Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Poirot Project: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (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 ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 13th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in May 1923.

After moving around a bit for the last two episodes (The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published earlier, and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ later), we’re back on the familiar territory of the Sketch short stories, with our faithful chronicler Hastings describing another of the cases he worked on with his friend Poirot. And – even more familiar territory – the story begins with Hastings’s Perusal of the Morning News:
‘“What a number of bond robberies there have been lately!” I observed one morning, laying aside the newspaper. “Poirot, let us forsake the science of detection, and take to crime instead!”’
Sadly, this isn’t the beginning of a new career for Poirot and Hastings, as the jokey conversation about bond robberies and ocean liners that follows is soon interrupted by their landlady, who ushers in a new client (landlady, dear, not housekeeper). Miss Esmée Farquhar has come to ask Poirot to help her fiancé, Philip Ridgeway, the man implicated in the very bond robbery they were just discussing. The men agree to take the case and hurry away to interview Ridgeway over lunch at the Cheshire Cheese.

The puzzle is a neat one. Ridgeway was entrusted with a million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds by the London and Scottish Bank. The bank wanted to extend their credit in America, and so had decided to ship the bonds over the Atlantic; Ridgeway travelled to New York with the valuable cargo on the Olympia (one of the ocean liners of which Poirot and Hastings seem so enamoured at the beginning of the story). The bonds were sealed in a package, then placed in a portmanteau with a special lock (a unique lock with three keys – one given to Ridgeway, the other two held by the bank’s managers, Mr Shaw and Mr Vavasour). Although every care appears to be taken, disaster strikes – shortly before the boat docks, Ridgeway discovers the portmanteau has been opened and the bonds taken. Within half an hour of the Olympia’s arrival in New York, brokers reported that the bonds were being offered for sale.

And yet… Ridgeway discovered the bonds were missing before the ship docked and, as a result, all passengers were searched on landing. The ship was also searched ‘with a toothcomb’. The bulky package of bonds had disappeared into thin air. Scratches on the case suggest that someone originally tried to force the lock, but it was eventually just opened with the key. But how is that possible? Ridgeway’s key remained on his person at all times, and the other two keys were in a safe at the London and Scottish Bank, accessible only to Mr Vavasour (Ridgeway’s uncle) and Mr Shaw (who has been away from the bank due to severe bronchitis). And even if the thief had somehow managed to get hold of one of the keys, why did they try to force the lock first?

These questions are the heart of the puzzle. Like many of the Sketch stories – which are all quite short – we aren’t presented with a large cast of suspects like in the novels. Instead, we have a little brainteaser that requires some lateral thinking. The brevity of the form means that every seemingly throwaway line (‘One broker swears he bought some of them even before the Olympia got in.’) is a clue to the solution.

Poirot knows what this all means. After interviewing all the relevant people, he has a little chat with Hastings (which feels a bit like he’s addressing the reader as well):
‘“No, I am disappointed in the case – it is too easy!”
“Yes, do you not find it almost childishly simple?”’
This is a pretty standard feature of detective fiction – bizarrely early in the narrative, the detective will announce that he/she has worked it all out (or almost all of it) but they can’t yet reveal the solution. It’s a narrative conceit intended to indicate to readers that they have now received all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle (and to remind them that they might need to go back and think about the implications of everything they’ve seen). Most detectives do this at some point (Sherlock Holmes does it, Miss Marple does it, even Jonathan Creek does it), and it’s usually explained away with a wave of the hand (‘I don’t know how to prove it yet.’ ‘I don’t want to alert the culprit until I have more evidence.’)

But, on this occasion, the detective is just being a plain and simple show off. When Hastings asks his friend why he doesn’t just reveal the solution, Poirot (almost breaking the fourth wall here) says:
‘As to why I wait – eh bien, to the intelligence of Hercule Poirot the case is perfectly clear, but for the benefit of others, not so greatly gifted by the good God – the Inspector McNeil, for instance – it would be as well to make a few inquiries to establish the facts. One must have consideration for those less gifted than oneself.’
Inspector McNeil is the Japp-substitute in this case, but one feels like Poirot might be referring to someone other than the hapless policeman. Is his hesitation for the benefit of Hastings? Or the reader? His friend is not impressed with this:
‘Good Lord, Poirot! Do you know, I’d give a considerable sum of money to see you make a thorough ass of yourself – just for once. You’re so confoundedly conceited!’
To be fair, Hastings has got a point.

Once those of us who are ‘less gifted’ catch up, the solution is revealed, and it’s a satisfying one. I know some people might be a little concerned that Christie’s answer relies on a fact that hasn’t previously been revealed (which is a big no-no in Golden Age detective fiction). But I quite like it – it’s not that the fact wasn’t revealed, it’s that the possibility of its existence simply didn’t cross our minds. Poirot tells us the bonds can’t be sent by wireless, and transatlantic air travel is in its infancy – so what can possibly travel between Liverpool and New York quicker than a boat?*

‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ is a great short story, which does exactly what you’d expect from the form. Let’s see how the adaptation measures up…

The episode was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. This is the first of eleven episodes dramatized by Horowitz and, as you might expect from the man who created Foyle’s War (which is another favourite of mine), the adaptation is very good. It follows the short story closely, with a few expansions and additions that enhance, rather than change, Christie’s narrative.

We begin in Threadneedle Street (mentioned in Christie’s story), watching financiers scurry through the London rain to their respective establishments. Among the commuters are Mr Shaw (played by David Quilter) and Mr Vavasour (played by Ewan Hooper), the managers of the London and Scottish Bank. Their regular walk to work is disrupted, however, as a car swerves towards Shaw and almost runs him down.

This dramatic opening gives way to a familiar scene: Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and Hastings is perusing the morning news. As the robbery hasn’t yet taken place, the conversation about their potential life of crime is dropped; however, like his literary counterpart, Hastings is rather fascinated by the paper’s description of an ocean liner. Poirot (as in the story) announces that his seasickness would prevent him from taking a trip on such a vessel, but he seems far more disdainful of boats in general than in Christie’s text. In the 1923 story, Poirot imagines ‘dreamily’ what pleasure he could have if only he wasn’t afflicted with the mal de mer; Suchet’s Poirot translates this into a slightly grumpier assessment of the perils of the sea, explaining to Hastings that, since he crossed the channel ‘twenty years ago’, he has had a deep aversion to sea voyages of any kind. (It would be churlish to point out that – in the TV chronology – Poirot has already travelled to Rhodes and taken a cruise around Egypt, both for recreational purposes.)

The first big change to the story is the way in which Poirot is brought into the case. In this version, it is Vavasour and Shaw who contact the detective, rather than Esmée Farquhar (renamed, for some reason, Esmee Dalgleish in the episode). Poirot isn’t asked to investigate the theft, but rather asked to accompany the bonds to America to prevent a theft. As you can imagine, Hastings is over the moon about this.

Poirot’s employment by Vavasour and Shaw before the crime means that we get to see some of the background to the case with our own eyes (rather than it simply being described after the fact). We see Ridgeway (played by Oliver Parker) and Esmee (Natalie Ogle), and discover that he is a young man with some money problems (unlike the impeccable character in Christie’s story). Suspicion is immediately thrown on Ridgeway as it’s discovered that he owned a car of the same make as the one that was driven at Shaw in the opening sequence (a Singer). The young man insists that he sold the car because it wouldn’t start properly – a story that Hastings immediately reveals as a lie, since the Singer is known for its ‘brand new ignition system’. For once, Poirot is forced to bow to his associate’s superior knowledge.

We’re then shown the security measures to be taken to protect the bonds. Inspector McNeil is replaced by Mr McNeil (played by Paul Young), the head of security at the London and Scottish. Interestingly, the removal of the original policeman isn’t to make room for Japp, as this is one of the few early episodes that doesn’t feature the inspector at all. Instead, the role is altered because, at this point, no crime has taken place. McNeil simply reveals the precautions taken to secure the bonds for their transatlantic journey (which, as in the story, involve a unique lock and three closely-guarded keys).

Another important change to the story is that Ridgeway is no longer the first choice of courier. It is Shaw himself who is meant to be making the journey to the States. Not long before the voyage – disaster! Someone slips a dose of strychnine into Shaw’s coffee – he survives, but he’s too ill to travel with the bonds. Ridgeway is going to have to go in his place.

(A little aside… I love the scene in which Shaw gets the poisoned coffee. I’ve never seen a tea-lady push a trolley up a corridor with more sense of menace.)

It’s now time for the much-anticipated sea voyage. Poirot collects together the necessary equipment to survive the ordeal.

This is a little bit of a departure from Christie’s fiction. Poirot’s seasickness is something that is mentioned several times in the short stories, but he doesn’t resort to patent medicines to survive it. In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot copes with crossing the channel by employing ‘Laverguier’s system’ (‘You breathe in – and out – slowly, so – turning the head from left to right and counting six between each breath.’) In the 1923 version of ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (published the week after ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’), the detective explains that, while this might be fine for traversing la Manche, it won’t work for transatlantic sailings (because of ‘the difficulty of practising the so excellent method of Laverguier for a longer time than the few hours of crossing the Channel’). This will also be his remedy on the voyage to France in Murder on the Links. By ‘Problem at Sea’ (published thirteen years later), he seems to be able to survive longer journeys, but still has to spend some evenings in his cabin (‘I detest la mer.’). He doesn’t mention Laverguier’s system here, but he doesn’t mention medicine either.

Now, I can sort of see why the programme-makers added Poirot’s medicine chest to the episode. Christie had her detective build up from Channel sailings (in 1916, presumably, and then again before the end of WWI, before a couple of trips in 1923), to continental train journeys (in 1928 and 1934) that would necessarily begin with boat travel, to trying to avoid the sea by flying from France to England (in 1935), before (finally) having him attempt longer sea journeys (in 1935 and 1936). After that, there’s no stopping him, and he’s off to Egypt (again), Iraq and Jerusalem. The problem for the TV series is that, having altered the order of the stories, we’ve already seen Poirot on holiday at sea before the stories in which his seasickness is an issue (although, weirdly, he denies this here and in ‘The Veiled Lady’). Given that there seems to be a desire to retain Poirot’s seasickness as a recurring characteristic, the easiest way to explain his international travel is a quick shot of a monster medicine cabinet. Problem solved.

And, for added humour, the medicine seems to work just fine. Poirot has a great time on the ocean liner… it’s Hastings who ends up bedridden with the mal de mer (you do see that one coming though).

Now… about that ocean liner…

The story has the bonds travel on the Olympia, but the TV episode puts Poirot and Hastings on the Queen Mary. This is another example of the way in which the early series weave contemporary detail into the productions. But oh! wait a minute! the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary was in May 1936, meaning that this episode takes place almost exactly a year after the previous one (which was definitively set in May 1935). This fact is confirmed when Miss Lemon and Hastings make a reference to ‘The Lost Mine’ (in which Poirot’s bank manager was arrested for murder and fraud), saying that it occurred ‘last year’. It’s a good thing I’ve given up on a logical calendar of cases, as this is the sort of thing that might drive me mad.

Poirot and Hastings’s trip on the Queen Mary is introduced with a faux-Movietone newsreel, in which the two travellers feature (a technique that has previously been used in ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’). The announcer points out ‘Europe’s most famous detective’ among the passengers (remember that – it’s important for the next episode).

The final addition to the plot is a female traveller on the Queen Mary. Miranda Brooks (Lizzy McInnerny) catches Hastings’s eye, but his seasickness prevents him from furthering their acquaintance. Poirot also notices the woman, but (of course) this is for a quite different reason.

Later in the episode, we meet Nurse Long, the woman who has been helping Shaw recover from strychnine poisoning. Is there something a bit familiar about this woman? Hmmm…

Now, I’m in two minds about the Miranda Brooks/Nurse Long character. I understand why she’s been added to the story. In Christie’s text, Shaw himself travels in the cabin next door to Ridgeway, disguised as a nondescript ‘elderly gentleman, wearing glasses’ – his ‘bronchitis’ was simply a lie. Given that things are generally handled in more detail in the TV episode, a convenient case of bronchitis (which no one thought to check) would have been too suspicious. Instead, Shaw needed to be more definitely put out of action, and a substitute sent in his place. This substitute had to be a close accomplice of Shaw’s, so what better than a girlfriend.

So there’s nothing wrong with Miranda Brooks’s existence, but I just can’t decide what I think about her disguise. When Poirot meets her on the Queen Mary, her American accent is absolutely atrocious. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the character isn’t meant to be American – let’s be honest, there are some shocking accents on the show that aren’t meant to be suspicious (Mrs Vanderlyn, anyone?) No, my issue is more with her appearance as Nurse Long. Even if I hadn’t seen Miranda Brooks, I would’ve been suspicious of Nurse Long – she’s so obviously in disguise. No one in Poirot looks that frumpy and plain unless they’re deliberately trying to be anonymous (and there’s a particularly egregious example of this coming up later in the series).

Maybe I’m alone in this assessment though, as my husband didn’t spot that she was wearing a disguise, and I’ve seen some reviews of the episode that praised the success of Miranda’s transformation. And whatever the viewers think, the disguise certainly fooled Hastings, as he is blown away by the revelation. Discovering that Miranda and Nurse Long are the same person seems to push the man into some sort of existential crisis. When his concerned friend asks him the cause of his anxiety, the poor baffled man replies: ‘If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other!’ Pauvre Hastings!

Overall, then, this a great episode. It stays close to the original story, and adds some little flourishes that enhance the TV characters we’ve come to know and love. The only thing missing is the good Chief Inspector Japp, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be back again soon.

On to the next episode: ‘The Plymouth Express’

* Answer: a faster boat


  1. Just read the story, I must have missed something. Ridgeway is in London, interviewed by Poirot after the theft. He has been to New York and back at this time? And yet at the end of the story, Poirot meets the ship and interviews the stewards.How did Ridgeway get back before the ship?

  2. I just assumed he came back by a different ship. He'd be keen to get back to London ASAP, so he wouldn't have waited for the Olympia. Shaw does the same thing - Poirot says he 'returned by the first boat available'. I guess Ridgeway could've come back on the Gigantic (the boat Shaw goes out on), which travels faster than the Olympia.