Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Incredible Theft (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 ‘Problem at Sea’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The eighth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 26th February 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in 1937. That story was, in turn, a revision and expansion of ‘The Submarine Plans’, which was first published in The Sketch in November 1923. ‘The Submarine Plans’ isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it’s in Poirot’s Early Cases (Collins, 1974) and, since I don’t own a copy of that collection – and I hadn’t previously read the 1923 story – I’d like to say a big thanks to Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn for lending me a copy so I could compare the texts. It’s always nice when your friends understand your obsessive completism.

Like all of the ‘original’ run of Poirot stories that appeared in The Sketch, ‘The Submarine Plans’ is narrated by Hastings. It begins rather abruptly – ‘A note had arrived by special messenger’ – with Poirot being summoned to Sharples, the country house of Ralph Curtis, Lord Alloway. Alloway is the head of the ‘newly formed Ministry of Defence’, and is responsible for the ‘new Z type submarine’, the plans for which appear to have been stolen from Sharples. Poirot has been called in as police involvement would risk a scandal, and because Alloway remembers ‘only too well what you did for us during the war, when the Prime Minister was kidnapped in that astounding fashion’.

A collection of guests at Sharples make up the cast of suspects. Admiral Sir Harry Weardale, his wife and son (Leonard) are among them, as is Mrs Conrad (‘a lady well known in London society’). Alloway’s secretary, Mr Fitzroy, appears to have been the last person to see the plans, and Mrs Conrad’s French maid caused a disturbance shortly before the theft which, she claimed, was the result of her seeing a ghost on the stairs. Poirot cuts through all this nonsense to reveal a bait-and-switch plot designed to trap (or, as it turns out, trick) Mrs Conrad, who has dubious connections to foreign powers. Despite having set up the whole affair, Lord Alloway is revealed to be a patriotic hero, who goes on to become Prime Minister.

I’m afraid to say, ‘The Submarine Plans’ is not a particularly memorable short story. For me, the only notable feature is the excellent bit of snark at the end of Hastings’s narration. After Poirot sums up his findings with his characteristic arrogance – he announces to his companion that he ‘spoke to Alloway as one great man to another – and he understood perfectly’ – Hastings accuses his illustrious friend of simply guessing at the explanation. A short epilogue follows, in which it is revealed that the Z type submarine was a huge success and Lord Alloway acknowledged his gratitude to Poirot after becoming Prime Minister, and Hastings again asserts his scepticism about Poirot’s deductive powers: ‘But I still consider that Poirot was guessing. He will do it once too often one of these days.’

‘The Incredible Theft’ is a fairly straightforward expansion of the 1923 story, with little additional plot added (though, as in Christie’s ‘Murder in the Mews’, Hastings has now been removed). The character names are changed: Lord Alloway becomes Sir Charles McLaughlin, Lord Mayfield; Harry Weardale becomes Air Marshal Sir George Carrington, his wife is now named (Julia) and his son is called Reggie rather than Leonard; Mr Fitzroy becomes Mr Carlile. Mrs Conrad is now an American woman named Mrs Vanderlyn, and more emphasis is placed on the woman’s dubious connections, and an additional guest – Mrs Macatta MP, ‘a great authority on Housing and Infant Welfare’ – is included.

Perhaps as a result of the different context of the stories, Christie also makes further changes to the details of the plot. The original story was written five years after the end of WWI, and the military implications of the submarine and Alloway’s career are barely mentioned. ‘The Incredible Theft’ was published two years before the outbreak of WWII (and just months before the Sudetan Crisis), and so the implications of the stolen plans seem more serious. In ‘The Incredible Theft’, Mayfield has been created ‘first Minister of Armaments, a new ministry which had only just come into being’, and the plans are for a bomber, rather than a submarine. As such, Carrington is Air Marshal Sir George Carrington, head of the Air Force (his counterpart, Weardale, was an admiral in the Navy).

Hints of impending conflict pepper the later story, though these are kept rather vague. In discussing the bomber, Carrington notes that Britain has fallen behind other nations in engineering a new plane:
‘Lots of gunpowder everywhere all over Europe. And we weren’t ready, damn it!’
Mayfield counters this by saying:
‘A lot of the European stuff is out of date already – and they’re perilously near bankruptcy.’
Note that Christie sticks to the generic ‘European’, and offers no specifics about which countries might be ‘near bankruptcy’. This vagueness continues in the comments about Mrs Vanderlyn’s suspicious connections. The men talk of her association with foreign nations, but give no actual details: ‘We will just say to a European power – and perhaps to more than one European power.’ Even the past scandal in Lord Mayfield’s career isn’t specified:
‘You were suspected of friendship with a European Power at that time bitterly unpopular with the electorate of this country.’
Nevertheless, the story ends with a less subtle nod towards contemporaneous events. Like Lord Alloway before him, Lord Mayfield is tipped to become the next Prime Minister. But, unlike the earlier character’s dignified discretion, Mayfield concludes his business with Poirot with more self-assertion:
‘You are much too clever, M. Poirot. I will only ask you to believe one thing. I have faith in myself. I believe that I am the man to guide England through the days of crisis that I see coming. If I did not honestly believe that I am needed by my country to steer the ship of state, I would not have done what I have done – made the best of both worlds – saved myself from disaster by a clever trick.’
Modern readers can see, of course, just how prescient Mayfield’s ‘days of crisis’ speech really was.

The TV adaptation was directed by Edward Bennett, and dramatized by David Reid and Clive Exton. Again, as with ‘Murder in the Mews’, Hastings is returned to the story, along with Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon (neither of whom appeared in either version of the short story).

Miss Lemon has little to do in this episode, sadly – aside from bearing the brunt of some full-on Poirot sarcasm when she refuses to take an anonymous call: ‘Life first, Miss Lemon. Filing second.’ Hastings is also at a bit of a loose end. His presence in ‘The Submarine Plans’ was as the (admittedly somewhat cynical) narrator, and so there’s not much space for him in ‘The Incredible Theft’. This is literally true, as Hastings isn’t able to stay at Mayfield’s house with Poirot. He has to stay in an overcrowded pub in the village instead and, as the pub’s rooms are all booked, this results in his sharing a room (and a bed!) with Inspector Japp. This does lead to one of the funniest bits of the episode, as Hastings glumly explains to Poirot that Japp talks in his sleep. Apparently Hastings has been kept awake all night by shouts of ‘Now I’ve got you, young sonny me lad’, ‘Japp of the Yard strikes again!’, and (my favourite) ‘Stand back, lads, he’s got a blancmange!’

While Hastings and Miss Lemon get through the episode by just sort of being Hastings and Miss Lemon, the presence of Inspector Japp is a bit more of a problem. As I said, in both versions of the short story, Poirot is called in precisely to avoid any police involvement. In order to be able to include Japp, some aspects of the plot have had to be revised.

In this version of the story, then, Lord Mayfield becomes Tommy Mayfield (played by John Stride), an engineer who is struggling to rebuild his relationship with the British government after a scandal (‘that Japanese business’). As such, he isn’t being completely trusted with his plans for a new aircraft. Sir George Carrington (John Carson) is in attendance as a representative of the government, and he has called on Japp to be stationed nearby (without informing Mayfield of this) in case something happens to the secret documents. Carrington is staying at Mayfield’s home with his wife (played by Phyllida Law, in her first of two appearances in the series) and son Reggie (Guy Scantlebury), who appear as exaggerated versions of their literary counterparts (though, unlike in the short stories, poor Reggie doesn’t get his snog with a French maid in the TV episode).

Although the literary Lord Mayfield was unmarried, Tommy Mayfield has a wife who is becoming increasingly concerned about her husband’s involvement with Mrs Vanderlyn. It is Mrs Mayfield (Ciaran Madden) who contacts Poirot – before the theft of the plans – and requests that he visits them at their home. This additional plot element does result in a lovely little sequence shot on location at London Zoo (perhaps one of the most iconic locations used in the first series). Mrs Mayfield – posing, initially, as Miss Smith (Miss Lemon’s anonymous caller) – meets Poirot by the zoo’s famous Penguin Pool. Now a Grade I listed building (and no longer inhabited by penguins), this structure was designed by Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton Architectural Group and opened in 1934. I’m a bit torn by its use here: on the one hand, there seems absolutely no reason for Mrs Mayfield to insist on an incognito meeting at London Zoo; on the other, the Penguin Pool is an absolutely perfect addition to the show’s early aesthetic.

Sleeptalking Japp and Penguin Pool aside, the TV episode turns out to unfortunately be as lacklustre as its source. Mrs Macatta MP and the French maid are dropped – which is a shame, as I liked the little ‘after all, what is a kiss?’ exchange between Poirot and the maid, which appears in both versions of the short story – in favour of more emphasis on the impending war in Europe. As I said in my review of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Agatha Christie’s Poirot sets almost all its episodes in the years just prior to WWII, and this episode draws attention to this context directly throughout. Characters engage in discussions about the military situation in Europe – specifically the role of the League of Nations and the possibility of using ‘radio echoes’ to track aircraft – and Mrs Mayfield states that her husband believes Britain is ‘on the brink of war’. In this version, there is no prevarication as to the enemy either. Mayfield jovially proclaims that Hitler and Mussolini need to be ‘taken down a peg or two’, and the newly designed aeroplane (named the ‘Mayfield Kestrel’) is compared favourably to the Messerschmitt.

Most striking of all is the alteration to Mrs Vanderlyn’s character. The TV Mrs Vanderlyn (played by Carmen Du Sautoy) is far removed from Mrs Conrad of ‘The Submarine Plans’ – though her role in the narrative remains the same.

In the 1937 short story, Mrs Vanderlyn is unobtrusively American: ‘Her voice held a soupçon of American accent, just enough to be pleasant without undue exaggeration.’ By contrast, the TV character is all about ‘undue exaggeration’. Her Americanness is stated repeatedly, and she comments on the Britishness of her surroundings several times. Moreover, her dubious associations are now explicitly ‘pro-German sympathies’. In case this hasn’t been made obvious enough, Mrs Vanderlyn hot-foots it to the German ambassador’s house as soon as she has the (phony) plans in her possession (chased – of course – by Poirot and Hastings in a stolen police car). And as a final cherry on the cake, she performs a Nazi salute on her arrival. A far cry from the nebulous threat of Mrs Conrad in the 1923 short story.

All in all, the TV episode is a solid, but not particularly exciting, adaptation of a solid, but not particularly exciting, short story. If I had to choose, I’d say that ‘The Submarine Plans’ is my favourite of the three versions, if only because of Hastings’s narration.

We watched this episode as part of a little set of Series 1 episodes: ‘Problem at Sea’, ‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The King of Clubs’ and ‘The Dream’. Watching/reading these stories back-to-back highlights a couple of recurrent motifs that will pop up at various point of the series as a whole.

Firstly, a game of bridge is featured, and this game is used to illuminate character. As I mentioned in my review, bridge features prominently in ‘Problem at Sea’ – and it will also be of importance in the next episode, ‘The King of Clubs’, and in later episodes as well. Bridge is a clear marker of class, and immediately evokes the world in which Poirot and Hastings circulate. It’s also an apt metaphor for the work of the golden age detective, I suppose.

An even more potent metaphor is that of the conjuror. Conjuring crops up in ‘Problem at Sea’, though the conjuring trick itself is a piece of misdirection. Although stage magic isn’t mentioned in the TV version of ‘The Incredible Theft’, there’s a nice little comment in the 1937 short story. When Lord Mayfield suggests calling in Hercule Poirot, Carrington is sceptical: ‘[he’ll] come down here and produce the plans like a conjuror taking rabbits out of his hat, I suppose?’ This isn’t the first time Poirot has been likened to a magician – and it won’t be the last.

As a fan of both golden age detective fiction and conjuring, I’m always happy when stories draw attention to the close relationship between the two. (I love Clayton Rawson’s Great Merlini stories for this, and some episodes of Jonathan Creek.) With his debonair dramatics and theatrical flair (as well as his taste for misdirection and production), Poirot is the classic conjuror-detective, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of this as the series goes on.

But it’s time to move on now… the next episode is ‘The King of Clubs’


  1. Thanks for another great review. Really enjoyed this one. :)

  2. I started up another rewatch, and I miss your reviews of these. I don’t like to go beyond where you’ve stopped because it’s not the same having all these extra bits to learn.