Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Cornish Mystery (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 Lost Mine’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 28th January 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in November 1923.

The short story is narrated by Hastings, and begins with a new client being shown into Poirot’s apartment. As happens in a few of these early stories, Hastings makes a passing reference to ‘our landlady’, indicating that, at this point in their story, he is living with Poirot. The landlady isn't given a name here, and (in the short stories) does little more than show guests in, but she’s clearly a descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mrs Hudson (I'm going to come back to her in later posts). Rereading these short stories in quick succession, I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the references to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m really enjoying the way Christie both pays homage to and lightly mocks her predecessor. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone is referred to as playing ‘Watson’ to Poirot, for instance. I suggested that two other stories in this series – ‘The Veiled Lady’ and ‘The Lost Mine’ – made playful reference to specific Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ll return to this in a later review; for now, we simply have Poirot and Hastings living in comfortable bachelorhood, as their landlady ushers in a series of visitors, just as Holmes and Watson did before them.

In this case, the visitor is a Mrs Pengelley. I really like Hastings’s introduction of this character, so I think it deserves to be quoted in full:
‘Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace – a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs Pengelleys in the street every day.’
It’s part of the charm of Hercule that, while Hastings finds this visitor ‘unlikely’, the little Belgian detective finds her fascinating.

Mrs Pengelley has become convinced that her husband is trying to poison her. She explains that he has recently taken on a ‘yellow-haired hussy’ to work as his receptionist (Mr Pengelley is a dentist), and that there’s a suspicious bottle of weed-killer that the gardener can’t explain. Poor Mrs Pengelley has been suffering from stomach pain and sickness, but her doctor has written it off as gastritis. Poirot is hooked – the case interests him ‘enormously’.

Poirot and Hastings travel to Polgarwith to investigate… but they’re too late! By the time they reach Cornwall, their client is already dead. Poirot is furious (with himself, with the murderer, with all those who ignored Mrs Pengelley’s cries for help) and is determined to reveal the truth. In this, the story has some similarities with Dumb Witness: Poirot refuses to relinquish responsibility for a client he has failed to protect, and steps into the roles of avenger as well as detective. In fact, when he eventually confronts the murderer he makes this role clear: ‘I represent – not the law, but Mrs Pengelley.’

Poirot’s investigation in ‘The Cornish Mystery’ is interesting. There is no physical examination of the crime scene; the only physical ‘clue’ (the bottle of weed-killer) is ignored. Instead, Poirot works out the nature of the crime through an observation of human behaviour. He knows that Mr Pengelley is innocent, for instance, because only an innocent man would behave in such a guilty manner. In the final denouement, Poirot has to resort to tricking the murderer into a signing a confession as, he admits, they have ‘no shadow of proof against him’. This method of resolving the mystery is a far cry from Holmes-like ratiocination foreshadows the methods of another of Christie’s famous creations: ‘The Cornish Mystery’ actually feels like it could have been a case for Miss Marple.

The TV adaptation begins, like the short story, in Poirot’s flat. We join our detective in a somewhat glum mood (a state that recurs throughout this series), bemoaning a lack of interesting cases and complaining about boredom. Behind him, Hastings performs a series of yoga exercises designed to keep his pancreas healthy. This leads to a characteristically bonkers exchange, in which Poirot criticizes his friend’s love of curry and Hastings extols the health-giving benefits of rice. They are interrupted in their chit-chat by Miss Lemon, who tells them that Mrs Pengelley (played by Amanda Walker) would like to consult with Poirot, but she is too embarrassed to come into the flat.

The adaptation follows the short story fairly faithfully, with only a couple of additional plot elements added. Mrs Pengelley’s blustering doctor (played by Derek Benfield) still insists that the woman suffered from gastritis. Mr Pengelley (Jerome Willis) is still infatuated with his ‘yellow-haired hussy’ (Laura Girling) – though there is a brief comical exchange added in which Hastings has to explain the word ‘hussy’ to Poirot – and the maid (played by Tilly Vosburgh) still insists under oath that she saw her master hanging around the weed-killer. The question of Mrs Pengelley’s will is the most significant addition to the plot, with a will reading scene revealing possible motives for the murder. This doesn’t really alter the story, though, but rather underlines things that were implied in Christie’s text.

The final confrontation with the murderer is, in spirit, the same as in the short story; however, there are a couple of little alterations. Firstly, in the short story, Poirot talks to Radnor for a time and then produces a pre-written confession ‘with the suddenness of a conjuror’ (another reference to conjuring… and there will be more). In the adaptation, we have a scene in which Poirot casually chats to Radnor (played by John Bowler), all the while writing away at a desk. Radnor becomes increasingly ill-at-ease with this eccentric behaviour, until Poirot blows on the ink and presents the confession to be signed. I can’t decide whether this makes the confrontation more ominous or more humorous – I think it’s probably both.

The other change in the confrontation scene comes when Radnor is warned about the two men who are watching the room. In Christie’s story, it is Poirot who draws attention to the men, warning Radnor that they will apprehend him if given the right signal. When Radnor signs the confession, Poirot asks Hastings to move the blind, to signal that Radnor is to be allowed to pass. Afterwards, Poirot explains to an oblivious Hastings that ‘those two loafers that I noticed outside came in very useful’. The episode flips this last detail – while it’s still Poirot who presents the ‘twenty-four hour head start’ deal to Radnor, it’s Hastings who points out the two men surveilling the room. After Radnor leaves, Poirot asks about the men and Hastings replies, ‘I haven’t the foggiest idea. I just saw them standing there when we came in.’ I like this change, as it reminds me of the séance in Peril at End House. He might not always be the sharpest, but Hastings can be relied on to improvise if necessary.

Miss Lemon and Japp are, of course, added to the story. In addition to replacing the unnamed ‘Mrs Hudson’ character from the short story, Miss Lemon gets a nice comical scene in which she reads the I Ching for Hastings (Poirot’s hexagram is, apparently, ‘modesty’). This continues the theme of Hastings’s fascination with the East that runs throughout the episode, but also shows off Miss Lemon’s interest in spiritual matters. This is a sharp departure from the character’s presentation in Christie’s fiction – where she is described as a ‘machine’, rather than a person – but it’s something that will be developed further in future episodes. (Can I just also say, there’s another big departure from Christie’s fiction here… look at this picture… Pauline Moran is gorgeous as Miss Lemon, which is not how Christie imagined the character at all.)

Like in other adaptations, Japp steps in to the role filled by an anonymous police inspector in the source text. This is done quite neatly – there’s no attempt to shoehorn him in to the early stages of Poirot’s investigation, but he makes an appearance when (months after her death) Mrs Pengelley’s body is exhumed and an official murder investigation is launched. Japp is called in to oversee this investigation (because, apparently, he has the biggest patch of any Scotland Yard detective ever).

Japp is convinced that Mr Pengelley is guilty, and produces some of the evidence that sees the hapless dentist put on trial for murder. The policeman treats Poirot’s objections with a sort of light-hearted condescension, treating his friend like a harmless eccentric until the very last moment. In return, Poirot keeps Japp in the dark about his suspicions, even to the point of trying to make a quick getaway before Japp discovers that Pengelley’s trial has been dramatically halted. For fans of the ‘gang’, the final moments of the episode – when Japp is told about Radnor’s confession – is a real treat.

Before this, though, we get another little Japp scene – and it’s always nice to see the policeman enjoying a little trip to the seaside. While he availed himself of a stick of rock last time he visited Cornwall, this time Japp takes a fancy to a Cornish pasty. I love watching Japp wandering around the market, lost in the simple joy of things you don’t see in Peckham.

Unlike in some of the other episodes in this series, there’s very little direct reference to the 1935 setting. Hastings reads a story in the newspaper about ‘Herr Hitler’s speech’, but there are no more details about this to allow us to pin it down to a specific date. However, there is a weird little detail that reminds us we’re stuck in an odd time warp: Mrs Pengelley dies in July (the date is clear on the coffin plate during the exhumation scene), and her husband’s trial takes place in the run-up to the August Bank Holiday. Given that the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ took place in July (the reason given as to why Lavington could be sure no one would use the logs for a fire), time is moving rather slowly in Poirot’s world. Of course, it’s possible that Mrs Pengelley calls on Poirot immediately after the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ – but if that was the case, why is Poirot so bored at the beginning of the episode? He seems more like a man who hasn’t had a good case in ages. I’ve got a feeling that this is going to be a long year.

Finally… Christie’s short story has a couple of moments where Poirot’s foreignness is played up, but neither of these are included in the adaptation. The first comes when the detective contemplates another night in an English inn:
‘A return to the inn, and a night of horror upon one of your English provincial beds, mon ami. It is a thing to make pity, the cheap English bed!’
This isn’t something I’ve seen Poirot complain about before, but he can be a bit inconsistent with his criticisms of England (cf. the extremity of his aversion to a full English breakfast and to the countryside). I like this though – Poirot has something of a love-hate relationship with his adopted home. When he’s feeling grumpy (or when Hastings is being too English), every little thing irritates him. At other times, he is much happier to indulge in the various provincial pleasures his adventures offer.

And if Poirot doesn’t always love England, then England doesn’t always love him back. A number of Christie’s stories draw attention to the suspicion Poirot’s Belgian ways provoke in (usually provincial) English people. In ‘The Cornish Mystery’, it’s the detective’s choice of beverage that raises eyebrows. When Radnor is summoned to the inn, Hastings is charged with the drink order:
‘I ordered two whiskies and sodas and a cup of chocolate. The last order caused consternation, and I much doubted whether it would ever put in an appearance.’
Clearly feeling that the good innkeepers of Cornwall deserved vindication, the programme-makers drop this scene from the adaptation. But watch carefully… when Poirot and Hastings are first shown in their lodgings, Poirot is clearly enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate. Obviously, in the TV version of Polgarwith, his request caused much less consternation.

All in all, a lovely little short story transformed into an enjoyable TV episode. I still believe it could’ve been a Miss Marple story – but that’s the beauty of Poirot. He’s one part Holmes, but the other part Marple. It’s why we love him.

Next up: ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’


  1. One part Holmes, and the other part Marple. Love that! :)

  2. Don't forget that in the episode, it's the domestic who points out that Poirot is a foreigner, and then wails, "What's this world comin' to?"