Thursday, 7 January 2016

Poirot Project: Murder in the Mews (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 Adventure of the Clapham Cook’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

I should probably carry on now with less anecdote and more focus, otherwise I’ll never get to Curtain by Christmas.

Episode 2 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is ‘Murder in the Mews’, and was first broadcast on 15th January 1989. Again, it was dramatized by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. It was based on the short story of the same name (first published in 1936 under the title ‘Mystery of the Dressing Case’), which was itself a reworking of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (published in 1923).

‘The Market Basing Mystery’ begins with Poirot, Hastings and Japp taking breakfast one summer’s morning at a pub in Market Basing, before being interrupted by a Constable Pollard who urgently needs assistance with a suspicious death. Walter Protheroe has been found shot dead in a locked room, the key to which is missing. Although Protheroe was found with a gun in his hand, various indications at the scene suggest that he did not commit suicide (such as the gun being in his right hand, but the bullet wound being to his left temple). Poirot eventually deduces that, rather than being a murder made to look like a suicide, this is in fact a suicide made to look like a murder. Protheroe’s housekeeper, on discovering her beloved employer has taken his own life, alters the scene to disguise the truth. As she is the only person to know that Protheroe is left-handed, she moves the gun to his right hand to make it look like he was shot by someone else. In the original story, narrated by Hastings, Poirot confronts Miss Clegg, who confesses that Protheroe was being blackmailed and that she wanted to implicate the blackmailers in his death.

The 1936 reworking of the story replicates the means, method and motive, but replaces Walter Protheroe with a young widow named Mrs Allen, and the housekeeper Miss Clegg with the flatmate Miss Plenderleith. Hastings’ narration is removed – indeed, Hastings is removed from the story completely – and the setting is altered to London, with the story opening on Bonfire Night. The revised story is substantially longer, with additional clues thrown in (including an attaché case and a blotting pad), a further suspect added (Mrs Allen’s fiancé), and various interrogations and searches carried out by Poirot and Japp. The later story is a more satisfying read – the early version feels rather rushed – but I love the opening of ‘Market Basing’, in which we discover that, when not on duty, Inspector Japp is an ‘ardent botanist’ who knows the Latin names (‘somewhat strangely pronounced’) of flowers.

The TV adaptation was based on the later version of the story, but altered it to include Hastings. While the setting is still Bonfire Night, the episode’s opening is, in some ways, closer to that of ‘Market Basing’, as we get all three men (rather than just Poirot and Japp) out enjoying themselves on a night off. Nevertheless, the story is otherwise reasonably faithful to the 1936 text – with a comment about fireworks being a good disguise for gunshot (made by Hastings in the adaptation, Japp in the story) proving to be grimly prescient on the discovery of Mrs Allen’s body the following morning.

As with ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, there are some minor changes to the source material. Miss Lemon is again added to the story, and George (Poirot’s ‘immaculate man-servant’) is removed – this character doesn’t make an appearance until much later in the series, despite his presence in a number of the short stories. Weirdly though, Mrs Allen’s fiancé Laverton West is played by David Yelland, who would eventually return to the series in Taken at the Flood as George. So I guess George is sort of in ‘Murder in the Mews’ after all!

Other changes made are similar to those found in the first episode. Some of the subtler elements of the original story are underlined more clearly – specifically the question of whether the victim was right- or left-handed. Instead of being hinted at, as in the story, this question is repeated several times and is more directly presented as a source of confusion/interest for Poirot. A red herring from the story is also removed: the character of Mrs Pierce (Gabrielle Blunt), the woman who keeps house for the flatmates, is reduced, and the question of her being ‘an old liar’ is omitted. Finally, as in other episodes, events that are briefly narrated in the text are dramatized in the adaptation. Notably, this includes a trip to the golf course for Poirot and Hastings (allowing for further development of the dynamic between them and more of the twinkly humour Suchet brings to the role in these early outings).

Again, this early episode sets up things that will become recurring features of the show. Hastings’ love of cars – and his prized Lagonda – is introduced. And we get our first taste of the dramatic sets (other than Poirot’s apartment, of course) that characterize the show’s aesthetic. 14 Bardsley Gardens Mews (pictured above) is a far cry from 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, and the swimming pool used as the location of Laverton West’s second interrogation is very beautiful. The interview with Major Eustace is also moved from his ‘mere pied à terre’ to a nightclub. Presumably this is the ‘Far East Club’ that Eustace mentions in Christie’s story, as the viewer’s languorous introduction to this establishment reveals hostesses dressed in ‘Oriental’ costumes and a striking (though utterly un-PC) performance of ‘Hindustan’ (a song written in 1918 by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks) by Moya Ruskin. I don’t know if Ruskin was actually singing or just miming, but she is really stunning here – though the hand gestures that accompany the song are thoroughly inappropriate. The ‘Far East Club’ is our first taste of the colonial aesthetic that surfaces throughout the series. It is undoubtedly glamourized – look at the band! look at that gorgeous singer! – but it is also very subtly criticized, as the man who inhabits the ‘Far East Club’ is a decidedly a wrong ’un.

‘Murder in the Mews’ is another cracking adaptation. Once again, although there are some changes made, Exton’s dialogue manages to keep some of my favourite lines from Christie’s text. These are: Eustace’s comment that he had heard Mr Allen was ‘by way of being a bad hat’, and Japp’s assessment of Laverton West (with Philip Jackson’s marvellous delivery) as ‘bit of a stuffed fish […] And a boiled owl!’ You just don’t hear ‘boiled owl’ enough these days.

Next episode: ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’


  1. After reading the story there are 3 main things that I didn't quite like this episode. First I think the 50 minute length made it so it felt somewhat rushed which is understandable considering this is a 100+ pages story compared to The Adventures of the Clapham Cook which was around 23 pages long and felt like they managed to get almost everything there and add some of their own.

    Second thing on my mind is that the actress playing Mrs. Plenderleith had a way of delivering her lines that felt very wooden, it didn't quite sit well with me compared to the Mrs P. from the story who was described as calm, sarcastic and intelligent.

    Finally is the fact that I think the house where the murder happened look horrendous, a very ugly design in my opinion and t I place this at the end of my complaints because it is purely subjective and doesn't quite affect the story in anyway.

    I liked the comedy bits regarding Poirot's collars and apart from Mrs P. every other actor did very well portraying their characters but I still feel underwhelmed by this episode overall.

    1. I definitely agree that the single episodes are better suited to the short stories, rather than the expanded novellas. Although some of the others (Mystery of the Spanish Chest, for instance) manage to fit things in better. Maybe there's just more going on in Murder in the Mews?

      The house isn't the best location used in the series. I think they started off quite low-key with locations (apart from Poirot's apartment, of course), but things get a bit more dramatic as the series progresses.

  2. Another great post Hannah. I've not read the 'Market Basing Mystery' but I really want to now. :)

    1. Thanks! And you should definitely read 'Market Basing' - it's such a cool opening!

  3. Who's the actress playing Mrs. Allen?

  4. I can't remember if we see her on screen? I'm not sure we ever do, do we?