Showing posts with label Poirot Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poirot Project. Show all posts

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Poirot Project: Dead Man’s Mirror (review)

This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was an introduction to one of the minor recurring characters in Christie’s fiction: Mr Satterthwaite. The previous review was of ‘The Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot (the penultimate hour-long episode) was first broadcast on 28th February 1993. The episode was based on Christie’s (long) short story ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (first published in 1937), which in turn was a revision of the slightly earlier, and much shorter, story ‘The Second Gong’ (1932). As with ‘Murder in the Mews’, ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ is more than a simple expansion of a shorter story – much is altered, revised, added and removed – and yet there is still, at its heart, something that recognizably links it to the earlier version.

Let’s begin, then, with the earliest version of the story. ‘The Second Gong’ appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1932. For this post, I’m using the version of the story that was included in the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991.

‘The Second Gong’ opens just before dinner is served at Lytcham Close, ‘one of the most famous old houses in England’. The house’s owner is Hubert Lytcham Roche, an eccentric old man and the last in a long line of Lytcham Roches. One of Lytcham Roche’s eccentricities is an obsessive hatred of people being late for dinner, and so the residents of his house have long understood that they must obey the sound of the dinner gongs (sounded ten minutes apart). The story begins with the sound of the first gong… or is it the second gong?… there seems to be a little confusion…

Christie’s story sets us up for a quintessential country house mystery, so it’s important that we learn the cast of characters up front, as these will undoubtedly be our suspects. As well as Hubert Lytcham Roche – who we don’t actually ‘meet’ as such – there’s his wife (just ‘Mrs’ in this version of the story), who is ‘naturally vague in manner’ and ‘wearing floating draperies of an indeterminate shade of green’. The house’s other residents are: Harry Dalehouse (Lytcham Roche’s nephew), Joan Ashby (a friend of Harry’s), Geoffrey Keene (Lytcham Roche’s secretary), Diana Cleves (the Lytcham Roches’ adopted daughter), Gregory Barling (a family friend and financier) and Captain Marshall (the agent for the estate). Oh, and Digby the butler, who gets the honour of sounding the gongs.

At the sound of the second gong, the household gathers for dinner. It has been slightly delayed on this occasion, because apparently a visitor is arriving on a delayed train. Unusually, Lytcham Roche himself has not appeared in the drawing room (as is his custom), so the assembled party are happy that none of them can be accused of being late.

And then the door opens and…
‘[T]here advanced into the long drawing room a very small man, palpably a foreigner, with an egg-shaped head, a flamboyant moustache, and most irreproachable evening clothes.’
That’s right! It’s Hercule! (Just in case you thought Christie had forgot to put him in this one!)

Poirot has been summoned to Lytcham Close by its eccentric owner, as Lytcham Roche has become convinced that someone is swindling him. He wants the little Belgian detective to investigate, and Poirot has reluctantly agreed (‘M. Lytcham Roche, he is not quite the King of England, though he seems to think he is.)’

Introductions aside, the party realizes that their host is yet to make his appearance. Digby informs them that Lytcham Roche was last seen going into his study, though the door to this room is now locked. On getting no reply from the host, the group decide to break open the door… and discover Hubert Lytcham Roche, dead from a gunshot, at his desk.

‘The Second Gong’ is quite a short story, so the ensuing investigation moves a long quite quickly. An Inspector Reeves is called in, and quickly rules the death as suicide (mostly due to the locked door and a quite-obviously-fake note scrawled next to the dead man). Poirot asks questions about the various ‘gongs’ people heard, notes some footprints in the flowerbed, spots someone picking something up off the floor, and comments on a broken mirror in the dead man’s study.

And then, of course, he gathers everyone together and reveals that the death wasn’t suicide at all. It was murder: the ‘first gong’ that Joan Ashby heard was, in fact, the bullet hitting the gong. The murderer realized that the sound would reveal that the study door was actually open at the time of the murder, so arranged things to throw people off the scent. The door was locked, the body moved, the fake suicide note written – and the mirror was broken to make it look like it (rather than the gong) was in the path of the bullet. Then the killer left by the french windows, snuck back to the drawing room, and fired a service revolver out of the window so people would assume that gunshot was the fatal one. With a final flourish, Poirot reveals that the murderer was Geoffrey Keene, who had been using his position as private secretary to defraud his employer.

In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing motive. Murderous private secretaries are a bit of a cliché in Golden Age detective fiction (second only to GPs, I’d imagine), and the revelation that the victim really was being swindled is a bit deflating. Sure, there are a few red herrings thrown in – Lytcham Roche is attempted for force his adopted daughter to marry his nephew (to continue the family line), despite the latter’s relationship with Joan Ashby; there’s a mention of Gregory Barling’s ‘wildcat schemes’, which have lost Lytcham Roche money; a rosebud from Diana Cleves’s bag is found near the scene of the crime. However, these are summarily dismissed by Poirot, and we’re left with nothing but a money-grubbing secretary.

Fast forward five years, and Christie decided to rework ‘The Second Gong’ into a longer piece entitled ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. What’s fascinating to me here is the way she took (often quite minor) plot elements from the earlier story and developed them into much more interesting story devices. I’d argue that this is probably the most successful of the revised stories, because it seems to be a project in ‘revamping’ the somewhat flat bits of the original.

Let’s move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ then…

The story begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a man who believes he is a victim of fraud. Here, though, the supposed victim is Gervase Chevenix-Gore of Hamborough Close. He requests that the detective be at his disposal should he require his assistance at any point.

Poirot is not impressed with the arrogance of this missive and decides to find out more about this Chevenix-Gore fella. He puts his glad-rags on and heads out to a party, specifically to seek out one of the guests who he knows will be able to help him.

That guest is Mr Satterthwaite.

There’s a passing reference to the ‘Crow’s Nest business’ to remind readers that Poirot and Mr Satterthwaite had previously become acquainted in Three Act Tragedy (because I’m reviewing the stories in the order of the adaptation rather than publication, I haven’t got to that one yet). However, there’s a suggestion here that the two men have continued a friendship beyond that particular adventure.

In fact, it seems here that Poirot is using Mr Satterthwaite as a sort of society consultant, due to the peculiar skills and personality we’ve seen emerge in the Harley Quin stories:
‘He was a keen observer of human nature, and if it is true that the looker-on knows most of the game, Mr Satterthwaite knew a good deal.’
Poirot gently questions Satterthwaite about his prospective client, and this is how he discovers that Chevenix-Gore is the last of his family line, that he is very wealthy, and that he is known for his eccentricities. Satterthwaite also outlines the family situation: Chevenix-Gore is married to Vanda (who gets a first name in this version of the story, and has ditched the ‘draperies of an indeterminate shade of green’ in favour of ‘amulets and scarabs’). The couple couldn’t have children, but they have an adopted daughter named Ruth (a girl ‘in the modern style’). And then there’s the nephew, Hugo Trent, who is the son of Chevenix-Gore’s sister.

Now, at this point, you would be forgiven for thinking that Satterthwaite is going to be a substitute Hastings in the story. ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ – like ‘The Second Gong’ before it – is both Hastings-less and Japp-less. George, Ariadne Oliver and Miss Lemon are also absent, though all of them had appeared in at least one Poirot story prior to the publication of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. The story’s set-up suggests that Satterthwaite is going to be filling the role of associate in this particular tale.

But it’s not to be. At the end of the exchange at the party, Poirot simply concedes that he probably will go to Hamborough Close if summoned. And that’s it. That’s the end of Satterthwaite’s part in the tale.

It’s a bit weird, to be honest. Why did the story need Satterthwaite at all? Why set up Satterthwaite as an invaluable source of society knowledge for Poirot when the man doesn’t appear in any further Poirot stories? Is this just a cheeky crossover? Or did Christie just want to remind us of one of her favourite characters?

I guess we’ll never know the real reason for Satterthwaite’s inclusion here. Personally, I prefer to think that it’s a little Easter egg for fans.

Anyway… off to Hamborough Close…

‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ follows pretty much the same template as ‘The Second Gong’, but with some important alterations.

Chevenix-Gore is an egotistical eccentric, like Lytcham Roche, who insists on strict observance of the dinner gongs. On the fatal night, there’s a confusion over who heard which gong (and, later, which of the ‘gongs’ was actually a gunshot), and the non-appearance of the host signals that something sinister has occurred. His wife is superstitious and rather vague – though she’s progressed from worrying about broken mirrors to believing she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen.

Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter who is (allegedly) an orphaned distant cousin, becomes Ruth Chevenix-Gore. Ruth is similar in many ways to Diana (who was described as having a ‘daredevil grace’ and a ‘witchery in her dark eyes’), though there is less emphasis on her ability to charm every man she meets. Some of Diana’s dialogue is retained almost verbatim for Ruth, including her assertion that she was, in fact, very fond of her adopted father:
‘I don’t indulge in sob-stuff. But I shall miss him… I was fond of the Old Man.’
Like Lytcham Roche before him, Chevenix-Gore is determined to see the continuation of his family line through the marriage of his adopted daughter to his nephew (upon whom the estate is entailed). But as in the earlier story, this plan looks set to be thwarted as both are in love with other people.

The nephew here is Hugo Trent, who replaces Harry Dalehouse. Hugo is engaged to Susan Cardwell, who replaces Joan Ashby. Captain Marshall is switched for Captain John Lake, and in the final denouement it’s revealed that, not only is Ruth in love with the Captain, she’s been secretly married to him for three weeks.

Other substitutions abound… Inspector Reeves is replaced by Major Riddle, the Chief Constable of Westshire. Gregory Barling is replaced by Colonel Bury, who has convinced Chevenix-Gore to invest in something called the Paragon Rubber Company and is rather over-friendly with Vanda. (As an aside, I like the fact that Colonel Bury is described as a ‘tame cat’ about the house, while his counterpart in ‘The Second Gong’ was known for his ‘wildcat’ schemes.) The character of Geoffrey Keene, the murderous private secretary, is split into two for the later story: Godfrey Burrows is the secretary, but he is joined by a typist named Miss Lingard, who has been helping Chevenix-Gore write up his family history. And Digby becomes Snell, but he still gets to do the gonging.

However, while all these little character tweaks are interesting, there are two major changes to the story that are much more engaging.

Big Change 1: As the titles suggest, there’s a shift in focus on furniture. In the earlier story, a lot of attention is given to the gong, and to the fact that some members of the household believe they heard a sound before Digby sounded the actual first gong. Much of the investigation involves ascertaining who heard what noise, before it’s eventually revealed that the ‘first gong’ was the bullet from the first gunshot, the ‘second gong’ was really the first gong, and the gunshot was a fake second shot fired by the murderer to throw the timings off. While the later story retains all of this (with one slight difference), there’s somewhat more emphasis placed on the broken mirror in the dead man’s study, with Vanda quoting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Poirot likening the investigation itself to a reflection in a shattered mirror.

Big Change 2: Shock! horror! Both the murderer and motive are changed (sort of). As I’ve said, the character of the secretary is split in two in the later story. The culprit turns out to be one half of this split. But rather than Burrows (who is closest to the character of Keene from the original), the murderer is revealed to be Miss Lingard, the mild-mannered typist. And she didn’t do it to cover up a financial fraud.

The big surprise in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ is the revelation that Ruth is, in fact, Chevenix-Gore’s illegitimate niece. Her father was Gervase’s brother, following a fling with a typist who gave her baby up to the family to avoid scandal. Miss Lingard was that typist, and she confesses to murdering Chevenix-Gore to prevent him from changing his will to disown Ruth unless she marries Hugo Trent. Interestingly – despite the fact that this is clearly a ridiculous reason to murder someone – Poirot is sympathetic to the plight of (secret) mother and (unacknowledged) daughter, allowing Miss Lingard the courtesy of keeping her motive secret.

(This is also one of the many Poirot stories in which the murderer escapes the noose – almost always an indication of the detective’s sympathy. In this case, Poirot doesn’t have to resort to leaving Miss Lingard alone with a weapon/poison/stash of cocaine, as he reveals with a bizarrely happy flourish that she’s got heart trouble and ‘will not live many weeks’.)

Nearly time to move on to the adaptation (because I really want to talk about tubular furniture), but just quickly before I do… I want to share two of the tiny and less significant changes that I nevertheless enjoyed in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’.

Tiny Change 1: In both ‘The Second Gong’ and ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, the murderer’s escape from a seemingly locked room is through the french windows. Poirot reveals that, if the window is pulled to in the right way, the catch will fall down and make it appear they were shut from the inside. In the earlier story, the detective simply states this as a matter of fact. However, in the revised version, he gives a little explanation of how he knows that is pure Poirot. After asking Susan Cardwell if she’s acquainted with any burglars (!), he makes the following pronouncement:
‘The chief constable, he, too, has not had the advantages of a friendly relationship with them. His connection with the criminal classes has always been strictly official. With me that is not so. I had a very pleasant chat with a burglar once. He told me an interesting thing about french windows – a trick that could sometimes be employed if the fastening was sufficiently loose.’
I love the way this conjures up an entire storyline that is never really explained.

Tiny Change 2: In ‘The Second Gong’, the murderous secretary creates the fake gunshot illusion by firing a service revolver out of the drawing room window to throw confusion on the time of death. Obviously, this isn’t an option for Miss Lingard in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, so she creates her illusion using other means… she blows up a paper bag and bangs it. Poirot finds the remnants of the bag in the wastepaper basket in drawing room, and this clinches things for him:
‘The paper bag trick was one that would suggest itself to a woman – an ingenious home-made device.’
I think Poirot is suggesting here that female murderers are more ingenious, and more inclined to improvise home-made devices out of bits of stationery and children’s tricks, which is ironic given the next-but-one episode in the series.

Time to have a look at the TV version…

‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Anthony Horowitz. The TV version of the story is even more mirror-heavy than Christie’s 1937 story. It begins in an auction room, with Poirot bidding on a fancy mirror on which he appears to have completely set his heart. He is outbid, unfortunately, but accepts this with good grace.

The successful bidder is, it transpires, Gervase Chevenix (played by Iain Cuthbertson) – there’s no Gore here, as it’s a family show (har har!). This Gervase is somewhat different from Christie’s character (and his Lytcham Roche predecessor) as he isn’t landed gentry, but rather a wealthy art collector. He also, sadly, doesn’t look like a Viking (both Chevenix-Gore and Lytcham Roche are described as having ‘Viking beards’ for some reason).

When Chevenix realizes the identity of his mirror rival, he asks Poirot to visit his home. As in the previous versions of the story, he says he believes he is the victim of fraud. And, as in previous versions, Poirot finds the man’s demands rather arrogant. Here, though, there’s an added sweetener… Chevenix suggests that he might perhaps be up for exchanging the mirror for Poirot’s services. And the little detective is sold.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mr Satterthwaite is removed from the adaptations of the two Poirot stories in which he appears, so Poirot doesn’t get any inside information from his friend beforehand. Instead, he travels to Chevenix’s home with Hastings, and the two of them meet Susan Cardwell (Tushika Bergen) on the train. In this version, it’s Susan who fills in some of the necessary background.

Like a lot of Horowitz’s adaptations, the plot of this episode pretty much follows that of Christie’s story, and some of the dialogue is retained as well. Nevertheless, the story is quite a long one, and so there is a bit of alteration here and there to fit the TV episode format.

Colonel Bury is absent from the adaptation, and the character of John Lake (played by Richard Lintern, in the first of his two appearances in the series – he’ll be back in Mrs McGinty’s Dead) is changed to fill this gap. No longer a ‘Captain’ or an ‘agent’, Lake is now a family friend who has persuaded Chevenix to invest in a property development scheme that may or may not be a fraud (it’s no Paragon Rubber Company, but it’s a decent enough equivalent). As Chevenix is no longer a member of an ancient gentry family, Miss Lingard (played by Fiona Walker) is now employed to help him with art history, rather than family history, research, and Godfrey Burrows is dropped entirely.

Ruth Chevenix (Emma Fielding) is still the adopted daughter – though I feel this version of the character really lacks the ‘witchery’ of her original counterpart, Diana Cleves – and Chevenix still has plans to see her marry his nephew, Hugo Trent (Jeremy Northam). Because of the changes to the status of the characters, this proposed marriage seems more to do with Chevenix’s overbearing and obnoxious personality than any continuation of family legacy or inheritance – given there’s no estate or entailment here, he has no reason not to just name Ruth his heir or to divide up his wealth between the two of them. This Gervase is just petty for the sake of it.

The final change to the dramatis personae sees Major Riddle – himself a substitute for Inspector Reeves – replaced with Inspector Japp. This isn’t the most controversial alteration ever; however, Japp is more inclined than his predecessors to accept that it’s a case of murder, rather than suicide, so he’s sticks out the investigation to the end.

Snell (James Greene) still gets to do the gong.

The location used for this episode is quite interesting and, in a roundabout way, this relates to the biggest change in Hugo Trent’s character in the episode.

Gervase Chevenix’s house in this episode is played by Marylands, a country house in Surrey built in Spanish style in 1929-31 by the architect Oliver Hill. Hill’s other work includes the Midland Hotel in Morecambe – which was one of the locations used in ‘Double Sin’ – and Joldwynds in Surrey – which was used in both ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

This isn’t massively earth-shattering – after all, there’s a limited number of surviving buildings in the UK that fit the style and aesthetic of these early Poirot episodes (hence the reuse of Joldwynds, for instance). But I think the recurrence of Oliver Hill’s work is worthy of at least a note.

But this leads me to think about tubular furniture…

As Chevenix is no longer a titled landowner, his nephew can no longer be a gentry heir waiting to acquire an entailed estate. The TV version of Hugo Trent has to at least attempt to earn a living. In a nice creative touch, Horowitz has his Hugo trying his hand at making tubular steel furniture. Yep. That’s right.

This may seem like a rather specific and idiosyncratic pursuit – it’s certainly one that Gervase Chevenix is unhappy about, as he has refused to give financial support to Hugo’s struggling business – but on reflection it’s a really neat nod to the aesthetic of the early ITV episodes and acknowledgement of the very style that led to the repeated use of Oliver Hill buildings.

Allow me to explain my thinking here…

Tubular steel chairs might be commonplace today, but in the early part of the twentieth century they were avant-garde and represented the cutting-edge of design innovation (which is briefly alluded to in the episode itself). This furniture style was pioneered by the Bauhaus studio, and developed by German company Thonet. Manufacture began in earnest in 1930, meaning that, in the world of ITV’s Poirot (with its permanent setting of 1936/1937), this is absolutely the newest thing in furniture design.

In the UK, the tubular steel baton was picked up by Practical Equipment Ltd. (PEL), a company founded in Birmingham in 1931 with the hope of replicating Thonet’s success. Unlike Hugo’s endeavour, PEL were a successful company throughout the 1930s, finding domestic markets for many of their products (such a stackable chairs) and receiving high-profile commissions.

Among PEL’s commissions were Embassy Court in Brighton, which featured briefly in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, which had a much bigger role in ‘The ABC Murders’. While none of this is particularly significant, I guess, I like this connection as it implies that Hugo Trent is playing a role in designing the very aesthetic that we associate with the series.

And although that aesthetic is very much the creation of the show’s creative team, it’s not completely divorced from Agatha Christie’s own experience either. One of PEL’s designers was the architect Wells Coates, who built (amongst other things) the Isokon Flats in Hampstead. While we might associate Christie more with country houses, especially Greenway in Devon, she was a resident at Isokon Flats between 1941-47. Again, it’s not the most significant connection, but it’s enough to make me appreciate the tubular furniture of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ just a little bit more.

To end this post, I’m going to mention the two things that bug me about the episode. And one that just confuses me.

Firstly, in a move that we’ve seen in other episodes in the series, some details that are hidden in the source text are made explicit from the get-go in the TV version. Most notably, Ruth and John’s secret wedding – which is revealed in an outburst towards the end of Christie’s story – is shown on-screen right at the beginning of the episode. I have little else to say except I don’t like this decision.

Secondly, the complete over-exaggeration of Vanda Chevenix’s Egyptian fascination doesn’t work for me. In ‘The Second Gong’, Mrs Lytcham Roche was a ‘vague’ woman, who was a tad superstitious. In Christie’s revision, Vanda Chevenix-Gore was more definitively interested in ‘occultism’ and believed herself to be a reincarnated Egyptian queen.

But the TV Vanda (played by Zena Walker) outdoes both of her counterparts. Not only does she fully believe in the Egyptian afterlife and various other hodge-podge occult ideas, she also has a ‘spirit guide’ named Saffra to whom she talks every now and then like some sort of art deco Derek Acorah. In a rather desperate attempt to zhoosh up the denouement, the murderous Miss Lingard uses Vanda’s delusions against her, by impersonating Saffra (from a cupboard) and attempting to force the hapless Mrs Chevenix to hang herself in penance for killing Gervase. Because… why not?

Of course, Poirot and Japp are on hand to pull Miss Lingard out of the cupboard and remind Vanda that she didn’t actually kill her own husband, no matter what the mad-typist-pretending-to-be-an-Egyptian-spirit-guide keeps shouting in a spooky voice. This doesn’t really work for me, but it does lead on to a small but unsettling change that’s made right at the end of the episode.

In the TV version, Poirot himself works out that Miss Lingard is Ruth’s mother (he doesn’t have to wait for her confession). However, as in Christie’s 1937 story, Miss Lingard begs the detective (here accompanied by Japp) to keep the secret from her illegitimate daughter. As in the earlier version, Poirot gives her his word that he won’t reveal Ruth’s parentage.

As I’ve noted above, in Christie’s story, Miss Lingard is spared the noose by her imminent death from ‘heart troubles’. Here, though, the story ends with the murdering typist thanking Poirot for his discretion and claiming that she’s only ever cared about Ruth’s happiness. ‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ she exclaims. And as she does so, we get one final shot of Poirot’s (pained? sympathetic?) face, as the image of a ghostly noose is overlaid.

It’s one of the creepier endings in the early series – and one that hints at the darker tone that’s to come. But it also serves to remind us that this Miss Lingard will have no convenient heart troubles – it’s off to the gallows with her.

On that bleak note, it’s time to move on to the next episode – and the final short story adaptation of the series, which also marks a milestone in my own relationship to Agatha Christie’s Poirot (but more on that anon).

The next post will be ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’

Monday, 1 April 2019

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Mr Satterthwaite

This post is part of my 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 Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

When I was coming up to reviewing ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, I decided to make this blog project even more completist by considering Miss Lemon’s appearances in other, non-Poirot stories. I called that post ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and I said at the time that my plan was to write about the ‘further adventures’ of all the other characters who crop up in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories.

Well, it’s time for another ‘further adventures’ post… This time, it’s Mr Satterthwaite who takes centre-stage.

What do you mean, who’s Mr Satterthwaite? Oh dear.

Actually, you might (just) be forgiven for needing to be reminded about Mr Satterthwaite. The poor chap gets short shrift when it comes to Christie adaptations. And by that I mean, Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen in a Christie adaptation. He was (I think) used as the central character in a ‘modern day drama interpretation’ app produced as a ‘multimedia stream with social functionality’ by Agatha Christie Productions in 2015. I’d never heard of the Mr Quin app before today, but I see from the publicity that Mr Satterthwaite was played by Gethin Anthony, making Anthony perhaps the only person to ever perform as (a version of) Christie’s rather unassuming character.

One adaptation where you certainly won’t see Mr Satterthwaite is ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although Christie included the character in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy, the character was removed/replaced in the TV versions. So, you might ask, given that this is a blog about the ITV show, why on earth have I devoted an entire post to a minor character who appears very briefly in a couple of stories and is dropped entirely from the adaptations?

It’s simple really. I wanted an excuse to talk about Harley Quin.

Not you.

In the mid- to late-1920s, Christie wrote a series of short stories for various magazines (including Grand Magazine and The Story-Teller, featuring a certain Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend Harley Quin.

NOT YOU. Go on, clear off.

Twelve of the stories were published in 1930 as a collection entitled The Mysterious Mr Quin, and two further stories ‘The Love Detectives’ (first published as ‘At the Crossroads’ in The Story-Teller, but not included in the earlier collection) and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ were included in later collections of Christie stories. All the short stories, along with ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy were collected into The Complete Quin and Satterthwaite: Love Detectives and published by HarperCollins.

I know the stories from my 1965 Fontana Books edition of The Mysterious Mr Quin (which I apparently bought for 19p when I was working at the Oxfam shop in the late 90s) and the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991, which includes ‘The Love Detectives’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’).

To put these stories in context of Christie’s other detective fiction… the first Harley Quin story was published in March 1924. By this point, Christie had written two Poirot novels and a series of short stories for the Sketch. She was also in the process of wrapping up a second series of Sketch stories (known as ‘The Man who was No. 4’), which finished the same month as the first Harley Quin story appeared. Tommy and Tuppence had appeared in one novel (The Secret Adversary) by this time, but it would be three years before Miss Marple’s first outing (‘The Tuesday Night Club’, 1927) and eight years before we’d meet Parker Pyne (‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, 1932).

According to Christie’s autobiography, the Harley Quin stories were her favourite stories (or, perhaps, her favourite out of the two short story collections she published between 1929-1932 – her statement is a tad ambiguous!), and ‘Little Mr Satterthwaite’ was one of her favourite characters. Is it strange, then, that he has drifted into obscurity? Or is it somehow weirdly appropriate?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Harley Quin/Mr Satterthwaite stories, allow me to introduce you to them. You’re in for a treat.

Our introduction to the characters – and to the type of story in which they will feature – comes in the first published story ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Our hero (as it were) is described thus:
‘Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two* - a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common.’
The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, at a house party at Royston. Mr Satterthwaite is among the guests, as are Richard Conway, a couple called Portal and ‘six or seven young people whose names Mr Satterthwaite had not grasped’. The hosts are Tom and Laura Evesham.

As midnight strikes, Mr Satterthwaite finds himself intrigued by Eleanor Portal, and by what he perceives to be the strange effect she has on her husband. The party toast to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and a rather melancholy mood comes over them. In typical NYE fashion, they begin to get a little maudlin, remembering the death of Derek Capel (the previous owner of the house), some years earlier. (Except the ‘serious political’ Laura Evesham, that is. She’s just hoping the New Year will be happier: ‘But the political situation seems to me to be fraught with grave uncertainty.’ Bloody Brexit.)

Up to this point, ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ reads like a fairly standard Golden Age country house mystery, albeit one with a curious central character. As midnight chimes, though, a somewhat different atmosphere descends. There’s talk of Royston being haunted, of an old case that has never been fully explained, and a wild wind begins to blow outside. Laura Evesham (in a somewhat less ‘serious political’ vein) talks of an old superstition: ‘it must be a dark man who first steps over the door step on New Year’s Day’. And Alex Portal is unsettled by the weather:
‘“A good night for ghosts to walk,” said Portal with a reckless laugh. “All the devils in Hell are abroad to-night.”
“According to Lady Laura, even the blackest of them would bring us luck,” observed Conway, with a laugh.’
It should come as absolutely no surprise that, at this point, the men’s laughter is interrupted by the heavy sound of three loud knocks on the door.

Is it a dark man come to cross the threshold and bring good luck? Is it a ghost? Is it a devil?
‘Framed in the doorway stood a man’s figure, tall and slender. To Mr Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow. Then, as he stepped forward, he showed himself to be a thin dark man dressed in motoring clothes.’
This is Mr Harley Quin. And he is most definitely not a consulting detective.

Before I come on to what – exactly – Mr Quin is, I want to say something about the type of cases he solves with Mr Satterthwaite. I guess the modern way of describing them would be ‘cold cases’ – these stories feature puzzles from the past, where there are no clues or opportunities for re-investigation. Harley Quin has no interest in different types of cigarette ash or footprints in the flowerbed, but rather he is concerned with the details of an event deeply hidden in the memories of those present. In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he gently encourages the house party to think back to the death of Derek Capel and piece together the seemingly unrelated scraps they all recall.

This use of memory – the idea that the truth can be obtained by a group of people sharing what they remember of an event – is something Christie would come back to in later Poirot stories. Both Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember have this idea as a central conceit, for instance. As with these later novels, this act of remembering is coupled with a detective character who observes the participants as they remember, in order to put together a plausible theory of what must have occurred. While it is Mr Quin who nudges the memories in ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is able to divine the significances.

This is the general pattern of the subsequent Harley Quin stories as well. While there are two stories in which Satterthwaite is able to prevent an impending murder (‘The Face of Helen’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ – arguably ‘The Voice in the Dark’ could be counted here as well, though it’s not completely clear what ‘Clayton’ plans to do to Margery after killing her mother) and one where Satterthwaite is himself present at the time of the murder (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), the stories tend to focus on cases that have happened elsewhere and, usually, at some point in the past. Few of the stories actually end with an arrest, and there is very little mention of the police.

What does get more of a mention in the Harley Quin stories is suicide. In a number of stories, Mr Satterthwaite is able to discern suicidal intent in a chance acquaintance and, almost always, avert this by solving the problem at the root of their desperation. ‘The Man from the Sea’ is probably the clearest example of this, but there are a number of other stories featuring characters brought low by a crippling melancholia quite unlike anything found elsewhere in Christie’s fiction. These are stories about, above all, sadness.

While I guess it’s tempting to imagine reasons why Christie might, in the mid- to late-1920s, have written a series of short stories with sadness as the overriding theme, I don’t want to do that here. What I’m interested about is her choice of ‘detective’ for these stories – what’s the deal with Harley Quin?

What – exactly – is Harley Quin?

‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ gives a few possibilities… he’s a ghost, he’s a devil, he’s a good luck charm. Elsewhere in the stories, he takes on more explicitly supernatural qualities. He appears where he should not be – sometimes apparently willed there by Satterthwaite himself (e.g. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’) – and disappears in equally baffling ways (e.g. he seems to walk off a cliff at the end of ‘The Man from the Sea’). On one occasion (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), he appears to send Satterthwaite a summons from afar via table-turning.

Of course, it should go without saying that Harley Quin is also directly associated with… well… Harlequin. There’s the name (obvs), and the fact that he’s often described as appearing to be dressed in multi-coloured clothes or motley, though this is often simply a trick of the light. At the end of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he cheekily suggests Mr Satterthwaite checks out the Harlequinade at the theatre: ‘It is dying out nowadays – but it repays attention.’ In subsequent stories, Satterthwaite runs into Quin at a fancy restaurant named Arlecchino and a country pub called the Bells and Motley. In ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’, the H-word is used repeatedly to describe the eponymous multi-coloured tea service, and then there’s ‘Harlequin’s Lane’… but no… you’re not ready for that one yet.

Now, I drafted a whole long section about Harlequin that I was going to include here. About his appearance in the Italian Commedia dell’arte as a comedic zanni (servant) character. About the theories that this zanni Harlequin is a development of earlier mischievous ‘devil’ characters in medieval drama, explaining Harlequin’s common role as a trickster. About the English Harlequinade and pantomime, and the importing of Harlequin as a key character. About the development of the English Harlequin into the sophisticated romantic lead, to be contrasted with the chaos and brutishness of Clown. I had a whole big thing about Joseph Grimaldi and the Payne Brothers, the relationship to Punch and Judy, the significance of ‘motley’ and its jester heritage.

But the thing is… that’s not what Harley Quin is. Harley Quin is something that derives from – to quote Max Mallowan – ‘Agatha’s peculiar imagination’. He isn’t a mischievous trickster, or a romantic lead. He isn’t a jester or a comedic servant. He is an immortal death deity – a psychopomp.

I imagine you think I’ve lost the plot now, don’t you?

But I totally stand by this claim. Agatha Christie’s series detectives are: a Belgian refugee, a married couple who dabble in secret service work, an elderly spinster, a life coach and an immortal psychopomp. Fact.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a trip down ‘Harlequin’s Lane’, shall we?

In this story, Mr Satterthwaite is visiting a couple called Denman. John Denman is a solid Englishman ‘devoid of imagination’, and Mrs Denman is a Russian who escaped the revolution as a refugee. The Denmans live close to an old-fashioned ‘rural lane’ named Harlequin’s Lane, and Mr Satterthwaite is unsurprised to find his old friend hanging out on said street.

What follows is probably the trippiest, most disturbing story of the lot.

In a nutshell: the Denmans are planning to stage a little entertainment for their friends. They’re putting on a ballet performance of ‘Harlequin and Columbine’, and they have some exciting dancers arriving to take part. Turns out, Mrs Denman trained as a dancer in Russia. Talk turns to the tragedy of Kharsanova, Russia’s greatest ever dancer (apparently), who was killed during the revolution. People arrive and there’s hints of intrigue (Does John Denman fancy Molly Stanwell? Does Mrs Denman have a history with Prince Oranoff?). But then a car accident prevents the arrival of the professional dancers… Mrs Denman decides to dance the part of Columbine herself, with Oranoff playing Harlequin.

Plot twist: Mrs Denman is Kharsanova!

I’ll gloss over the reasons for Anna Kharsanova’s decision to disappear to England and change her name (just for info, not saying it’s relevant, but the story was published just five months after Christie disappeared and was found staying in Harrogate under a false name). What matters is the resolution to the story. Despite Mrs Denman/Kharsanova’s implication that she is now going to leave her husband to be with Oranoff (‘For ten years I have lived with the man I love […] Now I am going to the man who for ten years has loved me.’), the story quickly reveals that her words mean something else entirely. She explains to Satterthwaite:
‘“Always one looks for one thing – the lover, the perfect, the eternal lover… It is the music of Harlequin one hears. No lover ever satisfies one, for all lovers are mortal. And Harlequin is only a myth, an invisible presence… unless –”
“Yes,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “Yes?”
“Unless – his name is – Death!”’

Shortly afterwards, Satterthwaite sees Kharsanova being led down Harlequin’s Lane by his old (at this point, terrifying) friend. Her maid, however, saw her walking down the lane alone.

They all hurry to the end of the lane and find Anna Kharsanova… lying dead on a rubbish heap.

Seriously, WTF??

Satterthwaite – quite understandably – asks Mr Quin what the hell is going on:
‘“What is this place?” he whispered. “What is this place?”
“I told you earlier to-day. It is My lane.”
[…] “And at the end of it – what do they find?”
“The house of their dreams – or a rubbish heap – who shall say?”’
And with that, Mr Quin literally vanishes into thin air.

Mr Satterthwaite better hope his friend is a psychopomp. The alternative is that he’s a psychopath, gleefully offing Russian ballet dancers and chucking their bodies onto his homemade murder tip.

Anyway, I’ve looked everywhere for some academic source for this association of Harlequin with death. There’s nothing. Harlequin-as-psychopomp really does seem to be Christie’s own unique take. It’s easy enough to find information about Christie’s fascination with the characters of the Commedia dell’arte (or more accurately the Harlequinade): in her autobiography, for instance, she writes about some of her early poems, which drew on stories of Harlequin and Columbine, and breezily suggests that Harley Quin was simply a ‘kind of carry-over’ from these. Her first Poirot short story (‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ featured characters dressed as figures from the Commedia, supposedly inspired by a set of china ornaments she’d had as a child. But none of this explains why she repeatedly associates Harlequin with death.

I don’t have an answer to this. And I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be talking about Mr Satterthwaite, and not Harley Quin. Oops.

To return to where I began: Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen. In fact, the Harley Quin stories themselves have barely been adapted. Nevertheless, there is an interesting story about the only (loose) film adaptation to tackle the tales – or, rather, one of the tales.

In 1928, a silent film version of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ was made. It was the first British film adaptation of a work by Christie, predating Alibi by three years. The film was called The Passing of Mr Quin, and, like Alibi, it was directed by Leslie S. Hiscott. The film took… erm… quite serious liberties with the plot and characterization, to the point of revealing at the end that it was Mr Quin himself who carried out the murder. Mr Satterthwaite – poor Mr Satterthwaite – is removed from the story entirely.

I have not seen The Passing of Mr Quin. The film was a ‘quota quickie’, and it has since been lost. However, the studio decided to publish a novelization of the film shortly after its release. Agatha Christie was reportedly horrified by this, not realizing that the film rights she had sold gave permission to the studio to use her characters in this way (and suffice to say future contracts were worded quite differently). The novelization only had a single print run, but it did survive.

In 2017, HarperCollins republished The Passing of Mr Quinn (note the spelling of the character’s name), with a fantastic introduction by Mark Aldridge that outlines the history of the film and the novelization, as well as the publication history of Christie’s own stories. It’s well worth a read.

So what have we learnt?

Mr Satterthwaite is one of Christie’s more overlooked creations, despite being one of her favourites. He’s an unassuming gent of good taste and sociable habits, who enjoys the arts. After many years of simply observing life’s drama, he has decided to make more of an intervention, and this leads him to offer comfort, explanation and resolution to the troubled people he encounters. The stories in which he features are characterized by deep sadness, with suicide being a common theme.

Mr Satterthwaite hooks up with a possibly malevolent, and almost definitely immortal, psychopomp, who may or may not be Harlequin. Among his more human acquaintances is Hercule Poirot, who he chums up with in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (briefly) and Three Act Tragedy.

We’ve also learnt that you, dear reader, will put up with me rambling on for 3500 words about characters that aren’t even in the ITV Poirot series.

Shall I get back on track? The next episode is ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, which doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. But it’s an adaptation of a short story that does include Mr Satterthwaite. Of course, that short story is an expansion of an earlier story that doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. You know what? Let’s just move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’

* I believe that Christie made some changes between the original magazine publication and the 1930 book publication of the story. One of these changes was to shift Mr Satterthwaite’s age forward from 57 to 62.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Chocolate Box (review)

This post is part of my 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 Italian Nobleman’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot first aired on 21st February 1993. It was based on the sort story of the same name (aka ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’), which was first published in The Sketch on 23rd May 1923.

The story opens with Hastings and Poirot enjoying a quiet night in as a storm rages outside. Hastings is having a hot toddy, and his friend is drinking hot chocolate. It’s a cosy little domestic scene, and Poirot expresses his satisfaction with life.
‘“Yes, it’s a good old world,” [Hastings] agreed. “Here am I with a job, and a good job too! And here are you, famous –”’
I don’t know what to make of Hastings’s comment here, and I’m a bit reluctant to reopen my persistent confusion about Hastings’s background. There’s no explanation as to what job he’s got, and it’s never mentioned again. In later stories, he appears to be back living with Poirot, so it obviously isn’t a permanent change. Given the story’s ending (which I’ll come to shortly), I think this is another nod to the dynamic duo’s forebears: the scene evokes some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, where Watson visits Holmes after leaving Baker Street to set up his own rooms and practice.

Anyway, regardless of the questions raised by Hastings’s comment, the domestic setting serves simply to set up a rather unusual narrative. What’s important here is Hastings’s claim that Poirot is famous, and that he doesn’t know ‘what failure is’. Poirot, moved to a nostalgic mood by the hot chocolate and blazing fire, begins to reminisce about a time that he ‘made the complete prize ass’ of himself.

Slow dissolve…

The story that follows is narrated by Poirot, and it takes place in Belgium, prior to the detective entering the UK as a refugee of German occupation. As a member of the Belgian police force, Poirot was involved in the investigation into the death of Paul Déroulard, a French politician living in Brussels. Déroulard, despite being in good health, has died suddenly of heart failure, and the police do not believe the circumstances to be suspicious.

However, Poirot is drawn into the investigation at the request of a young woman named Virginie Mesnard, a cousin of Déroulard’s late wife, who was living in the household at the time of Déroulard’s death. Virginie does not believe that the man’s death was due to natural causes. She beseeches Poirot to look into the case – and he agrees.

Poirot’s investigation almost immediately leads him to the eponymous chocolate box. Déroulard died after a dinner party, during which all the guests ate and drank the same things. There seems to be no sign of poison being administered through other means. The only possible way the man could have been poisoned is suggested by a large box of chocolates in the man’s study. The chocolates in the box are untouched, but Poirot’s methodical eye is bothered by an anomaly: the box itself is pink, but the lid is blue.

Poirot looks into the case – seemingly as much to explain the mystery of the chocolate box lid than the death of Déroulard (a man whose death seemed ‘fortunate’ to Poirot). His sleuthing leads him to M. de Saint Alard, Déroulard’s neighbour, John Wilson, an Englishman, a prescription for trinitrine (angina medication) tablets, and a missing pill bottle. But, before he can get much further, Virginie visits him and begs him to drop the case.

Eventually, Poirot (after a bit of housebreaking disguised as a plumber) believes he has sufficient proof of Saint Alard’s guilt. The man has a motive, and the empty trinitrine bottle is discovered in his house. He returns to Déroulard’s house and announces his success to the dead man’s mother… who immediately tells him he’s got it wrong:
‘It was not M. de Saint Alard who killed my son. It was I, his mother.’
Poirot did not see that one coming – and that’s why he counts the case as his one and only failure.

As a short story, there are a couple of interesting points about ‘The Chocolate Box’ (aside from the obvious fact that it offers a little bit of insight into Poirot’s pre-Mysterious Affair at Styles life). For me, the best bits come at the beginning and end of Poirot’s tale.

In introducing the Déroulard case, Poirot offers the following background:
‘It was at the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state. M. Paul Déroulard was a French deputy of note. It was an open secret that the portfolio of a Minister awaited him. He was among the bitterest of the anti-Catholic party, and it was certain that on his accession to power, he would have to face violent enmity.’
This is quite a serious political backdrop to the story, and it raises the question of religion that is often side-stepped in other Poirot stories. Catholicism, where it is mentioned in other stories, is more usually a domestic matter – a barrier to divorce, in most cases. Here, it is a political issue, and one to which Poirot has a strong connection. He tells Hastings that he was not sorry about Déroulard’s death, because he remains ‘bon catholique’.

I think this is probably the strongest statement Poirot ever makes about his religion, his politics and his connection to his homeland.

If the beginning of ‘The Chocolate Box’ reminds us that Poirot was once a detective in the Belgian police force, the ending reminds us that he’s also (at times) a playful riff on another famous literary detective.

That’s right! ‘The Chocolate Box’ has another brilliant reference to a Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s one of my favourites. (I’ve mentioned some others that appear in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, ‘The Veiled Lady’, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and – notoriously – ‘The Double Clue’.)

After telling Hastings’s the truth about the Déroulard case, Poirot confesses that he is still haunted by the spectre of his failure:
‘An old lady commits a crime in such a simple and clever fashion that I, Hercule Poirot, am completely deceived. Sapristi! It does not bear thinking of! Forget it. Or no – remember it, and if you think at any time that I am growing conceited – it is not likely, but it might arise. […] Eh bien, my friend, you shall say to me, “Chocolate box”. Is it agreed?’
This is a direct reference to the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’, a rare example of Holmes’s deductions being proved false at the end of the narrative. ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes exhorting Watson:
‘If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.’
I don’t think there’s any question that Christie was making a clear and direct reference to Conan Doyle’s story here. But there’s a cheeky difference: ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes’s request to Watson, but ‘The Chocolate Box’ has a coda:
‘“After all,” said Poirot reflectively, “it was an experience! I, who have undoubtedly the finest brain in Europe at present, can afford to be magnanimous!”
“Chocolate box,” I murmured gently.’
Hee hee… let’s see how this is handled in the adaptation then…

‘The Chocolate Box’ was directed by Ken Grieve and written by Douglas Watkinson. Watkinson’s previous script for the series was ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, which was not exactly a faithful adaptation of Christie’s short story. ‘The Chocolate Box’ takes less liberties in its adaptation, but there some significant changes made to the story.

Firstly, while this episode is a two-hander, it’s not the two hands you might be expecting. This episode features just Poirot and Japp; Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent. This isn’t the first Poirot/Japp episode – ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ were also Hastings-less two-handers – but it’s the first (only) one to show the two men off on a little trip together.

For services to the Belgian police force, ever since the notorious Abercrombie forgery case, Japp is to be awarded the prestigious title of ‘Compagnon de la Branche d’Or’. The ceremony is to be held in Brussels, but Mrs Japp has decided not to accompany him.
‘Brussels is a far cry from Isleworth.’
So, instead, he is accompanied by his old friend and co-investigator on the Abercrombie case, M. Hercule Poirot.
‘It is an honour to deputize for Madame Japp.’

Of course, returning to Brussels (perhaps for the first time since WWI ended?) provokes Poirot to reminisce about past cases. He decides to tell Japp the story of his one and only failure – though the TV Poirot, unlike his literary counterpart, insists that this failure was the result of others’ mistakes, not his own. Nevertheless, he begins to narrative the tale.

Slow dissolve…

Watkinson’s adaptation presents a reasonably faithful version of the Deroulard/Déroulard case as it appears in Christie’s story. The man has died after a dinner party, and his death is believed to be due to heart failure. His neighbour, Xavier St Alard (played by Geoffrey Whitehead) was present, as was his friend Gaston Beaujeu (David de Keyser) who is an uncontroversial substitute for the English John Wilson. The mismatched chocolate box, trinitrine and housebreaking are all preserved here too.

The main difference to the Deroulard mystery itself comes in a slight tweaking of Madame Deroulard’s (Rosalie Crutchley) motive. The story downplays the political backdrop to the case, with Deroulard being presented as simply being ‘bad’ for Belgium and some non-specific comments about possible collaboration with the Germans (once again, we’re presented with a view of Europe on the brink of war, but it’s WWI rather than WWII this time). Instead, the episode places a heavier emphasis on the death of Deroulard’s wife prior to the events of the case. While the religious and political backdrop is retained – the women in Deroulard’s household are explicitly devout Catholics – a more domestic element is introduced in the (later confirmed) suspicion that Deroulard murdered his wife.

However, these minor tweaks don’t drastically alter Christie’s original plot.

Is this box green and pink? Or blue and black?

The big change comes in the addition of new backstory for Hercule himself. The episode introduces a personal relationship between the detective and Virginie Mesnard (played by Anna Chancellor).

The episode has Poirot fall head over heels in love with Virginie. Now, Christie was quite happy to hint at the women in Poirot’s past in her stories, but this isn’t something that’s really been present in the series to this point. In fact, the TV series has already suggested that there was only ‘one woman’ for Poirot – Vera Rossakoff. The revelation that Poirot’s real true love was a woman he once knew in Brussels is a bold move, and one that may have irritated hardened #TeamVera fans. For me, though, it fits perfectly. I’ve been ardently #TeamVirginie since the episode aired.

I think the thing that swung it for me was the story behind Poirot’s lapel pin that emerges during the story. As you may know, I’m quite the fan of Poirot’s accessories, and I’m building up a small folder of his stylish accoutrements – from spyglass walking stick to silver pocket ashtray. Since the first episode, Poirot has sported a silver pin with minute flowers on his suit. Until ‘The Chocolate Box’, it’s simply a distinctive part of his costume that appears in every episode, the changing (fresh?) flowers showing the man’s fussy attention to detail. I really like that this episode invests this little item with a sentimental value.

During the course of their investigation and burgeoning friendship (relationship?), Virginie presents the policeman with a token of her affection. The fact that he’s still wearing it years later shows that it is Virginie, not Vera, who is the woman.

I’ve always liked the backstory ‘The Chocolate Box’ gives Poirot. However, there are some unanswered questions at the end. Back in the present day, Poirot is reunited with his old friend Jean-Louis (Jonathan Barlow), the pharmacist who helped him identify trinitrine tablets as the source of the poison. It is a warm and heartfelt reunion, and it’s clear the two men were close friends.

But then Poirot is reunited with Virginie – the woman. In Christie’s story, Virginie enters a convent after the case is closed, but in the TV version it turns out Jean-Louis and Virginie have married, and they have two sons (one of whom they have named Hercule). Suchet plays this scene beautifully, capturing Poirot’s bittersweet happiness for his two old friends. However, this does raise the question of why Poirot wasn’t already aware of their marriage. Did he not keep in touch with Jean-Louis at all after he left Belgium? Has he not spoken to any of his old friends in Brussels? Why did Jean-Louis and Virginie not invite him to their wedding? Or at least inform him of it – after all, they obviously still think fondly of him as they’ve named their son in his honour?

There are two possibilities here. Either Poirot literally severed all ties with his old life in Brussels when he was forced to move to England in 1916, or there is more to the story than we see on screen. The first possibility doesn’t seem likely: throughout both the TV series and Christie’s stories, Poirot shows a tendency to long-standing friendships and associations, and to keeping in contact with the people who are important to him. Look at how much he misses Hastings after The Murder on the Links. Are we really to believe he cut Jean-Louis out without a second thought?

The second possibility is more intriguing. What – exactly – happened between the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’ and ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’? Here’s my hypothesis (and I think you’ll agree, it’s really the only viable solution): after the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’, Poirot proposed to Virginie, but she turned him down. Poirot was devastated, and the heartbreak remained with him when he fled to England. He didn’t cut his old friends dead out of malice or thoughtlessness, but because it was too painful for him to remember.

I’ve believed in this theory since I first saw the episode in 1993, and rewatching now has done nothing to change my mind. I think the ‘knowledge’ that Poirot was turned down by the love of his life has coloured my entire perception of the character, to be honest. And for that reason, I’ve always had a lot of affection of ‘The Chocolate Box’. I mean, who couldn’t love that episode?

(My husband – that’s who. He thought it was ‘dull’ and ‘nothing really happened’. I guess he’s not on #TeamVirginie then.)

Two final points…

Christie’s story has Poirot pretend to be a plumber to gain access to search Saint Alard’s house. Due to the increased involvement of Virginie in the TV investigation, this is no longer necessary. Instead, Virginie lures St Alard to the opera, and Poirot breaks into the house in his absence. Nevertheless, Poirot does alter his appearance slightly for his housebreaking.

I was delighted to note that Poirot’s housebreaking costume here is the same as the one he dons in ‘The Veiled Lady’. Mad Dog rides again!

And it would be remiss of me not to at least say something about accents in this episode. This is a problem that will arise in other episodes as well. ‘The Chocolate Box’ is set in Brussels. With the exception of Japp, every character in the episode is Belgian. And yet, not only do they all speak in English, they all speak with English accents (with the exception of Suchet’s Poirot, of course).

In Christie’s story, all the dialogue is given in English, with a few small interjections in French. This is understandable though, as the story is being narrated by Poirot to Hastings. In the adaptation, the flashback sequences are being narrated by Poirot to Japp, so I presume he would be rendering the dialogue into English. However, we also see Poirot’s Belgian colleagues and friends in the present day – why are they all speaking English?

This is, of course, simply a stylistic decision by the programme-makers. Giving everyone a Belgian accent would possibly only highlight the fact that they’re speaking the wrong language, and filming the entire episode in French would’ve been a bit too much for the audience. It’s one that will rear its head again – how to present conversations between Francophones – and one that will be handled differently in different episodes. I guess it’s just more obvious in ‘The Chocolate Box’ as everyone is Belgian.

On that note, it’s time to leave this one and move on. The next episode will be ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, but before I get to that I’d like to take a detour to have a little look at one of Christie’s minor recurring characters: Mr Satterthwaite.

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (review)

This post is part of my 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 Case of the Missing Will’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th February 1993… almost exactly 26 years ago… how time flies! The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch on 24th October 1923. And it’s a corker of an episode.

But let’s talk about Christie’s short story first…

Have you ever thought that Poirot and Hastings’s relationship is a bit too… well… close? Or rather, a bit closed off? While they’re obviously very good friends, and each has the occasional acquaintance who pops up in a story, they don’t really do much socializing with people outside their little duo. Almost all the people they spend time with are clients or suspects. The only person they repeatedly refer to as a friend is Japp, and he’s more a work colleague. They just don’t seem to have any relationships that aren’t formal or professional.
‘Poirot and I had many friends and acquaintances of an informal nature.’
Oops… sorry, Hastings. My bad.

I can’t decide whether this abrupt opening is defensive or lazy. It’s a pretty heavy-handed way to set the scene, either way. The point is, Hastings and Poirot are hanging out with one of the many, many friends – a Dr Hawker – when their evening party (yes, the pair are definitely living together in this one) is interrupted by a ‘distracted female’:
‘Oh, doctor, you’re wanted! Such a terrible voice. It gave me a turn, it did indeed.’
The distracted female is Dr Hawker, and the terrible voice was that of Hawker’s patient, one Count Foscatini, who was calling to beg for help after an attack. Hawker, Poirot and Hastings hurry to Foscatini’s flat and discover the man has been murdered. They investigate, and then call in their ‘Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Japp’ to wrap things up. (Japp proceeds to arrest the wrong guy, by the way.)

‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is an interesting story for two reasons (in addition to Hastings’s weird compulsion to point out how many friends he and Poirot have). Firstly, it continues Christie’s minor fascination with fancy new-build and serviced apartments. This was first seen in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and would be seen again in ‘The Third Floor Flat’. (Don’t be confused here… the order of publication is different to the order of adaptation.)

In ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’ the stories include details of modern design features, particularly fancy-pants dustbin storage and service staircases. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, Foscatini lives in a full-blown new-fangled serviced apartment:
‘Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices.’
Christie’s mild fascination with serviced apartments and their thoroughly modern mechanisms for murder inspired a bit of a mild fascination in me when I first saw these episodes. However, I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about the history of this type of building. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Regent’s Court’ in this story was fictional, so I have to assume it isn’t related to the current ‘Regent Court’ portered apartment building near St John’s Road – the proximity to Regent’s Park explains the similarity of names between the fictional and real-life buildings. Nevertheless, Christie didn’t invent the concept of a ‘new block of flats’ with ‘the latest service devices’.

Doing internet searches for the history of ‘serviced apartments in London’ is a bit tricky, as we seem to be going through a bit of a serviced apartments renaissance (flats like those in Regent Court, which have a porter service and function as a sort of vertical gated community). But I have found a few little interesting nuggets of information…

The type of apartment inhabited by Count Foscatini experience a brief boom in popularity in the 1920s and 30s. I can’t remember where I read this (so no footnote I’m afraid), but some have put this popularity down to the changing fortunes of the upper classes. After WWI, it became increasingly difficult for rich men to staff a house with live-in servants – and, in some cases, to run a large house at all – and so a smaller, more modern residence with a permanent staff must have appealed. While some residents of these apartment blocks might have a single live-in (e.g. Mrs Grant in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ has a maid, and Poirot himself will take valet George with him when he moves to Whitehaven Mansions), the main work of the building is done by a shared staff who look after the needs of all residents.

One of the earliest examples of this arrangement I’ve been able to find is St James’s Court (now St James’s Hotel) on Park Place. This building – it is claimed – open in 1892 as a block of 44 serviced flats. It described itself as a ‘gentleman’s chamber’, suggesting it was somewhere between a pied-à-terre and a gentleman’s club. Presumably, many of the impossibly posh blokes who owned/rented the flats (like David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather-in-law, for example) would have a ‘primary’ or ‘country’ residence elsewhere.

I don’t think St James’s Court is quite indicative of the type of flats Christie is using in her stories, though. Her apartment blocks tend to be inhabited by wealthy professionals and bright young things, rather than the landed gentry. Prospective tenants are young married couples, single women, consulting detectives and blackmailers, and the flats will be the primary residence for the inhabitants. By the 20s and 30s, these new apartment blocks were accommodating a wave of fashionable city centre living, where the wealthy urbanistas increasingly rely on staff rather than servants (note that Regent’s Court in this story employs a ‘chef’ and not a ‘cook’). Guy Morgan’s Florin Court (built in 1936) and William Bryce Binnie’s Addisland Court (also 1936) are surviving examples of later art deco-designed blocks. Claire Bennie makes this comment on her website London Deco Flats:
‘What these wonderful 1930s buildings remind us is that there used to be a particular kind of tenant, on a medium income, who demanded porterage, parking, perhaps a maid, and sometimes dining and sports facilities.’
The descriptions of city flats in Christie’s earlier stories suggests that the ‘particular kind of tenant’ was also in the market for rented housing in the 1920s. That’s as much as I know about serviced apartments, and I’m sure I’ve probably made some horrible errors in my summary. Please – please – if you have more info on this specific bit of British housing history, let me know. I’ve been interested in this type of flat since February 1993, so I’d love a reading list!

Now… back to the story… and the second reason ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is interesting. I’ve gone on a bit already, but I reckon I can sum this one up a bit more quickly…

When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Regent’s Court, they discover Count Foscatini’s valet-butler Graves, who, like many a helpful and deferential servant in Golden Age fiction, gives the detective a careful and thorough outline of his employer’s movements and visitors. He describes the gentlemen who called to see his master the previous day, the dinner that was served on the evening of the murder, and a simple overview of his master’s entertaining habits. Graves explains that he served a meal to his master and guests, and then was given the evening off. He went out at 8.30pm and returned just in time to find Poirot poring over the body of his erstwhile employer.

Graves’s evidence is standard. This is how servants are used in so much Golden Age detective fiction – they’re essentially depersonalised narrators of the ‘background’ events of the case. They give neutral evidence of the household’s comings and goings, the timings of meals, the layout and security arrangements of the building. In these cases, the word of the servant is taken as a matter of fact, because the staff are simply plot devices to convey the material situation in which the murder has taken place. At times, a detective like Poirot might be able to push a servant to speculate, gossip or reveal a secret they are not supposed to know but, again, this almost always taken as a matter of fact.

Now, sometimes, a servant might have a secret of their own. They may be guilty of a crime – fiddling the household accounts, for instance, or colluding with some wrong ’un from outside the household. They may not be who they claim to be, or they may have falsified their references, but they are never seriously in the frame for the murder.

The whole point of Golden Age detective fiction is that the murderer represents the dark heart of the domestic set-up. It’s the spouse, the child, the parent, the family doctor. The call is coming from inside the house.

Agatha Christie does love playing tricks though. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, she assumes that we assume that the valet-butler’s evidence is neutral evidence, a statement of fact. It’s enough for Hastings and Japp, who take everything Graves says at face value, leading to the hunt for Foscatini’s dinner guest and the erroneous arrest of Ascanio.

It’s not enough for Poirot (naturally):
‘What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and a host of inanimate objects.’
The characteristic Christie misdirection in this story was making us think we were listening to a butler, when really we were listening to a man.

(As a sidenote, I now wonder if my two ‘interesting points’ are actually related. The standard country house mystery has the murderer at the heart of the family/household, then how can this be updated to reflect the new fashionable urban living arrangements of the middle classes? For unattached men like Foscatini – well-to-do city renters – their household is their valet.)

(As a more pressing sidenote… OMG! What’s the deal with 1920s speed-eating??

To recap… Graves claims that two men came to visitor his master. A dinner (for three) is ordered and served at 8pm. This is a fact corroborated by the Regent’s Court chef. The meal consists of the following:
‘Soup julienne, filet de sole normande, tournedos of beef, and a rice soufflé.’

Okay, looks like a perfectly fine dinner. Apparently the men casually conversed about ‘politics, the weather, and the theatrical world’ while dining. Graves then placed the port on the table, served them coffee, and headed out to meet a friend.

Graves left the apartment at around 8.30pm.


So, these men managed to put away soup, sole normande, beef tournedos, a little bit of rice soufflé (admittedly most of it was left) and some coffee, all the while conversing merrily… in half an hour? Seriously??

This gets even more indigestion-inducing when we discover the truth: in fact, there were no visitors, Foscatini was dead before 8 o’clock, and Graves himself consumed all of the ordered food. And then smoked a cigar and two cigarettes.

And then left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

Is it even possible to eat that much food in half an hour? He ate three quarters of a fish, for god’s sake! And around 15-21oz of steak! No wonder he bursts back into the flat later ‘with every appearance of grief and agitation’.)

Anyway… that’s enough beef for this vegetarian; I’ve spent enough time Googling what ‘sole’ and ‘tournedos’ actually are and asking my husband cryptic questions about how much fish he could eat in a single sitting. Let’s move on to the adaptation…

The episode was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Clive Exton. And it’s just excellent.

The beauty of this episode is that Christie’s story is retained faithfully, but the episode is fleshed out with the expansion of subplots and some lovely storylines for ‘the gang’. While this is true for a number of other early episodes of Poirot, the Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon storylines here are just beautiful.

Ironically, given that Christie’s story begins with Hastings curtly announcing that he and Poirot do have other friends, you know, the TV episode begins with him being utterly baffled by the concept of Miss Lemon having a social life. He enters Poirot’s office in a tizzy, because he’s discovered that Miss Lemon… isn’t there. Poirot tells him calmly that Miss Lemon is out with a gentleman friend.

I love this storyline – it belongs completely and utterly to the TV show and has absolutely no basis in any of Christie’s fiction. I love what it reveals about the ‘family’ dynamic of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon, with Hastings assuming the role of protective older brother and Poirot that of affectionate pater. I love that Poirot insists Miss Lemon’s friend comes to tea, and that both men appear to be sizing him up in their different ways. I love Miss Lemon’s comments on the class system (‘the way we were all brought up to think’) when she discovers Edwin is a butler and not a private secretary. And I love the fact that this is (I think) the first time we hear someone call Miss Lemon ‘Felicity’.

But, more importantly, I love the way the gang react when Edwin Graves’s (Leonard Preston) crimes are revealed. After apprehending the murdering, cheating butler (more on that shortly), Hastings gives him a proper punch in the chops:
‘You swine! That’s for Miss Lemon!’
Avuncular Poirot, however, has to break the news to Miss Lemon. And I love this too. The little Belgian tiptoes into Miss Lemon’s office, prepared to gently explain that her boyfriend was (a) married and (b) a murderer. It’s such a sweet scene, and I love the way Suchet conveys Poirot’s palpable concern and pain on Miss Lemon’s behalf.

But I also love the fact that Miss Lemon doesn’t care. She has to ask Poirot who ‘Edwin’ is, because Mr Graves is dead to her. Not because he killed his employer. Not because he stole a load of money. Not because he had a secret wife. Not because he was weirdly proficient at speed-eating beef. But because he was planning to have Foscatini’s cat put to sleep. For Felicity Lemon, that is the ultimate crime.

The Miss Lemon storyline is probably my favourite bit of this episode, but the Hastings bit comes a very close second. As cats are to Miss Lemon, cars are to Captain Hastings. And oh boy! There’s a car and a half here.

In this episode, Hastings has decided to ditch his beloved Lagonda and purchase a swanky Eliso Freccia (a fictional Italian make). In bare plot terms, this is done to allow an expansion of the ‘sinister Italian’ red herring of Christie’s story. In the original, Foscatini is not a count, but rather a blackmailer. Ascanio – presumed to be a political assassin – is actually Foscatini’s victim, and his earlier visit to the man’s flat was for the purpose of paying him off. (In the story, as in the TV version, Foscatini is revealed to be a very reasonable blackmailer.)

In the adaptation, Foscatini’s web of blackmail goes further, involving Bruno Vizzini (David Neal) and Margherita Fabbri (Anna Mazzotti) of the Eliso Freccia firm. This allows for two further expansions: (1) the obligatory reference to the brewing conflict in Europe, as Vizzini’s ‘crime’ is to have supported anti-fascist groups in Italy; and (2) a somewhat underwhelming subplot for Japp, where he’s on the trail of the ‘Maznada’, an Italian organized crime family that’s ‘older than the Mafia’. But while these are perfectly sensible reasons for including the Italian car firm in the episode, I think we all know the real reason for including it… it’s an excuse for some Hastings car porn!

There’s a bit of a joke among some fans of the series that early episodes shoehorned in car chases at the drop of a hat. Hastings does tend to jump behind the wheel with ease in the first couple of series, but ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ gives us the ne plus ultra of car chases.

When the police descend on Chichester to apprehend the absconding Mr Graves, the murderous valet spins his car round and floors it. Hastings spots an opportunity, jumps into a waiting Eliso Freccia car (apparently played by an Alfa Romeo 2900A with its understandably protective owner body-doubling for Hugh Fraser, in case you’re interested) and goes in pursuit. What follows is a brilliant sequence, in which the two men wheel their rather cumbersome cars through increasingly narrow streets, at a speed that could hardly be called ‘breakneck’. A passer-by shrieks and drops her crockery; the chase is held up by a wandering flock of geese; holiday-makers in an open-top bus point in amazement. It’s pure magic.

Fun as the car chase is, I do have some concerns about the Eliso Freccia car. You see, I paused the episode at the moment Hastings signs the purchase contract…

Woah… how much? £1900? So, about £130,000 in today’s money? Where on earth did Hastings get that much money from? Why is he still mooching off Poirot if he’s got £1900 burning a hole in his pocket? Once again, the finances of Captain Hastings baffle me.

Argh… it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m in danger of getting sidetracked by Hastings’s bank balance again. Time to wrap this one up, I think. Just a couple of additional points of interest with this one…

1. I like that Hastings employs the same visualisation techniques as Miss Lemon used in ‘Double Sin’ when she lost the flat keys. Here, Hastings has to cast his mind back to seeing a postcard of Graves’s boat in order to remember where it was docked.

2. The (fictional) Regent’s Court of Christie’s story is replaced by a real building – Addisland Court. The scenes at Foscatini’s flat were actually filmed on location at Addisland Court, which makes this block of flats one of the few buildings to actually play itself in the series.

3. The gut-busting reality of what Graves actually does clearly bothered Exton as much as it bothers me, as he makes some subtle changes to ease the strain on Graves’s digestive tract. While the menu is identical to that in Christie’s short story (the interview with the chef is one of the scenes adapted almost verbatim from the source), the TV Graves only pretends there is one guest coming. Thus, he only has to Man-versus-Food two full dinners, instead of three. Exton also makes a minor adjustment to the timings: the dinner is served at 8pm, but Graves doesn’t go out until just before nine, giving him a little bit longer to finish the steaks.

4. Poirot doesn’t respond well to the arrival of Count Foscatini’s cat.

And with that, it’s time to move on. The next episode is ‘The Chocolate Box’