Monday, 31 December 2018

Poirot Project: The Underdog (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 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 Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fifth (-ish) series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was ‘The Underdog’, and it was first broadcast on 24th January 1993. This episode was based on the short story ‘The Under Dog’ (note the slightly different spelling), which was first published in April 1926 in Mystery Magazine (and then in the UK later that year in London Magazine).

‘The Under Dog’ is one of the non-series Poirot short stories that appeared periodically in between the publication of novels. As such, it doesn’t feature Hastings as the narrator – like ‘Wasps’ Nest’ and ‘Problem at Sea’ – Hastings doesn’t appear in the story in person. (However, as in some of the other stories, Hastings isn’t entirely absent… but I’ll come to that shortly.)

The story begins with Poirot being consulted by a young woman called Lily Margrave. Lily is the paid companion of Lady Astwell, who has sent her to visit the famous detective and ask for his help. Lady Astwell’s husband – Sir Reuben Astwell – has been murdered, and his nephew Charles Leverson is accused of the crime. Lady Astwell is convinced that Charles is innocent, and so wishes Poirot to investigate and exonerate him.

The story’s set-up is charmingly comical. As Lily Margrave attempts to tell her story, the great detective appears not to take her very seriously:
‘His occupation at the moment struck her as particularly childish. He was piling small blocks of coloured wood one upon the other, and seemed far more interested in the result than in the story she was telling.’
There’s no real explanation for why Poirot is doing this – I think we’re just supposed to take it as one of his little eccentricities. It’s not really relevant to the story.

In outlining the circumstances of Sir Reuben Astwell’s death, Lily gives a brief sketch of his household – including his wife and nephew, his butler Parsons and his secretary Owen Trefusis. She eventually admits to Poirot that Lady Astwell is stubbornly sticking to her conviction that Charles is innocent, having developed an apparently irrational belief that Owen Trefusis is the guilty party. Lily Margrave believes this is all nonsense, and she tried to persuade her employer against asking Poirot to get involved.

This last point piques Poirot’s interest, and he instantly decides to go and visit the late Reuben Astwell’s home (named ‘Mon Repos’ in the story). And he’s taking steadfast valet George along for the ride.

Although this story doesn’t feature any of ‘the gang’, there are two familiar faces. As I’ve said, George plays his part in this case (more on that shortly). The story also sees the return of Detective-Inspector Miller (who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’). Miller’s schtick is that basically he doesn’t like Poirot – and Poirot doesn’t rate him much either. He’s like the anti-Japp.

In ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot hears that Miller is in charge of the case, and he makes a couple of snarky asides to remind readers of their animosity. However, he eventually has to make a trip to Scotland Yard to actually speak to the policeman, which he does with a certain degree of reluctance. I quite like Christie’s description of Poirot’s arrival at the Yard:
‘Detective-Inspector Miller was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s co-operation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much over-rated.’
While we do see the odd police officer respond negatively to Poirot in other stories, this suggests that, actually, detectives like Miller are the majority – it’s Japp (and the rest of the ‘small band of inspectors’) who are unusual in their collaboration with the little Belgian. Interestingly, I’m writing this post just after watching this Christmas’s prestige BBC Christie production – the somewhat controversial adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders by Sarah Phelps. In this version (to much hand-wringing from so-called purists), Poirot is presented as a now-discredited charlatan, with Inspector Crome painfully reminding him that it was only Japp (and, presumably, a ‘small band of inspectors’) who ever trusted the unexpectedly tall Belgian’s co-operation.

In this year’s A.B.C. Murders, Poirot has to prove himself to Inspector Crome (or, rather, he has to honour his own personal vow to bring justice for the dead – distractingly this Poirot has a similar catchphrase to Logan Nelson in Jigsaw… but I digress). However, in ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot simply plays Inspector Miller like a fiddle, using some of the least subtle flattery in his arsenal, and getting the detective to share certain details of his investigation. And then he completely blows Miller out of the water with a theatrical gather-the-suspects denouement that reveals the idiot police had it all totally wrong. No wonder most of the Yard hates him.

Poirot’s investigation isn’t just missing Japp, though. He’s also missing Hastings. In the first non-Hastings story Christie wrote – ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, Poirot missed his friend with a deep melancholy that was really sad to read. Time seems to heal Poirot’s wounds, and he talks less about his friend’s absence in later stories (even – shock, horror! – not mentioning him at all in some stories). ‘The Under Dog’ is somewhere in between. Although Poirot seems to be coping with his friend’s departure, he can’t help but slip his name randomly into conversation. It’s not quite as cheeky as his Arthur-the-Dummy joke in ‘Problem at Sea’, but his meandering comment about hunting in this story seems like an excuse just to get nostalgic:
‘To catch the fox you ride hard with the dogs. You shout, you run, it is a matter of speed. I have not shot the stag myself, but I understand that to do so you crawl for many long, long hours upon your stomach. My friend Hastings has recounted the affair to me.’
Sorry, Poirot… what’s that got to do with the murder again?

In place of Hastings, Poirot is accompanied by his valet George. As always, he finds George wanting as a sidekick, but there’s some good Poirot-and-George interactions in ‘The Under Dog’, and there’s just a slight glimmer of the valet starting to step up to his role as New-Hastings.

At first glance, it seems that the ‘[t]all, cadaverous and unemotional’ George is just going to depress Poirot. When the detective starts to get excited about heading down to Mon Repos to hunt a murderer, George is unmoved:
‘“Shall I pack dress clothes, sir?”’
Poirot looked at him sadly.
“Always the concentration, the attention to your own job. You are very good for me, George.”’
But as things unfold, George finds himself caught up in the chase. In response to a comment from Poirot about a man with a ‘tropical temper’, George can’t help but correct his employer with an uncharacteristic anecdote about his Aunt Jemima (‘a most shrewish tongue she had’). Emboldened, he then directly asks – or, as directly as a gentleman’s gentleman can ask – to play a role in the case:
‘“Is there anything I can do in any way,” he inquired delicately, “to – er – assist you, sir?”’
It’s a short step from inquiring delicately to keeping nix while Poirot rifles through a suspect’s underwear drawer. A short step indeed.

I need to turn my attention to the ITV adaptation in a minute, so just a few other things to say about the short story. It’s quite a long short story (over three times as long as the Sketch stories), so I’ll have to control myself.

One of the things I like about this story is the focus on the servants – particularly the butler Parsons and housemaid Gladys – as valuable witnesses. Nevertheless, in order to get their statements, Poirot has to exercise his talent for making people feel at ease. His first assessment of Parsons is, pretty much, a comment on fictional butlers in general:
‘This Parsons, then, he will have the characteristics of his class, he will object very strongly to the police, he will tell them as little as possible. Above all, he will say nothing that might seem to incriminate a member of the household.’
This quote comes from early in the story, and it introduces the theme of psychology – and Poirot’s understanding of psychology – that runs throughout the story. Each time he is called upon to interview someone, he instinctively weighs up their personality and employs the best approach to make them trust him. With Parsons, Poirot is respectful and understanding of the man’s position. With Miller, he flatters the man’s intelligence and perspicacity. With Lily Margrave, he adopts the avuncular persona he often uses with young women (‘You will tell old Papa Poirot?’), and with Lady Astwell he validates her belief in her intuition. With Gladys, he allows her to think he is French (quelle horreur!), so that she’s willing to show him one of Lily Margrave’s dresses (‘We all know that Frenchmen are interested in ladies’ dresses.’)

It makes sense that Christie focuses on Poirot’s ability to read people here, as this is a case that hinges on an understanding of personality, rather than any hard evidence. In fact, Poirot fakes a clue (the blood-soaked chiffon), lies to most of the suspects, and eventually goads the murderer into making a misstep by pretending to find something of interest on the staircase. The story’s title turns out to refer to this study of personality. As Poirot reminds us repeatedly – and, as George’s Aunt Jemima story affirms – people with bad tempers aren’t the most dangerous. ‘Those who bark do not bite.’

And so… on to the adaptation. Not the most memorable episode of the series, and, by the standards of the series so far, not the most faithful adaptation either. However, the changes it makes to the story are certainly interesting.

‘The Underdog’ (all one word) was written by Bill Craig and directed by John Bruce. I believe this was Craig’s only Poirot script, though Bruce also directed ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ (speaking of unfaithful adaptations… but we’re not there quite yet!).

From the episode’s opening moments, it’s clear that the setting has been altered. Obviously, it’s now set ten years later – as with almost all the early series, the episode is set in the mid-30s – but it’s also now got a bit of an industrial backdrop, as the episode opens in a laboratory. Chief Chemist (not secretary) Horace (not Owen) Trefusis (played by Bill Wallis) is reading a letter from a German. Of course, this is intended to get our hindsight tingling. A chemist? Reading a letter from Germany? In 1936? Dodgy stuff. But before we can really take that in, the scene is interrupted by a dubious-looking chap (come on… he’s wearing a polo neck and a flat cap!) bursting in and setting fire to the lab.

This opener is quite far removed from the background to Christie’s story. In the source text, Poirot (and the reader) discovers the ol’ leave-your-partner-for-dead-and-steal-the-mine trick (seriously – is there anyone in Golden Age detective fiction who owns a diamond/gold mine and didn’t swindle their partner and leave them for dead in the bush?). Reuben Astwell is the mine-swindler, and Humphrey Naylor is the disgruntled former colleague (‘It was assumed that he and the expedition had perished.’ Obvs.).

Craig’s adaptation drops the mine, and replaces it with a storyline about synthetic rubber. Humphrey Naylor (played by Andrew Seear) is a research chemist, who had previously approached Astwell’s Chemicals with a formula for a new product, for which he needed commercial backing. Reuben Astwell told him that the formula didn’t work. Imagine his surprise when he found that, not only had Astwell’s nicked his work, they were planning to licence it under the name Astoprene to German chemical giant I.G. Farben. In a way, that’s worse than being left for dead in the Mpala Gold Fields.

I’m quite fascinated by the I.G. Farben subplot in this episode. It serves as both a red herring and the genuine motive for the murder. But it also allows for a return to the perennial background to the series – the impending (but never breaking) war with Germany. And, as in other episodes, we get some pontifications from unlikeable men about the probable impact. Reuben Astwell (Denis Lill) gives a lecture on the inevitability of war, given the ‘remilitarisation of the Rhineland’ (he’s also seen reading a copy of the Evening Standard bearing the headline ‘Hitler’s Pledge to Britain’), before concluding that such an event would have ‘economic benefits’ and stop people ‘scrounging on the dole’. During his rant, it’s clear that Astwell hates the Germans and thinks their warmongering is despicable. And yet, he’s still happy to do business with I.G. Farben, suggesting that – if war’s coming – Astwell wants a big piece of the economic benefit pie.

More sinister, in a way, is Horace Trefusis’s enthusiastic response to this. He positively salivates at the thought of the scientific advances that can be made in a time of war (‘New fuels! New alloys!’). I don’t know if it’s just me, but Trefusis’s fervour for upcoming scientific developments, coupled with the impending contract with I.G. Farben, has a really uncomfortable undercurrent. Hindsight, again, tells us what role I.G. Farben played in the Nazi regime, and I find it difficult not to be reminded of the ‘scientific developments’ pursued by subsidiaries of the company. In reality, I.G. Farben would indeed produce synthetic rubber, and they would do so at the Monowitz Buna-Werke factory, part of the Auschwitz complex. The Buna factory used prisoners from Auschwitz camps as slave labour in the production of rubber.

So, in ‘The Underdog’, I’d suggest that we have more than the now-standard reference to impending war with Germany. In this episode, the shadow of the Holocaust is just discernible. Poirot is uncomfortable with the conversation – and with Astwell’s tasteless ‘joke’ about an imminent invasion of Belgium – and sombrely states: ‘I myself have experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany.’* Later on, we see Victor Astwell (Ian Gelder) tearing up his late brother’s contract with I.G. Farben in distaste.

Cheery stuff, eh? But that’s just the Underdog’s undercurrent. Let’s turn our attention to its… erm… overcurrent(?) now, shall we?

I get why the gold mine storyline is changed to the synthetic rubber one. For one thing, the mine story would seem a little old-hat for 1936 (were there any mines left in the 30s that hadn’t already been swindled away by cantankerous Golden Age millionaires?), and the rubber subplot allows for more of a comment on the series’ period backdrop. But there are other changes to the story that seem less clearly thought-out.

I’m okay with the change to the house – Christie’s Mon Repos (‘a big, solidly built red-brick mansion, with no pretensions to beauty’) is replaced by the obligatory modern art deco house (not sure if a real house was used for the exterior shots in this episode, sorry) – but the changes to the characters make less sense.

In Christie’s story, most people in Mon Repos are pretty fiery characters. Reuben Astwell loves a good barney; his wife is an ex-actress who still enjoys her histrionics; brother Victor has the ‘tropical temper’ and makes his appearance by yelling at his chauffeur. The only person who doesn’t lose it is Owen Trefusis, who is described thus:
‘At a big desk at the farther end of [the library] sat a thin, pale young man busily writing. He had a receding chin, and wore pince-nez. […] Mr Owen Trefusis was a prim, proper young man, disarmingly meek, the type of man who can be, and is, systematically bullied. One could feel quite sure that he would never display resentment.’
So… an underdog type then?

In the adaptation, the only person who really has a bad temper is Reuben Astwell. Lady Nancy Astwell (Ann Bell)’s past career as an actress is only mentioned once in passing by her husband – though we do see a couple of framed pictures of her in her heyday… looking a little like a young Gladys Cooper in one of them.

Gladys Cooper

Lady Astwell’s acting career (and resemblance to Gladys Cooper) is irrelevant to the plot here. It’s barely even a red herring. She’s the model of a sensible and level-headed wife, weighed down by the peculiar rages of her husband. Similarly, Victor Astwell is transformed from a chauffeur-roasting hothead to a mild-mannered ‘junior partner’, forced to endure the mad wrath of his unhinged older brother. Nancy and Victor appear to be cowed by Reuben, weathering the storm and – I think it’s implied – turning to each other for comfort. (It’s Victor who snaps the knife in the table in this version of the story, not Trefusis.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Victor Astwell supposed to fancy Lily? Well not here. In another inexplicable change, Lily (Adie Allen) is now head-over-heels for Charles Leverson (Jonathan Phillips), Astwell’s golf-loving nephew. Charles is also under the thumb of his uncle, and only plucks up the courage to stand up for himself on the night of the murder (bad timing, really). Lily is a demure lady’s companion, behaving with decorum and modesty, and only slightly raising her voice when Astwell sacks her for rooting through his office.

In the end, the only person who actually seems to stand up to Astwell is… Horace Trefusis, who is more than happy to openly disagree with his employer on a couple of occasions. Although Poirot declares Trefusis to be an ‘underdog’ in the denouement – and Trefusis spits back that Astwell was ‘a bully’ – in fact he’s the only character that isn’t bullied. And, it turns out, he murdered Astwell for cold hard cash, as he knew he wasn’t going to get a penny from the I.G. Farben contract.

These changes don’t make for a bad story per se, but they do leave you wondering why the episode is called ‘The Underdog’. ‘The Reasonably Assertive Murder Chemist’ would have been a better title, but I guess that would’ve constituted a spoiler.

(I don’t really have anything to say about the picture above, except that I love the bit where Gladys (Lucy Davidson) discovers Astwell’s body. It’s pitch-perfect servant-discovers-a-corpse acting, complete with a dropped breakfast tray.)

Now, on to the character changes that we kind of expect from this series: the introduction of ‘the gang’. It’s just two-thirds of the gang this time though, as, despite the opportunity, Japp hasn’t been added to replace Miller in this episode. Instead, Miller is simply dropped, and the police are represented by a nameless local sergeant (played by Michael Vaughan).

However, we do have Miss Lemon, who replaces the minor character of Dr Cazalet of Harley Street. You see, along with séance, I Ching, tarot and automatic writing, Miss Lemon has an interest in hypnosis. She tries her technique out on Poirot early in the episode – with no success – but is later called on to reveal the secret clue lurking in Lady Astwell’s subconscious. This is a nice touch, as it fits with Poirot’s reliance on a hypnotist in Christie’s story, but also links to the TV character of Miss Lemon that the series has created.

Naturally, along with Miss Lemon, we also have Hastings. Sadly, though, I don’t think Hastings works in this episode. He’s not simply there as a replacement for George, but nor is he quite… Hastings enough. While he serves the purpose of getting the detective embroiled in the case in the first place (Hastings here is an old friend of Charles Leverson, who has invited him down to Abbott’s Cross for a golf tournament), the rest of the time he’s a bit too… dynamic for my tastes. He jumps straight into being a co-investigator, surveilling guests at their hotel, witnessing Lily’s delivery to Naylor, initiating a chase down to London and – inexplicably – knowing the train timetable off by heart. Shouldn’t Hastings be a bit less… you know… competent?

And on that note, I need to wrap this post up, as it’s ended up a lot longer than I intended (don’t they always?). Two final things:

Sadly, the loss of George from the adaptation means that my favourite scene from the story had to go. When Poirot decides to fabricate a bit of evidence proving that Lily went to Astwell’s study on the night of the murder, he tricks Gladys into letting him see her chiffon dress. He tears a tiny bit of fabric off, but in order to make it incriminating, he needs to make it blood-stained. Ever the martyr, he decides to use his own blood – and asks George to sterilize a needle and stab him in the finger. I don’t know which bit is weirder – Poirot’s screaming in pain at a tiny pin prick, or George’s unquestioning acquiescence. It’s a shame that couldn’t have been included in the episode.

On the plus side, we do get a welcome return of one of my favourite of Poirot’s accessories: the walking stick telescope! The perfect way to watch Hastings score a hypnosis-induced hole-in-one!

Time to move on to an episode I adored when I first saw it… ‘The Yellow Iris’

* Ironically, this was another aspect of the BBC’s A.B.C. Murders that pearl-clutching critics raged about – Phelps’s version of Poirot is explicitly shown to have ‘experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany’.


  1. Thank you for another great review.
    Your take on Malkovich's Poirot?

    1. Thanks! I have a lot of thoughts on the recent adaptation... maybe too much to go into here! I didn't really like the change to Cust's characterization, or the way the female characters were reduced to downtrodden victims. Wondering whether I'll end up writing a post about it at some point.

  2. Mr. Lee apparently did not cheat his partner in Hercule Poirot's Christmas, which I am sure surprised every reader.