Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Kidnapped Prime Minister (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 Adventure of the Cheap Flat’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The eighth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 25th February 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name.

‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ was first published in The Sketch in April 1923. Although it was the eighth Poirot short story to appear (it was published the week after ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’), it’s actually set before the others – the story takes place shortly after the events of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There is a reference to the events of ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ in one of the other Sketch stories; in ‘The Submarine Plans’, Lord Alloway is tipped to replace David MacAdam as prime minister, and he refers to the reputation Poirot acquired as a result of his rescue of MacAdam towards the end of WWI. (In the revised version of the story, ‘The Incredible Theft’, in which MacAdam is replaced by Mr Hunberly and the events take place later in Poirot’s career, this reference is dropped.)

Reading the stories in the order in which they were published, ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ appears as a sort of sequel to Styles – the great detective has solved his first country house murder, but this is the case that will cement his new position in London. However, if you read the stories in the order in which they were adapted (as I’ve done here), it appears as a flashback that fleshes out a casual comment in ‘The Submarine Plans’. Either way works, as the important thing about this story is that it’s an early step in Poirot’s London career, and one that will bring him to the attention of ‘the great and the good’.

And this is a really significant detail. While it’s fairly well-known that Christie was inspired to create her Belgian detective after coming into contact with Belgian refugees in Torquay, what is less well-known is that the majority of these refugees didn’t enjoy the fame and fortune of their fictional counterpart.* Recent research has shown that, while the 250,000 ‘plucky’ Belgian refugees who sought shelter in the UK during 1914-18 were initially welcomed, this welcome began to wane as money ran out and the war didn’t end by Christmas. As people struggled for housing, employment, running water and fresh food, the purpose-built villages (like Elisabethville in Tyne and Wear, which was built to house 6000 Belgian refugees) began to be a cause for resentment. At the end of the war, when additional housing, hospitals and employment were needed for returning soldiers, many Belgians found their contracts and leases terminated, and the government even offered them a time-limited one-way ticket back to Belgium to make the point clearer. By mid-1919, nearly 90% of the refugees had returned to Belgium.

So why did Poirot stay? And why was it so easy for him to stay?

The answer to the first question is tricky. Poirot had a good career in Belgium and appears to have no ties to the UK when he arrives as a refugee in Styles. However, although the detective is full of complaints about his adopted home (the food, the beds, the countryside, the golf, etc.), he also seems to be a bit of an Anglophile on the sly. He genuinely enjoys a number of ‘English’ activities – like his very English weekend break with Hastings and Japp in ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ and (until the murder) his marrow-growing retirement in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – and the fondness he has for his English friends (and not just Japp and Hastings) is a driving force in the narratives. And, let’s not forget, in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, Poirot wistfully confesses that he was once in love with an English girl. All this suggests that, continental horreur aside, Poirot very much enjoys his new home.

The answer to the second question is much easier: there’s no pressure on Poirot to leave Britain at the end of the war, as by then he has rescued the prime minister from a kidnapping plot.

The opening of ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ serves both to fill in the gap between the events of Styles (c.1916) and the events of the Sketch short stories (presumably c.1923), and to point forward to the illustrious (second) career upon which Poirot is about to embark. As with all the early stories, our narrator is Hastings, who explains that he was given a recruiting job after being invalided out of the army. Poirot is now living in rooms in London, and Hastings has started to call on him regularly in the evenings to ‘talk with him of any cases of interest that he might have had on hand’.

Unusually, Hastings begins his narration with a rather impassioned explanation of why he has decided to tell this particular tale – though, as usual, there is no indication of who he is telling it to:
‘Now that war and the problems of war are things of the past, I think I may safely venture to reveal to the world the part which my friend Poirot played in a moment of national crisis. The secret has been well guarded. Not a whisper of it reached the Press. But, now that the need for secrecy has gone by, I feel it is only just that England should know the debt it owes to my quaint little friend, whose marvellous brain so ably averted a great catastrophe.’
This is quite a charming opening, as it sets Hastings up as the guardian of his friend’s reputation: he thinks it’s ‘only just’ that the world learns that Poirot is more than a ‘quaint little friend’.

Hastings then sets up the story as happening towards the end of WWI, when Poirot was operating as a private detective (no doubt cashing in on his success in the Styles case). The little Belgian detective’s cases are relatively mundane at this point, as he explains to his friend:
‘I assist a – how do you call it? – “charlady” to find her husband. A difficult affair, needing the tact. For I have a little idea that when he is found he will not be pleased. What would you? For my part, I sympathize with him. He was a man of discretion to lose himself.’
This little glimpse into Poirot’s early London career is particularly amusing when you consider ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ (published in November 1923). In this later story, the detective disdains being employed to find a domestic servant, but before he establishes himself he is actually employed by domestic servants.

All this domestic mundanity is swept to one side as Poirot’s landlady announces the arrival of two men who have called to see the detective. (Once again, I don’t know why she does this… she’s his landlady, not his housekeeper.) The gentlemen in question are Lord Estair, Leader of the House of Commons, and Mr Bernard Dodge, a member of the War Cabinet, and they need Poirot’s help with a matter of national emergency: the prime minister has been kidnapped!

Now, if the incongruity of two such illustrious personages requesting help from a foreign private eye with a good line in tracking down absconding husbands escapes the reader, it certainly doesn’t escape Poirot:
‘What made you come to me? I am unknown, obscure in this great London of yours.’
Turns out, Poirot has been recommended by someone ‘whose word was once law in Belgium’. Given the automatic salute Poirot gives on hearing this, we can guess who that person might be. On the word of his esteemed ‘master’, the British government have decided to entrust this most sensitive of cases to Poirot.

While the set-up and introduction to the story is interesting in terms of the broader presentation of Poirot’s (and Hastings’s) character, the case itself isn’t one of my favourites. The ‘twist’ is too easy to spot, and there aren’t enough suspects to create an intriguing puzzle. The prime minister set off for a conference in Paris, but after leaving Boulogne, his car was switched with a ‘bogus’ car and driver. The prime minister’s real car was discovered at the side of the road with the chauffeur tied up and the PM nowhere to be seen. The only suspects are Captain Daniels, one of the prime minister’s secretaries, and the chauffeur himself, an Irishman named O’Murphy. Poirot has just twenty-four (and a quarter) hours to rescue the prime minister before the conference goes ahead – and the men fear that, without David MacAdam, the conference will agree to ‘Peace by Negotiation’ and a premature end to the conflict in Europe (more on that below).

Of course, Poirot solves the case. He recognizes the ruse that has been pulled, exonerating O’Murphy and getting MacAdam to the aerodrome just in time to fly to France for the conference. The British government owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

Ah… now to the adaptation…

While Christie’s story is set during the early days of Poirot’s residence in London, the ITV adaptation (directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Clive Exton) is moved into the continuous timeframe of the early TV series. Thus, the events are moved to 1935 and appear to follow such cases as ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘Double Sin’, rather than The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There’s no question in the episode as to why Poirot would be consulted on the case: after all, this is the man who has (twice) helped the royal family of Maurania, worked with Scotland Yard to foil murderers, kidnappers and Mafia hitmen, and has been lauded by Inspector Japp as ‘the most extraordinary of private detectives’ and a ‘doyen of the Belgian police force’. In the TV version, saving the prime minister isn’t Poirot’s big break, it’s just another day at the office.

This isn’t the only change that the move to 1935 (and 1990) necessitates. In Christie’s original story, the ‘national crisis’ concerned the negotiations to end WWI. David MacAdam is on his way to Paris to prevent premature peace in Europe – something that Hastings describes as the ‘parrot-cry of England’s enemies’. While Christie’s short story is based on historical circumstance – there were a number of failed peace initiatives throughout WWI, with British politicians (including then prime minister David Lloyd George) opposing them in expectation of military victory and resistance to offering colonial concessions to Germany – this facet of WWI history is not particularly well-known to modern audiences, and may seem somewhat unpalatable. Having a man like Hastings, who was disabled fighting at the Front, cheering on the prospect of further military conflict might not have sat very well with viewers in 1990 (or today, for that matter).

Moreover, the ITV series is set, not towards the end of the ‘war to end all wars’, but at the brink of the deadliest conflict in human history – the motivation behind the abduction of the PM needed to be changed to reflect this altered setting.

Interestingly, while other episodes in these early series make reference to growing military threat from Germany and Italy, ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ draws on conflict of a different kind. Taking its cue from a throwaway line in Christie’s short story – when suspicion is thrown on O’Murphy, Poirot is told that the chauffeur is an Irishman and, more significantly, he comes from County Clare (‘Tiens!’). This allusion hints at the approach of the Irish War of Independence, with the mention of Clare in particular perhaps evoking the election of Éamon de Valera as MP for East Clare and president of Sinn Féin in 1917 and the fact that County Clare was placed under martial law by the British in 1919.

The spectre of ‘County Clare’ is a red herring in Christie’s story. As elsewhere in her work, the suspicious ‘other’ turns out to be innocent, and the ‘good Englishman’ turns out to be guilty. Like the prime minister, O’Murphy is a victim of Captain Daniels, the suspiciously linguistic Englishman who is league with the Germans. However, Christie’s red herring becomes the basis for Exton’s 1935-set tale, with some interesting implications.

The first clear alteration to the source story is the introduction of Daniels’s (ex-)wife (played by Lisa Harrow). Despite seemingly estranged from her husband, whose political views she describes as ‘torpid’, this woman is of immediate interest to Poirot. He learns that her maiden name is Donohue, and that she is the daughter of the Earl of Connemara. Immediately, this suggests a link between Mrs Daniels and the prime minister’s chauffeur (played here by Jack Elliott), who is renamed Egan but is still from County Clare.

An early comment about Commander Daniels’s (David Horovitch) background gives a further hint as to the underlying motivations of the kidnappers. The commander’s father, we are told, suffered political humiliation as he was vehemently ‘opposed to Asquith on the Home Rule Bill’. While Exton’s adaptation is careful not to join the dots too obviously for the audience, the significance of this family history isn’t lost on Poirot. After interviewing Daniels for the first time, Poirot takes his leave with an ominous ‘Éirinn go Brách’. The man pretends not to understand, but the point is made.

The actual kidnapping of the prime minister (still Christie’s fictional MacAdam) follows pretty similar lines to that in the source text. The prime minister is due to attend a UN summit to prevent German rearmament, but is abducted prior to leaving England and substituted with a double, and a fake kidnapping is staged in France. However, while Christie’s story gives the kidnapper a fairly straightforward motivation (he’s working with the Germans), Exton’s adaptation muddies the water a little. Commander and Mrs Daniels, along with their accomplice Egan (who, unlike O’Murphy, is not exonerated) aren’t simply German collaborators. Rather, the kidnappers are working on the basis that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, and that preventing the prime minister’s appearance at the UN summit is a direct act against Britain (rather than for Germany). When Poirot foils their plan, Mrs Daniels chooses to take her life – very defiantly – with a final call of ‘Éirinn go Brách’, rather than face capture by the British police.

At first glance then, it seems that Exton’s adaptation takes the ‘Irishmen are dangerous’ red herring from Christie’s text and works it into an actual case of dangerous Irishmen (and women) – after all, Mrs Daniels, her husband and Egan are actively working to allow the rearmament of Germany (and the 90s viewer had enough hindsight to know exactly what that meant) – but it isn’t quite as simple as that.

What I find really interesting in this episode is Poirot’s reaction to Commander and Mrs Daniels. Although Poirot’s initial ‘Éirinn go Brách’ is said (quite darkly) to provoke a reaction from Daniels, there is an undercurrent of understanding in David Suchet’s delivery of the words. But it’s at the death of Mrs Daniels that this understanding moves into something approaching sympathy. Watching the woman’s suicide with a knowing solemnity, Poirot echoes her final words softly as she falls, like a sort of eulogy: ‘Yes. Éirinn go Brách. Ireland forever.’

Poirot’s sympathy here can be explained in three different ways: (1) character development; (2) context; (3) Hannah over-romanticizing and reading way too much into things.

(1) Throughout the series, Suchet’s Poirot reveals an increasingly developed sense of ‘justice’ that transcends both legal and governmental systems. It is completely in-keeping with the character that Poirot would be more attuned to the nuances of Anglo-Irish relations, and would reject knee-jerk patriotism in the face of a nation struggling against the remnants of colonial rule and civil war. As the series progresses, we will see much more of Poirot’s awareness of the shades of grey.

(2) The episode was aired in 1990, some years prior to the Good Friday Agreement. While the story is set in 1935, and deals with the aftermath of the Home Rule Bill, the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Economic War, it was inevitable that audiences would link the episode with contemporaneous conflicts in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. By 1990, people in the UK (where the episode was first aired) were slowly beginning to reject jingoistic representations of the Irish as terrorists and were becoming familiar with more nuanced accounts of the historical and political basis for the Troubles (the controversial Death on the Rock documentary was broadcast two years before this episode and the BBC’s complex and morally ambiguous Children of the North was broadcast in 1991). Poirot’s signs of understanding towards Mrs Daniels are a very subtle nod to this increasing sense of complexity and ambiguity.

(3) Or maybe… Poirot’s sympathy has a more personal note to it. Maybe the reference to County Clare means something else to the little Belgian detective. Perhaps he remembers that Lord Inchiquin of County Clare was one of the Southern Irish unionists who opposed the Home Rule Bill and petitioned George V against its ruinous consequences. Perhaps he also remembered that Lord Inchiquin’s wife, Ethel O’Brien, played a major role in housing Belgian refugees in Co. Clare during WWI – being given a medal by the Queen of Belgium in thanks. Romantic an idea as it is, I like to think Poirot is aware of this history and, maybe, feels a lingering sense of solidarity and kinship.

Anyway, this is a very long blog post about an episode that is incongruously serious, and which paves the way for the more morally complex feature-length episodes of later series. Let’s end on a lighter note…

Early in the episode, we find out that Poirot has a personal tailor named Fingler who lives in a rather unprepossessing street in the East End (filmed on Quilter Street, E1). The purpose of this little scene is simply humour, as Poirot complains that his tailor is cutting his suits too small, and Fingler warns his client not to ‘kvetch’. Not only is this a nice foreshadowing of later episodes where Poirot will deny gaining weight, it also offers a little nod to the short story, which has a moment where Hastings watches Poirot remove a grease spot from his suit and notes:
‘Never was there a dandy such as Hercule Poirot.’
Next up: ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’

* UPDATE: I’ve just found out that there is a conference on WWI in Belgium and the Netherlands at QMUL this month, which has a number of papers that look at this very topic. And I found out about the conference on the blog of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, which is dedicated to research into the lives and experiences of Belgian refugees (mainly in the UK during WWI).


  1. Great post! I had no idea about all the background to this episode. I've always thought it was a bit of a strange one, it doesn't seem to fit in with the others in the series. Think I'll have to read the short story now.

    1. Thanks Val. I think I'd definitely recommend reading the short story. I agree about the episode seeming like it doesn't fit with the others, but it sort of makes a bit more sense when you know the story. Give it a go and let me know what you think! :-)