Thursday, 22 December 2016

Poirot Project: The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Double Clue’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

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

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

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

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

Poirot isn’t convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 December 2016

Poirot Project Update

So... in 2016 I set out to rewatch every episode of ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, rereading the original stories as I went along. The reason behind this is that I've struggled to watch Curtain, even though I've read the book several times. I thought that by being completist, I might finally be able to watch the finale of David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot (rather than switching it off after 30 seconds, which is the most I've managed so far).

In my usual style, though, I've been way more completist than I really needed to be. And so some of my posts have drifted into quite long pieces musing on Christie's creations, the context of the stories and their adaptations, and my memories of watching the episodes for the first time. This - along with the fact that 2016 has been exhaustingly hectic - has resulted in me most definitely not watching every episode. In fact, I've only made it through the first 3 series!

Since it's coming up to the end of the year, and I'm definitely not going to get to the end of the series in 2016, this is a little recap of the posts I've already written for my little project...

There's my Introduction post to get started (which includes a few more of the personal reasons for doing this). And then the episode-by-episode posts...

Series 1

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook
Murder in the Mews
The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
The Third Floor Flat
Triangle at Rhodes
Problem at Sea
The Incredible Theft
The King of Clubs
The Dream

Series 2

Peril at End House
The Veiled Lady
The Lost Mine
The Cornish Mystery
The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
Double Sin
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat
The Kidnapped Prime Minister
The Adventure of the Western Star

Feature Length Episode

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Series 3

How Does Your Garden Grow?
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
The Plymouth Express
Wasp's Nest
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
The Double Clue
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
The Theft of the Royal Ruby
The Affair at the Victory Ball
The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge

Other Posts

As I just can't help digressing, I've posted some other miscellaneous musings while I've been working my way through the episodes...

Reading My First Poirot Novel - a guest post by Rob Shedwick
The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon
Agatha Christie Inspired Music by Digital Front

And finally, we decided to have a bit of a Poirot-themed trip after we watched 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim'. In June, we went to Surrey to visit Brooklands Museum - one of the brilliant locations used in the series. The first picture below is from the TV show, but the rest are from our visit (including the pic of a 1930s Lagonda!)

So I'm going to press on and start 2017 with The ABC Murders... I reckon I'm definitely going to get to Curtain by next Christmas...

Poirot Project: The Double Clue (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 10th February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in December 1923.

I might as well get this out of the way… ‘The Double Clue’ isn’t one of my favourite short stories (I don’t hate it – I’m just a bit meh about it), and the adaptation really isn’t one of my favourite episodes either. And – if I wanted to get into an Agatha Christie fandom fight – I’d also say that I don’t really like the way this story has been elevated into a more significant moment in the Poirot canon than it actually is.

As I’ve been rereading Christie’s Sketch stories, I’ve become quite taken with the way she riffs off Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in a rather affectionate homage-y sort of way. So, ‘The Veiled Lady’ references ‘The Speckled Band’; ‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ make little nods to ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’; and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a playful take on ‘The Red-Headed League’. Given this, it was probably only a matter of time before Christie turned her cheeky gaze on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ – the first of Doyle’s Holmes short stories.

And so we have ‘The Double Clue’, and Poirot’s version of Irene Adler.

In case it needs any introduction, Doyle’s story sees Holmes consulted by a member of the Bohemian royal family, who has become entangled with the retired opera singer and ‘well-known adventuress’ Irene Adler. The Grand Duke is now being blackmailed by Adler, and he needs Holmes’s help to retrieve some incriminating letters and a photograph, so that she can’t publicize the eponymous scandal and prevent the Grand Duke’s forthcoming marriage to the King of Scandinavia’s daughter. It’s a big case, but Holmes seems to act as though it won’t pose any particular challenge.

But in that the great detective is sorely mistaken. Despite Holmes utilizing his apparently superhuman powers of disguise, Adler is always one step ahead of him, and he is unable to apprehend (or even unmask) the criminal that lies beneath the woman’s respectable exterior. The story ends with Adler writing to Holmes to reveal that she was onto him from the start, but to return the incriminating photograph nevertheless (she’s now married, and gives the excuse of loving her husband to explain why she’s dropping the blackmail plan). She tells him that she’s decided to leave the country before he can catch her, and wishes him a cordial (perhaps even affectionate) goodbye.

Holmes is so taken with the intelligence of the woman – apparently he’s impressed with the way she saw through his disguise – that he asks to keep the photograph of Adler as a souvenir. And that’s it. That’s all there is to the story. But, for some reason (which I’ll come back to shortly), both Holmes and Watson are determined to build this little interlude into the most significant interaction the detective has ever had with the opposite sex. Watson begins the story by saying that, for Holmes, Adler ‘eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’, and he ends it by noting that this (rather underwhelming) case has completely changed Holmes’s perception of women:
‘He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.’
Christie’s take on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ also sees a great detective running up against an ‘adventuress’. And it also ends with the adventuress heading off into the sunset. But ‘The Double Clue’ is not ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and (more importantly) Vera Rossakoff is not Irene Adler.

As with a few other Poirot stories, ‘The Double Clue’ sees Christie takes the basic outline of a Holmes story and transposes it into the fashionable world of the 1920s. Like his forebear, the detective is consulted at the beginning of the story – but by a ‘celebrity’, rather than a ‘hereditary king’. Marcus Hardman is a man who has ‘spent his money zealously in the pursuit of social pleasure’. Unfortunately, he has been relieved of some of this money/pleasure by a dastardly jewel thief. Loathe to call the police, Hardman has called upon the great Belgian detective (‘as a compromise’) in an attempt to retrieve the stolen jewellery.

The mystery should be a relatively straightforward one for Poirot. The jewels were stolen at a tea party the previous day. Among the guests were a South African millionaire named Johnston, Lady Runcorn, Bernard Parker and Countess Vera Rossakoff (‘a very charming Russian lady, a member of the old régime’). When the safe is examined, two clues are discovered: a man’s glove and a cigarette case engraved with the initials B.P.

‘The Double Clue’ isn’t as perplexing a mystery as many of the other Poirot stories, and it lacks the intricate clueing of much of Christie’s other writing. The central puzzle – the ‘double clue’ of the title – is a bit disappointing when compared with, say, the twin necklaces of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ or the disappearing bonds in ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’. But that’s because this story isn’t just about the puzzle – it’s also about one of the suspects.

Although Hardman tells us that Vera Rossakoff is a ‘charming’ lady, Hastings (our narrator) comes to a different conclusion. He is quite taken aback by the woman’s appearance:
‘Without the least warning the door flew open, and a whirlwind in human form invaded our privacy, bringing with her a swirl of sables (it was as cold as only an English June day can be) and a hat rampant with slaughtered ospreys. Countess Vera Rossakoff was a somewhat disturbing personality.’
Rossakoff bombards the men with a passionate defence of Bernard Parker – who is currently the chief suspect – before sweeping out of the room, insisting that she will clear the man’s name. Poirot says very little during this interaction, and offers Hastings (and the reader) little insight into his assessment of the Russian countess, save that he believes she is genuinely Russian.

However, when you read the story for a second time, you realize that Poirot has twigged a lot more about Rossakoff than he’s letting on. Just a few paragraphs after his first meeting with the countess, Poirot is found studying the Russian alphabet. When you know the story’s ending, you know that this is the point where Poirot has worked out the meaning of the cigarette case’s engraving, and so has a good idea who the culprit is.

So, ‘The Double Clue’, on the face of it, bears little resemblance to ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. The set-up, development and solution of the mystery are nothing like that found in Doyle’s story. Instead, the similarity lies in the eventual fate of the female culprit, and in the detective’s lingering admiration for her at the end of the case.

When Poirot has satisfied himself that Rossakoff is the jewel thief, he takes an unusual step. Rather than pushing for her apprehension – which he could no doubt do, as he’s had people arrested on far flimsier evidence and could always fake a séance if he wanted to make her confess – he speaks to the woman confidentially, and offers to let her escape if she hands back the jewels. It’s a rather nice little exchange, in which Poirot and Rossakoff are politeness personified, but utterly unambiguous about what has happened.

Rossakoff hands back the jewels, pays Poirot a compliment, and announces that she will be leaving London. In return, Poirot makes a neat little bow and hands back the cigarette case without comment. Immediately after this, Poirot expresses his admiration of the woman to Hastings:
‘“What a woman!” cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. “Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument – of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that – with a careless smile – will go far! She is dangerous, she has the nerves of steel; she –” He tripped heavily.’
Poirot’s exclamation of ‘What a woman!’ undoubtedly recalls Holmes’s lifelong admiration of Irene Adler (‘she is always the woman’). But there’s a really important difference here… Holmes admires Adler because she got the better of him; Poirot admires Rossakoff because she recognizes that he got the better of her. And isn’t that just Poirot all over?

It could be argued that, far from Rossakoff being the woman, Poirot is actually the man in this story. After all, like Adler, it’s Poirot who is in the driving seat the whole time (even if his opponent doesn’t realize it), and it’s Poirot who reveals that he saw through a ‘disguise’ (his handing back Rossakoff’s cigarette case is a bit like Adler revealing that she knew all along that the clergyman was Holmes). And it’s Rossakoff – not Poirot – who suggests that her opponent stands almost alone of his gender:
‘It is a great compliment that I pay you there – there are very few men in the world whom I fear.’
The fact is that Poirot doesn’t need an Irene Adler – Rossakoff was never going to be the woman for Poirot, because (unlike Holmes) the little Belgian has got plenty of women. Throughout the run of Poirot stories, there will be so so many more female characters than in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I don’t actually know for sure how many female murderers there were in Doyle’s stories, but I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head.* Poirot is surrounded by female murderers, thieves, fraudsters and blackmailers – and he falls for the charms of several of them (Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson are the obvious ones, but he’s also very sympathetic to Jacqueline de Bellefort). But the shoe is sometimes on the other foot, and Rossakoff isn’t the first female jewel thief to look on Poirot with ‘affectionate awe’ – Gertie (in ‘The Veiled Lady’) thinks he’s a ‘nippy old devil’, and even hires him herself. As well as the bad girls, Poirot is also surrounded by slightly better behaved women. Two of his regular associates are women, and he reveals a number of friendships – both old and new – with women of different ages (e.g. he acts as ‘avuncular’ to young women like Katherine Grey, but is also rather protective of older women such as Emily Arundell). He also flirts cheekily with younger women in ‘The Triangle at Rhodes’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’, waxes lyrical at the beauty of motherhood in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and admires the professionalism of the female chemist in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never mind how good a jewel thief she is, Poirot simply hasn’t got room in his life for an Irene Adler.

There’s an interesting little comment at the beginning of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ that reveals something about the differences in how Holmes and Poirot relate to women (or, perhaps, how they relate to their ‘significant others’ Watson and Hastings). Doyle’s short story begins with Watson paying a call on Holmes after a period of separation. Watson explains this:
‘I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.’
As the two men begin to talk, it’s quickly apparent that Holmes doesn’t have the slightest inclination to ask after Mrs Watson. He’s more interested in playing his usual parlour game of deducing odd little nuggets of information about his visitors (such as the fact that Watson has a clumsy parlourmaid) than talking about what’s going on in his friend’s life. So distant have the two men been that Holmes didn’t even know Watson was practicing medicine again. Compare this with Poirot and Hastings’s reunion in Peril at End House. Here, the pair have also been separated by the associate’s marriage. But Poirot and Hastings have been much further apart than Holmes and Watson (who both remained in London, just not in regular communication) – Hastings has moved to Argentina, where he runs a ranch with his wife Dulcie (or Bella, as Hastings can’t seem to remember her name). Nevertheless, it’s clear that, not only has Poirot kept in touch with his old friend, he is also acquainted with Mrs Hastings. In fact, he has a rather high opinion of her.

When Hastings rails at Poirot for questioning his intelligence, he asks whether or not he’d be able to run such a successful ranch if he was as stupid as Poirot continually implies. The detective shakes his head:
‘Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it – you and your wife.’
I think the implication here is pretty clear. Poirot has a high regard for Dulcie/Bella, as he believes she’s keeping Hastings on the straight-and-narrow. Holmes, on the other hand, seems monumentally uninterested in his friend’s marriage, and has no concern whatsoever for his old friend’s wife. For Doyle’s detective, there really is only one woman.

Anyway, time to move on to the TV adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’. But just one final point before I do…

Although the story and TV episode are naturally dominated by the introduction of Vera Rossakoff, it’s worth giving a little bit of attention to the presentation of two of the other characters – Marcus Hardman and Bernard Parker.

When Hastings and Poirot first meet Hardman, he is described as ‘a small man, delicately plump, with exquisitely manicured hands and a plaintive tenor voice’. The man describes the scene of the crime to the detective, and is then asked questions about the guests at his tea party. When they reach Parker, Hardman is evasive:
‘He is – er – he is a young fellow. Well, in fact, a young fellow I know.’
Now, it’s quickly explained that Hardman’s reluctance comes from the fact that Parker privately organizes the sale of heirlooms for upper class families who have fallen on hard times. His job is a sensitive one, and Hardman is hesitant to reveal such a role exists. However, there’s a lingering suggestion in the way Hardman introduced Parker, and this doesn’t go away when we meet the man himself. Hastings offers the following description of the ‘young fellow’:
‘We found him reclining on some cushions, clad in an amazing dressing-gown of purple and orange. I have seldom taken a greater dislike to anyone than I did to this particular young man with his white, effeminate face and affected lisping speech.’
Hardman and Parker are both described in terms of their effeminacy, and there is a question mark placed over their relationship to one another. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say these characters are coded as gay, there’s certainly something ‘other’ about them (particularly Parker) that Hastings finds distasteful. I’m not sure we’re supposed to imagine that Hardman and Parker are definitely in a relationship, but we’re certainly meant to be suspicious that this might be the case.

So now to the ITV adaptation…

The adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’ was written by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Andrew Piddington. On the whole, it’s a fairly faithful retelling of Christie’s story (plot-wise), with a few extra details thrown in to expand the story to fit the TV format.

The biggest alteration, in this respect, is the inclusion of Japp and Miss Lemon – but that’s to be expected from the early series. The addition of Japp alters the story’s set-up a bit, as the theft of Hardman’s jewellery is now part of a series of thefts that have baffled Scotland Yard. Japp is under pressure from his bosses to solve the case, and he enlists Poirot’s help to do so.

This alteration doesn’t really work, as Poirot is able to solve the case with remarkable ease (even for him). He very quickly ascertains that Rossakoff was the only guest present at all of the thefts, a fact which you’d think Japp would have picked up on at some point. There’s a rather clumsy suggestion that Rossakoff’s presence has been overlooked because the police are ‘too English’, but this doesn’t really hold water. In ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, the Russian woman was the first (and only) person anyone apart from Poirot suspected, so it seems strange that Japp would now assume a Russian countess was utterly beyond suspicion. Nevertheless, this explanation allows for Japp to be part of the gang for this episode, which is always welcome in my book.

Aside from this, the only major alteration to Christie’s puzzle comes from the revelation that Lady Runcorn’s maiden name was Beatrice Palmerston, which allows her to more obviously be in the frame for owning the cigarette case.

However, although the clues and puzzle are pretty much the same as in Christie’s short story, there are some quite dramatic alterations to tone in the adaptation. In particular, the two (possible) relationships that are hinted at in the short story undergo quite big changes in the TV episode. I’ll come to Poirot/Rossakoff in a moment, but first I want to look at Hardman/Parker.

The TV version of Hardman (played by David Lyon) is nothing like his literary counterpart. There is nothing of the effeminacy hinted at in the short story, and one would be hard-pressed to describe Lyon’s voice as a ‘plaintive tenor’. Rather than hosting an intimate little tea party, this version of Hardman throws a thoroughly respectable evening do, which is attended by a large number of people. And, while the TV Hardman is a little evasive about his relationship with Parker, this comes across more as dislike, rather than as embarrassment.

Parker, on the other hand, is even more exaggerated than the character in Christie’s story. In the adaptation, the ‘young fellow’ is transformed into a rather slimy – and undeniably camp – individual (played by David Bamber). While the literary character served an embarrassing, but necessary, function in high society, this Parker appears to have insinuated himself into fashionable circles by flirting with, and imposing on, the cash-strapped upper classes.

When Hastings visits Parker at home, he finds him much the same as in Christie’s short story. However, there’s an interesting moment in the TV episode that suggests that this version of the character is more clearly meant to be read as gay. The episode has an additional clue – the discovery of a piece of embroidery marked with the initials ‘B.P.’ – due to the enhanced confusion over who owns the cigarette case. Hastings confronts Parker and asks if this has anything to do with him. Parker says he has no idea what Hastings is talking about, and questions the implications of his being asked if he’s ever done any embroidery. But the way Bamber delivers his lines here is highly suggestive. He demurs and giggles at the question, lowers his eyes, and then looks searchingly at Hastings as if trying to work out a subtext. Parker seems flirtatious, but also curious. It’s like he’s trying to work out whether or not Hastings is speaking to him in code: ‘Are you asking if I’m gay? Do you want me to be gay? Are you gay?’

The uneasy outcome of this is that, while Christie’s 1923 text hinted at the possibility of a gay relationship (albeit not a particularly solid one, given that Hardman is more than happy when he believes Parker is the jewel thief), the 1991 adaptation is uncomfortable with this, and replaces it with a rather unpleasant effete man who flirts with both women (to slime his way into society) and men (when he thinks they’re possible conquests). By removing any effeminacy in the presentation of Hardman, the adaptation makes Parker seem more like a predatory weirdo than a (slightly dodgy) ‘young fellow’. It’s sad to think that the hint in Christie’s story that Hardman is worried his boyfriend has stolen his jewels needed to be played down for TV in the 1990s.

And as the homosexual relationship is erased, a heterosexual one springs up to fill its place. Sigh.

As I’ve said, Poirot’s admiration of Rossakoff in Christie’s short story is the result of her behaviour after he has identified her as the thief. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the ITV adaptation – instead, it appears someone thought it was time for Poirot to get a girlfriend.

The TV Rossakoff (played here by Kika Markham) is a very different kettle of fish to the character in Christie’s short story. Rather than bursting into the story swathed in fur and feathers, this countess arrives with an air of mystery and romance. We see her leaving a train, surrounded by shadows; we see her sitting at a window gazing wistfully at rain; we see her approach Poirot with grace, elegance and – of course – a hint of tragedy.

Poirot, in turn, is utterly charmed from the first moment he meets Rossakoff. He is visibly infatuated as he bows over her hand and mutters ‘Enchanté, madame,’ and he continues this rather awed approach each time he sees her.

Poirot and Rossakoff start going on dates together. Specifically, they visit an art gallery (filmed in Senate House, a location also used in ‘The Veiled Lady’) and flirt with an over-the-top repressed politeness. He winces when she calls him ‘Hercule’, but they each reveal a little of their souls as they point out art with which they feel a connection. They speak of feeling exiled from their countries, and walk arm-in-arm.

It’s completely rubbish, and it’s the reason I don’t like this episode.

Never mind that Poirot appears to have forgotten the investigation entirely at this point – even though his friend’s job is on the line – he seems to have forgotten all the values and morals that have underpinned his character from the start. While Poirot always has a soft spot for people displaced from their homeland, there’s nothing in any of the stories to suggest that he’d find a jewel thief who lifts necklaces from posh people’s parties any other than dull. Admittedly, Poirot does occasionally let criminals get away (or ‘escape the noose’ if the crime is murder) if he believes they aren’t really ‘bad’ people, but there’s no justification at all for Rossakoff’s thefts, other than that she wanted some nice stuff. So the fact that Poirot just lets her get away with it leaves us with the suggestion that he simply fancies her too much to see her arrested – and that’s not Poirot at all.

That’s right – he just lets her get away with it. And not in the brief ‘I’ve got no evidence, so if you give me the jewels we’ll say no more about it’ way he does in the short story. Oh no. Here, the detective lies to his friends to protect the countess, invents a story about a mysterious tramp, hires a man to play the tramp (which results in Hastings being shot at by the actor Poirot has employed), goes on a romantic picnic with the real thief, retrieves the jewels, puts the blame for the cigarette case on Lady Runcorn (inventing a spurious story about the innocent woman wanting to sell it to Hardman), and then hires two detectives (Redfern and Blake) to watch over Rossakoff as she makes her getaway. It’s a far cry from him simply telling Rossakoff to hurry up and give him the necklace, because he’s got a taxi waiting.

Poirot’s final comments on/to Rossakoff in each of the different versions reveal how much of a shift has occurred in their relationship. In the TV episode, he is clearly heartbroken by the impossibility of their being together. After the case has been ‘resolved’, Poirot and Rossakoff take tea at the railway station and say their goodbyes Brief Encounter style. Poirot admits to the affection and admiration he feels for the woman, but adds (with a note of tragedy) that they are opposites:
‘You must continue your work, and I must continue mine. But not in the same country.’
Wait… what? Did Poirot just say that she must continue nicking rich people’s necklaces? How bizarre.

By contrast, Christie’s version of the story has the detective more impressed by the woman’s boldness in defeat. He enthusiastically gushes to Hastings about Rossakoff’s audacious acceptance of the outcome, and the way she didn’t flinch when he confronted her:
‘A remarkable woman. I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall meet her again. Where, I wonder?’
I like this ending better.

To finish up, I want to say something about the way the other characters respond to Poirot getting a girlfriend. Because this doesn’t sit well with Hastings and Miss Lemon, who are thrown together for most of the episode as a result of their friend’s strange behaviour (in fact, a couple of the interviews that are conducted by Poirot and Hastings in the story are carried out by Hastings and Miss Lemon in the adaptation). Neither of them seem able to understand what is going on.

There’s something quite sweet about the way Hastings and Miss Lemon mourn the potential loss of their friend, but also something a bit uncomfortable. Hastings’s reaction – he is utterly baffled and bereft – is in-keeping with the men’s relationship in both the TV show and Christie’s fiction. I’ll be coming on to the ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ soon, but there’s a bit in the 1923 version of that story where Poirot confesses his heartbreak at Hastings’s marriage in a similar tone to the way Hastings’s responds to Poirot’s relationship here. I also quite like the way Hastings becomes rather protective of his friend, determining to complete the investigation and (if necessary) reveal that Rossakoff has been lying.

But Miss Lemon’s reaction is a bit less cute. Her utter distress at the thought of Poirot getting a girlfriend is a bit… well, a bit much. We know how fond of the little Belgian she is, but it borders on downright jealousy here. In one conversation, as she takes a sombre tea with Hastings, she actually seems to be choking down tears as she blurts out: ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ Never mind that this is a million miles away from the ‘perfect machine’ Miss Lemon of Christie’s fiction, it seems to cross a line in the presentation of the TV character – Miss Lemon doesn’t fancy Poirot, and it’s weird to see her behaving as though she does.

As you can see, this episode irritates me a bit. I much prefer the affectionate fun of Christie’s short story than the doleful ‘star-crossed lovers’ nonsense of the TV version. The 1923 version really reads like a playful take on a Sherlock Holmes story, particularly when it’s read in context of the other Sketch stories. But the TV version removes this playfulness and turns it into something rather melodramatic. I suppose one consolation is that this is definitely not the worst presentation of Poirot’s relationship with Rossakoff in the ITV series – as the detective predicted in Christie’s story, he would run into her again. But it’s going to be a while before I get to that…

One final thing before I finish… it would be remiss of me not to point out that Christie would recycle one half of the story’s ‘double clue’ in a later, much more famous Poirot story. Using the Russian alphabet to decipher a monogram? To paraphrase Poirot:
‘I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall see that again. Where, I wonder?’
Next up… it’s ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.

* Thank you to Ian Preston, who just reminded me on Twitter that there is a female killer in ‘The Adventure of the Second Stain’. I’m sure there are a couple of others as well, but I can’t remember them.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Poirot Project: The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘Wasps’ Nest’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 3rd February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in April 1923.

‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ opens with Hastings entering Poirot’s rooms to discover his friend packing a ‘small valise’ in preparation of a trip – the great detective has been called away on a case. Because I’m rereading the short stories in the order of ITV’s adaptation, it’s easy to forget what immediately preceded this trip, so a little recap might be in order…

Just one week before ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was published, The Sketch published ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’. In this story, Poirot has a bit of fun at his old friend’s expense, letting Hastings believe in a completely misguided theory before pulling the rug from under his feet with a flourish. ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ ends with a tetchy confrontation between the two men:
‘“It’s all very well,” I said, my anger rising, “but you’ve made a perfect fool of me! From beginning to end! No, it’s all very well to try and explain it away afterwards. There really is a limit.”
“But you were so enjoying yourself, my friend, I had not the heart to shatter your illusions.”
“It’s no good. You’ve gone a bit too far this time.”
Mon Dieu! but how you enrage yourself for nothing, mon ami!”
“I’m fed up!” I went out, banging the door. Poirot had made an absolute laughing-stock of me. I decided that he needed a sharp lesson. I would let some time elapse before I forgave him. He had encouraged me to make a perfect fool of myself.’
Seven days later, readers were presented with ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’, which begins:
‘I had been called away from town for a few days, and on my return found Poirot in act of strapping up his small valise.’
When Hastings enquires as to whether Poirot has been employed on a case, the detective explains the situation (more on that shortly), before commanding his associate to join him:
‘Five minutes to pack your bag, Hastings, and we will take a taxi to Liverpool Street.’
He gets no argument from Hastings, who simply wants to know:
‘What is our plan of campaign?’
I love this opening, because it’s a lovely portrait of Poirot and Hastings as a dynamic duo. Even though the story is far from a ‘thriller’ – it’s much more ‘country house murder’ than the stories collected as The Big Four, for example – there’s a sense of urgency to the opening that differs from the more common Perusal of the Morning News intros found in a lot of the other Sketch stories. This is a bread-and-butter case for Poirot (he’s been employed by an insurance company to investigate a suspicious death), and Hastings is acting as his professional associate. The military flavour of Hastings’s response reminds us of his background, casting him squarely as Watson to Poirot’s Holmes; his acquiescence to the detective’s plan of action suggests he’s going to play sidekick here, unlike in other stories where he reveals more desire to be a detective.


When you read the story in the context of what came immediately before (and what would come shortly afterwards), it leaves a few questions. How does this opening relate to the ending of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’? How much time elapsed between the two cases?

Personally, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from imagining the Sketch stories in a linear chronology. For one thing, there are a few cases that – as Hastings makes clear in his narration – take place earlier than the others (‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, ‘The Chocolate Box’, ‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’). Although some of the other stories give a hint of the order in which they take place – e.g. ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ references ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and ‘The King of Clubs’ – there isn’t a definitive chronology to the cases. Again, this reminds us of Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes stories; this is a ‘casebook’, in which the detective’s associate cherry-picks the most interesting cases to write up, moving between periods in his friend’s career without too much concern. So, it’s quite possible that ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ took place before ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, or equally that it took place many months later.

But that falling out must have been fixed in readers’ minds, surely? And then just one week later, Hastings was breezing into Poirot’s rooms as though nothing had happened. We never see or hear anything about their reconciliation. We just pick up their story as though no disagreement had ever occurred. And that’s really quite sweet.

But there’s another question raised by the opening to ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Where has Hastings been?

Unlike in other stories, where the question is ‘Where does Hastings live?’ (sometimes it’s ‘our rooms’, sometimes it’s ‘Poirot’s rooms’ – make your mind up, Arthur), here we find ourselves wondering ‘Where does Hastings go when he’s not with Poirot?’ He says he was ‘called away from town’ – but why? and by whom? As I’ve said before, Hastings doesn’t actually seem to have any family or property of his own. He certainly doesn’t seem to have a job by this point in the duo’s career, and there’s no mention of him being in business of any sort, though Poirot makes occasional reference to some ‘doubtful speculations’. So why would Hastings suddenly be ‘called away from town’ as though he’s got fingers in all sorts of other pies?

I have a rather romantic theory about this – though it’s not really backed up by anything apart from my insistent belief that, no matter what she said in her autobiography, Christie’s stories repeatedly suggest that Poirot and Hastings belong together. Perhaps – just perhaps – Christie was subtly preparing readers for an imminent bombshell. ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was published a month before Murder on the Links. So that novel was already written and in print by the time the short story made its appearance. Until this point, readers had been given no opportunity to imagine Hastings having a life without Poirot, but Christie knew she was about to rip the men’s BFF-world apart. Is it too fanciful to believe that Hastings’s little ‘away from town’ trip is preparing the ground for the heartbreak (and trust me, when we get to ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ you’ll be in no doubt that it is heartbreak) to come?


But I still quite like my theory.

Anyway… now that I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time overanalysing the story’s opening, I should say something about the rest of it.

Poirot has been employed by the Northern Union Insurance Company to investigate a suspicious death. Mr Maltravers was a man of ‘quite sound health’ who passed away due to an ‘internal haemorrhage’. Although the death wasn’t initially considered to be suspicious, the insurance company later discovered that the man was on the verge of bankruptcy and had used his last ‘ready money’ to pay for premiums on a £50000 life insurance policy. They have asked Poirot to ascertain whether or not the man committed suicide in order to allow his wife to benefit from the policy. Poirot isn’t optimistic about his chances of success, as he believes the verdict of ‘internal haemorrhage’ seems ‘fairly definite’. Nevertheless, he agrees to undertake some enquiries.

Poirot and Hastings travel to Marsdon Leigh at once. They interview the local GP, Dr Bernard – who tells them that, although he hadn’t attended Mr Maltravers in life, he did examine the body and discovered the cause of death to be clear (blood on the lips, but no external wound) – Mrs Maltravers – who tells them about her husband’s movements prior to his death – and then Captain Black (a family friend). Black tells them a bit about the background to his visit, before Poirot decides to freestyle:
‘With your permission, I should like to try a little experiment. You have told us all that your conscious self knows, I want now to question your subconscious self.’
The detective then enters into a little word association game with Black and, seemingly satisfied with the results, thanks the man for his time. When Hastings admits to being confused by the shenanigans, Poirot (perhaps chastened by their argument at the end of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’) explains with uncharacteristic clarity.

What the word association reveals is that, during his dinner visit shortly before Mr Maltravers’s death, Black had told a story about a man in East Africa who had committed suicide by shooting himself through the roof of his mouth with a rook rifle. The bullet had lodged in his brain, and so the only external sign had been blood on the man’s lips. Of course, at this point we all remember that both Dr Bernard and Mrs Maltravers had mentioned a rook rifle being found next to Mr Maltravers’s body – it seems that Poirot might be able to prove it was suicide after all…

But we’re not at the denouement yet.

Our detective makes a lengthy phone call to London, and then takes himself off for a few hours to think. When he returns, he explains to Hastings that they must pay another visit to Mrs Maltravers. Hastings believes that they are going to break some ‘painful’ news to the young widow, but it turns out that Poirot has other ideas.

That’s right! It’s another bonkers finale!

Just as dinner is being served, Poirot asks Mrs Maltravers if she knows about the rumours in the village that Marsdon Manor is haunted. If this seems like an odd direction to take a tactful conversation about insurance fraud, we don’t have too much time to ponder. Poirot’s talk of ghosts is immediately interrupted by the sound of smashing crockery and a screaming parlour-maid. Poirot comforts the terrified servant, only to be told that the poor women was startled by a man standing in the hallway: ‘I thought – I thought it was the master – it looked like ’im.’

Things get even creepier – there’s tapping on the window, a moaning wind, a door latch that won’t stay shut. And then, when a sense of terror has truly invaded the room, the locked door to the morning room slowly, impossibly, begins to open…
‘Suddenly, without warning, the lights quivered and went out. Out of the darkness came three loud raps. I could hear Mrs Maltravers moaning.
And then – I saw!
The man I had seen on the bed upstairs stood there facing us, gleaming with a faint ghostly light. There was blood on his lips, and he held his right hand out, pointing. Suddenly a brilliant light seemed to proceed from it. It passed over Poirot and me, and fell on Mrs Maltravers. I saw her white terrified face, and something else!
“My God, Poirot!” I cried. “Look at her hand, her right hand. It’s all red!”’
With that, Mrs Maltravers screams hysterically and confesses to the murder of her husband. Poirot snaps on the light, reveals their old friend Inspector Japp outside in the garden, and explains the whole thing. Having worked out that Mrs Maltravers murdered her husband for the insurance money (inspired by Captain Black’s East Africa story), he realized that he ‘had not a shadow of proof in support of [his] theory’ and so organized ‘the elaborate little comedy you say played tonight’. The end.

I think this is the first time that Poirot has faked a séance/message from beyond the grave to force a confession, but it certainly won’t be the last. By the time we get to Peril at End House, Hastings is so familiar with this method that he enters into the role of medium without even being asked.

I know I spent quite a bit of time pondering over the story’s opening, but ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ is a fairly standard Poirot short story. There’s a neat little puzzle – gun found near the body, but no bullet wound – but it’s not one of my favourites. Personally, I find it too light on clues and too heavy on tricks to force confession (the word association, the ghost). But it’s a pretty standard workaday case for the detective, and one for which (I assume) he was handsomely paid.

Let’s have a look at how ITV handled it…

The adaptation of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was written by David Renwick and directed by Renny Rye. As you might expect from this creative team, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of Christie’s story. Where changes and expansions have been made, they’re pretty much in-keeping with either the spirit of Christie’s original story or the tone of the ITV series.

In this version of the story, Poirot and Hastings have been called to Marsdon Leigh by Samuel Naughton (played by Desmond Barrit), who wants them to investigate a murder. On their arrival, they discover that Naughton is actually a mystery writer (who goes by the penname Clarrisa Naughton), and that he’s written himself into a hole with his latest novel. He wanted the great detective to come and explain which of his suspects is the guilty party. Poirot, understandably, is not amused.

Intending to travel back to London as soon as possible, Poirot and Hastings are stopped in their plans by the discovery of Mr Jonathan Maltravers’s body. One of the policemen attending the scene (played by Geoffrey Swann) spots Poirot and asks him to come and help them, and he is soon joined by Inspector Japp, who is tasked with revealing the details of Jonathan Maltravers’s insurance policy.

Although the circumstances of Poirot’s involvement are different, the mystery is essentially the same. Maltravers died of indeterminate causes after setting up a large insurance policy to benefit his wife. In the opening scene, we saw the man shooting at rooks (though, in this version, the rook rifle is not found near his body).

Obviously, because of the nature of the series, viewers aren’t expected to buy the idea of death by natural causes – or even Susan Maltravers’s (Geraldine Alexander) suggestion that her husband died of severe shock after being frightened by one of Marsdon Manor’s ghosts. Thus, the TV adaptation has to add a few more suspects, clues and red herrings to the original story (in which, it has to be admitted, there is really only one suspect if you discount the possibility of suicide).

Captain Black is now one of the suspects. Here, instead of being a distant acquaintance whose ‘people’ knew Maltravers, he is a friend of Susan Maltravers and, as we discover, is in love with the woman. But he isn’t the only love rival in the episode – Mr Maltravers now has a secretary with whom he was once romantically involved, Miss Rawlinson (Anita Carey).

The character is Miss Rawlinson is quite cleverly drawn. Her dislike of Jonathan’s young wife comes off her in waves, and there’s a proprietorial air to the way in which she moves about Marsdon Manor. She seems suspiciously unwelcoming of the new mistress of the house, and you begin to suspect that she might be deliberately trying to undermine Susan’s mental health. There are shades of another, more famous character here – and I think this might be deliberate. The secretary is called Miss Rawlinson, but can it be a coincidence that the writers named the gardener ‘Danvers’?

Along with the living suspects, the TV episode gives us an additional spooky suspect by expanding the short story’s brief mention of Marsdon Manor being haunted. The ghost is now given a name (Rebecca Mary Marsdon) and a tragic backstory. Susan Maltravers has apparently been unsettled by a number of supernatural occurrences, and the opening sequence shows the woman seemingly being terrorized by a sinister spectral force. This gives a bit more basis for Poirot’s final stunt, which plays out in a very similar way to in the short story (with the added creepy detail of Maltravers’s ‘ghost’ being played by Samuel Naughton in a wax death-mask).

Given that this is a ‘murder mystery’ series, Renwick would no doubt have been aware that viewers would be convinced from the off that someone has murdered Jonathan Maltravers. The most important thing, therefore, is to make sure that as little suspicion as possible is thrown on Susan Maltravers – who is, of course, the natural suspect. I can’t help wondering if the casting was intended to help with this. For Agatha Christie fans in 1991, Geraldine Alexander would still be partly associated with her earlier role in the BBC Miss Marple adaptation Sleeping Murder. (Okay… for some of us, that’s still the role we associate with Geraldine Alexander.)

In Sleeping Murder, Alexander plays Gwenda Reed, a young woman who moves into a new house and is haunted by seemingly supernatural events. I adore Sleeping Murder (though it utterly terrified me as a kid), so I’m going to restrain myself from saying too much about it here. But I can’t help but think that there are some scenes in ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ that recall scenes from the earlier Christie adaptation – particularly the scene where Susan comes out of the bathroom and sits at her mirror.

I feel as though we’re being subtly lured into seeing Susan as another version of Gwenda – the woman is being driven mad by something that appears inexplicable, but is actually the memory/action of human malevolence.

Maybe that’s just me though. I do love Sleeping Murder.

Anyway, some final thoughts on ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Normally I’d say that I need to get to Curtain by Christmas, but I think we can all agree that that’s not going to happen now. But I should wrap this post up…

The light-hearted aspect of the episode comes, in part, from Samuel Naughton. As an aside, Poirot does eventually concede and suggest a conclusion for Naughton’s novel – he explains that the ‘bedridden explorer’ is the guilty party, having shot a poison dart into the fruit cake (Ariadne Oliver has nothing to fear from Clarrisa Naughton). We also have a silly little subplot involving a local waxwork museum, which houses a model that seems rather familiar…

The waxwork museum is really just a bit of silliness, but I do like the men’s second visit when Hastings and Japp cheekily rearrange the model’s tie and hat.

In a number of previous posts, I’ve mentioned some little details that have been used to set the ‘perma-1935’ scene for the early series. In some cases, this involves the use of contemporary songs, films and buildings, but here we’re back to the military backdrop of the late 1930s. As the investigation into Jonathan Maltravers’s death unfolds, Marsdon Leigh is preparing for the National Civil Defence Day, and we hear a news announcer explaining that this is a project proposed by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. As Baldwin was PM from 1935-37, and the Civil Defence Service was formed in 1935, we have a very clear indication of when this story is set.

The National Civil Defence Day allows for a dramatic ‘attempt’ to be made on Susan Maltravers’s life (via chloroform in her gas mask), but it also returns us to the feeling that pervades a lot of the early series – it’s always 1935; Poirot’s Europe is always teetering on the brink of war. It’s like the threat of a thunderstorm that we never see break.

And on that note, time to move on… the next episode is ‘The Double Clue’

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Victorian Gothic Faust Penny Dreadful – OUT NOW

Issue 1 of the Digital Periodicals edition of George Reynolds's Faust is available now - and it only costs £1! The next issue will be out on Friday, but there's still plenty of time to catch up with Issue 1 before then... and it's pretty wild stuff too...

The year is 1493, and a penniless young student has made a momentous bargain to save himself from the noose. He says he did it for love... but will the lure of power and vengeance be too great?

Elsewhere, another young man is summoned by the Vehm - a secret tribunal that takes the law into its own hands and conducts clandestine trials and punishments. What do they want with Charles Hamel? And does this have anything to do with Count Manfred's dubious claim to Linsdorf Castle?

On top of all this, Manfred has attacked Rosenthal Castle! And Theresa has been abducted! Has she bought herself enough time? Or will the dastardly Manfred force her into marriage? And just why does that old portrait look so much like Theresa's handmaiden?

This is the first modern edition of the classic penny dreadful version of Faust, and it's fully illustrated and compatible with all e-readers. Issues will be released fortnightly and are available exclusively from the publisher's website. Check out the video trailer here:

Friday, 28 October 2016

PRESS RELEASE: Victorian Gothic Faust Penny Dreadful Launches at Halloween

On 28th October 2016, North Manchester-based micro-press Hic Dragones will launch a new edition of the 1847 penny dreadful FAUST. Written by best-selling Victorian author George Reynolds, this Gothic version of the Faust legend was serialized in the mid-nineteenth century in the penny papers. It tells the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, vengeance and wealth, against the backdrop of secret tribunals and power struggles in medieval Europe.

This is the first modern edition of Reynolds’s FAUST, and the meticulously transcribed collection also features all of the original illustrations. The eBook serial will be published in 12 fortnightly instalments by Hic Dragones’ Victorian Gothic imprint Digital Periodicals, joining their catalogue of classic penny dreadful titles such as VARNEY THE VAMPIRE, THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON and WAGNER THE WEHR-WOLF.

Editor Hannah Kate says: ‘Many people will be familiar with the Faust legend from the versions written by Marlowe, Goethe or Mann. But this is the quintessential Victorian Gothic take on the story – full of scheming nobles, masked identities and daring escapades. It’s surprising that Reynolds’s FAUST fell into obscurity, as the author was one of Victorian London’s pulp fiction stars. This new edition will bring his work to a whole new audience.’

FAUST will be available in Kindle and ePub format at £1 per issue from the publisher’s website.

A video trailer is available to watch here:


For further information, please contact Hannah Kate.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

OUT NOW: Gothic Studies 18:1 (May 2016)

The May 2016 issue of Gothic Studies is now out.


Playing the Man: Manliness and Mesmerism in Richard Marsh's The Beetle
Natasha Rebry

'Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine Already': Criminal Female Sexuality in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Beth Shane

'Mensonge': The Rejection of Enlightenment in the Unreliable 'Souvenirs' of Charles Nodier
Matthew Gibson

The Mirror and the Window: The Seduction of Innocence and Gothic Coming of Age in Låt Den Rätte Komma In/Let The Right One In
Amanda Howell

Labyrinths of Conjecture: The Gothic Elsewhere in Jane Austen's Emma
Andrew McInnes

Gothic Stagings: Surfaces and Subtexts in the Popular Modernism of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot Series
Taryn Norman


Roger Luckhurst, Zombies: A Cultural History (London, 2015)
Deborah G. Christie

Minna Vuohelainen, Richard Marsh (Cardiff, 2015); Stephan Karshay, Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle (Basingstoke, 2015)
Emma Liggins

Wickham Clayton (ed.), Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film (London, 2015)
Shellie McMurdo

Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville (eds), The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic (London, 2015)
Hannah Priest

Cristina Artenie, Dracula Invades England: the Text, the Context and the Readers (Montreal, 2015)
Jillian Wingfield

For more information, or to subscribe to the journal, please visit the Manchester University Press website. As part of their Halloween special offer, online access to this issue of Gothic Studies is free throughout October.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Coming Soon: Faust

On 28th October, Digital Periodicals (the Victorian Gothic department of Hic Dragones) will be launching the first issue of George Reynolds's 1847 penny dreadful Faust. The eBook serial will be published in 12 fortnightly instalments, each costing just £1. This freshly transcribed and fully illustrated serial is the only modern edition of Reynolds’ action-packed tale of deadly sin, imperilled virtue and political intrigue.

To have everything your heart desires – what price would you pay?

From the author of Mysteries of London and Wagner the Wehrwolf comes a unique take on the legendary story of Faust. In the 1490s, amidst the secretive tribunals and power games of Europe, an impoverished student enters into a pact that will twist his mind and shatter his spirit. The promise of power, wealth and vengeance comes at a terrifying cost – but can true love conquer the demon’s hold? and what fate awaits a man who would sell his very soul?

Find out more on the Hic Dragones website.

And check out the brand new Faust trailer (with music by the fantastic Digital Front)!