Monday, 5 September 2016

Poirot Project: Wasps’ Nest (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 Plymouth Express’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 27th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Daily Mail in November 1928 (thus representing one of the few things that the Daily Mail has ever published that I would actually want to read).

‘Wasps’ Nest’ is a very short, almost minimalist short story – but I’ve always been rather fond of it. Although the story was published a couple of months after ‘Double Sin’, Hastings is absent (he’s presumably back in Argentina by now) and there’s no mention of Japp either. Despite having made his first appearance a few months earlier in The Mystery of the Blue Train, George isn’t present here either. Interestingly, unlike in many of Christie’s other short stories, there are also no references to Poirot’s past cases or clients.

These absences give the story a sort of pared-down feel: we are simply given Poirot and a puzzle. Nothing more, and nothing less. But the nature of the puzzle is quite different to those found elsewhere in the Poirot stories, as we’re told early on that no crime has actually been committed. As Poirot explains to John Harrison (one of only two other characters who appear in the story): ‘I am investigating a crime that has not yet taken place.’

Now, the possibility of this pre-emptive approach is an issue in another of the Poirot short stories. In ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ (which was published after, but adapted before, ‘Wasps’ Nest’), Poirot is also confronted by the probability of a murder and must decide how to act to prevent it. In the ITV version of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Poirot is fairly adamant that such a feat is impossible (and, indeed, he fails in the task), which makes ‘Wasps’ Nest’ seem almost like an attempt to try again. However, the short stories are a little different: ‘Wasps’ Nest’ came first, and in the later story Poirot is less insistent about the impossibility of intervention. In addition to this, the minimalist nature of Christie’s ‘Wasps’ Nest’ makes it seem even more distinct from ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, both in terms of its stripped-down cast of supporting characters and the role of the detective himself.

Christie’s story begins with a man named John Harrison surveying his garden. There is a very brief description of Harrison, followed by an equal-sized description of his garden. Within just a few lines, however, his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a familiar figure:
‘It was, indeed, the famous Hercule Poirot whose renown as a detective had spread over the whole world.’
It seems Harrison and Poirot have a previous acquaintance, as the little Belgian acknowledges on his friend’s open-ended invitation to visit if he was in the area. It’s when Harrison asks the reason for Poirot’s trip that we get the (rather cryptic) explanation:
‘If one can investigate a murder before it has happened, surely that is very much better than afterwards. One might even – a little idea – prevent it.’
It’s not long before we realize that it might well be Harrison himself who is at the centre of Poirot’s investigation.

That said, there’s actually surprisingly little investigation here. The story consists almost entirely of dialogue between Harrison and Poirot, and with a few additional facts provided by the detective’s exposition. In their first conversation, Poirot learns that Harrison has a problem with a wasps’ nest in his garden. His friend Claude Langton is coming over later that evening to dispatch the creatures with a syringe of petrol. At this point, Poirot reveals that he already knows that Langton has purchased some cyanide at the local chemist:
‘Harrison stared. “That’s odd,” he said. “Langton told me the other day that he’d never dream of using the stuff; in fact, he said it oughtn’t to be sold for the purpose.”’
Poirot is unperturbed by this revelation, and simply asks Harrison if he likes Langton. He then reveals that he knows that Harrison is engaged to a woman named Molly Deane, who was previously engaged to Langton. After this, he promises to return at nine o’clock, when Langton will be arriving to destroy the wasps.

The puzzle seems a simple one – Poirot repeatedly assures Harrison (and us) that he believes someone is going to die, and we assume that he thinks that Langton is going to use the cyanide to poison his love rival. Of course, there’s more to the story than meets the eye, as we soon discover.

If the puzzle is a bit different in this story, so too is the detective. Without Hastings or Japp (or Miss Lemon or Ariadne Oliver) as a companion, Poirot is curiously solitary here. While there are other stories and novels that don’t feature any of ‘the gang’, Christie usually supplies a temporary sidekick or ‘Watson’ (and they are often called just that – for example, Ellie Henderson in ‘Problem at Sea’ is given the name, as is Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). There is no Watson in ‘Wasps’ Nest’ – there is simply Poirot. And this, along with the lack of actual investigation, makes the detective take on a rather different role in the story.

‘Wasps’ Nest’ features Poirot at his most thoughtful – even philosophical. From the very beginning, his conversation with Harrison is circumspect to the point of being cryptic. Rather than identifying clues, the strange little Belgian offers profound pronouncements on the nature of life, death and human nature. For example, when Harrison laughs at the concept of ‘hate’, Poirot intones:
‘The English are very stupid […] They think that they can deceive anyone but that no one can deceive them. The sportsman – the good fellow – never will they believe evil of him. And because they are brave, but stupid, sometimes they die when they need not die.’
Perhaps the most dramatic – if rather odd – speech in the story comes shortly after this, when Poirot turns his attention to the titular nest in the garden:
‘There on the bank, close by that tree root. See you, the wasps returning home, placid at the end of the day? In a little hour, there will be destruction, and they know it not. There is no one to tell them. They have not, it seems, a Hercule Poirot. I tell you, Monsieur Harrison, I am down here on business. Murder is my business. And it is my business before it has happened as well as afterwards.’
Aside from the curious (and delightful) image of a Wasp-Poirot, this speech raises some interesting questions. What is the analogy that Poirot is drawing here? Are the wasps the counterparts of the stupid English he described above? Is Poirot equating (a portion of) the human race to insects? If so, what does that make him? And in what way – given that no one has hired him or requested that he investigate – is this potential murder his business?

Make no mistake: this is Poirot at his most metaphysical. Throughout the story, he appears almost deific in both his judgment and his knowledge of humanity. When we discover that Poirot has orchestrated the entire ‘chance’ visit to see Harrison – and that he did this as a result of randomly seeing Langton’s name in the chemist’s poison book – the whole thing seems almost supernatural. Poirot seems to have always known what would transpire. And Harrison’s final words – the final words of the story – cement this pseudo-divine intervention:
‘“Thank goodness you came,” he cried. “Oh, thank goodness you came.”’
This isn’t Poirot-the-conjuror or Poirot-the-physician – this is Poirot the deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, Christie apparently couldn’t resist adding a couple of slightly more humanizing elements to the story. Even without a sidekick providing commentary, we get a couple of little glimpses into the inner workings of our hero. And yet… unlike in the other short stories, these are also somewhat portentous. In both cases, these glimpses serve to situate Poirot on the side of justice – but distinctly outside the forces of ‘law and order’. (This is a position we’ve seen Poirot take up before – and we’ll certainly see it again.)

The first comes in an almost throwaway explanation for how he was able to substitute cyanide for washing soda without being spotted:
‘There was a pickpocket once – I interested myself in him because for once in a way he had not done what they say he has done – and so I get him off. And because he is grateful he pays me in the only way he can think of – which is to show me the tricks of his trade.’
Wow. There’s a lot going there! This isn’t simply a reminiscence of a past case, like the Abercrombie forgery case or the adventure of ‘Baron’ Altara (mentioned in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). In fact, this doesn’t appear to be a case at all. Poirot ‘interested himself’ in the pickpocket, but he wasn’t actually employed to investigate him. Also notice how Poirot sets himself on the opposing side to the forces of law (presumably the police) when he talks about ‘what they say he has done’. And the man isn’t even unequivocally innocent – Poirot’s defence is couched in the vagaries of ‘for once’ and ‘in a way’ – but there is no question that the little Belgian had the power to ‘get him off’, if he was ‘interested’ to do so. I’ll say it again: wow.

The second detail is one that is, perhaps, a little more familiar to Poirot fans: the detective reveals his disgust at hanging. I’ve mentioned before that Poirot is often amenable to allowing murderers to ‘escape the noose’, particularly when he has some fondness or respect for them. Here, however, he gives a far more direct condemnation of hanging: it is ‘the worst death any man can die’. Again, Poirot is situating himself against the law and offering a more independent sense of ‘justice’.*

Okay… so all very deep stuff here. Time to turn to the ITV adaptation – and to have a look at how the programme-makers handled the darkly philosophical tone of ‘Wasps’ Nest’.


The episode was written by David Renwick and directed by Brian Farnham. On the surface, the tone and atmosphere is quite different to that of the short story, and we’re moved back to the familiar ground of the early ITV series. The gang’s all here – Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon have been added to the episode – and the lush 1930s aesthetic is introduced early on. We begin at ‘Marble Hill’ tube station (filmed in the Grade II* listed Arnos Grove Underground Station, designed by Charles Holden in the early 1930s), where our little detective is in a grump again. In an attempt to cheer their friend up, Hastings and Japp have decided on an excursion to a garden fete, and the men are awaiting the arrival of Mrs Japp so they can set off.

Of course, Mrs Japp comes from the same police-spouse school as Mrs Columbo and so she never actually turns up. Japp himself is also quickly taken out of action when he is struck down by appendicitis – this is the first indication of the writer responding to the restrictions of Christie’s text, as there’s really no role for a policeman in a story where no crime actually takes place.

Hastings and Miss Lemon are also more ornamental than useful in the episode, and much of Hastings’s activity revolves around the fact that he’s got himself a new camera – ‘The new toy. I give it two, perhaps three weeks,’ Poirot says with a twinkle – and has turned Poirot’s bathroom into a darkroom.


So the adaptation manages to walk a rather wobbly line between including Poirot’s sidekicks (in deviation from Christie’s story) and not giving them any real role in the storyline (in deference to the original). In order to make their superfluity a little less obvious, a clue involving a photograph found in Langton’s house is added to tie in with Hastings’s new camera – but this is a tenuous connection at best.

Following the format of the TV series, the roles of the other characters are also expanded. It wouldn’t do to rely simply on Poirot’s conversations with Harrison – that would be very slow TV, even for early 90s (it was a simpler time) – and so the characters of John Harrison (Martin Turner), Molly Deane (Melanie Jessop) and Claude Langton (Peter Capaldi) have to be seen together on screen, rather than just simply described by an omniscient Belgian. As is quite common in the early episodes, this expansion is partly done by showing a scene that is merely described by the detective in the source material. In Christie’s story, Poirot explains that he has ‘seen Claude Langton and Molly Deane together when they thought no one saw them’. In the TV episode, this is played out in front of our eyes. For some reason, it is played out in a way that involves a young Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown – but who am I to judge the creative decisions?


The character of Molly is fleshed out in the episode, and she is reimagined as a fashion model. This allows for a few additional supporting characters to make brief – but pretty insignificant – appearances. The only other ‘new’ character who is seen on screen is an ominous old man (played by John Boswall) with a skull-headed cane, who stalks the edges of the story like some terrifying grim reaper until his identity is revealed towards the end of the episode.


I’m not too bothered about the theatricality of this character – who turns out to be called Dr Belvedere. For one thing, it’s in-keeping with the general tone of the early series. And for another, it’s not a huge deviation from the original story. Poirot’s portentous speeches in Christie’s work conjure up a sense of evil and death at large, waiting to be confronted by the detective, so it’s not a huge leap to see that personified on screen. Moreover, when the literary Poirot reveals that he knows that John Harrison has been visiting a doctor, he says that Harrison looked like ‘a man under sentence of death’ after his consultation – so why not have the TV characters followed by a man who looks very capable of issuing such a sentence?

There are a couple of other changes to the adaptation, though these were clearly done to expand the very short source text into a full episode. Poirot isn’t aware of the entry in the poison book prior to running into Harrison – which allows for a short comedic scene in which Poirot asks Hastings to cover for him with the chemist while he snoops through the book – and Molly Deane apparently suffers a car crash while driving to Harrison’s home. Unlike in the short story, it is Langton who suggests using cyanide on the wasps rather than Harrison, and the substitution of the cyanide for the washing soda is carried out at Langton’s house rather than on Harrison’s person. These changes all serve to throw more suspicion onto Langton, which is really only an expansion of the misdirection in the first part of Christie’s text.

For most of the episode, ‘Wasps’ Nest’ loses the oddly detached feel of the short story. Poirot doesn’t really come across as a deus ex machina – instead, as he reads Molly’s tealeaves and sneaks a look at a poison book, he seems like the more familiar conjuror-detective, playing up the theatrics of his investigation as he did in the fake séance in Peril at End House and the ventriloquism finale of ‘Problem at Sea’.

But just as we think the adaptation has dispensed with the more philosophical elements of its source, we move into a denouement that is much more faithful to the original story.

In resolving the puzzle, Poirot chooses to visit Harrison alone at his house. The rest of the gang are absent, and Langton and Molly have receded into the background. Poirot has already hinted that this resolution will be rather different to the others in the series, as shortly before his final encounter with Harrison, he offers an unusual summary of the case: ‘Everything has happened. And yet nothing has happened.’

Once Poirot is in Harrison’s garden, the wasps come back into focus. Poirot gives a (slightly truncated) version of his analogy – ‘For the wasps, there is no Hercule Poirot to warn them!’ – and Harrison resigns himself to his fate, and (in an added moment of poignancy) to an acceptance of the wasps’ presence in his garden. As Poirot leaves, Harrison acknowledges the detective’s role in words almost identical to his literary predecessor: ‘Thank God you came!’

Poirot doesn’t answer. He simply walks into the early evening light and disappears slowly from view before the credits roll. The deus returning to the machina.


Gosh. That was a bit deep, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s time for some ghostly hijinks, a comedy inn-keeper, some cheeky waxworks and an actual murder… next up: ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’


* It is my contention that Poirot is anti-hanging, though he is (very) occasionally happy to see particularly unpleasant murderers sent to the gallows. Not only does he allow a surprising number of killers to ‘escape the noose’ and openly comments on the cruelty of hanging, but he also at one points reinvestigates a case of wrongful execution (Five Little Pigs), which suggests some implied criticism of the death penalty. Significantly, one of Christie’s other detectives takes a different viewpoint. Miss Marple has ‘no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment’ (The Thirteen Problems) and is ‘really very, very sorry that they have abolished capital punishment’ (4.50 From Paddington). It’s usually said that it is Miss Marple who is ‘giving voice’ to Christie’s own views on capital punishment – which is sort of backed up by a digression in her autobiography in which she muses on the nature of evil and its possible punishment. (‘Why should they not execute [murderers]?’ she wonders, before praising transportation and suggesting ‘experimental research’ as a more humane alternative to life imprisonment.) But whether or not Christie herself was in favour of hanging (and whether this view remained consistent throughout her career, which straddled the abolition of the death penalty), the fact remains that her most prolific creation was distinctly ambivalent towards it.

3 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your review once again. Special thanks for the reference to the Arnos Grove station. I had always wondered where the location shoot was made. Cheers!

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    1. Thanks. I'm noticing a lot more of the locations now I'm blogging about the episodes. I've even been to visit one of them as a result (Brooklands race track, featured in The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim). I guess I might need to make a trip to Arnos Grove now...

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  2. where the location shoot was made, ??? cool

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