Thursday, 18 August 2016

Poirot Project: The Plymouth Express (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 Million Dollar Bond Robbery’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 20th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘The Mystery of the Plymouth Express’), which was first published in The Sketch in April 1923.

In the grand scheme of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is a bit of an oddity. As with a number of her early Poirot stories, Christie revised, expanded and republished ‘The Plymouth Express’ into a novel (The Mystery of the Blue Train) a few years later. In the same way ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ became ‘Murder in the Mews’, ‘The Submarine Plans’ became ‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ became ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ became ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and ‘The Second Gong’ became ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. Two posthumously published short stories reveal the origins of two other Poirot novels: Dumb Witness began life as ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’, and Dead Man’s Folly started out as ‘Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly’. (And that’s not even to mention ‘The Regatta Mystery’ and ‘The Yellow Iris’, which were expanded and rewritten to replace Poirot with a different detective.) The TV series is relatively consistently with how it treats these doppelganger stories – on the whole, the series uses the later (longer) version of the story as its basis. The only exceptions to this are ‘The Yellow Iris’ (where the earlier version is adapted, because that’s the version with Poirot in it), ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (which isn’t included at all) and ‘The Plymouth Express’.

For some reason, the programme-makers decided to adapt both ‘The Plymouth Express’ and The Mystery of the Blue Train for the series. I imagine the idea was that the two stories are sufficiently different, and were adapted sufficiently far apart to feel like distinct stories (I’d disagree, perhaps, as I think the stories are no more different than ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ is from ‘Murder in the Mews’ – but at the point when ‘The Plymouth Express’ was made, I don’t think the showrunners were particularly concerned with adapting all of the novels in addition to the short stories.) So, while I would normally read both versions of a story before writing about the episode, I have restricted myself to ‘The Plymouth Express’ for this post – I’ll return to The Mystery of the Blue Train when I get to that episode.

‘The Plymouth Express’ is an oddity for another reason as well. Although this is one of the original Sketch stories – and it is narrated by Hastings – the story doesn’t begin in Poirot’s apartment, and there’s no Perusal of the Morning News. Instead, we start off in the company of a character we’ve never heard of (and who we’ll never hear from again):
‘Alec Simpson, RN, stepped from the platform at Newton Abbot into a first-class compartment of the Plymouth Express. A porter followed him with a heavy suitcase. He was about to swing it up to the rack, but the young sailor stopped him.’
We follow Simpson on his train journey for a few paragraphs, until he decides to stow his suitcase under the seat opposite:
‘“Why the devil won’t it go in?” he muttered, and hauling it out completely, he stooped down and peered under the seat…’
This opening is rather different to the other Sketch stories. It almost feels like we’ve stumbled into a thriller, and there’s something quite cinematic about it. The ellipsis serves to defer the revelation that we know is coming (he’s surely found a body under the seat), and instead we’re simply told that ‘a cry rang out into the night’ and the train drew to a halt.

Cut to:

Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and the detective tells his friend that he’s received a note from a Mr Ebenezer Halliday, the father of Mrs Rupert Carrington – née Flossie Halliday – who wants to engage the services of the great detective. As this is a short story (and the Sketch stories are really rather short), the connections are made quickly. Flossie Halliday was the woman found murdered on the Plymouth Express; she was apparently murdered for the valuable jewel case she was carrying on the train. Ebenezer Halliday is ‘the steel king of America’, and Rupert Carrington is ‘a good-looking, well-mannered, utterly unscrupulous young scoundrel’ (and not the first scoundrel to whom Flossie has been attracted, as her previous flirtation – with the Count de la Rochefour – is described as a ‘bad affair’ by Poirot).

Despite its somewhat cinematic opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is, at its heart, a classic Sketch story… and a very enjoyable one at that. The puzzle is good, and the resolution relies on a subversion of the rules of Golden Age detective fiction – and the culprit is cut from a different cloth to the usual Christie baddie. It’s not Christie’s most audacious rule-breaking, but it’s a notable one. Along with the story’s somewhat unorthodox opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ gives a little taste of Christie’s occasional forays into thriller writing, though it’s definitely wearing in a ‘whodunit’ wrapper.

Wealthy heiress Flossie Carrington – now estranged from her husband – had boarded the Plymouth Express with the intention of attending a party in Bristol. She was travelling with her maid Jane Mason. However, at Bristol, Flossie announced to Mason that she would not be alighting. She told her maid to get off the train and wait at Bristol – she would travel back on an up-train and meet her later. Mason explained later that she saw a man sitting in her mistress’s carriage (though she didn’t see his face). At Weston, Flossie stepped out of the train to buy a couple of magazines. By Newton Abbot, she was dead. Was her husband responsible? Or was it the shady Count de la Rochefour? Or could it have been someone we barely even noticed?

While the story might be a little different to the other Sketch stories, there’s still plenty of the usual stuff as well. The story is narrated by Hastings, though he is a little less conspicuous than in some other stories. The dynamic duo is joined by Inspector Japp, and there are some little interactions between the policeman and the detective that are rather charming. Japp greets Poirot ‘with a sort of affectionate contempt’, but seems more than happy to work with his ‘old friend’. Later on, when Poirot (with seemingly miraculous insight) deduces that the victim spoke to a paper-boy at Weston station, Japp is mystified:
‘Japp’s jaw fell. “How on earth did you know? Don’t tell me it was those almighty ‘little grey cells’ of yours!”
“I am glad you admit for once that they are all mighty!”’
Japp’s praise is a bit back-handed, though, as he makes a couple of rather barbed references to Poirot’s advancing years:
‘Wonderful how you manage to deliver the goods sometimes, at your age and all. Devil’s own luck, of course.’
It’s quite sweet the way that Poirot takes all of this with a sort of twinkling good humour, and the story concludes with the little Belgian allowing his Scotland Yard pal to take full credit for solving the mystery (with the cheeky caveat that, while Japp has ‘official credit’, Poirot ‘as the Americans say, ha[s] got his goat!’)

One final little detail about the short story… while some of the other Sketch stories (like ‘The Veiled Lady’ and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ make light-hearted reference to the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Plymouth Express’ sees Poirot make a more pointed swipe at his illustrious predecessor. When talking to Halliday about Flossie’s relationship with the count, Poirot comments:
‘But to track footmarks and recognize cigarette-ash is not sufficient for a detective. He must also be a good psychologist!’
The mention of ‘cigarette-ash’ is surely a dig at Sherlock Holmes – who, in The Study in Scarlet, talks rather haughtily about his ability to ‘distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand’, adding that he once wrote a monograph on the very subject. Clearly, Poirot isn’t impressed.

So… on to the TV version of ‘The Plymouth Express’…

The episode was written by Rod Beacham and directed by Andrew Piddington. Like most of the third series, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation with embellishments, rather than more dramatic alterations, to Christie’s story.

One of the main changes is that we see Flossie before her death. The episode opens with Rupert Carrington (played by Julian Wadham) arriving at his (ex-)wife’s apartment. It’s clear from the start that he’s a bit of a wrong ’un, and he suffers a rather high-handed dismissal from Flossie (Shelagh McLeod). Next, we see the Comte de la Rochefour (Alfredo Michelson) arriving at a hotel – and, to be honest, it’s pretty clear that he’s a wrong ’un too. But Flossie seems to like him.

Shelagh McLeod’s portrayal of Flossie is interesting. The woman is confident – almost veering towards arrogant at times – and utterly self-assured. Unlike the character from Christie’s story, who is dead before we even know her name, the TV Flossie is very much alive, and we get to see her happy and enjoying her lavish social life. She revels in the attentions of the count, and we see her gleefully enumerating the flowers and gifts with which he has showered her. It’s not clear whether she has any real feelings for the man, or whether she is just toying with him because she likes his effusive way of flirting with her. Or, maybe, she’s just glad to be having some fun after separating from her hopeless (and financially dubious) husband.

There’s a scene in ‘The Plymouth Express’ that is a little bit reminiscent of one in ‘Problem at Sea’. Flossie sits in front of her mirror, gazing at her own reflection and smiling at the effect her appearance might have on the men in her life. There’s a similar moment in ‘Problem at Sea’, when Adeline Clapperton (who, interestingly, was also previously married to a man named Carrington) plucks her eyebrows and sings to herself. Adeline is also a rich woman married to unreliable (and impecunious) man, and she also seems (in my opinion anyway) justified in her occasional refusals to fund her spouse’s selfish and spoilt lifestyle. Like Flossie, Adeline also ends up dead.

However, Flossie is a bit of a different kettle of fish to Adeline Clapperton. In Christie’s short story, she is simply a victim (albeit one with slightly bad taste in men). In the TV adaptation, she lacks the stridency of Adeline and never publicly embarrasses her husband or her lover. She doesn’t talk about herself and her achievements with the same level of attention-seeking as the victim in ‘Problem at Sea’, and she’s also much younger, so her ‘mirror scene’ doesn’t have the same undertones of ‘inappropriateness’. Nevertheless, Flossie isn’t the typical sympathetic young woman of the Poirot stories either: she is bolder, more independent, more self-possessed. I like her.

Throughout the episode, Poirot is sympathetic to the victim. In the short story, the detective describes the dead woman as a ‘poor little lady’, but this description isn’t really appropriate for the TV character. Instead, we see Poirot’s determined quest to get justice for the woman – or, rather, to allow her grieving father to see justice done.

The TV version of Halliday (played by John Stone) is now an Australian millionaire (and is now called Gordon, rather than Ebenezer). He consults with the famous detective as soon as his daughter is missing, and Poirot seems to feel a particular desire to help the distraught man. I assume this is because the man isn’t British – and Poirot has declared his loyalty to ‘the visitors’ on a number of previous occasions. It is for Halliday that Poirot exerts his little grey cells, and it is the comprehension of the man’s grief that makes for a rather downbeat ending to the episode.

Characterization aside, the episode mainly follows the original short story. Quite a few minor little details from Christie’s text have been retained – e.g. Flossie’s distinctive ‘electric blue’ travelling outfit (though she loses her white fur toque in the adaptation) and the significance of the newspaper-boy (played by Steven Mackintosh). The newspaper misdirection is expanded upon in the TV episode, with the magazines substituted for a ‘late edition’ of a paper and a cryptic comment about the edition’s significance added. Unlike in the Sketch story, Poirot actually appears to be fooled (briefly) by this false lead, and spends a bit of time comparing early and late editions to work it out. This does allow for one of my favourite little details of the episode: we get a nice shot of Miss Lemon carrying a stack of newspapers into the office, and guess which one’s right on the top…

Okay... this isn't quite right, as Christie's story was published in the Sketch (an illustrated magazine), and this is the Daily Sketch (a tabloid newspaper), but it's still pretty close!

Poirot is joined in his investigation by Japp and Hastings – nice to see Japp back after his absence in the previous episode – and the pair of them seem to be embroiled in a bit of a scuffle to be ‘Watson’. There’s a great scene where Japp and Hastings quarrel over their respective theories (Japp thinks Carrington is the murderer, but Hastings is convinced it’s de la Rochefour); Poirot calmly arbitrates between the two, allowing them to explain their position and encouraging each to try and persuade the other – before stone cold proving that they’re both wrong.

Earlier in the episode, we’re also treated to another funny Hastings-the-detective moment. When discussing the theft of the jewel case by the murderer, Hastings postulates:
‘Well… perhaps he took it to distract us from his real motive.’
This is funny because, in almost every other Agatha Christie story, this would be a very astute suggestion. But, in typical fashion, Hastings manages to make this pronouncement in the one story where the theft of the jewel case is the real motive. Poor old Hastings.

Now… about that motive…

I like the ending of Christie’s short story, as it’s a bit of a twist. We’re not supposed to suspect servants in Golden Age detective fiction, so Jane Mason almost manages to sneak under the radar. And it’s quite nice that her associate (the wonderfully named Red Narky) is nabbed by Japp, who discovers him while conducting exactly the sort of mundane police work that Poirot isn’t able to do (Japp has been doing a check of pawn shops to see if any of the jewels are hocked).

In the adaptation, Poirot is similarly able to spot that Jane Mason (played by Marion Bailey – who does an impressive job of fading into the background until the final scenes) is guilty. In this version of the story, though, he is also able to identify her accomplice. He finds the (less wonderfully named) Mr McKenzie (Kenneth Haigh) in ‘the admirable files of Miss Lemon’, and sets up a sting operation of his own.

And this is where my only criticism of the episode lies. Poirot chooses not to wear a disguise when he visits McKenzie. Now, in ‘The Lost Mine’, Christie made it quite clear that Poirot disdains disguise; however, the TV series has featured a memorably ‘incognito’ Poirot in a previous episode. And yet, in this episode, he visits the jewel thief looking and acting more Poirot than he’s ever done before. That seems a little bit foolish, no?

Worse still… McKenzie doesn’t even recognize him!

In ‘The Veiled Lady’, we saw two jewel thieves (Gertie and Joey) who were so familiar with the great Hercule Poirot that they even hired himself themselves. Even more egregiously, in the episode just before ‘The Plymouth Express’, Poirot was caught on camera during the Movietone news reports of the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, in which he was described as ‘Europe’s most famous detective’. Has McKenzie been living under a rock or something? How can he not recognize the great Hercule Poirot!

Ah well… naïve jewel thieves aside, this is a great episode based on a very enjoyable short story. It does end on a rather sad note, as Poirot is clearly affected by the grief of the man who hired him. More so than in previous episodes, Poirot seems a bit weighed down by the implications of his adventures. The adaptation ends, not with a cheeky jibe at Japp, but with Poirot reading a poignant note from Halliday, in which the man talks about returning to Australia and attempting to come to terms with the tragedy. Miss Lemon and Hastings respond with respectful silence, and the final shot of the episode is of Poirot standing alone in the adjoining room, his movements slowing winding down to a freeze-frame.

This sombre ending gives us a hint of the tonal shift that the series will undergo later in its run, but for now it’s a momentary image of the detective’s more empathetic side. Only momentary, though, as the next episode has a final shot that is almost the complete opposite (and it has Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown).

But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s start at the beginning and look at ‘Wasps’ Nest’ in more detail…


  1. Thank you for another great review.

    In thinking about Christie's shorter stories as a "study" for her longer ones, I believe that Triangle at Rhodes had some similarities to Evil Under the Sun.

    1. I agree. :-)

      But is it as close a relationship as The Plymouth Express has with The Mystery of the Blue Train? I'm not sure. I'll have to think about that a bit more when I get to Evil Under the Sun, I think.

  2. How, in either version, does Poirot know Jane Mason is guilty?

    1. In the short story, Poirot reasons that, if Mrs Carrington was murdered before reaching Bristol, then the maid *has* to be in on it. He's also suspicious of how much Jane draws their attention to Mrs Carrington's clothes. When Japp mentions Gracie Kidd, Poirot suspects this is Jane Mason. Don't know if this would stand up in court though!!

  3. As you noted in another review, some of the actors' fake accents in the TV series are very bad. The male 'Australian' and 'French' accents in this episode were appalling. The female 'Australian' accent was more respectable.

    1. Yeeeahhh... there are some wonky accents in this series. You're right, Halliday's accent is particularly bad!