Friday, 3 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Western Star (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 Kidnapped Prime Minister’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The ninth episode of the second series of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 4th March 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name.

‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ was first published in The Sketch in April 1923, and so is one of the original run of Poirot short stories. As with many of the other Sketch stories, it begins with Poirot and Hastings in full Holmes and Watson mode: Hastings is ‘standing at the window of Poirot’s rooms’, encouraging his friend to make deductions about the scene he witnesses on the street. (Just as an aside: this story is curious in appearing to suggest that Hastings doesn’t live with Poirot. The rooms and landlady are described as ‘Poirot’s’, which contradicts Hastings’s use of ‘our’ in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, published only two weeks earlier. At one point in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Poirot goes out and asks Hastings to stay in the flat until his return, and the wording really implies that Hastings is a guest rather than a flatmate. I’m really starting to suspect that Hastings is a bit of a mooch, and just drifts in and out of Poirot’s lodgings when he’s short of cash.)

Anyway, what Hastings sees on the street is the famous film star Mary Marvell, who is being followed by a ‘bevy of admirers’. It isn’t long before the actress is shown in to Poirot’s rooms (landlady, dear, not housekeeper), and she presents her case to the great detective. Mary Marvell is in possession of a valuable diamond nicknamed ‘The Western Star’, and she has recently received an anonymous letter announcing that it is ‘the left of the god’ and that it ‘must return whence it came’ (she also believes this letter came from a Chinese man – but this turns out to be more red herring than yellow peril).

As Mary Marvell reveals, the diamond has a sibling, which is known as ‘The Star of the East’ and belongs to Lady Yardly of Yardly Chase. Sure enough, it isn’t long before Lady Yardly herself arrives at Poirot’s lodgings to share stories of anonymous letters and threats.

I really like ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’. The mystery is a nice little puzzle with a satisfying twist. Unlike some of the short stories, it doesn’t particularly suffer for having a small cast of characters, as the mystery is more ‘what’s happened’ than ‘whodunit’. But what really makes the story are the nuggets of information we get about Poirot’s career and about the development of his relationship with Hastings.

It’s interesting reading this story immediately after ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ (even though it was actually published earlier), as we can see a distinct shift in Poirot’s position in London. In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot modestly proclaims that he is ‘unknown’ and ‘obscure’ in London, having only one reasonably famous case under his belt. But by ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, all this has changed: Poirot isn’t just famous, he’s fashionable:
Oui, my friend, it is true – I am become the mode, the dernier cri! One says to another: “Comment? You have lost your gold pencil-case? You must go to the little Belgian. He is too marvellous! Everyone goes! Courez!” And they arrive! In flocks, mon ami! With problems of the most foolish!’
What’s nice about this story is that it gives some indication of how Poirot’s fame has spread, and the reasons why Mary Marvell and Lady Yardly would consult him. And, interestingly, there are some slight differences in the reasons why the two women have approached the Belgian detective (both on the surface and looking deeper).

Two specific cases are mentioned in relation to Mary Marvell’s visit to see Poirot. The detective reminds Hastings of ‘the case of the dancer, Valerie Saintclair’, and Mary Marvell herself says she was encouraged by the words of Lord Cronshaw, who ‘was telling [her] last night how wonderfully [Poirot] cleared up the mystery of his nephew’s death’. The cases being referenced here are ‘The King of Clubs’ and ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’, both of which involve the scandalous activities of London’s ‘fashionable society’ (which are, apparently, still being talked about at parties). By contrast, Lady Yardly approaches Poirot on a more personal recommendation: she has been ‘sent’ to Poirot by Mary Cavendish – a reference to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first ‘country house’ murder solved by Poirot.* This is a nice touch for fans familiar with the earlier stories, as it subtly indicates the very different spheres in which Mary Marvell and Lady Yardly move.

Another bit of the story that I really like is that we get to see the return of Hastings-the-Detective. In the TV series, we’ve already seen this played for comic effect in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, but it’s also a recurring aspect of Christie’s stories. As I’ll come to very shortly, Hastings is introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as a man harbouring ambitions of detective work, and he seems to have built up a reputation amongst his friends as being a bit of a sleuth in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’.

In ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Poirot accidentally leaves Hastings to deal with Lady Yardly’s first visit… with disastrous consequences. The landlady (who Hastings calls Mrs Murchison, though he still treats her like a housekeeper) shows the woman in, and we get a little insight into Hastings’s reaction:
‘I felt a desire to rise to the occasion. Why not? In Poirot’s presence I have frequently felt a difficulty – I do not appear at my best. And yet there is no doubt that I, too, possess the deductive sense in a marked degree. I leant forward on a sudden impulse.’
Of course, Hastings’s ‘sudden impulse’ leads him to immediately make an almighty blunder:
‘“Lady Yardly,” I said, “I know why have come here. You have received blackmailing letters about the diamond.”’
Hastings’s error here (in giving Lady Yardly the idea of fabricating her own story of blackmail to cover up the truth about her diamond) doesn’t go unnoticed by Poirot. But, with a dastardly blend of arrogance and jest, he decides not to point out the mistake to his friend. He lets Hastings continue believing in the twin diamonds, the ancient curse and the threatening Chinese man until the very end, when he patronizingly explains that the entire thing was a fiction concocted by Lady Yardly (jumping on the idea suggested to her by Hastings) to cover up the fact that she was being blackmailed by her ex-lover (Mary Marvell’s husband).

I’ve talked a lot about Poirot and Hastings’s snarky attitude to one another, but this denouement leads to an actual falling out between the men, with Hastings seriously losing his rag:
‘“It’s all very well,” I said, my anger rising, “but you’ve made a perfect fool of me! From beginning to end! No, it’s all very well to try and explain it away afterwards. There really is a limit!”
“But you were so enjoying yourself, my friend, I had not the heart to shatter your illusions.”
“It’s no good. You’ve gone a bit too far this time.”
Mon Dieu! but how you enrage yourself for nothing, mon ami!”
“I’m fed up!” I went out, banging the door. Poirot had made an absolute laughing-stock of me. I decided that he needed a sharp lesson. I would let some time elapse before I forgave him. He had encouraged me to make a perfect fool of myself.’
I don’t know which bit of this I like the most: the image of Hastings storming out and banging the door like a petulant teenager; the fact that he doesn’t deny that he will forgive Poirot, but he doesn’t want to do it too quickly; or the fact that, just seven days later, The Sketch published ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’, which begins with Hastings wandering into their rooms and finding Poirot about to embark on a case – his simple response of ‘What is our plan of campaign?’ suggests that he couldn’t stay mad at his friend for very long.

The TV adaptation of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ was written by Clive Exton and directed by Richard Spence. As with most of the early series, Miss Lemon and Japp have been added to the story, though neither of them really have very much to do as the source material was so focused on Poirot and Hastings’s relationship. There are some good Japp moments, particularly when he’s discovered hiding in a bush outside Yardly Chase. And a couple of ‘classic’ Japp lines, including (and you really have to imagine these with Philip Jackson’s deadpan delivery):
‘Don’t come the old acid with me, Poirot!’
And (particularly funny after ‘The Lost Mine’):
‘Here we are again... sinister Chinamen...’
Aside from this, though, we’re very much focused on Poirot and Hastings throughout the episode, with Miss Lemon and Japp relegated to rather minor bit-players.

While Exton’s script stays fairly close to the plot of Christie’s original story, there are some interesting changes in characterization. The most notable of these is the alternation of Mary Marvell, a somewhat tawdry film star for whom Poirot has very little sympathy, to Marie Marvelle (played by Rosalind Bennett), the Belgian star of La tendresse religieuse and Drôle de coeur with whom Poirot is utterly infatuated. (Japp’s reaction? ‘Belgian film star? You’re pulling my leg!’) After the introductory ‘tense’ scene of Japp investigating Henrik Van Braks (played by Struan Rodger) for selling stolen gems, the episode proper begins with a very flustered Poirot preparing an afternoon tea for his screen crush, laying out cakes and flowers with geometric precision. When Miss Lemon has to break it to him that Marie Marvelle has cancelled, he looks utterly heartbroken (shades of Countess Rossakoff in the ITV version of Murder in Mesopotamia) – but, of course, Marie Marvelle still wants to consult with the famous detective.

In Christie’s original short story, Poirot’s sympathies lie entirely (and rather curiously) with Lady Yardly. Despite the fact that Lady Yardly has committed adultery, lied (to Poirot and to her husband) and been party to fraud, Poirot sees her as the victim of the piece. Mary Marvell – the woman who has been completely honest throughout – is nothing but an attention-seeker. Poirot’s deification of Lady Yardly seems entirely to stem from his having seen her at home with her angelic children (and I’m just glossing over the bit in Christie’s story where Poirot ‘makes friends’ and ‘romps’ with the children, because it’s just too weird). Poirot’s final insistence that it is Lady Yardly, not Mary Marvell, who has suffered the most is ridiculously over-the-top – and it’s not a view that is shared by his friend:
‘“It seems a little unfair on Mary Marvell. She has lost her diamond through no fault of her own.”
“Bah!” said Poirot brutally. “She has a magnificent advertisement. That is all she cares for, that one! Now the other, she is different. Bonne mère, très femme!
“Yes,” I said doubtfully, hardly sharing Poirot’s views on femininity.’
It’s quite weird to say, but I’m with Hastings on this one. And it does seem rather odd that the man who was happy to lie for Valerie Saintclair would be so quick to disdain Mary Marvell. Exton’s adaptation corrects this incongruity by switching Poirot’s sympathies from the lady of the manor to the fragile starlet. And this is done beautifully, as Poirot shifts from besotted fan to chivalrous protector as the story unfolds. The final exchange between Poirot and Marie, as the detective comforts the deceived woman, is heart-breaking, not least because the entire exchange is in French. This is a nice touch, but it is quite unusual (in both the TV series and Christie’s fiction). For instance, in ‘The Submarine Plans’ (and the later version ‘The Incredible Theft’), Poirot strikes up a momentary rapport with the French maid of one of the house guests, but this is conducted entirely in English; similarly, as far as I can recall, though Poirot is very sympathetic to Zélie in Elephants Can Remember, the two of them also converse in English. The use of French at the end of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ creates a sense of tenderness and poignancy, and when Marie signals her acceptance of what Poirot has told her – ‘C’est fini!’ – Poirot looks genuinely distraught his pauvre petite.

So… what about Hastings and his ill-fated attempts to play detective?

The TV adaptation retains this in all its glory. Not only does Hastings carry out his wonky consultation with Lady Yardly (Caroline Goodall), Hugh Fraser’s performance is wonderfully comic. Sitting behind Poirot’s desk, giving his best ‘Tell Me Everything’ expression, Hastings looks exactly like a man playing detective – and a man who’ll get in big trouble when his associate finds out. This is one of the moments where the adaptation captures the feel of the source material perfectly, as though Christie’s character has wandered off the page and onto the screen.

However, while Hastings does indeed get caught out in his performance (and Poirot’s face when he finds out what his friend actually said to Lady Yardly is an absolute picture), this doesn’t result in the almighty bust-up of Christie’s text. Instead, the TV Hastings is much quicker to admit his error and forgive Poirot for letting it persist. The episode ends with Hastings confessing that he was baffled by the case, and he reveals a determination to learn from his illustrious friend. He’s even bought a special notebook to keep track of all the questions that he is unable to answer. The two men sit down to dinner together – cooked by Poirot, presumably as an attempt to pre-empt his friend slamming out of the flat in a strop like his literary counterpart – and the detective (with even more condescension than in Christie’s story) encourages his friend to put the confusion behind him:
‘Now close your little book, and eat your dinner.’

It’s probably best that Exton chose to alter the ending of Christie’s story, of course, because this brings us to the end of the second series, and it would’ve been pretty downbeat to end with the dynamic duo falling out. The next episode won’t appear for another six months, and that will be a flashback to when the two men first met, so it’s for the best that ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ ends with the two friends raising their glasses in a toast to their adventures (no matter how much I would’ve loved to see Fraser acting out the scene from Christie’s story).

All in all then, ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ is a great episode, based on a very enjoyable short story. It’s definitely right up there in my top seventy episodes.

One final gem to end with… I’ve been cataloguing some of my favourite Poirot accessories as we’ve been working through the series. To add to the collection, this episode has an excellent close-up shot of Poirot’s business card.

Look at that subtle off-white colouring. The tasteful thickness of it.
Oh my God. It even has a watermark.

Time to move on to the next episode… and to go back to where it all began

* I’ve just realized that there are some semi-spoilers in this story that I hadn’t noticed before. If Lord Cronshaw and Mary Cavendish are still around to send clients to Poirot, it does kind of imply that they weren’t the murderers in their respective cases!


  1. I am really enjoying your reviews. I also like the little additions like a close-up of Poirot's business card. Thank you for the reviews and I look forward to more in the future!!

    1. Thank you! Glad you're enjoying them. I'm working on a review of Mysterious Affair at Styles at the moment. :-)

  2. Loved this one. I really like the episode but haven't read the short story (yet). Definitely looking forward to comparing the two now! :)

  3. The fact you added the Patrick Bateman touch to that pic is what made me comment. Will be looking forward to more content from you. Now I'm going to have to read this story, if not to allay any fears of Poirot being a weirdo around children.."romping"? Never knew that side of him, maybe it's in his new Biography 😂.

    1. I am very pleased that you got the Patrick Bateman reference!