Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Poirot Project: The King of Clubs (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 Incredible Theft’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The penultimate episode of Series 1 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 12th March 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, first published as ‘The Adventure of the King of Clubs’ in The Sketch (March 1923).

Like all of the original Sketch stories, the story is narrated by Hastings, and it begins with the good captain attempting to interest his illustrious companion with an odd story in a daily newspaper. An ‘impresario’ by the name of Henry Reedburn has been murdered, and his death was announced in a strangely dramatic fashion. The previous night, as a ‘neat suburban’ family (the Oglanders) played bridge in their drawing-room, a woman in burst through their French windows and shouted, ‘Murder!’ The woman’s evening dress was stained with blood, and she fainted after her sinister proclamation.

At this point in the story, Poirot decides to put Hastings out of his misery and admits that he knows all about the Oglanders’ surprise visitor. The woman is Valerie Saintclair, ‘the famous dancer who has lately taken London by storm’, and Poirot has been contacted by Prince Paul of Maurania about the case – the prince, it seems, has recently become engaged to Valerie, and is keen to banish any trace of suspicion of the woman’s involvement in Reedburn’s murder. The prince explains that, while he knows that his family won’t officially sanction his marriage to a dancer (despite the fact that she is allegedly the daughter of ‘a Russian grand duchess’), he is free to enter into a morganatic marriage – provided the woman isn’t accused of murder, that is.

Poirot and Hastings take on the case and travel to Mon Désir, Reedburn’s ‘exceptionally fine villa’, and then to Daisymead, the ‘unpretentious little house’ of the murdered man’s neighbours, questioning the various characters as they go. Valerie Saintclair admits to being at Reedburn’s house at the time of the murder, but she insists that the impresario was attacked by ‘a dreadful-looking man, a sort of tramp’. Terrified, she escaped through the window and ran to the first house she saw. As the case proceeds, the detective discovers that Valerie has previously consulted a psychic, who warned her to beware ‘the King of Clubs’ – the assumption was that this referred to Reedburn, though the phrase takes on a different meaning as Poirot’s investigation progresses.

I like Christie’s short story. It’s not my favourite of the 1923 Sketch series, but it’s an enjoyable puzzle nonetheless. It’s got some nice subtle clues, especially when Poirot draws attention to seemingly irrelevant details (particularly an old photograph) that turn out to be vital. And the mildly incongruous aspects of the crime scene (and that of Valerie’s dramatic entrance) lead neatly to a satisfactory conclusion.

And now… the adaptation. The TV episode was directed by Renny Rye, and dramatized by Michael Baker (with Clive Exton as script consultant). Sadly, it’s not a high spot of the series. It’s not the loosest adaptation of the series (it’s positively faithful compared to some of the others), but some of the narrative changes that have been made here dilute the original mystery until the central puzzle is all but lost. In fact, despite having seen the episode a couple of times, it was only when I read the short story that I understood what the puzzle actually was.

In the adaptation, Valerie Saintclair is no longer a dancer, but is a famous film actress (played by Niamh Cusack, the first of the Cusack sisters to appear in the show). She is shooting a film at Parade Studios, which is owned by the arrogant and aggressive Henry Reedburn (David Swift). The episode opens with Valerie attempting to shoot a scene, as Reedburn boorishly hectors and demeans the cast and crew. Poirot and Hastings are witnesses to this scene, as they have been invited along by Hastings’s old friend, Bunny Saunders (played by Jonathan Coy), the film’s director. Also present is Prince Paul of Maurania (Jack Klaff), Valerie’s fiancé. As in the short story, Poirot is acquainted with the prince – His Highness thanks the detective for ‘all you have done for my family’.

After this opening, we are taken to Mon Désir, Reedburn’s grand residence – where the studio head is being confronted by two of his disgruntled stars. Although I don’t know a huge amount about the locations used in the series, I do know that the exteriors of Reedburn’s house were filmed at High and Over in Amersham, a Grade II* listed building designed in 1929 by Amyas Connell. Occasionally, particularly in the early series, locations are used that almost seem unreal. There’s something about ‘Mon Désir’ that seems too modernist, too stylized, too Poirot to be real – so it’s good to pause occasionally and look at the buildings. As Hastings says at the beginning of Christie’s short story: ‘Truth […] is stranger than fiction!’

Back to the episode, I have some serious reservations about the changes made to Valerie Saintclair’s character. Cusack performs her as a reserved and genteel actress, beloved by the dashing Prince Paul and popular with both viewers and colleagues. Gone is any trace of the ‘scandalous’ nature of Valerie’s profession in the short story, and there is no hint that the Mauranian royal family will be anything other than welcoming of their new daughter-in-law (there are definite echoes of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco in the relationship). The only potential obstacle is that Valerie may be implicated in Reedburn’s death, which Paul is keen to avoid.

While there’s nothing wrong with these changes per se, making Valerie more respectable has the effect of lessening the social divide between her and the Oglanders. In the episode, Valerie’s appearance in the ‘neat suburban’ sitting room of the Oglanders lacks all the wild incongruity of Christie’s short story. This is what confused me the first couple of times I watched it – there’s just no sense that she shouldn’t be there. There’s no sense of discomfort between Valerie and Mrs Oglander (played by Avril Elgar), or any animosity between Valerie and Geraldine (Abigail Cruttenden). The Oglanders’ son Ronnie (played by Sean Pertwee, in his first of two appearances in the series – he’ll be back in Dead Man’s Folly, though who knows when I’ll finally get to that episode!) is nothing but solicitous towards Valerie, and there’s a sense of the family protecting the famous actress from the moment Poirot arrives at The Willows (the new name for Daisymead). I must confess that, until I read the short story, I always assumed Valerie was a friend of the family, possibly a relation. And so I could never understand why Poirot questioned why the actress has arrived at The Willows in the first place. It just seemed obvious that she’d gone to their house deliberately.

In Christie’s short story, the reveal that Valerie is the Oglanders’ daughter, and that the family is protecting their own (despite being estranged), is explained by Poirot with characteristic elegance:
‘The interesting thing is that Valerie is ashamed of her family, and her family is ashamed of her. Nevertheless, in a moment of peril, she turned to her brother for help, and when things went wrong, they all hung together in a remarkable way. Family strength is a marvellous thing.’
This is lost in the adaptation, as there’s no sense of estrangement in the Oglander family. Their secrecy turns out to be down to the fact that Oglander isn’t their real name – they are, in fact, the Hawtreys, and they’re living incognito (Valerie included) because the silent and disabled pater familias once committed a serious act of fraud. The problem is that this sense of a shared secret pervades all their interactions, which, again, removes any sense of Valerie’s outsider status.

The change in Valerie’s profession necessitates a change in Reedburn’s. The nightclub impresario now becomes a film studio executive: thus he is no longer the ‘king of clubs’. As such, Valerie’s reported trip to the clairvoyant is removed – the connection between the playing card and the man would be much harder to explain in this version of the story. While the mention of the psychic in Christie’s story seems fluffy and inconsequential, it serves the purpose of hinting at something premeditated or preordained about Reedburn’s death – and this is an important piece of misdirection, as the reader is being discouraged from seeing the impresario’s death as the spur-of-the-moment act of violence it is ultimately revealed to be.

The adaptation has no such misdirection, and so Reedburn’s death always appears as an accident committed in the heat of an argument. In order to create some sense of mystery, additional suspects in the form of Bunny Saunders and the recently sacked Ralph Walton (Gawn Grainger) are thrown into the mix. Valerie’s mysterious tramp from the short story is transformed into a gypsy and, as in the source, Poirot disdains the task of hunting for this phantom. As an aside, one of my favourite lines in the short story comes when Hastings suggests they look for the vagrant, and his friend formidably proclaims: ‘Hercule Poirot does not hunt down tramps’.

But someone has to hunt down tramps or vagrants, and the TV version knows just the man: Inspector Japp is on the case. ‘Dear oh dear… here we go again,’ the policeman says as he arrives at Daisymead and prepares to undertake a pointless search of the local gypsy camp. The little Belgian detective is more than happy to let his friend head off on a wild goose chase, and the episode ends with Japp still convinced he will find the shadowy Romany. (As is the case with Hastings, some Japp storylines feel a bit like they’ve just been added for the sake of it.)

There is one significant element of the original story that has been retained in the adaptation. The Oglanders have been playing bridge, but Poirot discovers that a single playing (the eponymous ‘King of Clubs’) is missing from the card table. Bridge has become something of a recurring motif in the second half of this series, featuring significantly in the previous two episodes. Here, however, the game isn’t simply used as a metaphor or for character development, but it’s an important clue to the mystery (this idea will be used again in Cards on the Table).

The missing playing card is still a good clue in the TV episode – in fact, it’s one of the only good clues – but the identity of the missing card has been divested of any (phony) significance. Yes – the missing card is still the king of clubs, but the clue would have worked with any card from the pack. (Naturally, this makes the title of the episode seem a little odd until you’ve read the short story.)

To conclude, then, this isn’t a favourite episode. Like ‘The Incredible Theft’ it lacks both the punch and the charm of other episodes in the series. Even the interactions between the ‘gang’ seem watered down – Miss Lemon is absent, and Japp is at a loose end – though I do enjoy Hastings’s attempt to explain modern art to Poirot when they arrive at Mon Désir.

One final comment… it’s always interesting to compare Suchet’s performance and appearance in these early episodes to that of the later series. Sometimes, the superficial details can be quite telling. For instance, when Prince Paul calls Poirot to tell him about Reedburn’s murder, we see our detective disturbed in his slumber. As in other early episodes, he’s wearing pyjamas, but no hair or moustache net. It’s worth keeping this image in mind when we get to later episodes (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express) – it seems the little Belgian is to get more fastidious with age… he almost looks like a man of action here.

Okay, so ‘The King of Clubs’ isn’t a huge favourite of mine, though the short story is enjoyable. On to the final episode of Series 1 – ‘The Dream’ – which is a very different kettle of fish.


  1. Really enjoyed this review Hannah. And I love that Pathe video!

    1. That video is so cool, isn't it? I've watched it about 10 times! Thanks again for your nice comment - really pleased you like my reviews. :-)