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 ‘Double Sin’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The seventh episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 18th February 1990. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch in May 1923.
In this story, we find our detective confronted by a peculiar puzzle. A redhead has received an offer that, while not completely impossible, seems too good to be true. Our sleuth is intrigued and begins to investigate these curious circumstances, quickly discovering that all is not what it seems.
Hang on… this sounds awfully familiar…
I must confess, I’d never noticed any similarity between ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’ until I reread it for this project. But after spotting the cheeky references in other Sketch stories to ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’) and ‘The Speckled Band’ (‘The Veiled Lady’) – and no doubt there are more that I’ve not spotted (it’s been ages since I read a Sherlock Holmes story) – I suddenly realized that the set-up of Christie’s ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is the same as in Doyle’s 1891 short story. I decided to take another look at Doyle’s story to see if the similarity went any further, and sure enough I was immediately convinced that it’s not a coincidence.
‘The Red-Headed League’ begins with Watson paying a call on his detective friend. He finds Holmes deep in conversation with a new client, but the detective invites Watson to join the conversation, saying:
‘I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life. You have shown your relish for it by the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures.’‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, which is narrated by Hastings, begins with the following statement:
‘So far, in the cases which I have recorded, Poirot’s investigations have started from the central fact, whether murder or robbery, and have proceeded from thence by a process of logical deduction to the final triumphant unravelling. In the events I am now about to chronicle a remarkable chain of circumstances led from the apparently trivial incidents which first attracted Poirot’s attention to the sinister happenings which completed a most unusual case.’This is one of only a few occasions where Hastings refers to himself as Poirot’s ‘chronicler’ (for whom are these chronicles intended? is Hastings planning to publish them? I’ll come back to these questions in a later post) – and it’s this role that links him most explicitly to Dr Watson.
There are more similarities here… Holmes comments on the ‘humdrum routine of everyday life’ and ‘the bizarre’; Hastings speaks of ‘apparently trivial incidents’ and ‘a most unusual case’. It’s enough to convince me that this is another of Christie’s playful references to her illustrious predecessor.
But it is definitely a playful reference. In Christie’s short story, the ‘florid-faced elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair’ is replaced with Mrs Robinson, a ‘charming little bride’ whose ‘hair’s really a beautiful shade of auburn’ (‘Always you have had a penchant for auburn hair!’ murmured Poirot.) And Mrs Robinson hasn’t been offered a suspiciously well-paid clerical job, but rather has secured (with her husband) a ‘beautifully furnished’ serviced apartment in Montagu Mansions, off Knightsbridge, for the curiously low sum of £80 per year. As soon as Poirot hears of this low rent, he’s hooked (just as Holmes was hooked as soon as he ‘heard of the assistant having come for half wages’).
Outside of this jokey homage to Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a delightful story and is on my list of favourite Poirot short stories (which, admittedly, is quite long). It begins with a brief glimpse of Hastings out on his own without Poirot. It is Hastings who first meets the Robinsons – he’s at a party thrown by his friend Parker – and it is Hastings who is first urged to explain the puzzle. Parker describes Hastings as their ‘criminal expert’ and ‘a great unraveller of mysteries’, which reminds us of Hastings’s aspirations to be a detective in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and his attempts to take on a case in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (which was published before but adapted after ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, so I’ll be coming to that one later).
Encouraged by Parker, the Robinsons explain that they discovered a flat listed at way below market price. They arranged to view the property, but were met on the stairs by a friend who had just been told the flat was already let. The couple decided to try their luck – even suggesting they might offer the landlord ‘a premium’ to gazump the other prospective tenants. To their surprise, however, they aren’t turned away from the flat. As soon as they give their names, they are invited in and shown around. Hastings is asked to explain the curious circumstances, which he does with a casual confidence:
‘“‘Obvious, my dear Watson,’” I quoted lightly. “She went to the wrong flat.”Sadly, though, Poirot isn’t particularly impressed. He is certain that there’s more to the case, and takes a flat in Montagu Mansions in order to investigate further. What he discovers is a transatlantic intrigue, involving stolen naval plans (to be sold to the Japanese), a Mafia hitman named Luigi Valdarno, an international spy named Elsa Hardt and the United States Secret Service. While Poirot conducts his undercover investigations in the Knightsbridge flats, Inspector Japp (who is working with Agent Burt of the US Secret Service) fills him in on the background details. Poor Hastings is left thoroughly confounded.
“Oh, Captain Hastings, how clever of you!” cried Mrs Robinson admiringly.
I rather wished Poirot had been there. Sometimes I have the feeling that he rather underestimates my capabilities.’
Interesingly – and, again, this isn’t something I picked up on until I reread the story for this project – the apprehension of the culprits in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ has a very Holmes/Watson flavour. Unusually, Poirot plays an active role in doing this. He instructs Hastings that they will be conducting an ‘all-night vigil’ in Montagu Mansions and – also very unusually – asks Hastings to come ‘armed with that excellent revolver’ (and this change of pace clearly appeals to Hastings, as he is ‘slightly thrilled’ when Poirot asks if he has a gun). This surely reminds us of ‘The Red-Headed League’, which also culminates in an ‘all-night vigil’ in order to apprehend the culprits, and in which Holmes asks Watson to ‘kindly put [his] army revolver in [his] pocket’.
In a more action-packed denouement than we’re used to, Poirot and Hastings are confronted by Valdarno:
‘We sprang together, Poirot with a quick movement enveloped the intruder’s head with a light woollen scarf whilst I pinioned his arms.’In a shock twist, Valdarno is able to gain control of Hastings’s revolver, and attempts to shoot Elsa Hardt. However, as he pulls the trigger, the gun simply clicks harmlessly. It turns out that Poirot really isn’t as comfortable with firearms as Holmes is:
‘Never will you trust your old friend, Hastings. I do not care for my friends to carry loaded pistols about with them and never would I permit a mere acquaintance to do so.’With the reveal of the unloaded gun, we move back into ‘classic’ Poirot territory, with the detective explaining everything to his colleague, before, in a final flourish, he jovially presents the stolen naval plans (concealed in a stuffed cat telephone cover) to Japp by sticking the toy’s head around the door and shouting ‘Miaow’: ‘Oh, it’s only Monsieur Poirot at one of his little jokes!’ says Japp. (I can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes messing about with Lestrade like this.)
The TV episode was written by Russell Murray and directed by Richard Spence. It’s a fairly close adaptation, with just a few changes that aren’t really surprising in the context of the series generally.
The episode begins with Poirot, Hastings and Japp at the pictures, watching a gangster film. Hastings and Japp are clearly loving the film, but Poirot winces and screws up his eyes every time a gunshot is heard. This is a nice touch – it’s not inconceivable, after ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, to imagine Christie’s characters hanging out like this, but it seems even more fitting for the TV characters, particularly after their night out at the magic show in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’. Moreover, it gives us a hint of the significance of a line from later in the short story, which is retained in the adaptation, when Poirot claims that the story of Elsa Hardt and Luigi Valdarno will remind Hastings of his ‘favourite cinema’. And, of course, it sets up Poirot’s dislike of guns.
After the film, Japp explains that he is working with the FBI on a ‘spy case’, and that he will be liaising with Agent Burt on the case. This reverses the order in which information is presented: in the short story, we meet the Robinsons before we hear a single thing about spies, but here we know that the FBI are in town before we meet the house-hunting couple.
In the episode, we see Mr and Mrs Robinson (played by John Michie and Samantha Bond) arriving at Montagu Mansions to view the flat, rather than hearing about it in retrospect. All the references to Mrs Robinson’s auburn hair are removed – the TV series is actually less concerned with Hastings’s penchant than Christie’s short stories – and she’s more confident than the ‘charming little bride’ of the source text. I don’t care, though, because Mrs Robinson is played by Samantha Bond, which means I’m inclined to be very fond of her. This isn’t because Samantha Bond was Miss Moneypenny, but because she played one of my favourite Agatha Christie characters of all time.
Julia Simmons is a character from A Murder is Announced (a Miss Marple novel), and Bond played her in the 1985 BBC adaptation (surely the only adaptation that counts). As a kid (and I was only seven when A Murder is Announced was first broadcast, though I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it since), I was utterly entranced by the ‘Pip and Emma’ puzzle in this Miss Marple story. I thought it was the cleverest puzzle I’d ever seen – and it is pretty slick, and absolutely classic Christie – and it still has a very special place in my heart. So, since she played the ‘Emma’ half of the conundrum, I’ll always be fond of Samantha Bond. Oh, and Julia Simmons has some awesome lines as well: ‘If I had shot at you, Letitia Blacklock, I wouldn’t have missed.’
But back to Poirot… in the TV episode, both Poirot and Hastings attend Parker’s party and hear the story of the cheap flat. Again, Hastings is called on to explain it, and again he says that the previous visitor must have inadvertently called at the wrong flat. The episode somewhat redeems Hastings, though, as he later tells Poirot that he doesn’t really believe this: he was being tactful, as he’s actually convinced that the Robinsons have overlooked a clause in their contract. (This is a slightly more astute Hastings than the one in Christie’s fiction!)
Japp’s dealings with Agent Burt of the FBI are handled in more detail than in the short story. Burt (played by William Hootkins) is an overbearing and very ‘American’ character, who commandeers Japp’s office and calls the policeman ‘Jim’ (and also calls Poirot a ‘gumshoe’). The ‘spy case’ once again revolves around stolen naval plans, though they have been stolen specifically for ‘Il Duce’ here. Burt refuses to believe that the Mafia are involved; in fact, he refuses to believe that the Mafia exists at all. He’s also reluctant to investigate Japp-and-Poirot style, and is keen to have as many firearms involved as possible. In the final showdown, Japp actually takes Burt’s gun away from him, revealing that Poirot isn’t the only investigator who’s uncomfortable about a shootout.
As well as the expansion of Burt’s character, the TV adaptation also makes some changes to the ‘Mafia’ backstory – though these aren’t a huge deviation from the source text. The woman at the heart of the case is now named Carla Romero (played by Jenifer Landor), and she is known as ‘la femme fatale who dared to double-cross the Mafia’. She is hiding out in England as Elsa Hart (not ‘Hardt’ anymore) and performing as a nightclub chanteuse (or shan-toozy, as Burt pronounces it). We are given a flashback to a charmingly artificial New York nightclub to narrate the events that have led to Carla’s betrayal of the Mafia, which cements the idea that this is something that would happen in ‘your favourite cinema’.
The tracking down of Carla Romero to a London nightclub allows another character to play a part in the investigation. While Poirot is unable to find out much about ‘Elsa Hart’, he has an associate who might have more success. It’s time for Miss Lemon to go undercover!
Posing as Penelope Maitland of The Lady’s Companion, Miss Lemon is able to infiltrate the shifty nightclub in which ‘Elsa’ is singing – though not before fending off the advances of Bernie Cole (Nick Maloney), the sleazy impresario who runs the place. (Interestingly, this impresario describes himself as ‘the King of the Clubs’, which may well be a reference to the pun that was dropped from ‘The King of Clubs’, when Henry Reedburn was transformed from an impresario to a film producer).
I love Undercover Miss Lemon, as she reveals way more of a talent for detective work than Hastings ever does. Not only is she able to coax ‘Elsa Hart’ into revealing certain facts about her stay in London, she also notes the significance of a number of clues that reveal the holes the woman’s story. Still, I can understand why Poirot only sends Miss Lemon out into the field sparingly – she might be the better sleuth, but can you imagine if the filing system was left to Hastings?
All in all, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a solid adaptation of a very enjoyable short story. From the ‘trivial’ beginning, it grows into a transatlantic gangster story with military implications (and the specific mention of ‘Il Duce’ makes it clear how serious the espionage really is).
A couple of highlights to finish…
I’ve mentioned several times that this series is definitively set in 1935, and the programme-makers use various details to subtly fix this setting. There are three such details (and one possible goof) in this episode, and I think they are among the best used.
The film that Poirot, Hastings and Japp are watching at the pictures is the James Cagney film ‘G’ Men, set during the early days of the FBI and released in 1935. The sheet music that Miss Lemon spots in Carla Romero’s dressing-room, which reveals that Carla has been in the States that year, is ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (published in 1935). And when Bernie Cole claims that Elsa Hart is Canadian, he says ‘like those Dionne quintuplets’ (who were born in 1934, but were moved into the Dafoe hospital in 1935).
The possible goof comes when Poirot makes enquiries at the police records office. He asks the records agent (played by Gordon Wharmby) if there have been any unsolved crimes in which the suspects were a husband and wife couple. The agent says that there haven’t been, but then adds: ‘There’s that Bonnie and Clyde, of course. But they’re at large somewhere in the American Midwest.’ Given that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in May 1934, I can’t quite work out what this line is all about. Either it’s an accidental error on the part of the scriptwriter, or it’s a joke suggesting that the records officer isn’t particularly up-to-date with the news from America (or that he’s bought into some conspiracy theory that Bonnie and Clyde actually escaped). However you read it, it’s a bit jarring, especially after the classiness of the ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ reference.
Amidst all the G-men and femme fatales, it’s nice to see Poirot being Poirot at various points in the episode. As in the short story, the detective takes a flat in the Robinsons’ building in order to investigate them further. I love the beautifully presented toolkit that he uses to rig their lock – but I love Hastings’s attempts to distract the Robinsons more (‘Should I use badger hair, or will an ordinary brush do the trick?’). And there’s some pretty quick thinking from Hastings when his associate is nearly rumbled. (As an aside, in the short story, Poirot has to explain how it is possible to ‘descend after the method of the dustbins’ to Hastings, as this is the first short story in which such a method is used. In the TV episode, there’s no need for him to explain this, as the events of ‘The Third Floor Flat’ have already taken place, and Hastings, though not present in the 1929 short story, was added to the TV version of this mystery. It seems the dustbin lifts in serviced apartments were open to all sorts of abuse!)
So to finish, I stand by my initial assessment that ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a playful riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’, but what Christie creates is a thoroughly modern take on the ‘trivial incidents’ that kick off the Holmes adventure. With its mansion flats and Mafioso hitmen, Christie’s story shakes off the late Victorian concerns of Doyle’s tale and turns it into something that’s pure 1920s. The TV adaptation seamlessly shifts us into 1935, while still retaining the plot and much of the characterization of the source, leaving us with an episode that’s a lot of fun to watch.
Time to move on, then, to ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’