Monday, 26 June 2017

Poirot Project: The ABC Murders (review)


This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 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 Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.

Due to the various commitments and stresses of life, I’ve had to take a little bit of a break from this project. It’s been over six months since my last Poirot Project post. But I’m pushing on now, and I’m totally sure I’ll get to Curtain by Christmas this year (haha!). In a way, it’s kinda appropriate that I’ve had a six-month break, as that fits quite nicely with The ABC Murders, which is where I’m picking up.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th January 1992. I’ve put inverted commas around ‘series’ here, as the 1992 episodes were a bit of a departure from the previous adaptations. There were only three stories shown this year, and each one was a feature-length adaptation of a novel, rather than the (at this point) standard hour-long short story episodes. It’s now usual to refer to these three episodes as the ‘fourth series’, and they were broadcast in a regular weekly slot that January, but I’m just not sure we really thought of them as a ‘series’ in 1992. In fact, I don’t think we thought about TV in terms of series in the same way at all back then. We had ‘serials’ (usually long-running dramas, often soap operas, where a continuous narrative developed episode-to-episode) and ‘series’ (often sit-coms and crime dramas, where a set of related episodes – most commonly six – were shown weekly, though the narrative wasn’t necessary continuous). But we also had a lot of one-off or self-contained programmes, where a single story was presented (either in one go or in instalments). The BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories were like this, as were The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. I don’t remember ever referring to these as a ‘series’ in the 90s – you’d just say ‘there’s a new Inspector Wexford on this week’, not ‘there’s a new series of Inspector Wexford starting on Sunday’.

But time – and technology – have changed all that. Once long-running shows were packaged up (retrospectively) for VHS, DVD and then streaming, they were divided up into series. So ‘The Dead of Jericho’, ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’ and ‘Service of All the Dead’ stopped being ‘three feature-length dramas shown in January 1987’ and started being ‘Series 1 of Inspector Morse’. And so ‘The ABC Murders’, ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ became ‘Series 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot’. On the whole, this makes sense: these particular episodes of Poirot, like the Inspector Morse adaptations, were shown weekly as a short series, and they were sandwiched between two clearly defined series of eight and ten episodes. But I might have to return to this niggly little point when we move on to the run of feature-length episodes, as they’ve been lumped together into ‘series’ almost at random, in order to better fit the boxset model of TV-watching that we’re all more comfortable with now (at least, that’s the only reason I can think of why ‘Appointment with Death’ is counted as part of ‘Series 11’ and ‘The Clocks’ as ‘Series 12’).

NB: There is no ‘Season 4’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, just as there is no ‘Season 4’ of Sherlock. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I start referring to UK TV shows in terms of ‘seasons’.

Right… that said…

‘The ABC Murders’ was based on the novel of the same name, which was published in early 1936. Just to satisfy the academic part of me, I should say that the edition I’m using here is the paperback edition published by HarperCollins in 1993. This is the first Poirot book I’ve had to go out and buy specifically for this blog project, as (weirdly) I discovered that I didn’t actually own a copy of The ABC Murders. Turns out my Agatha Christie collection is a little haphazard – I own four copies of Death on the Nile, but had to buy ABC.


Although The ABC Murders was published after Murder on the Links, it is narrated by Hastings. Like The Big Four and Peril at End House, it begins with Hastings making a trip back to England and reconnecting with his old friend. As the opening pages tell us, it’s now June 1935, and Hastings has come to England for six months to deal with certain business affairs. However, he soon forgets that was the reason for leaving his wife in Argentina:
‘I need hardly say that one of my first actions on reaching England was to look up my old friend, Hercule Poirot.’
Hastings discovers that some things have changed. Poirot has moved out of lodgings and into a brand new flat:
‘I found him installed in one of the newest type of service flats in London. I accused him (and he admitted the fact) of having chosen this particular building entirely on account of its strictly geometrical appearance and proportions.’
This flat, as we later discover, is in Whitehaven Mansions, EC1 (the postcode area covering City of London, Islington, Camden and Hackney). The TV show had this as Poirot’s permanent address throughout the episodes – though the style and size of the building’s interior changed as the programme progressed – but Christie only moved her Poirot into this ‘newest type of service flat’ in 1935. The 1930s saw a number of new art-deco constructions in central London that might have inspired Christie’s description of a building with ‘strictly geometrical appearance and proportions’ – including Guy Morgan and Partners’ Florin Court, EC1, which was being constructed as she was writing The ABC Murders and which, of course, was used by LWT as the TV version of Whitehaven Mansions.


While Poirot’s residence has changed, the man himself remains curiously unaltered. Hastings is initially baffled by this, exclaiming that his friend looks ‘hardly a day older than when I had last seen him’. This feels, at first, like Christie having a little joke at her famous creation’s longevity. After all, given that Poirot had a distinguished career in the Belgian police force before The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set c.1916), he has to be in his 60s by now – and yet, he seems no different to when he made his first appearance. But it turns out this isn’t the case. In fact, Hastings’s comment on Poirot’s unchanged appearance kicks off a weird little hair obsession that runs throughout the story.

Hastings notes that Poirot has ‘fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last’, which makes his friend beam with pride and reveal a little secret:
‘REVIVIT – To bring back the natural tone of the hair. Revivit is NOT a dye. In five shades, Ash, Chestnut, Titian, Brown, Black.’
After this little exchange, Poirot reveals to Hastings that he has received an anonymous letter (signed only ‘A.B.C.’) suggesting that a crime will take place in Andover on the 21st of the month. Poirot believes that the note should be taken seriously, and so the two men head over to visit another old friend and begin their new adventure.

Inspector Japp has previously dismissed the anonymous letter, but he seems pleased enough to see his old sleuthing buddies back together again. He gives Hastings a ‘hearty welcome’, but this camaraderie is short-lived. Never mind the anonymous note, we’re back to hair again. Japp’s enthusiastic surprise at seeing Hastings reveals something of a raw nerve in our narrator:
‘Quite like old days seeing you here with Monsieur Poirot. You’re looking well, too. Just a little bit thin on top, eh? Well, that’s what we’re all coming to. I’m the same.’
This does not go down well. Hastings winces, as he believed the ‘careful way’ he brushes his hair ‘across the top of [his] head’ made its thinness ‘unnoticeable’. A couple of pages later, he’s still not let it drop. When Poirot jokes that Japp ‘does not change much’, Hastings can’t resist making a dig:
‘“He looks much older,” I said. “Getting as grey as a badger,” I added vindictively.’
Poirot – tactful as ever – realizes that Hastings is still smarting after Japp’s jape, and suggests that Hastings could buy a toupee. This also does not go down well. Hastings has a massive rant, ‘roaring’ about Poirot’s ‘confounded hairdresser’ and the fact that Japp ‘always was an offensive kind of devil’, and blaming his hair loss on the ‘hot summers’ in Argentina. He eventually recovers his temper and admits he is a bit touchy about his hair, but this doesn’t stop him making several sly digs about other characters’ hair later in the book (he comments on Poirot’s moustaches drooping in the heat, and bitchily notes that Megan Barnard’s hair must have recently been permed, as ‘it stood out from her head in a mass of rather frizzy curls’). Let it go, Hastings, let it go.

Anyway… that anonymous letter… obviously, The ABC Murders isn’t really a book devoted to Hastings’s insecurities about his bald patch. It’s about a serial killer. The letter Poirot receives is only the beginning of the case. As forewarned, there is a murder in Andover (Mrs Alice Ascher), and a copy of the ABC railway guide is left near the body. Shortly afterwards, Poirot receives a letter warning that the next murder will take place in Bexhill-on-Sea.


This type of crime is a complete departure for our dynamic duo. As Hastings himself says:
‘Do you know, this is the first crime of this kind that you and I have worked on together? All our murders have been – well, private murders, so to speak.’
When the murder of Carmichael Clarke at Churston follows Betty Barnard in Bexhill, the pattern of the killings is clear, and Poirot has to face the fact that he is well and truly out of his comfort zone. The victims are unrelated, and appear to have been chosen simply for their initials. The main clue – the ABC guide left at the site of each murder – is more a ‘calling card’ than a clue. Poirot’s investigation has to unfold in quite a different way than is usual, with lengthy ‘conferences’ (with police experts and psychologists) replacing the more common one-to-one interviews. There are discourses on the nature of serial killing, expositions on the motivations of anonymous letter writers, and discussions of ‘deadly mania’ and varying types of ‘insanity’.

And it isn’t just the investigation that’s different. The narrative itself is different. Although Hastings is our narrator, and he pretty much carries out this role as he always did, he’s not the only voice we hear. Interspersed with the first-person reportage of our follicly-challenged friend are short chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’s Personal Narrative’, which are written in third person and describe the movements of a character named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Poirot (and the rest of the gang) have no knowledge of Cust’s existence until the end of Chapter 27, and even then they only have a signature (which they misread as A.B. Case or Cash).

So The ABC Murders offers the possibility of a technique that Christie very rarely uses in her detective fiction – dramatic irony. The readers are aware of a character and a set of actions that are explicitly not known to the detective (or the narrator). From Chapter 2 onwards, we know that there is a man who has the initials A.B.C., and we know he has both a railway guide and a list of names that he’s checking off methodically. The mystery is not whodunit, but (as all those confabs about psychology and motive reminds us) whydunit. What a dramatic departure for Poirot and Hastings! No domestic intrigues or jealous family members, no murderers hiding their true nature under a façade of jovial compliance! Not a country house or an inheritance to be seen!

LOL. This is Agatha Christie we’re talking about.

The ABC Murders is an absolute gem of a bastard of a book. Of course there’s no dramatic irony. Of course the reader doesn’t know the murderer’s name before Poirot does. Of course the question is whodunit (with the ‘why’ turning out to be the most mundane of all Christie’s stockpile of motives). As with a lot of Christie’s ‘trick’ books, rereading this book is a lot of fun, as you spot all the ingredients that you weren’t supposed to notice the first time round. Christie is in cahoots with the murderer, forcing us to investigate the wrong sort of crime, when the real clues were under our nose all along.

Before I move on to the adaptation, just a couple of other things I like about Christie’s novel (aside from the fact that Hastings is back! and this time he’s paranoid about his hair!)

A few of the Poirot stories refer back to earlier stories (in more or less spoiler-y ways, depending which one you’re reading). The ABC Murders pulls off the interesting trick of referring to stories that have yet to be published (or even written). In Chapter 3, Poirot outlines his ‘ideal’ murder case:
‘“Supposing,” murmured Poirot, “that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he is dummy, has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?”’
Hastings isn’t convinced.
‘“Well,” I said. “I can’t see any excitement in that!”’
If Hastings isn’t enthused by this teaser for Cards on the Table (which was published in November 1936, just ten months after The ABC Murders), Japp has a bit more fun coming up with future plotlines for the detective:
‘“I shouldn’t wonder if you ended by detecting your own death,” said Japp, laughing heartily. “That’s an idea, that is. Ought to be put in a book.” “It will be Hastings who will have to do that,” said Poirot, twinkling[.]’
Now. There’s an idea.

In some previous posts, I’ve had a bit of a muse over Hastings’s financial situation, and the reason why he spent so much of the 20s apparently mooching off Poirot. A while ago I suggested that Hastings might be upper middle class, but without any real family money or property. His lack of aptitude or enthusiasm for a career may have left him cash-strapped and in need of free board with his illustrious associate. It seems in The A.B.C. Murders that Hastings is still trying to make a go of things in South America, though his ranch has been struggling due to the ‘world depression’. (That he’s left his wife to manage things for six months on her own isn’t too much of a surprise – after all, Poirot slyly suggested that in Peril at End House that Mrs Hastings is the real business brain in that family.) As I’ve said, we don’t learn very much about Hastings’s background in the Poirot stories, though we can deduce certain things from his character. There is a little nugget in The A.B.C. Murders though – a blink and you’ll miss it moment that confirms my suspicions about Hastings’s class and status.

Towards the end of the novel – just before Poirot meets Cust for the first time – he and Hastings overhear some children singing a song about catching a fox. Poirot comments that fox-hunting is a ‘strange sport’. Hastings is quick to defend the practice, attempting to claim that it isn’t really as cruel as it sounds. So far, so upper-crust English gent. But then, when Poirot asks if people really hunt foxes in England, his friend says: ‘I don’t. I’ve never been able to afford to hunt.’ Poor old Hastings – follicly and fiscally challenged as ever.

One final little detail that always makes me giggle before I move on (though it’s probably just me): after Poirot receives the letter warning them about Bexhill, the Chief Constable of Sussex (one of the many people drawn into the investigation) demands that the local constabulary keep a watch on any small shopkeepers with a ‘B’ initial, and also that they keep tabs on all strangers arriving in Bexhill. The local superintendent immediately objects:
‘With the schools breaking up and the holidays beginning? People are fairly flooding into the place this week.’
Nous aurons besoin d’un bateau plus gros, mon ami.


So on to the TV adaptation… ‘The A.B.C Murders’ was written by Clive Exton and directed by Andrew Grieve. With that team at the helm, it probably goes without saying that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. All of the key elements of the story are included, and the changes that are made are necessary to fit the format (and chronology) of the TV series as a whole.

Just as in Christie’s book, we begin with Hastings arriving back in England after a period of absence. However, as we’ve not reached Murder on the Links yet, Hastings hasn’t actually moved to Argentina. Instead, he’s been on holiday to South America for six months. His old friend picks him up at the station, and the two have a warm reunion. Hastings is meant to be staying at a hotel, but Poirot won’t hear of it:
‘There is no hotel, mon ami. Until you regain your apartment, you stay with Poirot!’
This neat little switch allows for some of the dynamics of Christie’s novel to be replicated in the adaptation (despite the fact that TV Hastings hasn’t yet left home for good). It means that Japp can beam with pleasure at being reacquainted with Hastings – and also that he can comment on his thinning hair without it seeming out of place. Part of this exchange is retained from the source material, though the TV-Hastings lets it drop a lot quicker than his literary counterpart, but the earlier reference to Poirot dyeing his hair is removed (presumably because his pride in doing this wouldn’t fit with the hint dropped in the adaptation of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ that Poirot is surreptitiously tinting his barnet).

What does have to be dropped, though, is the reference to Poirot having moved to a new flat. Obviously, within the TV series, he hasn’t moved at all, and so they return to a Whitehaven Mansions that is familiar from previous adventures. Similarly, the reference to Poirot having previously retired to grow vegetable marrows is removed, as we’ve not got to that yet in the TV series. Oddly, one of the more domestic scenes between Hastings and Poirot is also removed (despite the fact that this would have fitted in well with the on-screen version of their relationship). In Christie’s novel, after the misdirected Churston letter arrives, Hastings decides there’s no time to waste, and so bursts into Poirot’s bedroom and starts packing his friend’s clothes into a suitcase. To be fair, Hastings is only following suit here – after the Bexhill murder, Hastings wakes up to discover his friend standing over him, offering to bring him a cup of coffee.

The adaptation seems a bit coy about showing Hastings and Poirot popping in and out of each other’s bedrooms, folding each other’s clothes and bringing each other coffee in bed. So we lose the lovely ‘regard what you have done to my pyjamas’ line from Christie’s novel. Instead, it’s replaced by a similarly domestic (but less boudoir) scene of domestic harmony, in which the two friends do the dishes together while discussing the case.


The investigation is also played out on similar lines to that in Christie’s original novel, but with some changes made here and there to keep the episode to time. The murders and anonymous letters follow the same pattern as in the book, and the ‘Legion’ of interested parties formed to assist Poirot is retained, though it meets for the first time with much less preamble than in the novel. Miss Lemon is sadly not present in this episode, but she was also absent from Christie’s novel, despite having made her debut appearance as Poirot’s secretary the previous year (George is also missing from Christie’s novel, by the way – it’s almost as though these surrogate Watsons are just sent away the second Hastings sets foot in England).


Some things are cut from the adaptation. Many of the investigators are cut, with their roles being conflated into the all-purpose Japp (a common occurrence in the early episodes of the series). A lot of the early interviews, particularly those conducted in Andover, are also cut, as are the lengthy conferences on the nature of serial killers and mania. Presumably the programme-makers thought they were on safe ground excising most of the explanations of ‘the “chain” or “series” type of murder’ in 1992. The psychology of serial killers might have been brand-new when Christie was writing her novel (the German term Serienmörder was coined in 1930), but it needed little exposition in the early 90s. (First principles, Clarice. What does he do, this man you seek?)

However, the episode is very clear on when it is set (August 1936, which doesn’t really give Hastings time to have had a six-month holiday since their last case, so it’s a good thing I’ve given up on any sort of coherent timeline), so the programme-makers needed to keep some sense of the ‘newness’ of this type of murder investigation. To keep things concise, they give a flavour of the more academic discussions of A.B.C.’s crimes through a number of shots of newspaper stories and headlines.


Despite the condensed investigation and the chastened Poirot/Hastings relationship, the episode does a good job in capturing the flavour of Christie’s novel. There are trains everywhere, and much of the ‘action’ consists of the gang running back and forth to catch trains to other destinations. There are plenty of fab shots of steam trains hurrying across the countryside, and a number of head-to-heads with Poirot and Hastings discussing the case in various train carriages.


In addition to this, an attempt is made to keep the feel of Christie’s narration style. On the whole, the episode follows the dynamic duo’s perspective, just as the book was told through Hastings’s first-person reportage. However, interspersed throughout are little scenes of the man we’ll come to know as Cust going about his daily business in a more and more suspicious way. This is a nice touch, and a good way of remaining faithful to Christie’s novel, but it does lead to a slightly annoying anachronism early on. When we first see Cust, he is in the cinema. The man on the screen exclaims:
‘That’s where you’re wrong. I am the Dorset murderer! I killed Lily James, and all the others, and now I am going to kill you!’
Cust is enraptured by this, his excited face picked out in the flickering glow of the screen, while the rest of the audience remain obscured by shadows. The snatch of dialogue we’re given allows us (perhaps) to spot that the film is Black Limelight, which is about a series of random murders carried out by a madman and which spark a sensationalist press frenzy. It’s a very apt film to use in this first introduction to Cust, and it plays along with Christie’s game. But it came out in 1939. Sigh.

(We see Cust in the cinema again towards the end of the episode. This time he’s watching Number 17, which came out in 1932. I can only assume from this that the programme-makers wanted to suggest that Doncaster was somewhat behind the times.)

What about Cust though?


The casting in this episode has its ups and downs. But Donald Sumpter’s portrayal of Alexander Bonaparte Cust is just perfect. He is exactly the character I imagined when I read the book. In particular, Sumpter manages to capture the darkness of the character – Cust is a man who, unusually for Christie’s fiction, is utterly broken by his experiences in WWI. The scene in which Cust has a conversation with a younger man about the Churston murder is retained (though it’s conducted in a library, rather than in a public gardens, in the TV episode), and it conveys perfectly the sense of a man mentally unravelling:
‘“Sorry, sir, I expect you were in the war.”
“I was,” said Mr Cust. “It – it – unsettled me. My head’s never been right since. It aches, you know. Aches terribly.”’
Other casting is also good. Pippa Guard makes a good Megan Barnard (though she’s a tad more forceful than her literary counterpart), and Nicholas Farrell (in his first of two Poirot appearances – he’ll be back for another train-based adventure in The Mystery of the Blue Train) is a good choice for poor old Donald Fraser.

Where the casting falls down, though, is with Franklin Clarke (played by Donald Douglas). Christie’s Franklin was ‘a big fair-haired man with a sunburnt face’. When everything’s out in the open, Poirot describes ‘[t]he daring adventurous character, the roving life […] [t]he attractive free and easy manner – nothing easier for him than to pick up a girl in a café’. This really doesn’t fit with the character as portrayed by Douglas, who ditches ‘free and easy’ for ‘uptight and serious’. Annoyingly, the episode actually draws attention to this problem. After Cust’s arrest, Poirot throws a question over his guilt by asking whether or not Cust would have been able to flirt with Betty Barnard and persuade her to remove her own belt:
‘Can you imagine Monsieur Cust, as you English say, getting off with a pretty young girl?’
No we can’t. But neither can we imagine the staid old Franklin Clarke out on the pull on Bexhill beach.

These niggles aside, it’s still a great episode and a good adaptation of a very enjoyable book. I feel I may have waffled on far too much about this one (that’s what comes of taking such a long break from writing about Poirot), so I’ll end (as I often do) with some of the little details that made me smile.

Of course, I have to mentioned Hastings’s cayman.


Hastings has brought this ugly-looking specimen, which he calls Cedric, back from Venezuela as a gift for Poirot. There’s quite the story behind it as well – but Poirot and Japp seem a wee bit reluctant to hear it. Poirot is also rather unsettled to discover that he is expected to display Cedric in the middle of the ‘geometrical appearance and proportions’ of his cherished apartment.

For some people – like my husband Rob, who was watching this episode for the first time – it’s the resolution of the running Cedric joke that gets the biggest laugh. For me, though, it’s the moment when Poirot complains about the cayman’s smell and Hastings proudly announces that he’s doused it in some cologne he found in the bathroom. Poirot’s face is the perfect picture.

Cedric aside, my other favourite little snippet comes near the beginning of the episode. After Poirot and Hastings have their little reunion, we cut to Japp hard at work in his office. Except he’s not really – he’s taking down a shopping list being dictated over the phone by his wife, Emily. And he’s not happy about being asked to keep sausages in his desk drawer.


Good old Mrs Japp. If Mrs Columbo could get her own show, I have no idea why Emily Japp Investigates was never made.

And on that note, I really do think it’s time to move on. Two more episodes to get my teeth into for this ‘series’. Get my teeth into… do you get it? Well, you will do shortly.

Next up: ‘Death in the Clouds’

No comments:

Post a Comment