Friday, 1 April 2016

Poirot Project: The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim (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 Cornish Mystery’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 4th February 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name. ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ was first published in The Sketch in March 1923.

As is usually the case with the early Poirot stories, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ is narrated by Hastings, and takes place during the time that Hastings and Poirot are living together in London. There is a little bit of confusion surrounding these living arrangements, but I think this comes down to a discrepancy in Hastings’s descriptions. In the first of the Poirot short stories – ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ – Hastings makes it clear that he is living with Poirot, but calls their accommodation ‘Poirot’s rooms’. In ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, he describes their arrangement as ‘sharing rooms’. However, in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Hastings again calls their home ‘Poirot’s rooms’. The Mrs Hudson-esque landlady is sometimes called ‘the landlady’ (e.g. in ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’) and sometimes ‘our landlady’ (e.g. in ‘The Cornish Mystery’ and ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’).

This has led to some people questioning Hastings’s status – is he Poirot’s employee? (See the comments on this blog post, for instance). Hastings rarely mentions any alternative employment and, even if he did have a job, he spends so much time running round the country with Poirot, he’d surely have lost it by now. And yet, Hastings clearly isn’t independently wealthy, as he has worked in the past (for Lloyds) and occasionally worries about his overdraft (see ‘The Lost Mine’). So has Poirot put him on a retainer? Does this include board and lodgings? And does Hastings sometimes make himself a bit too comfortable and start thinking he’s a guest, rather than staff?

I don’t think so. Although we don’t get a clear sense of Hastings’s background in Christie’s texts, we can tell a lot from his friends, especially John Cavendish in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Assuming Hastings and Cavendish are from similar backgrounds – and adding the revelation that he attended Eton (Dumb Witness) and the fact that, though he was working in insurance before the war, Hastings was a captain by 1916 – we can make an informed guess as to Hastings’s family background. He’s comfortably upper middle class, well-bred and well-educated, but with no land or title to inherit.

So why does Hastings have to worry about his bank balance? Again, we could compare him to John Cavendish – and also to Charles Arundell in Dumb Witness (who is made into an old friend of Hastings in the TV adaptation of the novel) – concluding that, even if Hastings ever did have an income/inheritance from his family, he may well have spent it at some point in the past (perhaps on one of his ‘doubtful’ speculations), leaving him as one of Christie’s many upper middle class men with absolutely no head for personal finance. While this might suggest Hastings needs an income from Poirot to avoid being completely destitute, I think he’s probably scraping by on an army pension (after all, he was wounded at the Front in 1916, and this wound was bad enough to ensure he didn’t see any more active service) and his other occasional bits of employment. Hastings takes lodgings with Poirot because he can’t afford to take his own flat – and, no doubt, because both men are glad of the company – but he is definitely the ‘lodger’ in ‘Poirot’s rooms’, rather than an employee. My own personal theory is that, while Poirot and Hastings generally refer to the premises as ‘shared rooms’, Hastings isn’t always able to pay his friend any rent. This would explain why he often sees it as ‘Poirot’s’ (and also why Poirot is occasionally a bit exasperated about his friend’s spending habits, and, in Peril at End House, he assumes Hastings’s wife is the one who manages the ranch in Argentina). It’s a mark of the men’s friendship that they are comfortable enough with this arrangement to call the London accommodation ‘our rooms’, and the woman who shows guests in ‘our landlady’. No matter who is actually paying the rent in these early stories, Poirot and Hastings live together in amiable domesticity.

And that’s where we find them at the beginning of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’:
‘Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cup and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.’ [That’s because she’s your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper.]
I love this opening – it reminds me of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, as we get to see the three men hanging out as friends and not just because there’s a mystery afoot.

Of course, there is a mystery afoot. Japp’s just got back from talking to Inspector Miller (possibly the same Miller who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’ as well as some other stories) about a perplexing case: a wealthy financier named Davenheim has apparently disappeared into thin air. Japp is convinced that Miller will discover clues to Davenheim’s disappearance (‘he won’t overlook a footprint, or a cigar-ash, or a crumb’), but Poirot disdains this method of investigation. He insists that all that is needed to solve a case like this is ‘the little grey cells’. Japp finds this amusing, and bets Poirot a fiver that he can’t solve the case without leaving his room – Poirot, of course, accepts the challenge.

Poirot investigates this case simply by examining the details as narrated by Japp; part of their agreement is that the policeman will bring ‘any fresh developments’ that arise. At one point, Poirot specifically asks for information to be gathered (he wants to know if Mr Davenheim shared a bedroom with his wife), but otherwise he relies solely on the story that Japp tells. Japp’s updates on the case are a rather neat way of presenting the puzzle to the reader, as we’re encouraged to search for the significance Poirot has found in the ‘little details’ in order to come up with a plausible solution. Christie will use the technique of having Poirot listen to stories told by multiple unreliable narrators and work out the truth behind them in Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember, but, for now, we just have the (reliable) Japp to fill us in.

Naturally, Poirot is able to solve the case of the disappearing financier (with a solution that isn’t completely unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, a story that also has something in common with Christie’s ‘The Lost Mine’). Still treating the case as something of a game between himself and Japp, Poirot doesn’t immediately reveal the solution, but rather sends Japp a cryptic telegram: ‘Advise you to withdraw any money deposited with firm in question.’ When the news breaks the next day of the ‘sensational failure’ of Davenheim’s bank, ‘the door flew open and Japp rushed in’, determined to find out ‘how the blazes’ Poirot could have known.

The mystery is a nice cerebral little puzzle, designed to make the reader flex their little grey cells or to make them feel like Japp at the end, but what really makes the story is the interaction between the three friends – and the little details of Poirot’s character that are thrown into sharp relief by the lack of other characters (Poirot only talks to Japp and Hastings in the story). My personal highlights are: Japp being bemused by Poirot’s question about the shared bedroom (‘Poor old fellow! War’s been too much for him!’); Poirot lamenting the lack of uniformity in eggs (‘What symmetry can there be on the breakfast table?’), before ‘gently collect[ing] every fragment of shell from his plate, plac[ing] them in the egg-cup, and revers[ing] the empty egg-shell on top of them’; and Japp’s sending a fiver to Poirot via registered mail. Poirot’s response to his victory is really quite lovely:
Ah, sacré! But what shall I do with it? I have much remorse! Ce pauvre Japp! Ah, an idea! We will have a little dinner, we three! That consoles me. It was really too easy. I am ashamed. I, who would not rob a child – mille tonnerres! Mon ami, what have you, that you laugh so heartily?’

The TV adaptation of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by David Renwick. It begins in a similar fashion to the Series 1 episodes ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, in that we get a dramatic little vignette that introduces us to the central premise of the story. Here, we see Matthew Davenheim (Kenneth Colley) preparing for a meeting with Gerald Lowen (Tony Mathews). Davenheim leaves the house to meet Lowen from the station, walks into the fog… and never comes back.

We then cut to our three friends hanging out together. However, they’re not simply having tea as in the short story, they’ve gone out to a magic show. I’ve mentioned the relationship between stage magic and Golden Age detective fiction in a previous post, but here the connection is made absolutely explicit – Poirot watches, then explains, the conjuring tricks performed on stage, while his friends seem happy to be swept along by the illusion. When they return to Poirot’s flat for a nightcap, Japp tells Poirot he knows of a disappearing trick that the detective won’t be able to explain, and, as in the short story, the two men make a bet. (As a side note: Japp is apparently less of a gambler than Hastings, as he only bets a fiver. In the adaptation of ‘The Third Floor Flat’, Hastings is willing to bet twice that much that Poirot will work out the ending of a play. No wonder he can’t afford his own rooms!)

Although the central conceit of Poirot not being able to leave the flat is retained from the short story, there are some minor alterations. In the TV episode, Hastings is allowed to act as Poirot’s agent, leading to a couple of comical exchanges as Hastings and Japp cross over in their investigations. There’s no mention of Inspector Miller in the episode, and it’s Japp who leads the police enquiry and oversees the dragging of the lake. A boatman named Merritt (played by Richard Beale) becomes a key witness, and Billy Kellett (played by… well…) has a few more scenes and, on his first introduction, a drunken associate.

The character of Gerald Lowen is fleshed out in the TV episode. As well as being Davenheim’s business rival (embroiled in a feud that’s much more intense than in the short story), Lowen now has a side-line in racing cars – much to Hastings’s excitement. In a very enjoyable (though arguably superfluous) sequence, Hastings follows Lowen to Brooklands motor racing circuit. A slightly silly case of mistaken identity almost leads to Hastings being able to take Lowen’s Bugatti out for a spin, but sadly this dream doesn’t become a reality. There are plenty of shots of the Bugatti in action, however, as Pathé are on hand to shoot a newsreel about Lowen (as in ‘The Dream’, we are treated to a short Pathé Gazette to get us in the 1935 mood).

Now… all this larking about with boatmen and racing cars is fine for Japp and Hastings, but we mustn’t forget that poor old Poirot is stuck in his flat, with nothing to do but wait for his friends to return with information. And this is where the episode wanders off into its own territory.

Inspired by the magic show he attended, Poirot has got hold of a copy of The Boy’s Book of Conjuring and decides to spend the time teaching himself magic tricks. He makes handkerchiefs disappear, practices his prestidigitation, and (in his slickest move) tears up a newspaper and magically reassembles it in front of Miss Lemon’s delighted eyes. I love the way David Suchet performs this trick, as his hands move just like a magician’s, but I love his disappearing card trick more – deep in conversation with Miss Lemon, Poirot studies his book and plays around with a card, making it vanish and reappear, while apparently having no idea how he is actually doing it.

It’s certainly interesting that it’s in this episode that the detective becomes a (literal) conjuror. The episode was written by David Renwick, who would later go on to create Jonathan Creek – a show in which the detective is a magician.

Sadly, Poirot’s magic tricks aren’t quite enough to fill the long days, and Renwick adds an extra (notorious) flourish. For some reason – and I’ll admit, I’ve seen the episode numerous times and I’m still not totally sure of the reason – a parrot is delivered unexpectedly to Poirot’s flat. This does lead to a nice bit of Poirot-Hastings banter:
‘Do not fraternize with that creature. I am still training him.’
‘It’s only a parrot.’
‘I was talking to the parrot.’
But it also involves one of the more ridiculous bits of dialogue in the series, in which the parrot-delivery-man mispronounces Poirot, is corrected, and politely announces, ‘I’ve got a pwa-ro for Mr Poyrott.’

Parrots aside, this is a nice little episode based on a really enjoyable short story. The playful bet between Poirot and Japp is handled well, and I’m glad that Hastings got to go to Brooklands. The episode is also notable for involving one of the more successful disguises of the series.

A number of episodes will feature a character in disguise, but these are often fairly obvious (thick glasses are usual, as are heavily made up faces). ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ avoids these typical tricks, and instead relies on careful camera work. Rewatching the episode once you know the solution, it’s striking how little of ‘Mr Davenheim’ we actually see – his face is never really in shot for very long. We see a lot more of ‘Billy Kellett’, but he doesn’t really seem to be in disguise, so it’s harder to connect him with the missing man.

One final gem and one final question then…

The gem: Davenheim’s house is being played by Joldwynds, a modernist house in Surrey, designed by Oliver Hill. This house will reappear in Series 3, in ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

The question: Why wasn’t Davenheim’s wife suspicious when he went to Buenos Aires (in the short story)/Johannesburg (in the TV adaptation) and didn’t contact her for three months? (Obviously, by the end, we know he was really in prison as ‘Billy Kellett’, but at the time she thought he was just on an extended overseas business trip.) Either they had a rotten marriage and she was glad of the break, or Davenheim had an associate ‘on the outside’ who was able to send fake letters or telegrams to his wife. Poirot didn’t twig about the accomplice, did he? Too busy talking to his parrot…

Next up: ‘Double Sin’


  1. I've always really liked this episode. Poirot's card tricks are great and I love the stories where he solves a case without leaving the room. But the parrot really is a bit silly! ;)

    1. The parrot's definitely a bit daft, but it does make me chuckle. :-)

  2. A delightful episode. But just to understand clearly: What is the import of the bathroom contents? Of Davenheim and his wife sharing a bedroom or not? Why would Davenheim disappear, then draw attention to himself by stealing Japp's wallet? Why does the series never mention - even for amusement- the homonym "poireau"?

    1. Because in order to disguise himself, he shaved his beard off so when he resumed his real identity he had to wear a false beard. He didn't want to risk his wife finding out he had a false beard hence not sharing a bedroom with her. The contents of the cabinet were the new razor blades. They indicated he was regularly shaving although he apparantly had a large beard. Conclusion, the beard was false. He drew attention to himself because he wanted to be arrested as Billy and spend a few months "hiding" in prison while everything blows over also it was a chance to set up his rival by incriminating him.