Thursday, 22 December 2016

Poirot Project: The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (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 Double Clue’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 17th February 1991. It was based (ostensibly) on the short story of the same name (first published in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding collection in 1960), which in turn was based on the shorter short story ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ (first published in The Strand in 1932). ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it is in While the Light Lasts, and so that’s the version I’m using for this post.

‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ is narrated by Hastings, and although it was written nine years after Murder on the Links, it appears to be set during the time the two associates were working together. There’s no mention of George in the story – and he pops up as Poirot’s valet as soon as Hastings is married off – and there’s no mention of the South American ranch or Dulcie/Bella. The story was published the same year as Peril at End House, which makes quite a lot of Hastings’s return to England to see his old friend (The ABC Murders does something similar), but none of that is present in this short story. In this way, it works along the same lines as ‘Double Sin’ (published in 1928), in that it simply transports us back to the heyday of the dynamic duo as though their relationship never changed.

And we’re on very familiar territory for the story’s opening, as it begins with Hastings’s beloved Perusal of the Morning News:
‘The words made a catchy headline, and I said as much to my friend, Hercule Poirot.’
‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ is a short, compact story, and so we’re thrown straight into the case from the off. The story Hastings is reading is a report of the murder of Mr Clayton, whose body was discovered hidden in the eponymous ‘Baghdad Chest’ at the home of his friend Major Rich.

Hastings summarizes the central puzzle. Edward and Marguerita Clayton were due to spend the evening with Major Rich, but Mr Clayton was unexpectedly called away to Scotland on business. The victim called at his friend’s house to give his apologies, but Major Rich wasn’t in. Clayton waited for some time, but then (according to Rich’s valet) must have let himself out when Rich didn’t return. Later that evening, the house party went ahead: Mrs Clayton attended, along with Mr and Mrs Spence and Major Curtiss. The next morning, Rich’s valet found the body of Mr Clayton – who’d been stabbed through the heart – hidden in a chest in the sitting-room. The assumption is that Rich murdered him, hid the body, then ghoulishly partied in the very same room.

Poirot isn’t convinced.

It is – like so many of Christie’s short stories – a neat little puzzle. The clues are well-placed, and all the information is there if you know what you’re looking at. There’s also a couple of red herrings, though these are more to do with characterization – we’re constantly being distracted from the real underlying motivations, and occasionally deceived about the sort of people we’re dealing with. This is pretty much classic Christie, as so many of her stories encourage us to trust the wrong people, and her character red herrings are always more numerous than her spot of candle grease/empty dispatch case tricks.

But as always, the pleasure of reading ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ doesn’t just come from the attempt to solve the puzzle. The nature of the investigation is also a big part of the fun. And, again, we’re on pretty familiar ground with this one.

We have moments of dazzling arrogance from Poirot, undercut by classic Hastings snark:
‘“The talents I possess – I would salute them in another. As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn red and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”
“There is certainly only one Hercule Poirot,” I agreed – not without a spice of malice of which, fortunately, Poirot remained oblivious.’
We have moments where Poirot announces the simplicity of the case, only to be met by his friend’s bafflement (which is probably echoing the reader’s sentiments at that point in the story):
‘“To me it is very plain, and I only need one point to clear up the matter for good and all.”
“It’s no good,” I said. “I’m not there.”
“But make an effort, Hastings. Make an effort.”
We see Poirot charming – and being charmed by – women of different ages and personalities. He purrs like a cat at the way one of his ‘most ardent admirers’, Lady Chatterton, fusses over him at a party, and he soothes Mrs Clayton with his sympathy and discretion, urging her to confide in him as she might her ‘Father Confessor’. (Of course, all this just backs up a point I made in the last post I wrote: Poirot really has no room in his life for an Irene Adler.) (Another aside: I love Poirot’s assertion, which is retained in the 1960 version of the story, that there are only three people a woman should ever trust – her detective, her priest and her hairdresser.)

And, finally, we see the boys get a little help from their friends, as a well-timed call to good old Japp of the Yard gives Poirot the background info needed to wrap the case up.

All in all, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ has everything you could ask of a Poirot story, and I’m really rather fond of it.

For Christie fans, there’s a nice like (perhaps) in-joke in the story. After Hastings has finished his Perusal of the Morning News, he comments that the circumstances of Clayton’s murder would make a good play. Poirot replies that the idea of a party going ahead while there’s a dead man hidden in the room has ‘been done’. But Poirot has a wry little caveat to his assertion:
‘“But console yourself, Hastings,” he added kindly. “Because a theme has been used once, there is no reason why it should not be used again.”’
Indeed, Agatha. Indeed.

Speaking of which… let’s turn to ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’…

Sometimes called a ‘novella’, but certainly a longer short story, ‘Spanish Chest’ is an expanded version of ‘Baghdad Chest’, which was first published in 1960. I’ve written about a couple of other short stories that Christie expanded into longer versions (‘The Market Basing Mystery’/‘Murder in the Mews’ and ‘The Submarine Plans’/‘The Incredible Theft’), and the next post I’ll be writing will also be about one of these expanded stories (‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, aka ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’). In many ways, ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ is one of the more straightforward expansions, as the puzzle and characterization is pretty much kept intact from the earlier version.

In this version of the story – which is told in third person – it is Poirot who discovers the story of the murder in the morning newspapers (more on that in a moment). The outline of the case is almost identical to that found in ‘Baghdad Chest’. The Claytons (now given new first names and ages – Arnold (55) and Margharita (‘some years younger’) – were due to attend a party at the home of Major Charles Rich (48), but Mr Clayton was unexpectedly called away to Scotland on business. He called at Rich’s house to leave his apologies (the later version of the story adds a line to explain that the telephone line ‘seemed to be out of order’, as it’s vitally important – but somewhat incongruous in 1960 – that Clayton goes to give his apologies in person), but Rich wasn’t at home. According to Rich’s manservant, William Burgess (unknown age), Clayton waited for a short time but must have let himself out at some point. The house party goes ahead, with Mrs Clayton, Mr Jeremy Spence, Mrs Linda Spence and Commander McLaren (the man formerly known as Major Curtiss) in attendance. The following morning, Burgess discovers the body of Mr Clayton in Rich’s Spanish chest – it had been there the whole time the group were partying.

Much of Poirot’s investigation follows the same pattern as that in the 1932 story, though the expanded version allows for more detail of his interviews. In particular, we get to see him talking to Mr and Mrs Spence, which increases the confusion around character and motivation that was a part of the original story. There’s also a little more interaction between Poirot and Burgess than there was with Burgoyne (the 1932 valet), which continues this.

Ultimately, though, it’s the differences, rather than the similarities, that are most entertaining in comparing the two stories. There are some cute little details that have been changed to reflect the shift from the 30s to the 60s – in ‘Baghdad Chest’, Rich’s guests dance to music on the ‘phonograph’, but in ‘Spanish Chest’, Rich has got himself ‘two stereophonic record players’ for use at parties; oddly, a party in 1960 is imagined to be a teeny bit more restrained (or the author is a teeny bit older), as the guests leave Rich’s house at 11.45pm in ‘Spanish Chest’, but ‘a little after midnight’ in ‘Baghdad Chest’.

While these details are nice – and I’ll talk a bit more about this sort of detail when I come to ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ – they don’t really count as notable changes to this story. They’re pretty much eclipsed by the complete change in the ‘gang’ who are involved in the investigation – and the very funny way in which this change is handled.

As ‘Spanish Chest’ is a later Poirot story, Hastings is now absent on a more permanent basis, and George is part of the furniture. (Poirot’s valet isn’t present for this investigation, but he is mentioned as he’s a part of the detective’s household.) Japp is also not included, as he – unlike Poirot – had the luxury of retiring from crime-fighting at a normal age.

But Poirot is teamed up with an associate and a policeman for ‘Spanish Chest’ – it’s just not the dream team he would have liked…

Representing Scotland Yard, we have the recurring character of Inspector Miller. Poirot has worked with Miller before and, in ‘The Lost Mine’, he memorably described him as ‘a man altogether different from our friend Japp, conceited, ill-mannered and quite insufferable’. Here, Poirot manages to muddle along with the anti-Japp, but there’s still no love lost between the two men:
‘Inspector Miller, who was in charge of the Clayton case, was not one of Poirot’s favourites. He was not, however, hostile on this occasion, merely contemptuous.’
If the switch from Japp to Miller is frustrating for Poirot, it’s nothing compared to the replacement Hastings he’s saddled with. That’s right… Poirot has to deal with the semi-robotic Miss Lemon as he tackles ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’. The story begins with some nice descriptions of Miss Lemon to further cement the picture of the hyper-efficient secretary that has its roots in Christie’s Parker Pyne stories:
‘At first sight Miss Lemon seemed to be composed entirely of angles – thus satisfying Poirot’s demand for symmetry.’
‘But Miss Lemon he had never considered as a woman. She was a human machine – an instrument of precision.’*
As I’ve said, in the absence of his friend, it falls to Poirot to Peruse the Morning News. He reads out the details of the Clayton case to Miss Lemon, but she’s singularly uninterested. This makes the detective rather sad:
‘Ah, thought Poirot. How my dear friend, Hastings, would have enjoyed this! What romantic flights of imagination he would have had. What ineptitudes he would have uttered! Ah, ce cher Hastings, at this moment, today, I miss him… Instead –
He sighed and looked at Miss Lemon.’

While this is cute for the Poirot and Hastings bromance, it’s also funny for readers familiar with ‘Baghdad Chest’, because we know what ‘flights of imagination’ Hastings had (he wanted to write a play about the case, for God’s sake). Poirot comments a few times on how he imagines his friend would have responded to the case, and we smile because we know that’s just what did happen in the 1932 version.

As Poirot tries (and fails) to get Miss Lemon to step up as a substitute Hastings, he finds himself becoming more and more enthusiastic about the Clayton case. Not only does he Peruse the Morning News, but he also waxes lyrical about the romance that underpins the story of Arnold and Margharita Clayton (particularly the latter). The irony isn’t lost on Poirot:
‘He had been so severe with ce cher Hastings on this point, and now here he was, behaving much as his friend might have done, obsessed with beautiful women, crimes of passion, jealousy, hatred and all the other romantic causes of murder!’
Ultimately, then, what we have here is a story where Poirot, Hastings and Japp investigate a case, which is then expanded into a story where Poirot, Miss Lemon and Miller investigate exactly the same case, and Poirot grouses about how the original team was better.

Time to have a look at how this was translated onto the screen…

The TV adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. The episode’s title follows Christie’s later version of the story, but there are a number of details that reveal a familiarity with ‘Baghdad Chest’ as well. There are also a few changes made that deviate from both versions of the story.

Happily, Poirot finds himself surrounded by his preferred team in this version – he’s investigating with Hastings and Japp again. While this is, of course, due to the format and chronology of the TV show, it also aligns the episode with the 1932 version of the story. Interestingly, this is one of several early episodes of the ITV series that doesn’t include Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Again, this isn’t particularly unusual for the show, but it does make things feel more ‘Baghdad Chest’ than ‘Spanish Chest’.

It also appears that some other characters have reverted to the 1932 version: Commander McLaren is back to being Major Curtiss (played by John McEnery) and William Burgess is once again called Burgoyne (played by Peter Copley). Mr Clayton (Malcolm Sinclair) loses his ‘Spanish Chest’ name of Arnold, and is now once again called Edward, and Mrs Clayton (Caroline Langrishe) is called Marguerite, which is closer to Marguerita (Christie’s 1932 spelling) than Margharita (1960).

Interestingly, the Spences – who are key characters in the 1960 version but only mentioned very briefly in the 1932 story – are completely removed from the 1991 adaptation. On the other hand, Lady Chatterton – whose role is pivotal in both versions of the story – gets plenty of screen-time (performed by Antonia Pemberton) – we even get to see Poirot attempting to dance with her (beat that, Rossakoff).

So really, although this episode is called ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, it’s actually an adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’. And this makes it quite unusual in the ITV series, as it’s more usual to find the later, longer stories being used as the source for episodes.

That said, the episode does make some slight changes to ‘Baghdad Chest’ of its own. The first – and perhaps most dramatic – is the way in which Poirot is brought into the investigation. In fact, this time, Poirot is drawn into the case before the murder has happened. He’s approached by Lady Chatterton prior to Clayton’s murder, because she’s worried about Marguerite. Lady Chatterton believes that her friend might be in some danger and wants the great detective to keep an eye on things.

This leads to Poirot accompanying Lady Chatterton to a party at the home of Major Rich (played by Pip Torrens, in the first of his two appearances on the show). This party is no longer the intimate little get-together of ‘Baghdad Chest’, but rather a lively society do with a fair number of guests.

I have mixed feelings about the change of party in the adaptation. On the one hand, it removes the claustrophobic intimacy of the gathering in Christie’s story, and so weakens the unsettling feeling you get when you discover Clayton’s body was in the room the whole time. On the other hand, though, it’s kind of good having Poirot attend the party, as there’s a bit of intrigue in having the detective Charlestonning away, oblivious to the corpse a few feet away. (And I did like seeing Poirot dance…)

I’m much clearer in my feelings towards some of the other changes that are made in the episode – and these are symptomatic of a general nudge that happens throughout the series. Some things are just made a bit too obvious for my liking.

As with other episodes (e.g. ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’), we’re treated to a little opening vignette that sets the ‘intrigue’ up. Here, it’s a sepia-toned sequence in which two men duel over a woman… but the significance of the duel in ‘Baghdad Chest’ was never meant to be highlighted so heavy-handedly. It’s mentioned in a seemingly throwaway comment that Poirot stores away, but the reader may easily miss (until its relevance is explained at the end, of course).

Elsewhere, we have Poirot expressing his dislike of Major Curtiss (he calls him ‘unpleasant’ from the start), which brings the character to our attention much more sharply than it was in ‘Baghdad Chest’. Curtiss also confronts Major Rich before the party, further setting up an antagonism that’s actually downplayed in Christie’s story. And – the worst offender, in my eyes – we actually see Clayton having a drink with Curtiss before he visits Rich’s house. It’s clear that Clayton is planning something, and that Curtiss is egging him on, and this reveals that their conversation wasn’t a straightforward drink between friends (something that is obscured in the short story). I really thought that this last example came pretty close to giving the game away, but my husband (who hadn’t read the short story) assures me that he didn’t twig what was going on. Maybe I’m just oversensitive to these details.

So I’m coming to the end of this post now, but there’s one other bit of the episode that it would be remiss of me not to mention. This is a ‘boys only’ investigation, and while this is in-keeping with the original short story, in the context of the show it does mean there’s a bit of a Miss Lemon-shaped hole that has to be explained.

It seems Poirot’s secretary has taken a break to visit her sister in Frinton. While this isn’t really very important, it does allow us a few little glimpses into how the boys cope in her absence. As expected, Hastings messes up her filing system… again.

For Japp fans, there’s also a rather sweet moment where Japp is troubled by a typewriter. He’s been told he has to tighten up on his paperwork, but struggles to work the blasted machine. He asks his old friend if he knows anything about typewriters (though why he thinks he would, I’ve got no idea), but Poirot simply shrugs and says that Miss Lemon handles that sort of thing. But, unfortunately for Japp, Miss Lemon is in Frinton and so can’t help him.

On that note, time to wrap up. ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ is a decent and fairly faithful adaptation of an enjoyable short story. It’s just not an adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.

Ooh… one final thing… continuing my rundown of Poirot’s funky accessories, this episode features a rather natty little pocket ashtray that Poirot takes to parties. I love it.

The next episode is ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’

* Given my last post – about ‘The Double Clue’ [] – it’s maybe worth noting that Poirot’s assessment of Miss Lemon is part of an odd little musing on the detective’s ‘continental preference for curves’ on women. During this, he remembers ‘a certain Russian countess’, but dismisses the memory as a ‘folly of earlier days’. More proof, perhaps, that Vera Rossakoff is not Poirot’s Irene Adler, but rather just a woman he once thought was ‘lush’.

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