Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Poirot Project: How Does Your Garden Grow? (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 ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and the last review was of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 6th January 1991, following the pattern set by the first two series of beginning a new set of stories immediately after Christmas. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Ladies’ Home Journal (in the US) and The Strand (in the UK) in 1935.

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ is a significant story in the Poirot canon, as it is the first to introduce the detective’s confidential secretary, Miss Lemon. This raises two interesting issues when rereading the stories in the adaptation (rather than publication) sequence: (1) there are significant differences between the character in Christie’s fiction and the TV character of the same name; and (2) Miss Lemon has already appeared in sixteen episodes of the TV show at this point, so ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ no longer represents her introduction. In my opinion, the adaptation offers an interesting (though subtle) solution to these issues, but more on that below.

First, I want to say a little something about Christie’s short story.

The story (written in third person, as Hastings is no longer our chronicler by this point) begins with Hercule Poirot in his flat, reading through his correspondence. Among his ‘neat pile’ of letters is a note from Amelia Barrowby requesting a ‘strictly private’ consultation about a ‘delicate family matter’. Poirot is clearly intrigued by the note, but he wants a second opinion. Fortunately, one of his employees is in the next room…

Here’s the first introduction to Poirot’s new ‘Watson’:
‘At ten o’clock precisely he entered the room where Miss Lemon, his confidential secretary, sat awaiting her instructions for the day. Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself, and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.’
From the start, then, Poirot’s relationship with Miss Lemon is on very different terms to his relationship with Hastings. Technically, it’s an employer-employee relationship, with Miss Lemon waiting to receive ‘instructions’ from Poirot at the beginning of each day. And yet it’s also, in some ways, a more apt relationship, as Miss Lemon embodies the precision and ‘passion for order’ that Poirot often lamented was missing from Hastings. Like Poirot, Miss Lemon reveals an awareness of the need to treat each potential client according to their individual personalities – when Poirot asks her to write some refusals ‘couched in correct terms’, Miss Lemon annotates each with a coded acknowledgement of the ‘correct terms’ to use for each: ‘[s]oft soap’, ‘slap in the face’, ‘curt’, etc. (And it’s interesting that these are all approaches Poirot will take himself with unwanted clients – from his ‘perfect politeness’ in letting down the Home Secretary in Peril at End House, his brutal ‘I do not like your face, Mr Ratchett’ in Murder on the Orient Express, to his quickly regretted curtness to Mrs Todd in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ – suggesting that Miss Lemon knows almost instinctively how her boss likes to do business.)

And, although she never gets to be a narrator like Hastings, we do get to a little glimpse into the mind of Poirot’s new associate near the beginning of the story. When Poirot asks for Miss Lemon’s opinion on Amelia Barrowby’s letter, she isn’t particularly pleased to be asked:
‘Very occasionally her employer appealed to her human, as opposed to her official, capacities. It slightly annoyed Miss Lemon when he did so – she was very nearly the perfect machine, completely and gloriously uninterested in all human affairs. Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night. Nevertheless, Miss Lemon was perfectly capable of intelligence on purely human matters, as Hercule Poirot well knew.’
This description of Poirot’s ‘perfect machine’ is ostensibly at odds with the earlier descriptions of his old friend Hastings. At first glance, it seems that Miss Lemon has been introduced as the polar opposite of her predecessor. However, there are little signs that she isn’t quite as different as she appears. In particular, we very quickly discover that Miss Lemon isn’t above criticizing her employer and his affectations (albeit with less humour than Hastings). Christie shows this by continuing to reveal little bits of Miss Lemon’s thoughts throughout ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ Just a few lines after the ‘perfect machine’ description, Poirot makes one of his characteristic comical-broken-English statements, and we are told: ‘Miss Lemon, who considered that Poirot had been long enough in Great Britain to understand its slang terms, did not reply.’ With that, Miss Lemon slips subtly into a role that Hastings had occasionally occupied: the voice of dissent against the little Belgian’s more exaggerated mannerisms (and, in this example, her consideration is surely shared by the reader who raises an eyebrow every time Poirot mangles an expression he must have heard a hundred times since arriving in England two decades ago).

Despite the fact that it’s only a short story, Christie really develops a sense of Poirot and Miss Lemon’s relationship in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ It’s done with a light touch, a sense of gentle humour (mostly directed at her detective), and an awareness of fans’ fondness for the Poirot-and-Hastings (for some later fans, Poirot/Hastings) relationship. In her autobiography, Christie was somewhat brusque about her decision to get rid of her original ‘Watson’ character, stating: ‘Truth to tell, I think I was getting a little tired of him. I might be stuck with Poirot, but no need to be stuck with Hastings too.’ Fans of Christie’s work are familiar with the perennial narrative (partly perpetuated by these throwaway authorial comments) that the author couldn’t stand her detective creation – and I’ll come back to this more when I start thinking about Ariadne Oliver – but there’s a bit of a disjunction between what Christie said about her characters and the affectionate way they come across in the books. Either Christie was prone to exaggerating her irritation with the little egg-shaped Belgian (and, again, Ariadne Oliver springs to mind here), or she took great pains to respect her fans’ fondness for the characters in her writing. I like to believe it’s the latter, and this seems to be the case in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’

In this story, Christie is, in fact, attempting to replace her popular ‘Watson’ with a new unknown character. A writer less in tune with her readers might have simply swept Hastings under the carpet, never to be mentioned again, and focused on Miss Lemon. However, what we have here is a playful piece of reflection on the different ‘Watsons’ in Poirot’s career, which results in some light teasing of the detective himself.

Miss Lemon is everything that Poirot wanted Hastings to be. She lives for ‘order and method’ – she even dreams about it at night – and she doesn’t bother herself with the frivolity of human life that so excited Hastings (to the exacerbation of Poirot). There’s a little detail offered near the beginning to show how perfect Miss Lemon is for Poirot. After Poirot responds to Miss Barrowby’s request but receives no answer, Miss Lemon spots the announcement of the woman’s death in the newspaper and brings it to her employer’s attention (a much more business-like use of the newspapers than his old friend’s Perusal of the Morning News). Miss Lemon tells him that she ‘saw it in the tube and tore it out’, but Poirot’s mind registers ‘approval of the fact that, though Miss Lemon used the word “tore”, she had neatly cut the entry with scissors’. Surely this is the sidekick Poirot has been dreaming of ever since he fell out with Hastings over a cup of cocoa.

But no… Poirot’s approval quickly dissipates as he discovers the limits of Miss Lemon’s ability (or willingness) to play Watson. As he muses on the case of Miss Amelia Barrowby, Poirot attempts to get his associate to hypothesize on the psychology of the participants. He asks her to imagine she is in the situation of the prime suspect, and Miss Lemon isn’t pleased:
‘Miss Lemon dropped her hands into her lap in a resigned manner. She enjoyed typing, paying bills, filing papers and entering up engagements. To be asked to imagine herself in hypothetical situations bored her very much, but she accepted it as a disagreeable part of a duty.’
She offers Poirot monosyllabic responses to his questions, which annoys the detective. Eventually, he gives up:
‘Poirot sighed. “How I miss my friend Hastings. He had such imagination. Such a romantic mind! It is true that he always imagined wrong – but that in itself was a guide.”’
Miss Lemon is unmoved by this nostalgia, and simply ‘looked longingly at the typewritten sheet in front of her’. This isn’t the first time Poirot has expressed his fondness for Hastings’s ‘romantic mind’, or the extent to which he misses it when it’s not there: he said something similar in Peril at End House after being forced to solve The Mystery of the Blue Train with his valet George because Hastings was in South America. Christie might have been happy to jettison Hastings, but her detective never really shared her enthusiasm for his friend’s departure.

Before I move on to the TV adaptation, I should say a little bit about the mystery in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ As I’ve said, Poirot receives a letter from an older woman named Amelia Barrowby. She is concerned about ‘a very delicate family matter’, and would like Poirot to investigate – with an assurance of confidentiality and privacy. Readers might note some similarity here with Mrs Pengelley’s tentative enquiries at the beginning of ‘The Cornish Mystery’, and so, when Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby died shortly after writing to Poirot, it’s not a massive leap (for the detective and the reader) to presume foul play.

Poirot travels to Charman’s Green in Buckinghamshire to investigate (cheekily ignoring a letter from Miss Barrowby’s niece declaring that ‘the matter […] is no longer of importance’). The significance of the story’s title is revealed when Poirot sees the house’s English country garden:
‘Rose trees that promised a good harvest later in the year, and at present daffodils, early tulips, blue hyacinths – the last bed was partly edged with shells.’
The other members of the household are quickly revealed as Miss Barrowby’s niece Mary Delafontaine, Mary’s husband Henry, and Katrina, a ‘half-Russian’ girl who worked as a ‘kind of nurse-attendant’ to the old woman. When the local police (in the form of Inspector Sims, ‘a big, burly man with a hearty manner’) confirm death by strychnine poisoning, the three become suspects.

Katrina’s foreignness is stressed on a number of occasions, with Henry bluntly suggesting that his aunt-by-marriage had concerns about ‘Bolshies, Reds, all that sort of thing’. Mary is a sensible English housewife, whose main preoccupation is gardening – to the extent that she has almost started to physically resemble her garden, with her eyes that are the colour of forget-me-nots. If you’re familiar with your Christie, it’s pretty obvious whodunit here. Spoiler alert: it isn’t the foreign person.

A bigger mystery – as is often the case – is how the poison was administered, given that Miss Barrowby ate the same food as her family. There’s a Christie favourite in the form of potentially poisonous medicine (this time a ‘cachet’ administered by Katrina), and then a suspicious packet of strychnine found in the girl’s bedroom. But the real clue has, of course, been on display the entire time.

Aside from the introduction of Miss Lemon, the story has some nice touches. As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it is Poirot’s quirky obsession with symmetry and order that allows him to spot the giveaway clue. And the detective’s attitude towards the young Russian woman is also pleasantly characteristic. While all manner of suspicion is heaped upon her, Poirot repeatedly draws attention to the girl’s vulnerability and isolation: ‘I do not think she has any friends.’ He then modifies this: ‘I was wrong […] She has one.’ After (obviously) exonerating Katrina, Poirot announces the identity of this friend: ‘Me!’ This reminds us of Poirot’s regular alliance with immigrants and foreigners, including his bold statement of ‘Me, I am all for the visitors!’ at the end of ‘Double Sin’.

So… time to move on to the TV episode…

The adaptation was written by Andrew Marshall and directed by Brian Farnham. Adapting ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ poses an immediate challenge within the context of the ITV series. As I’ve already said, Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon has appeared in sixteen previous episodes at this point, and the character has been established along quite different lines to Christie’s creation (and her prototype). In addition to this, the series (at this point) is an ensemble piece, so we’re quite used to seeing Miss Lemon alongside Hastings and Japp. Obviously, Marshall couldn’t just ignore this context and translate Christie’s story directly to the screen; however, for readers familiar with the short story, it would’ve been a shame to see no acknowledgement of its significant place within the Poirot stories as a whole. I quite like the compromise position that Marshall’s adaptation strikes.

While the episode does feature Hastings and Japp, it’s notable for being a bit more Miss Lemon-heavy than previous episodes. Miss Lemon is the member of the gang most likely to be absent from the early series (Pauline Moran appeared in 32 episodes, compared to Philip Jackson’s 40 and Hugh Fraser’s 43). She did not appear in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (as it would’ve been impossible to write her into that story), but she was also missing from ‘The King of Clubs’ (in which Poirot investigates with Japp and Hastings) and, later in this series, she will be absent again from ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Nevertheless, we’ve seen some hint of Miss Lemon’s talents for investigation: she carries out background searches in Peril at End House (undertaken by Poirot himself in Christie’s story), she goes undercover in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, and her input was pivotal in resolving the case in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’. This episode is very much in this mould, but with some added extras in honour of the original short story.

Specifically, we get to see more of Poirot and Miss Lemon working as a team. They travel to Miss Barrowby’s house together (on Poirot’s particular request) and – crucially – both observe the all-important flowerbed on their arrival. As in the short story, Poirot relies on Miss Lemon’s knowledge of tradesmen to extract relevant information from the fishmonger. And, also like in the short story, Poirot runs his hypothetical scenarios about Katrina by his secretary. In the latter case, though, there are necessary changes made. Firstly, the exchange takes place in a more convivial setting (the pair are out for coffee in a stylish establishment, rather than in Poirot’s office); secondly, Miss Lemon offers a more imaginative response than her literary counterpart. Still, the ever-so-slightly sardonic expression on her face suggests that this Miss Lemon (as in the short story) doesn’t enter into the exercise with quite the ‘romantic mind’ of Arthur Hastings.

There is another nod to the short story (and one of the bits of characterization the TV Miss Lemon shares with her counterparts in Christie’s stories), as we see the return of Miss Lemon’s filing system. When Poirot and Miss Lemon travel to Miss Barrowby’s house, they leave Hastings in Whitehaven Mansions. A certain Mr Trumper gets in touch to request payment of a bill, and Hastings (in his wisdom) decides to hunt out the relevant invoice. Towards the end of the episode, Miss Lemon returns to find her precious filing system in disarray. Her fury reminds us that there is one thing all versions of Miss Lemon share: their ‘real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system’.

I did warn you what would happen if Poirot let Miss Lemon out into the field!

Before I move on to the rest of the story, there are a couple more details about Miss Lemon that are revealed in the course of this episode. We discover that she is a lot more aware of her employer’s affectations than Hastings is. At the beginning of the episode, Poirot (who has been exhibiting slightly odd behaviour – more on that shortly) locks himself in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time. Miss Lemon and Hastings ponder over this new eccentricity:
Miss Lemon (with a note of mischief): ‘Perhaps he’s dyeing his hair.’
Hastings: ‘But… he’s a man.’
I don’t want to say for certain that Poirot dyes his hair – but it is a rather suspiciously perfect shade of black, which is (and will remain for some time) mysteriously devoid of grey. This little exchange makes it seem like Miss Lemon is a bit more worldly – and a bit more aware of Poirot’s vanities – than his hapless old friend.

The second little nugget comes when Poirot and Miss Lemon begin to investigate the death of Miss Barrowby. Rather thsn hearing the information from a local policeman (whose appearance is removed in order to leave a space for Japp), Poirot goes to the pathologist (played by John Rogan) with Japp in order to discover the cause of death. And he takes his secretary along with him. The men are politely concerned about the poor woman’s sensibilities, but she brushes aside their anxiety:
Miss Lemon: ‘I did help in the hospital morgue during the war.’
Poirot: ‘Not fighting, Miss Lemon?’
Miss Lemon: ‘Mr Poirot!’
It’s a nice piece of backstory to her character, which goes some way to explain her lack of discomfort when filing away details of her employer’s grislier cases. Poirot’s teasing reply reminds us that, in the Poirot and Parker Pyne short stories, Miss Lemon was a pretty formidable woman.

Reluctantly, I should probably move on from Miss Lemon and talk about the rest of the episode. The adaptation begins with Poirot visiting the Mayfair establishment of Mr Trumper, hairdresser and perfumer, to purchase a new cologne. This is Poirot at his most dandyish – dare I say, foppish? – and there’s almost a touch of camp about his behaviour in the scene. When Mr Trumper enquires as to the reason for Poirot’s slightly giddy mood, the little Belgian cryptically replies ‘I am to become a pink rose!’, before rushing home to lock himself in the bathroom for a major preening session.

A quick aside… G.F. Trumper is a real barber and perfumer. A shop at 9 Curzon Street, Mayfair, was opened in the late nineteenth century by George Trumper, and it’s still open today (along with a second premises in Duke of York Street). The TV show used the Curzon Street shop for the scenes in which Poirot purchases his cologne, though the part of Mr Trumper was played by actor Trevor Danby. This feels like such a good find on the part of the locations team, I think they should be mentioned by name for once… well done, Scott Rowlatt and Paul Shersby!

Eventually, we discover the reason for this strange behaviour – a rose is to be named in Poirot’s honour at the RHS Flower Show. And so, the gang are all off to Chelsea! Except… poor old Hastings seems to have come down with a severe bout of hay fever (or is he allergic to some new scent in the apartment?), so he’s left home alone with Miss Lemon’s filing system. The trip to the flower show gives us two extra details. It seems we’re still in 1935, as the RHS banner informs us.

The thing is… the 1935 Chelsea Flower Show took place on the 22-24 May. Which means that the events of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ must take place before the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ (set in July that year) and ‘The Cornish Mystery’ (set in July and August). It also means this story takes place before ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, as that episode has Poirot, Hastings and Japp watching ‘G’ Men at the cinema, and the film wasn’t released in the UK until November 1935. Mind you, that would mean that… oh, forget it… the episodes don’t follow a logical calendar. At this point in the series, it’s just always 1935 and that’s all there is to it.

Thank you to Carrie Lewis for providing this image

Okay… two further asides about the naming of the rose. At the RHS show, we get to see the return of Japp-the-Botanist, as he casually remarks: ‘I would have expected you to be a polyantha rose, rather than a hybrid tea. The scent is much stronger, you know?’ While we’ll see Japp in his garden later in the series, for now this is a nice reminder of his interest in flora at the beginning of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’.

And, while there isn’t a Hercule Poirot rose, his creator did have a flower named after her in 1988 (also a ‘lightly fragrant’ pink hybrid tea). I don’t know whether the programme-makers were aware of this when writing this episode a couple of years later, but I quite like this detail.

Agatha Christie rose - thanks to Darren Michaels for providing this picture

The actual mystery part of the episode begins, not with an anxious letter, but with an encounter between Amelia Barrowby (Margery Mason) and the great detective. The old woman recognizes Poirot and makes it clear that she would like to talk to him. She presses a packet of seeds (‘Catherine the Great’ stocks) into his hand. (Another aside… I can’t seem to help myself today… the conversation with Amelia Barrowby leads Poirot to say: ‘One day I hope to retire to grow the vegetable marrows, but until then I have only the window box.’ Fans of Christie’s fiction will recognize this as a nod to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, making it a rare call-forward – there are very few direct references to yet-to-be-adapted stories in the series.)

By the time Poirot and Miss Lemon call on Miss Barrowby, she’s already died. From this point, the mystery unfolds in a similar way to in the short story, though there are some alterations and expansions.

Miss Barrowby was cared for by Katrina Reiger (played by Catherine Russell), who is a Russian immigrant. As in Christie’s story, this is a cause for suspicion, though it is significantly expanded from Henry’s casual talk of ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’. The other two suspects are, again, Mary Delafontaine (Anne Stallybrass) and her husband (Tim Wylton), but their motive is developed further with some shady financial dealings. This latter detail is disclosed indirectly to Poirot in an odd little sequence involving a solicitor judging a horse show and using this as a coded metaphor for the terms of Miss Barrowby’s will (which always reminds me of Arthur Wimborne’s blatantly obvious crossword ‘code’ in the BBC’s adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington). Additionally, we have the extra details of Henry Delafontaine’s secret drinking (which does lead to a funny little scene in the denouement) and the replacement of Inspector Sims with Inspector Japp (who is discovered staking out Miss Barrowby’s house). The nursery rhyme title is also underlined further with the discovery of a silver bell alongside the shells in the flowerbed.

Overall, though, these additions enhance Christie’s story, rather than change it, and several of them allow for the TV Poirot’s now-familiar traits to shine. For instance, the changes made to Katrina – no longer simply a bit ‘foreign’, she is now a refugee Russian aristocrat – means that Poirot isn’t simply protective of the girl because she is friendless, but that he is aware of the peril she may be in from the very ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’ she is suspected of aiding, and he feels a kinship based on their shared refugee status. He is also able to dabble in a bit of matchmaking at the end of the episode, as he brings together Katrina and Nicholai (Peter Birch), a man who works at the Russian Embassy. And Poirot does love a bit of matchmaking.

Ultimately, though, this episode is all about Miss Lemon for me. The short story is her introduction to the Poirot canon, so it seems fitting that the TV episode lets her take centre stage. Significantly, the discovery of the all-important garden clue – that the shell border isn’t complete and so doesn’t fit with the ‘order’ of Mary’s garden – is passed from Poirot (who spots it in the short story) to Miss Lemon (who comments on it in the adaptation). This seems like a nice way of acknowledging the relationship introduced in Christie’s short story. As his literary counterpart does when he sees the neatly cut newspaper article, the TV Poirot registers his approval at Miss Lemon’s assessment of the shell border. It seems that this Miss Lemon, like Christie’s, really does have ‘a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself’.

Okay… that’s probably more than enough for this episode.

tl;dr I love Miss Lemon.

Moving on to the next episode… ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’


  1. Thank you very much for this blog series! I've been going through the TV show and I wondered how the stories compared to Christie's versions, and your very thorough efforts (as far as you got, at least--please feel no pressure on my account to resume) have quite satisfied my curiosity.

    I don't know if you care about teensy minor little corrections to year-plus-old blog posts, but it sounds to me like Poirot's comment on Miss Lemon's morgue service is "More filing?" (rather than "Not fighting?"), which seems a more apropos joke, if a touch macabre.

    1. Thanks - I'll hopefully have some time to return to writing the posts soon. :-)

      I'll have to rewatch the episode to check that line. Either joke would work, I guess, so will have to listen really carefully to work out which one it is.