jane Austen's Emma
Andrew McInnes

Gothic Stagings: Surfaces and Subtexts in the Popular Modernism of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot Series
Taryn Norman


Roger Luckhurst, Zombies: A Cultural History (London, 2015)
Deborah G. Christie

Minna Vuohelainen, Richard Marsh (Cardiff, 2015); Stephan Karshay, Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle (Basingstoke, 2015)
Emma Liggins

Wickham Clayton (ed.), Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film (London, 2015)
Shellie McMurdo

Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville (eds), The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic (London, 2015)
Hannah Priest

Cristina Artenie, Dracula Invades England: the Text, the Context and the Readers (Montreal, 2015)
Jillian Wingfield

For more information, or to subscribe to the journal, please visit the Manchester University Press website. As part of their Halloween special offer, online access to this issue of Gothic Studies is free throughout October.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Coming Soon: Faust

On 28th October, Digital Periodicals (the Victorian Gothic department of Hic Dragones) will be launching the first issue of George Reynolds's 1847 penny dreadful Faust. The eBook serial will be published in 12 fortnightly instalments, each costing just £1. This freshly transcribed and fully illustrated serial is the only modern edition of Reynolds’ action-packed tale of deadly sin, imperilled virtue and political intrigue.

To have everything your heart desires – what price would you pay?

From the author of Mysteries of London and Wagner the Wehrwolf comes a unique take on the legendary story of Faust. In the 1490s, amidst the secretive tribunals and power games of Europe, an impoverished student enters into a pact that will twist his mind and shatter his spirit. The promise of power, wealth and vengeance comes at a terrifying cost – but can true love conquer the demon’s hold? and what fate awaits a man who would sell his very soul?

Find out more on the Hic Dragones website.

And check out the brand new Faust trailer (with music by the fantastic Digital Front)!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

3 Minute Scares – A Halloween Writing Competition for North Manchester FM

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants you to scare her this Halloween!

She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3 minute stories for a new creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s spookiest wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being played on air on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 29 October.

The Halloween flash fiction competition will be judged by Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of MMU’s Centre for Gothic Studies, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout, Manchester’s real life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is.

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘I want this competition to bring out some of the region’s scariest talent. It’s difficult to tell a good tale in just 3 minutes, but I know that there’s people out there who are up for the challenge.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition can also be found on the website.

Hannah’s Bookshelf is North Manchester FM’s weekly literature show, and it goes out live every Saturday 2-4pm. The show has been running since January 2015 and has featured guests including Rosie Garland, Ramsey Campbell, Tony Walsh and Gwyneth Jones. The show broadcasts on 106.6FM for North Manchester residents and through the ‘listen online’ feature for the rest of the world.

For further information please contact:

Email: David Kay or Hannah Kate
Website: North Manchester FM or Hannah Kate

Monday, 5 September 2016

Poirot Project: Wasps’ Nest (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Plymouth Express’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 27th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Daily Mail in November 1928 (thus representing one of the few things that the Daily Mail has ever published that I would actually want to read).

‘Wasps’ Nest’ is a very short, almost minimalist short story – but I’ve always been rather fond of it. Although the story was published a couple of months after ‘Double Sin’, Hastings is absent (he’s presumably back in Argentina by now) and there’s no mention of Japp either. Despite having made his first appearance a few months earlier in The Mystery of the Blue Train, George isn’t present here either. Interestingly, unlike in many of Christie’s other short stories, there are also no references to Poirot’s past cases or clients.

These absences give the story a sort of pared-down feel: we are simply given Poirot and a puzzle. Nothing more, and nothing less. But the nature of the puzzle is quite different to those found elsewhere in the Poirot stories, as we’re told early on that no crime has actually been committed. As Poirot explains to John Harrison (one of only two other characters who appear in the story): ‘I am investigating a crime that has not yet taken place.’

Now, the possibility of this pre-emptive approach is an issue in another of the Poirot short stories. In ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ (which was published after, but adapted before, ‘Wasps’ Nest’), Poirot is also confronted by the probability of a murder and must decide how to act to prevent it. In the ITV version of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Poirot is fairly adamant that such a feat is impossible (and, indeed, he fails in the task), which makes ‘Wasps’ Nest’ seem almost like an attempt to try again. However, the short stories are a little different: ‘Wasps’ Nest’ came first, and in the later story Poirot is less insistent about the impossibility of intervention. In addition to this, the minimalist nature of Christie’s ‘Wasps’ Nest’ makes it seem even more distinct from ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, both in terms of its stripped-down cast of supporting characters and the role of the detective himself.

Christie’s story begins with a man named John Harrison surveying his garden. There is a very brief description of Harrison, followed by an equal-sized description of his garden. Within just a few lines, however, his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a familiar figure:
‘It was, indeed, the famous Hercule Poirot whose renown as a detective had spread over the whole world.’
It seems Harrison and Poirot have a previous acquaintance, as the little Belgian acknowledges on his friend’s open-ended invitation to visit if he was in the area. It’s when Harrison asks the reason for Poirot’s trip that we get the (rather cryptic) explanation:
‘If one can investigate a murder before it has happened, surely that is very much better than afterwards. One might even – a little idea – prevent it.’
It’s not long before we realize that it might well be Harrison himself who is at the centre of Poirot’s investigation.

That said, there’s actually surprisingly little investigation here. The story consists almost entirely of dialogue between Harrison and Poirot, and with a few additional facts provided by the detective’s exposition. In their first conversation, Poirot learns that Harrison has a problem with a wasps’ nest in his garden. His friend Claude Langton is coming over later that evening to dispatch the creatures with a syringe of petrol. At this point, Poirot reveals that he already knows that Langton has purchased some cyanide at the local chemist:
‘Harrison stared. “That’s odd,” he said. “Langton told me the other day that he’d never dream of using the stuff; in fact, he said it oughtn’t to be sold for the purpose.”’
Poirot is unperturbed by this revelation, and simply asks Harrison if he likes Langton. He then reveals that he knows that Harrison is engaged to a woman named Molly Deane, who was previously engaged to Langton. After this, he promises to return at nine o’clock, when Langton will be arriving to destroy the wasps.

The puzzle seems a simple one – Poirot repeatedly assures Harrison (and us) that he believes someone is going to die, and we assume that he thinks that Langton is going to use the cyanide to poison his love rival. Of course, there’s more to the story than meets the eye, as we soon discover.

If the puzzle is a bit different in this story, so too is the detective. Without Hastings or Japp (or Miss Lemon or Ariadne Oliver) as a companion, Poirot is curiously solitary here. While there are other stories and novels that don’t feature any of ‘the gang’, Christie usually supplies a temporary sidekick or ‘Watson’ (and they are often called just that – for example, Ellie Henderson in ‘Problem at Sea’ is given the name, as is Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). There is no Watson in ‘Wasps’ Nest’ – there is simply Poirot. And this, along with the lack of actual investigation, makes the detective take on a rather different role in the story.

‘Wasps’ Nest’ features Poirot at his most thoughtful – even philosophical. From the very beginning, his conversation with Harrison is circumspect to the point of being cryptic. Rather than identifying clues, the strange little Belgian offers profound pronouncements on the nature of life, death and human nature. For example, when Harrison laughs at the concept of ‘hate’, Poirot intones:
‘The English are very stupid […] They think that they can deceive anyone but that no one can deceive them. The sportsman – the good fellow – never will they believe evil of him. And because they are brave, but stupid, sometimes they die when they need not die.’
Perhaps the most dramatic – if rather odd – speech in the story comes shortly after this, when Poirot turns his attention to the titular nest in the garden:
‘There on the bank, close by that tree root. See you, the wasps returning home, placid at the end of the day? In a little hour, there will be destruction, and they know it not. There is no one to tell them. They have not, it seems, a Hercule Poirot. I tell you, Monsieur Harrison, I am down here on business. Murder is my business. And it is my business before it has happened as well as afterwards.’
Aside from the curious (and delightful) image of a Wasp-Poirot, this speech raises some interesting questions. What is the analogy that Poirot is drawing here? Are the wasps the counterparts of the stupid English he described above? Is Poirot equating (a portion of) the human race to insects? If so, what does that make him? And in what way – given that no one has hired him or requested that he investigate – is this potential murder his business?

Make no mistake: this is Poirot at his most metaphysical. Throughout the story, he appears almost deific in both his judgment and his knowledge of humanity. When we discover that Poirot has orchestrated the entire ‘chance’ visit to see Harrison – and that he did this as a result of randomly seeing Langton’s name in the chemist’s poison book – the whole thing seems almost supernatural. Poirot seems to have always known what would transpire. And Harrison’s final words – the final words of the story – cement this pseudo-divine intervention:
‘“Thank goodness you came,” he cried. “Oh, thank goodness you came.”’
This isn’t Poirot-the-conjuror or Poirot-the-physician – this is Poirot the deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, Christie apparently couldn’t resist adding a couple of slightly more humanizing elements to the story. Even without a sidekick providing commentary, we get a couple of little glimpses into the inner workings of our hero. And yet… unlike in the other short stories, these are also somewhat portentous. In both cases, these glimpses serve to situate Poirot on the side of justice – but distinctly outside the forces of ‘law and order’. (This is a position we’ve seen Poirot take up before – and we’ll certainly see it again.)

The first comes in an almost throwaway explanation for how he was able to substitute cyanide for washing soda without being spotted:
‘There was a pickpocket once – I interested myself in him because for once in a way he had not done what they say he has done – and so I get him off. And because he is grateful he pays me in the only way he can think of – which is to show me the tricks of his trade.’
Wow. There’s a lot going there! This isn’t simply a reminiscence of a past case, like the Abercrombie forgery case or the adventure of ‘Baron’ Altara (mentioned in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). In fact, this doesn’t appear to be a case at all. Poirot ‘interested himself’ in the pickpocket, but he wasn’t actually employed to investigate him. Also notice how Poirot sets himself on the opposing side to the forces of law (presumably the police) when he talks about ‘what they say he has done’. And the man isn’t even unequivocally innocent – Poirot’s defence is couched in the vagaries of ‘for once’ and ‘in a way’ – but there is no question that the little Belgian had the power to ‘get him off’, if he was ‘interested’ to do so. I’ll say it again: wow.

The second detail is one that is, perhaps, a little more familiar to Poirot fans: the detective reveals his disgust at hanging. I’ve mentioned before that Poirot is often amenable to allowing murderers to ‘escape the noose’, particularly when he has some fondness or respect for them. Here, however, he gives a far more direct condemnation of hanging: it is ‘the worst death any man can die’. Again, Poirot is situating himself against the law and offering a more independent sense of ‘justice’.*

Okay… so all very deep stuff here. Time to turn to the ITV adaptation – and to have a look at how the programme-makers handled the darkly philosophical tone of ‘Wasps’ Nest’.

The episode was written by David Renwick and directed by Brian Farnham. On the surface, the tone and atmosphere is quite different to that of the short story, and we’re moved back to the familiar ground of the early ITV series. The gang’s all here – Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon have been added to the episode – and the lush 1930s aesthetic is introduced early on. We begin at ‘Marble Hill’ tube station (filmed in the Grade II* listed Arnos Grove Underground Station, designed by Charles Holden in the early 1930s), where our little detective is in a grump again. In an attempt to cheer their friend up, Hastings and Japp have decided on an excursion to a garden fete, and the men are awaiting the arrival of Mrs Japp so they can set off.

Of course, Mrs Japp comes from the same police-spouse school as Mrs Columbo and so she never actually turns up. Japp himself is also quickly taken out of action when he is struck down by appendicitis – this is the first indication of the writer responding to the restrictions of Christie’s text, as there’s really no role for a policeman in a story where no crime actually takes place.

Hastings and Miss Lemon are also more ornamental than useful in the episode, and much of Hastings’s activity revolves around the fact that he’s got himself a new camera – ‘The new toy. I give it two, perhaps three weeks,’ Poirot says with a twinkle – and has turned Poirot’s bathroom into a darkroom.

So the adaptation manages to walk a rather wobbly line between including Poirot’s sidekicks (in deviation from Christie’s story) and not giving them any real role in the storyline (in deference to the original). In order to make their superfluity a little less obvious, a clue involving a photograph found in Langton’s house is added to tie in with Hastings’s new camera – but this is a tenuous connection at best.

Following the format of the TV series, the roles of the other characters are also expanded. It wouldn’t do to rely simply on Poirot’s conversations with Harrison – that would be very slow TV, even for early 90s (it was a simpler time) – and so the characters of John Harrison (Martin Turner), Molly Deane (Melanie Jessop) and Claude Langton (Peter Capaldi) have to be seen together on screen, rather than just simply described by an omniscient Belgian. As is quite common in the early episodes, this expansion is partly done by showing a scene that is merely described by the detective in the source material. In Christie’s story, Poirot explains that he has ‘seen Claude Langton and Molly Deane together when they thought no one saw them’. In the TV episode, this is played out in front of our eyes. For some reason, it is played out in a way that involves a young Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown – but who am I to judge the creative decisions?

The character of Molly is fleshed out in the episode, and she is reimagined as a fashion model. This allows for a few additional supporting characters to make brief – but pretty insignificant – appearances. The only other ‘new’ character who is seen on screen is an ominous old man (played by John Boswall) with a skull-headed cane, who stalks the edges of the story like some terrifying grim reaper until his identity is revealed towards the end of the episode.

I’m not too bothered about the theatricality of this character – who turns out to be called Dr Belvedere. For one thing, it’s in-keeping with the general tone of the early series. And for another, it’s not a huge deviation from the original story. Poirot’s portentous speeches in Christie’s work conjure up a sense of evil and death at large, waiting to be confronted by the detective, so it’s not a huge leap to see that personified on screen. Moreover, when the literary Poirot reveals that he knows that John Harrison has been visiting a doctor, he says that Harrison looked like ‘a man under sentence of death’ after his consultation – so why not have the TV characters followed by a man who looks very capable of issuing such a sentence?

There are a couple of other changes to the adaptation, though these were clearly done to expand the very short source text into a full episode. Poirot isn’t aware of the entry in the poison book prior to running into Harrison – which allows for a short comedic scene in which Poirot asks Hastings to cover for him with the chemist while he snoops through the book – and Molly Deane apparently suffers a car crash while driving to Harrison’s home. Unlike in the short story, it is Langton who suggests using cyanide on the wasps rather than Harrison, and the substitution of the cyanide for the washing soda is carried out at Langton’s house rather than on Harrison’s person. These changes all serve to throw more suspicion onto Langton, which is really only an expansion of the misdirection in the first part of Christie’s text.

For most of the episode, ‘Wasps’ Nest’ loses the oddly detached feel of the short story. Poirot doesn’t really come across as a deus ex machina – instead, as he reads Molly’s tealeaves and sneaks a look at a poison book, he seems like the more familiar conjuror-detective, playing up the theatrics of his investigation as he did in the fake séance in Peril at End House and the ventriloquism finale of ‘Problem at Sea’.

But just as we think the adaptation has dispensed with the more philosophical elements of its source, we move into a denouement that is much more faithful to the original story.

In resolving the puzzle, Poirot chooses to visit Harrison alone at his house. The rest of the gang are absent, and Langton and Molly have receded into the background. Poirot has already hinted that this resolution will be rather different to the others in the series, as shortly before his final encounter with Harrison, he offers an unusual summary of the case: ‘Everything has happened. And yet nothing has happened.’

Once Poirot is in Harrison’s garden, the wasps come back into focus. Poirot gives a (slightly truncated) version of his analogy – ‘For the wasps, there is no Hercule Poirot to warn them!’ – and Harrison resigns himself to his fate, and (in an added moment of poignancy) to an acceptance of the wasps’ presence in his garden. As Poirot leaves, Harrison acknowledges the detective’s role in words almost identical to his literary predecessor: ‘Thank God you came!’

Poirot doesn’t answer. He simply walks into the early evening light and disappears slowly from view before the credits roll. The deus returning to the machina.

Gosh. That was a bit deep, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s time for some ghostly hijinks, a comedy inn-keeper, some cheeky waxworks and an actual murder… next up: ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’

* It is my contention that Poirot is anti-hanging, though he is (very) occasionally happy to see particularly unpleasant murderers sent to the gallows. Not only does he allow a surprising number of killers to ‘escape the noose’ and openly comments on the cruelty of hanging, but he also at one points reinvestigates a case of wrongful execution (Five Little Pigs), which suggests some implied criticism of the death penalty. Significantly, one of Christie’s other detectives takes a different viewpoint. Miss Marple has ‘no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment’ (The Thirteen Problems) and is ‘really very, very sorry that they have abolished capital punishment’ (4.50 From Paddington). It’s usually said that it is Miss Marple who is ‘giving voice’ to Christie’s own views on capital punishment – which is sort of backed up by a digression in her autobiography in which she muses on the nature of evil and its possible punishment. (‘Why should they not execute [murderers]?’ she wonders, before praising transportation and suggesting ‘experimental research’ as a more humane alternative to life imprisonment.) But whether or not Christie herself was in favour of hanging (and whether this view remained consistent throughout her career, which straddled the abolition of the death penalty), the fact remains that her most prolific creation was distinctly ambivalent towards it.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Poirot Project: Agatha Christie Inspired Music by Digital Front

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Plymouth Express’, but this is a quick post with something a little bit different.

As you may recall, one of the unexpected side effects of doing this project is that I've started to get my other half interested in Agatha Christie's writing. He was a bit reluctant at first but he's been getting into the ITV series and, earlier this year, he read his first Poirot novel. As he said in his review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he was encouraged to give Agatha Christie a go after getting hooked on the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None and reading Christie's novel straight afterwards.

Now, as well as being the long-suffering husband of a woman who obsessively her thoughts about Poirot stories, my other half is also a very talented musician and composer. And he's just written his first track inspired by Agatha Christie's writing! So... please enjoy... 'Then There Were None' by Digital Front.

Poirot Project: The Plymouth Express (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 20th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘The Mystery of the Plymouth Express’), which was first published in The Sketch in April 1923.

In the grand scheme of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is a bit of an oddity. As with a number of her early Poirot stories, Christie revised, expanded and republished ‘The Plymouth Express’ into a novel (The Mystery of the Blue Train) a few years later. In the same way ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ became ‘Murder in the Mews’, ‘The Submarine Plans’ became ‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ became ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ became ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and ‘The Second Gong’ became ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. Two posthumously published short stories reveal the origins of two other Poirot novels: Dumb Witness began life as ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’, and Dead Man’s Folly started out as ‘Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly’. (And that’s not even to mention ‘The Regatta Mystery’ and ‘The Yellow Iris’, which were expanded and rewritten to replace Poirot with a different detective.) The TV series is relatively consistently with how it treats these doppelganger stories – on the whole, the series uses the later (longer) version of the story as its basis. The only exceptions to this are ‘The Yellow Iris’ (where the earlier version is adapted, because that’s the version with Poirot in it), ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (which isn’t included at all) and ‘The Plymouth Express’.

For some reason, the programme-makers decided to adapt both ‘The Plymouth Express’ and The Mystery of the Blue Train for the series. I imagine the idea was that the two stories are sufficiently different, and were adapted sufficiently far apart to feel like distinct stories (I’d disagree, perhaps, as I think the stories are no more different than ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ is from ‘Murder in the Mews’ – but at the point when ‘The Plymouth Express’ was made, I don’t think the showrunners were particularly concerned with adapting all of the novels in addition to the short stories.) So, while I would normally read both versions of a story before writing about the episode, I have restricted myself to ‘The Plymouth Express’ for this post – I’ll return to The Mystery of the Blue Train when I get to that episode.

‘The Plymouth Express’ is an oddity for another reason as well. Although this is one of the original Sketch stories – and it is narrated by Hastings – the story doesn’t begin in Poirot’s apartment, and there’s no Perusal of the Morning News. Instead, we start off in the company of a character we’ve never heard of (and who we’ll never hear from again):
‘Alec Simpson, RN, stepped from the platform at Newton Abbot into a first-class compartment of the Plymouth Express. A porter followed him with a heavy suitcase. He was about to swing it up to the rack, but the young sailor stopped him.’
We follow Simpson on his train journey for a few paragraphs, until he decides to stow his suitcase under the seat opposite:
‘“Why the devil won’t it go in?” he muttered, and hauling it out completely, he stooped down and peered under the seat…’
This opening is rather different to the other Sketch stories. It almost feels like we’ve stumbled into a thriller, and there’s something quite cinematic about it. The ellipsis serves to defer the revelation that we know is coming (he’s surely found a body under the seat), and instead we’re simply told that ‘a cry rang out into the night’ and the train drew to a halt.

Cut to:

Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and the detective tells his friend that he’s received a note from a Mr Ebenezer Halliday, the father of Mrs Rupert Carrington – née Flossie Halliday – who wants to engage the services of the great detective. As this is a short story (and the Sketch stories are really rather short), the connections are made quickly. Flossie Halliday was the woman found murdered on the Plymouth Express; she was apparently murdered for the valuable jewel case she was carrying on the train. Ebenezer Halliday is ‘the steel king of America’, and Rupert Carrington is ‘a good-looking, well-mannered, utterly unscrupulous young scoundrel’ (and not the first scoundrel to whom Flossie has been attracted, as her previous flirtation – with the Count de la Rochefour – is described as a ‘bad affair’ by Poirot).

Despite its somewhat cinematic opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is, at its heart, a classic Sketch story… and a very enjoyable one at that. The puzzle is good, and the resolution relies on a subversion of the rules of Golden Age detective fiction – and the culprit is cut from a different cloth to the usual Christie baddie. It’s not Christie’s most audacious rule-breaking, but it’s a notable one. Along with the story’s somewhat unorthodox opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ gives a little taste of Christie’s occasional forays into thriller writing, though it’s definitely wearing in a ‘whodunit’ wrapper.

Wealthy heiress Flossie Carrington – now estranged from her husband – had boarded the Plymouth Express with the intention of attending a party in Bristol. She was travelling with her maid Jane Mason. However, at Bristol, Flossie announced to Mason that she would not be alighting. She told her maid to get off the train and wait at Bristol – she would travel back on an up-train and meet her later. Mason explained later that she saw a man sitting in her mistress’s carriage (though she didn’t see his face). At Weston, Flossie stepped out of the train to buy a couple of magazines. By Newton Abbot, she was dead. Was her husband responsible? Or was it the shady Count de la Rochefour? Or could it have been someone we barely even noticed?

While the story might be a little different to the other Sketch stories, there’s still plenty of the usual stuff as well. The story is narrated by Hastings, though he is a little less conspicuous than in some other stories. The dynamic duo is joined by Inspector Japp, and there are some little interactions between the policeman and the detective that are rather charming. Japp greets Poirot ‘with a sort of affectionate contempt’, but seems more than happy to work with his ‘old friend’. Later on, when Poirot (with seemingly miraculous insight) deduces that the victim spoke to a paper-boy at Weston station, Japp is mystified:
‘Japp’s jaw fell. “How on earth did you know? Don’t tell me it was those almighty ‘little grey cells’ of yours!”
“I am glad you admit for once that they are all mighty!”’
Japp’s praise is a bit back-handed, though, as he makes a couple of rather barbed references to Poirot’s advancing years:
‘Wonderful how you manage to deliver the goods sometimes, at your age and all. Devil’s own luck, of course.’
It’s quite sweet the way that Poirot takes all of this with a sort of twinkling good humour, and the story concludes with the little Belgian allowing his Scotland Yard pal to take full credit for solving the mystery (with the cheeky caveat that, while Japp has ‘official credit’, Poirot ‘as the Americans say, ha[s] got his goat!’)

One final little detail about the short story… while some of the other Sketch stories (like ‘The Veiled Lady’ and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ make light-hearted reference to the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Plymouth Express’ sees Poirot make a more pointed swipe at his illustrious predecessor. When talking to Halliday about Flossie’s relationship with the count, Poirot comments:
‘But to track footmarks and recognize cigarette-ash is not sufficient for a detective. He must also be a good psychologist!’
The mention of ‘cigarette-ash’ is surely a dig at Sherlock Holmes – who, in The Study in Scarlet, talks rather haughtily about his ability to ‘distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand’, adding that he once wrote a monograph on the very subject. Clearly, Poirot isn’t impressed.

So… on to the TV version of ‘The Plymouth Express’…

The episode was written by Rod Beacham and directed by Andrew Piddington. Like most of the third series, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation with embellishments, rather than more dramatic alterations, to Christie’s story.

One of the main changes is that we see Flossie before her death. The episode opens with Rupert Carrington (played by Julian Wadham) arriving at his (ex-)wife’s apartment. It’s clear from the start that he’s a bit of a wrong ’un, and he suffers a rather high-handed dismissal from Flossie (Shelagh McLeod). Next, we see the Comte de la Rochefour (Alfredo Michelson) arriving at a hotel – and, to be honest, it’s pretty clear that he’s a wrong ’un too. But Flossie seems to like him.

Shelagh McLeod’s portrayal of Flossie is interesting. The woman is confident – almost veering towards arrogant at times – and utterly self-assured. Unlike the character from Christie’s story, who is dead before we even know her name, the TV Flossie is very much alive, and we get to see her happy and enjoying her lavish social life. She revels in the attentions of the count, and we see her gleefully enumerating the flowers and gifts with which he has showered her. It’s not clear whether she has any real feelings for the man, or whether she is just toying with him because she likes his effusive way of flirting with her. Or, maybe, she’s just glad to be having some fun after separating from her hopeless (and financially dubious) husband.

There’s a scene in ‘The Plymouth Express’ that is a little bit reminiscent of one in ‘Problem at Sea’. Flossie sits in front of her mirror, gazing at her own reflection and smiling at the effect her appearance might have on the men in her life. There’s a similar moment in ‘Problem at Sea’, when Adeline Clapperton (who, interestingly, was also previously married to a man named Carrington) plucks her eyebrows and sings to herself. Adeline is also a rich woman married to unreliable (and impecunious) man, and she also seems (in my opinion anyway) justified in her occasional refusals to fund her spouse’s selfish and spoilt lifestyle. Like Flossie, Adeline also ends up dead.

However, Flossie is a bit of a different kettle of fish to Adeline Clapperton. In Christie’s short story, she is simply a victim (albeit one with slightly bad taste in men). In the TV adaptation, she lacks the stridency of Adeline and never publicly embarrasses her husband or her lover. She doesn’t talk about herself and her achievements with the same level of attention-seeking as the victim in ‘Problem at Sea’, and she’s also much younger, so her ‘mirror scene’ doesn’t have the same undertones of ‘inappropriateness’. Nevertheless, Flossie isn’t the typical sympathetic young woman of the Poirot stories either: she is bolder, more independent, more self-possessed. I like her.

Throughout the episode, Poirot is sympathetic to the victim. In the short story, the detective describes the dead woman as a ‘poor little lady’, but this description isn’t really appropriate for the TV character. Instead, we see Poirot’s determined quest to get justice for the woman – or, rather, to allow her grieving father to see justice done.

The TV version of Halliday (played by John Stone) is now an Australian millionaire (and is now called Gordon, rather than Ebenezer). He consults with the famous detective as soon as his daughter is missing, and Poirot seems to feel a particular desire to help the distraught man. I assume this is because the man isn’t British – and Poirot has declared his loyalty to ‘the visitors’ on a number of previous occasions. It is for Halliday that Poirot exerts his little grey cells, and it is the comprehension of the man’s grief that makes for a rather downbeat ending to the episode.

Characterization aside, the episode mainly follows the original short story. Quite a few minor little details from Christie’s text have been retained – e.g. Flossie’s distinctive ‘electric blue’ travelling outfit (though she loses her white fur toque in the adaptation) and the significance of the newspaper-boy (played by Steven Mackintosh). The newspaper misdirection is expanded upon in the TV episode, with the magazines substituted for a ‘late edition’ of a paper and a cryptic comment about the edition’s significance added. Unlike in the Sketch story, Poirot actually appears to be fooled (briefly) by this false lead, and spends a bit of time comparing early and late editions to work it out. This does allow for one of my favourite little details of the episode: we get a nice shot of Miss Lemon carrying a stack of newspapers into the office, and guess which one’s right on the top…

Okay... this isn't quite right, as Christie's story was published in the Sketch (an illustrated magazine), and this is the Daily Sketch (a tabloid newspaper), but it's still pretty close!

Poirot is joined in his investigation by Japp and Hastings – nice to see Japp back after his absence in the previous episode – and the pair of them seem to be embroiled in a bit of a scuffle to be ‘Watson’. There’s a great scene where Japp and Hastings quarrel over their respective theories (Japp thinks Carrington is the murderer, but Hastings is convinced it’s de la Rochefour); Poirot calmly arbitrates between the two, allowing them to explain their position and encouraging each to try and persuade the other – before stone cold proving that they’re both wrong.

Earlier in the episode, we’re also treated to another funny Hastings-the-detective moment. When discussing the theft of the jewel case by the murderer, Hastings postulates:
‘Well… perhaps he took it to distract us from his real motive.’
This is funny because, in almost every other Agatha Christie story, this would be a very astute suggestion. But, in typical fashion, Hastings manages to make this pronouncement in the one story where the theft of the jewel case is the real motive. Poor old Hastings.

Now… about that motive…

I like the ending of Christie’s short story, as it’s a bit of a twist. We’re not supposed to suspect servants in Golden Age detective fiction, so Jane Mason almost manages to sneak under the radar. And it’s quite nice that her associate (the wonderfully named Red Narky) is nabbed by Japp, who discovers him while conducting exactly the sort of mundane police work that Poirot isn’t able to do (Japp has been doing a check of pawn shops to see if any of the jewels are hocked).

In the adaptation, Poirot is similarly able to spot that Jane Mason (played by Marion Bailey – who does an impressive job of fading into the background until the final scenes) is guilty. In this version of the story, though, he is also able to identify her accomplice. He finds the (less wonderfully named) Mr McKenzie (Kenneth Haigh) in ‘the admirable files of Miss Lemon’, and sets up a sting operation of his own.

And this is where my only criticism of the episode lies. Poirot chooses not to wear a disguise when he visits McKenzie. Now, in ‘The Lost Mine’, Christie made it quite clear that Poirot disdains disguise; however, the TV series has featured a memorably ‘incognito’ Poirot in a previous episode. And yet, in this episode, he visits the jewel thief looking and acting more Poirot than he’s ever done before. That seems a little bit foolish, no?

Worse still… McKenzie doesn’t even recognize him!

In ‘The Veiled Lady’, we saw two jewel thieves (Gertie and Joey) who were so familiar with the great Hercule Poirot that they even hired himself themselves. Even more egregiously, in the episode just before ‘The Plymouth Express’, Poirot was caught on camera during the Movietone news reports of the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, in which he was described as ‘Europe’s most famous detective’. Has McKenzie been living under a rock or something? How can he not recognize the great Hercule Poirot!

Ah well… naïve jewel thieves aside, this is a great episode based on a very enjoyable short story. It does end on a rather sad note, as Poirot is clearly affected by the grief of the man who hired him. More so than in previous episodes, Poirot seems a bit weighed down by the implications of his adventures. The adaptation ends, not with a cheeky jibe at Japp, but with Poirot reading a poignant note from Halliday, in which the man talks about returning to Australia and attempting to come to terms with the tragedy. Miss Lemon and Hastings respond with respectful silence, and the final shot of the episode is of Poirot standing alone in the adjoining room, his movements slowing winding down to a freeze-frame.

This sombre ending gives us a hint of the tonal shift that the series will undergo later in its run, but for now it’s a momentary image of the detective’s more empathetic side. Only momentary, though, as the next episode has a final shot that is almost the complete opposite (and it has Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown).

But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s start at the beginning and look at ‘Wasps’ Nest’ in more detail…

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Poirot Project: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 13th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in May 1923.

After moving around a bit for the last two episodes (The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published earlier, and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ later), we’re back on the familiar territory of the Sketch short stories, with our faithful chronicler Hastings describing another of the cases he worked on with his friend Poirot. And – even more familiar territory – the story begins with Hastings’s Perusal of the Morning News:
‘“What a number of bond robberies there have been lately!” I observed one morning, laying aside the newspaper. “Poirot, let us forsake the science of detection, and take to crime instead!”’
Sadly, this isn’t the beginning of a new career for Poirot and Hastings, as the jokey conversation about bond robberies and ocean liners that follows is soon interrupted by their landlady, who ushers in a new client (landlady, dear, not housekeeper). Miss Esmée Farquhar has come to ask Poirot to help her fiancé, Philip Ridgeway, the man implicated in the very bond robbery they were just discussing. The men agree to take the case and hurry away to interview Ridgeway over lunch at the Cheshire Cheese.

The puzzle is a neat one. Ridgeway was entrusted with a million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds by the London and Scottish Bank. The bank wanted to extend their credit in America, and so had decided to ship the bonds over the Atlantic; Ridgeway travelled to New York with the valuable cargo on the Olympia (one of the ocean liners of which Poirot and Hastings seem so enamoured at the beginning of the story). The bonds were sealed in a package, then placed in a portmanteau with a special lock (a unique lock with three keys – one given to Ridgeway, the other two held by the bank’s managers, Mr Shaw and Mr Vavasour). Although every care appears to be taken, disaster strikes – shortly before the boat docks, Ridgeway discovers the portmanteau has been opened and the bonds taken. Within half an hour of the Olympia’s arrival in New York, brokers reported that the bonds were being offered for sale.

And yet… Ridgeway discovered the bonds were missing before the ship docked and, as a result, all passengers were searched on landing. The ship was also searched ‘with a toothcomb’. The bulky package of bonds had disappeared into thin air. Scratches on the case suggest that someone originally tried to force the lock, but it was eventually just opened with the key. But how is that possible? Ridgeway’s key remained on his person at all times, and the other two keys were in a safe at the London and Scottish Bank, accessible only to Mr Vavasour (Ridgeway’s uncle) and Mr Shaw (who has been away from the bank due to severe bronchitis). And even if the thief had somehow managed to get hold of one of the keys, why did they try to force the lock first?

These questions are the heart of the puzzle. Like many of the Sketch stories – which are all quite short – we aren’t presented with a large cast of suspects like in the novels. Instead, we have a little brainteaser that requires some lateral thinking. The brevity of the form means that every seemingly throwaway line (‘One broker swears he bought some of them even before the Olympia got in.’) is a clue to the solution.

Poirot knows what this all means. After interviewing all the relevant people, he has a little chat with Hastings (which feels a bit like he’s addressing the reader as well):
‘“No, I am disappointed in the case – it is too easy!”
“Yes, do you not find it almost childishly simple?”’
This is a pretty standard feature of detective fiction – bizarrely early in the narrative, the detective will announce that he/she has worked it all out (or almost all of it) but they can’t yet reveal the solution. It’s a narrative conceit intended to indicate to readers that they have now received all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle (and to remind them that they might need to go back and think about the implications of everything they’ve seen). Most detectives do this at some point (Sherlock Holmes does it, Miss Marple does it, even Jonathan Creek does it), and it’s usually explained away with a wave of the hand (‘I don’t know how to prove it yet.’ ‘I don’t want to alert the culprit until I have more evidence.’)

But, on this occasion, the detective is just being a plain and simple show off. When Hastings asks his friend why he doesn’t just reveal the solution, Poirot (almost breaking the fourth wall here) says:
‘As to why I wait – eh bien, to the intelligence of Hercule Poirot the case is perfectly clear, but for the benefit of others, not so greatly gifted by the good God – the Inspector McNeil, for instance – it would be as well to make a few inquiries to establish the facts. One must have consideration for those less gifted than oneself.’
Inspector McNeil is the Japp-substitute in this case, but one feels like Poirot might be referring to someone other than the hapless policeman. Is his hesitation for the benefit of Hastings? Or the reader? His friend is not impressed with this:
‘Good Lord, Poirot! Do you know, I’d give a considerable sum of money to see you make a thorough ass of yourself – just for once. You’re so confoundedly conceited!’
To be fair, Hastings has got a point.

Once those of us who are ‘less gifted’ catch up, the solution is revealed, and it’s a satisfying one. I know some people might be a little concerned that Christie’s answer relies on a fact that hasn’t previously been revealed (which is a big no-no in Golden Age detective fiction). But I quite like it – it’s not that the fact wasn’t revealed, it’s that the possibility of its existence simply didn’t cross our minds. Poirot tells us the bonds can’t be sent by wireless, and transatlantic air travel is in its infancy – so what can possibly travel between Liverpool and New York quicker than a boat?*

‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ is a great short story, which does exactly what you’d expect from the form. Let’s see how the adaptation measures up…

The episode was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. This is the first of eleven episodes dramatized by Horowitz and, as you might expect from the man who created Foyle’s War (which is another favourite of mine), the adaptation is very good. It follows the short story closely, with a few expansions and additions that enhance, rather than change, Christie’s narrative.

We begin in Threadneedle Street (mentioned in Christie’s story), watching financiers scurry through the London rain to their respective establishments. Among the commuters are Mr Shaw (played by David Quilter) and Mr Vavasour (played by Ewan Hooper), the managers of the London and Scottish Bank. Their regular walk to work is disrupted, however, as a car swerves towards Shaw and almost runs him down.

This dramatic opening gives way to a familiar scene: Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and Hastings is perusing the morning news. As the robbery hasn’t yet taken place, the conversation about their potential life of crime is dropped; however, like his literary counterpart, Hastings is rather fascinated by the paper’s description of an ocean liner. Poirot (as in the story) announces that his seasickness would prevent him from taking a trip on such a vessel, but he seems far more disdainful of boats in general than in Christie’s text. In the 1923 story, Poirot imagines ‘dreamily’ what pleasure he could have if only he wasn’t afflicted with the mal de mer; Suchet’s Poirot translates this into a slightly grumpier assessment of the perils of the sea, explaining to Hastings that, since he crossed the channel ‘twenty years ago’, he has had a deep aversion to sea voyages of any kind. (It would be churlish to point out that – in the TV chronology – Poirot has already travelled to Rhodes and taken a cruise around Egypt, both for recreational purposes.)

The first big change to the story is the way in which Poirot is brought into the case. In this version, it is Vavasour and Shaw who contact the detective, rather than Esmée Farquhar (renamed, for some reason, Esmee Dalgleish in the episode). Poirot isn’t asked to investigate the theft, but rather asked to accompany the bonds to America to prevent a theft. As you can imagine, Hastings is over the moon about this.

Poirot’s employment by Vavasour and Shaw before the crime means that we get to see some of the background to the case with our own eyes (rather than it simply being described after the fact). We see Ridgeway (played by Oliver Parker) and Esmee (Natalie Ogle), and discover that he is a young man with some money problems (unlike the impeccable character in Christie’s story). Suspicion is immediately thrown on Ridgeway as it’s discovered that he owned a car of the same make as the one that was driven at Shaw in the opening sequence (a Singer). The young man insists that he sold the car because it wouldn’t start properly – a story that Hastings immediately reveals as a lie, since the Singer is known for its ‘brand new ignition system’. For once, Poirot is forced to bow to his associate’s superior knowledge.

We’re then shown the security measures to be taken to protect the bonds. Inspector McNeil is replaced by Mr McNeil (played by Paul Young), the head of security at the London and Scottish. Interestingly, the removal of the original policeman isn’t to make room for Japp, as this is one of the few early episodes that doesn’t feature the inspector at all. Instead, the role is altered because, at this point, no crime has taken place. McNeil simply reveals the precautions taken to secure the bonds for their transatlantic journey (which, as in the story, involve a unique lock and three closely-guarded keys).

Another important change to the story is that Ridgeway is no longer the first choice of courier. It is Shaw himself who is meant to be making the journey to the States. Not long before the voyage – disaster! Someone slips a dose of strychnine into Shaw’s coffee – he survives, but he’s too ill to travel with the bonds. Ridgeway is going to have to go in his place.

(A little aside… I love the scene in which Shaw gets the poisoned coffee. I’ve never seen a tea-lady push a trolley up a corridor with more sense of menace.)

It’s now time for the much-anticipated sea voyage. Poirot collects together the necessary equipment to survive the ordeal.

This is a little bit of a departure from Christie’s fiction. Poirot’s seasickness is something that is mentioned several times in the short stories, but he doesn’t resort to patent medicines to survive it. In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot copes with crossing the channel by employing ‘Laverguier’s system’ (‘You breathe in – and out – slowly, so – turning the head from left to right and counting six between each breath.’) In the 1923 version of ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (published the week after ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’), the detective explains that, while this might be fine for traversing la Manche, it won’t work for transatlantic sailings (because of ‘the difficulty of practising the so excellent method of Laverguier for a longer time than the few hours of crossing the Channel’). This will also be his remedy on the voyage to France in Murder on the Links. By ‘Problem at Sea’ (published thirteen years later), he seems to be able to survive longer journeys, but still has to spend some evenings in his cabin (‘I detest la mer.’). He doesn’t mention Laverguier’s system here, but he doesn’t mention medicine either.

Now, I can sort of see why the programme-makers added Poirot’s medicine chest to the episode. Christie had her detective build up from Channel sailings (in 1916, presumably, and then again before the end of WWI, before a couple of trips in 1923), to continental train journeys (in 1928 and 1934) that would necessarily begin with boat travel, to trying to avoid the sea by flying from France to England (in 1935), before (finally) having him attempt longer sea journeys (in 1935 and 1936). After that, there’s no stopping him, and he’s off to Egypt (again), Iraq and Jerusalem. The problem for the TV series is that, having altered the order of the stories, we’ve already seen Poirot on holiday at sea before the stories in which his seasickness is an issue (although, weirdly, he denies this here and in ‘The Veiled Lady’). Given that there seems to be a desire to retain Poirot’s seasickness as a recurring characteristic, the easiest way to explain his international travel is a quick shot of a monster medicine cabinet. Problem solved.

And, for added humour, the medicine seems to work just fine. Poirot has a great time on the ocean liner… it’s Hastings who ends up bedridden with the mal de mer (you do see that one coming though).

Now… about that ocean liner…

The story has the bonds travel on the Olympia, but the TV episode puts Poirot and Hastings on the Queen Mary. This is another example of the way in which the early series weave contemporary detail into the productions. But oh! wait a minute! the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary was in May 1936, meaning that this episode takes place almost exactly a year after the previous one (which was definitively set in May 1935). This fact is confirmed when Miss Lemon and Hastings make a reference to ‘The Lost Mine’ (in which Poirot’s bank manager was arrested for murder and fraud), saying that it occurred ‘last year’. It’s a good thing I’ve given up on a logical calendar of cases, as this is the sort of thing that might drive me mad.

Poirot and Hastings’s trip on the Queen Mary is introduced with a faux-Movietone newsreel, in which the two travellers feature (a technique that has previously been used in ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’). The announcer points out ‘Europe’s most famous detective’ among the passengers (remember that – it’s important for the next episode).

The final addition to the plot is a female traveller on the Queen Mary. Miranda Brooks (Lizzy McInnerny) catches Hastings’s eye, but his seasickness prevents him from furthering their acquaintance. Poirot also notices the woman, but (of course) this is for a quite different reason.

Later in the episode, we meet Nurse Long, the woman who has been helping Shaw recover from strychnine poisoning. Is there something a bit familiar about this woman? Hmmm…

Now, I’m in two minds about the Miranda Brooks/Nurse Long character. I understand why she’s been added to the story. In Christie’s text, Shaw himself travels in the cabin next door to Ridgeway, disguised as a nondescript ‘elderly gentleman, wearing glasses’ – his ‘bronchitis’ was simply a lie. Given that things are generally handled in more detail in the TV episode, a convenient case of bronchitis (which no one thought to check) would have been too suspicious. Instead, Shaw needed to be more definitely put out of action, and a substitute sent in his place. This substitute had to be a close accomplice of Shaw’s, so what better than a girlfriend.

So there’s nothing wrong with Miranda Brooks’s existence, but I just can’t decide what I think about her disguise. When Poirot meets her on the Queen Mary, her American accent is absolutely atrocious. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the character isn’t meant to be American – let’s be honest, there are some shocking accents on the show that aren’t meant to be suspicious (Mrs Vanderlyn, anyone?) No, my issue is more with her appearance as Nurse Long. Even if I hadn’t seen Miranda Brooks, I would’ve been suspicious of Nurse Long – she’s so obviously in disguise. No one in Poirot looks that frumpy and plain unless they’re deliberately trying to be anonymous (and there’s a particularly egregious example of this coming up later in the series).

Maybe I’m alone in this assessment though, as my husband didn’t spot that she was wearing a disguise, and I’ve seen some reviews of the episode that praised the success of Miranda’s transformation. And whatever the viewers think, the disguise certainly fooled Hastings, as he is blown away by the revelation. Discovering that Miranda and Nurse Long are the same person seems to push the man into some sort of existential crisis. When his concerned friend asks him the cause of his anxiety, the poor baffled man replies: ‘If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other!’ Pauvre Hastings!

Overall, then, this a great episode. It stays close to the original story, and adds some little flourishes that enhance the TV characters we’ve come to know and love. The only thing missing is the good Chief Inspector Japp, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be back again soon.

On to the next episode: ‘The Plymouth Express’

* Answer: a faster boat

Poirot Project: How Does Your Garden Grow? (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and the last review was of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 6th January 1991, following the pattern set by the first two series of beginning a new set of stories immediately after Christmas. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Ladies’ Home Journal (in the US) and The Strand (in the UK) in 1935.

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ is a significant story in the Poirot canon, as it is the first to introduce the detective’s confidential secretary, Miss Lemon. This raises two interesting issues when rereading the stories in the adaptation (rather than publication) sequence: (1) there are significant differences between the character in Christie’s fiction and the TV character of the same name; and (2) Miss Lemon has already appeared in sixteen episodes of the TV show at this point, so ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ no longer represents her introduction. In my opinion, the adaptation offers an interesting (though subtle) solution to these issues, but more on that below.

First, I want to say a little something about Christie’s short story.

The story (written in third person, as Hastings is no longer our chronicler by this point) begins with Hercule Poirot in his flat, reading through his correspondence. Among his ‘neat pile’ of letters is a note from Amelia Barrowby requesting a ‘strictly private’ consultation about a ‘delicate family matter’. Poirot is clearly intrigued by the note, but he wants a second opinion. Fortunately, one of his employees is in the next room…

Here’s the first introduction to Poirot’s new ‘Watson’:
‘At ten o’clock precisely he entered the room where Miss Lemon, his confidential secretary, sat awaiting her instructions for the day. Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself, and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.’
From the start, then, Poirot’s relationship with Miss Lemon is on very different terms to his relationship with Hastings. Technically, it’s an employer-employee relationship, with Miss Lemon waiting to receive ‘instructions’ from Poirot at the beginning of each day. And yet it’s also, in some ways, a more apt relationship, as Miss Lemon embodies the precision and ‘passion for order’ that Poirot often lamented was missing from Hastings. Like Poirot, Miss Lemon reveals an awareness of the need to treat each potential client according to their individual personalities – when Poirot asks her to write some refusals ‘couched in correct terms’, Miss Lemon annotates each with a coded acknowledgement of the ‘correct terms’ to use for each: ‘[s]oft soap’, ‘slap in the face’, ‘curt’, etc. (And it’s interesting that these are all approaches Poirot will take himself with unwanted clients – from his ‘perfect politeness’ in letting down the Home Secretary in Peril at End House, his brutal ‘I do not like your face, Mr Ratchett’ in Murder on the Orient Express, to his quickly regretted curtness to Mrs Todd in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ – suggesting that Miss Lemon knows almost instinctively how her boss likes to do business.)

And, although she never gets to be a narrator like Hastings, we do get to a little glimpse into the mind of Poirot’s new associate near the beginning of the story. When Poirot asks for Miss Lemon’s opinion on Amelia Barrowby’s letter, she isn’t particularly pleased to be asked:
‘Very occasionally her employer appealed to her human, as opposed to her official, capacities. It slightly annoyed Miss Lemon when he did so – she was very nearly the perfect machine, completely and gloriously uninterested in all human affairs. Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night. Nevertheless, Miss Lemon was perfectly capable of intelligence on purely human matters, as Hercule Poirot well knew.’
This description of Poirot’s ‘perfect machine’ is ostensibly at odds with the earlier descriptions of his old friend Hastings. At first glance, it seems that Miss Lemon has been introduced as the polar opposite of her predecessor. However, there are little signs that she isn’t quite as different as she appears. In particular, we very quickly discover that Miss Lemon isn’t above criticizing her employer and his affectations (albeit with less humour than Hastings). Christie shows this by continuing to reveal little bits of Miss Lemon’s thoughts throughout ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ Just a few lines after the ‘perfect machine’ description, Poirot makes one of his characteristic comical-broken-English statements, and we are told: ‘Miss Lemon, who considered that Poirot had been long enough in Great Britain to understand its slang terms, did not reply.’ With that, Miss Lemon slips subtly into a role that Hastings had occasionally occupied: the voice of dissent against the little Belgian’s more exaggerated mannerisms (and, in this example, her consideration is surely shared by the reader who raises an eyebrow every time Poirot mangles an expression he must have heard a hundred times since arriving in England two decades ago).

Despite the fact that it’s only a short story, Christie really develops a sense of Poirot and Miss Lemon’s relationship in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ It’s done with a light touch, a sense of gentle humour (mostly directed at her detective), and an awareness of fans’ fondness for the Poirot-and-Hastings (for some later fans, Poirot/Hastings) relationship. In her autobiography, Christie was somewhat brusque about her decision to get rid of her original ‘Watson’ character, stating: ‘Truth to tell, I think I was getting a little tired of him. I might be stuck with Poirot, but no need to be stuck with Hastings too.’ Fans of Christie’s work are familiar with the perennial narrative (partly perpetuated by these throwaway authorial comments) that the author couldn’t stand her detective creation – and I’ll come back to this more when I start thinking about Ariadne Oliver – but there’s a bit of a disjunction between what Christie said about her characters and the affectionate way they come across in the books. Either Christie was prone to exaggerating her irritation with the little egg-shaped Belgian (and, again, Ariadne Oliver springs to mind here), or she took great pains to respect her fans’ fondness for the characters in her writing. I like to believe it’s the latter, and this seems to be the case in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’

In this story, Christie is, in fact, attempting to replace her popular ‘Watson’ with a new unknown character. A writer less in tune with her readers might have simply swept Hastings under the carpet, never to be mentioned again, and focused on Miss Lemon. However, what we have here is a playful piece of reflection on the different ‘Watsons’ in Poirot’s career, which results in some light teasing of the detective himself.

Miss Lemon is everything that Poirot wanted Hastings to be. She lives for ‘order and method’ – she even dreams about it at night – and she doesn’t bother herself with the frivolity of human life that so excited Hastings (to the exacerbation of Poirot). There’s a little detail offered near the beginning to show how perfect Miss Lemon is for Poirot. After Poirot responds to Miss Barrowby’s request but receives no answer, Miss Lemon spots the announcement of the woman’s death in the newspaper and brings it to her employer’s attention (a much more business-like use of the newspapers than his old friend’s Perusal of the Morning News). Miss Lemon tells him that she ‘saw it in the tube and tore it out’, but Poirot’s mind registers ‘approval of the fact that, though Miss Lemon used the word “tore”, she had neatly cut the entry with scissors’. Surely this is the sidekick Poirot has been dreaming of ever since he fell out with Hastings over a cup of cocoa.

But no… Poirot’s approval quickly dissipates as he discovers the limits of Miss Lemon’s ability (or willingness) to play Watson. As he muses on the case of Miss Amelia Barrowby, Poirot attempts to get his associate to hypothesize on the psychology of the participants. He asks her to imagine she is in the situation of the prime suspect, and Miss Lemon isn’t pleased:
‘Miss Lemon dropped her hands into her lap in a resigned manner. She enjoyed typing, paying bills, filing papers and entering up engagements. To be asked to imagine herself in hypothetical situations bored her very much, but she accepted it as a disagreeable part of a duty.’
She offers Poirot monosyllabic responses to his questions, which annoys the detective. Eventually, he gives up:
‘Poirot sighed. “How I miss my friend Hastings. He had such imagination. Such a romantic mind! It is true that he always imagined wrong – but that in itself was a guide.”’
Miss Lemon is unmoved by this nostalgia, and simply ‘looked longingly at the typewritten sheet in front of her’. This isn’t the first time Poirot has expressed his fondness for Hastings’s ‘romantic mind’, or the extent to which he misses it when it’s not there: he said something similar in Peril at End House after being forced to solve The Mystery of the Blue Train with his valet George because Hastings was in South America. Christie might have been happy to jettison Hastings, but her detective never really shared her enthusiasm for his friend’s departure.

Before I move on to the TV adaptation, I should say a little bit about the mystery in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ As I’ve said, Poirot receives a letter from an older woman named Amelia Barrowby. She is concerned about ‘a very delicate family matter’, and would like Poirot to investigate – with an assurance of confidentiality and privacy. Readers might note some similarity here with Mrs Pengelley’s tentative enquiries at the beginning of ‘The Cornish Mystery’, and so, when Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby died shortly after writing to Poirot, it’s not a massive leap (for the detective and the reader) to presume foul play.

Poirot travels to Charman’s Green in Buckinghamshire to investigate (cheekily ignoring a letter from Miss Barrowby’s niece declaring that ‘the matter […] is no longer of importance’). The significance of the story’s title is revealed when Poirot sees the house’s English country garden:
‘Rose trees that promised a good harvest later in the year, and at present daffodils, early tulips, blue hyacinths – the last bed was partly edged with shells.’
The other members of the household are quickly revealed as Miss Barrowby’s niece Mary Delafontaine, Mary’s husband Henry, and Katrina, a ‘half-Russian’ girl who worked as a ‘kind of nurse-attendant’ to the old woman. When the local police (in the form of Inspector Sims, ‘a big, burly man with a hearty manner’) confirm death by strychnine poisoning, the three become suspects.

Katrina’s foreignness is stressed on a number of occasions, with Henry bluntly suggesting that his aunt-by-marriage had concerns about ‘Bolshies, Reds, all that sort of thing’. Mary is a sensible English housewife, whose main preoccupation is gardening – to the extent that she has almost started to physically resemble her garden, with her eyes that are the colour of forget-me-nots. If you’re familiar with your Christie, it’s pretty obvious whodunit here. Spoiler alert: it isn’t the foreign person.

A bigger mystery – as is often the case – is how the poison was administered, given that Miss Barrowby ate the same food as her family. There’s a Christie favourite in the form of potentially poisonous medicine (this time a ‘cachet’ administered by Katrina), and then a suspicious packet of strychnine found in the girl’s bedroom. But the real clue has, of course, been on display the entire time.

Aside from the introduction of Miss Lemon, the story has some nice touches. As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it is Poirot’s quirky obsession with symmetry and order that allows him to spot the giveaway clue. And the detective’s attitude towards the young Russian woman is also pleasantly characteristic. While all manner of suspicion is heaped upon her, Poirot repeatedly draws attention to the girl’s vulnerability and isolation: ‘I do not think she has any friends.’ He then modifies this: ‘I was wrong […] She has one.’ After (obviously) exonerating Katrina, Poirot announces the identity of this friend: ‘Me!’ This reminds us of Poirot’s regular alliance with immigrants and foreigners, including his bold statement of ‘Me, I am all for the visitors!’ at the end of ‘Double Sin’.

So… time to move on to the TV episode…

The adaptation was written by Andrew Marshall and directed by Brian Farnham. Adapting ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ poses an immediate challenge within the context of the ITV series. As I’ve already said, Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon has appeared in sixteen previous episodes at this point, and the character has been established along quite different lines to Christie’s creation (and her prototype). In addition to this, the series (at this point) is an ensemble piece, so we’re quite used to seeing Miss Lemon alongside Hastings and Japp. Obviously, Marshall couldn’t just ignore this context and translate Christie’s story directly to the screen; however, for readers familiar with the short story, it would’ve been a shame to see no acknowledgement of its significant place within the Poirot stories as a whole. I quite like the compromise position that Marshall’s adaptation strikes.

While the episode does feature Hastings and Japp, it’s notable for being a bit more Miss Lemon-heavy than previous episodes. Miss Lemon is the member of the gang most likely to be absent from the early series (Pauline Moran appeared in 32 episodes, compared to Philip Jackson’s 40 and Hugh Fraser’s 43). She did not appear in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (as it would’ve been impossible to write her into that story), but she was also missing from ‘The King of Clubs’ (in which Poirot investigates with Japp and Hastings) and, later in this series, she will be absent again from ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Nevertheless, we’ve seen some hint of Miss Lemon’s talents for investigation: she carries out background searches in Peril at End House (undertaken by Poirot himself in Christie’s story), she goes undercover in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, and her input was pivotal in resolving the case in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’. This episode is very much in this mould, but with some added extras in honour of the original short story.

Specifically, we get to see more of Poirot and Miss Lemon working as a team. They travel to Miss Barrowby’s house together (on Poirot’s particular request) and – crucially – both observe the all-important flowerbed on their arrival. As in the short story, Poirot relies on Miss Lemon’s knowledge of tradesmen to extract relevant information from the fishmonger. And, also like in the short story, Poirot runs his hypothetical scenarios about Katrina by his secretary. In the latter case, though, there are necessary changes made. Firstly, the exchange takes place in a more convivial setting (the pair are out for coffee in a stylish establishment, rather than in Poirot’s office); secondly, Miss Lemon offers a more imaginative response than her literary counterpart. Still, the ever-so-slightly sardonic expression on her face suggests that this Miss Lemon (as in the short story) doesn’t enter into the exercise with quite the ‘romantic mind’ of Arthur Hastings.

There is another nod to the short story (and one of the bits of characterization the TV Miss Lemon shares with her counterparts in Christie’s stories), as we see the return of Miss Lemon’s filing system. When Poirot and Miss Lemon travel to Miss Barrowby’s house, they leave Hastings in Whitehaven Mansions. A certain Mr Trumper gets in touch to request payment of a bill, and Hastings (in his wisdom) decides to hunt out the relevant invoice. Towards the end of the episode, Miss Lemon returns to find her precious filing system in disarray. Her fury reminds us that there is one thing all versions of Miss Lemon share: their ‘real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system’.

I did warn you what would happen if Poirot let Miss Lemon out into the field!

Before I move on to the rest of the story, there are a couple more details about Miss Lemon that are revealed in the course of this episode. We discover that she is a lot more aware of her employer’s affectations than Hastings is. At the beginning of the episode, Poirot (who has been exhibiting slightly odd behaviour – more on that shortly) locks himself in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time. Miss Lemon and Hastings ponder over this new eccentricity:
Miss Lemon (with a note of mischief): ‘Perhaps he’s dyeing his hair.’
Hastings: ‘But… he’s a man.’
I don’t want to say for certain that Poirot dyes his hair – but it is a rather suspiciously perfect shade of black, which is (and will remain for some time) mysteriously devoid of grey. This little exchange makes it seem like Miss Lemon is a bit more worldly – and a bit more aware of Poirot’s vanities – than his hapless old friend.

The second little nugget comes when Poirot and Miss Lemon begin to investigate the death of Miss Barrowby. Rather thsn hearing the information from a local policeman (whose appearance is removed in order to leave a space for Japp), Poirot goes to the pathologist (played by John Rogan) with Japp in order to discover the cause of death. And he takes his secretary along with him. The men are politely concerned about the poor woman’s sensibilities, but she brushes aside their anxiety:
Miss Lemon: ‘I did help in the hospital morgue during the war.’
Poirot: ‘Not fighting, Miss Lemon?’
Miss Lemon: ‘Mr Poirot!’
It’s a nice piece of backstory to her character, which goes some way to explain her lack of discomfort when filing away details of her employer’s grislier cases. Poirot’s teasing reply reminds us that, in the Poirot and Parker Pyne short stories, Miss Lemon was a pretty formidable woman.

Reluctantly, I should probably move on from Miss Lemon and talk about the rest of the episode. The adaptation begins with Poirot visiting the Mayfair establishment of Mr Trumper, hairdresser and perfumer, to purchase a new cologne. This is Poirot at his most dandyish – dare I say, foppish? – and there’s almost a touch of camp about his behaviour in the scene. When Mr Trumper enquires as to the reason for Poirot’s slightly giddy mood, the little Belgian cryptically replies ‘I am to become a pink rose!’, before rushing home to lock himself in the bathroom for a major preening session.

A quick aside… G.F. Trumper is a real barber and perfumer. A shop at 9 Curzon Street, Mayfair, was opened in the late nineteenth century by George Trumper, and it’s still open today (along with a second premises in Duke of York Street). The TV show used the Curzon Street shop for the scenes in which Poirot purchases his cologne, though the part of Mr Trumper was played by actor Trevor Danby. This feels like such a good find on the part of the locations team, I think they should be mentioned by name for once… well done, Scott Rowlatt and Paul Shersby!

Eventually, we discover the reason for this strange behaviour – a rose is to be named in Poirot’s honour at the RHS Flower Show. And so, the gang are all off to Chelsea! Except… poor old Hastings seems to have come down with a severe bout of hay fever (or is he allergic to some new scent in the apartment?), so he’s left home alone with Miss Lemon’s filing system. The trip to the flower show gives us two extra details. It seems we’re still in 1935, as the RHS banner informs us.

The thing is… the 1935 Chelsea Flower Show took place on the 22-24 May. Which means that the events of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ must take place before the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ (set in July that year) and ‘The Cornish Mystery’ (set in July and August). It also means this story takes place before ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, as that episode has Poirot, Hastings and Japp watching ‘G’ Men at the cinema, and the film wasn’t released in the UK until November 1935. Mind you, that would mean that… oh, forget it… the episodes don’t follow a logical calendar. At this point in the series, it’s just always 1935 and that’s all there is to it.

Thank you to Carrie Lewis for providing this image

Okay… two further asides about the naming of the rose. At the RHS show, we get to see the return of Japp-the-Botanist, as he casually remarks: ‘I would have expected you to be a polyantha rose, rather than a hybrid tea. The scent is much stronger, you know?’ While we’ll see Japp in his garden later in the series, for now this is a nice reminder of his interest in flora at the beginning of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’.

And, while there isn’t a Hercule Poirot rose, his creator did have a flower named after her in 1988 (also a ‘lightly fragrant’ pink hybrid tea). I don’t know whether the programme-makers were aware of this when writing this episode a couple of years later, but I quite like this detail.

Agatha Christie rose - thanks to Darren Michaels for providing this picture

The actual mystery part of the episode begins, not with an anxious letter, but with an encounter between Amelia Barrowby (Margery Mason) and the great detective. The old woman recognizes Poirot and makes it clear that she would like to talk to him. She presses a packet of seeds (‘Catherine the Great’ stocks) into his hand. (Another aside… I can’t seem to help myself today… the conversation with Amelia Barrowby leads Poirot to say: ‘One day I hope to retire to grow the vegetable marrows, but until then I have only the window box.’ Fans of Christie’s fiction will recognize this as a nod to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, making it a rare call-forward – there are very few direct references to yet-to-be-adapted stories in the series.)

By the time Poirot and Miss Lemon call on Miss Barrowby, she’s already died. From this point, the mystery unfolds in a similar way to in the short story, though there are some alterations and expansions.

Miss Barrowby was cared for by Katrina Reiger (played by Catherine Russell), who is a Russian immigrant. As in Christie’s story, this is a cause for suspicion, though it is significantly expanded from Henry’s casual talk of ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’. The other two suspects are, again, Mary Delafontaine (Anne Stallybrass) and her husband (Tim Wylton), but their motive is developed further with some shady financial dealings. This latter detail is disclosed indirectly to Poirot in an odd little sequence involving a solicitor judging a horse show and using this as a coded metaphor for the terms of Miss Barrowby’s will (which always reminds me of Arthur Wimborne’s blatantly obvious crossword ‘code’ in the BBC’s adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington). Additionally, we have the extra details of Henry Delafontaine’s secret drinking (which does lead to a funny little scene in the denouement) and the replacement of Inspector Sims with Inspector Japp (who is discovered staking out Miss Barrowby’s house). The nursery rhyme title is also underlined further with the discovery of a silver bell alongside the shells in the flowerbed.

Overall, though, these additions enhance Christie’s story, rather than change it, and several of them allow for the TV Poirot’s now-familiar traits to shine. For instance, the changes made to Katrina – no longer simply a bit ‘foreign’, she is now a refugee Russian aristocrat – means that Poirot isn’t simply protective of the girl because she is friendless, but that he is aware of the peril she may be in from the very ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’ she is suspected of aiding, and he feels a kinship based on their shared refugee status. He is also able to dabble in a bit of matchmaking at the end of the episode, as he brings together Katrina and Nicholai (Peter Birch), a man who works at the Russian Embassy. And Poirot does love a bit of matchmaking.

Ultimately, though, this episode is all about Miss Lemon for me. The short story is her introduction to the Poirot canon, so it seems fitting that the TV episode lets her take centre stage. Significantly, the discovery of the all-important garden clue – that the shell border isn’t complete and so doesn’t fit with the ‘order’ of Mary’s garden – is passed from Poirot (who spots it in the short story) to Miss Lemon (who comments on it in the adaptation). This seems like a nice way of acknowledging the relationship introduced in Christie’s short story. As his literary counterpart does when he sees the neatly cut newspaper article, the TV Poirot registers his approval at Miss Lemon’s assessment of the shell border. It seems that this Miss Lemon, like Christie’s, really does have ‘a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself’.

Okay… that’s probably more than enough for this episode.

tl;dr I love Miss Lemon.

Moving on to the next episode… ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’