Saturday, 9 April 2016

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Cheap Flat (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 ‘Double Sin’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 18th February 1990. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch in May 1923.

In this story, we find our detective confronted by a peculiar puzzle. A redhead has received an offer that, while not completely impossible, seems too good to be true. Our sleuth is intrigued and begins to investigate these curious circumstances, quickly discovering that all is not what it seems.

Hang on… this sounds awfully familiar…

I must confess, I’d never noticed any similarity between ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’ until I reread it for this project. But after spotting the cheeky references in other Sketch stories to ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’) and ‘The Speckled Band’ (‘The Veiled Lady’) – and no doubt there are more that I’ve not spotted (it’s been ages since I read a Sherlock Holmes story) – I suddenly realized that the set-up of Christie’s ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is the same as in Doyle’s 1891 short story. I decided to take another look at Doyle’s story to see if the similarity went any further, and sure enough I was immediately convinced that it’s not a coincidence.

‘The Red-Headed League’ begins with Watson paying a call on his detective friend. He finds Holmes deep in conversation with a new client, but the detective invites Watson to join the conversation, saying:
‘I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life. You have shown your relish for it by the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures.’
‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, which is narrated by Hastings, begins with the following statement:
‘So far, in the cases which I have recorded, Poirot’s investigations have started from the central fact, whether murder or robbery, and have proceeded from thence by a process of logical deduction to the final triumphant unravelling. In the events I am now about to chronicle a remarkable chain of circumstances led from the apparently trivial incidents which first attracted Poirot’s attention to the sinister happenings which completed a most unusual case.’
This is one of only a few occasions where Hastings refers to himself as Poirot’s ‘chronicler’ (for whom are these chronicles intended? is Hastings planning to publish them? I’ll come back to these questions in a later post) – and it’s this role that links him most explicitly to Dr Watson.

There are more similarities here… Holmes comments on the ‘humdrum routine of everyday life’ and ‘the bizarre’; Hastings speaks of ‘apparently trivial incidents’ and ‘a most unusual case’. It’s enough to convince me that this is another of Christie’s playful references to her illustrious predecessor.

But it is definitely a playful reference. In Christie’s short story, the ‘florid-faced elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair’ is replaced with Mrs Robinson, a ‘charming little bride’ whose ‘hair’s really a beautiful shade of auburn’ (‘Always you have had a penchant for auburn hair!’ murmured Poirot.) And Mrs Robinson hasn’t been offered a suspiciously well-paid clerical job, but rather has secured (with her husband) a ‘beautifully furnished’ serviced apartment in Montagu Mansions, off Knightsbridge, for the curiously low sum of £80 per year. As soon as Poirot hears of this low rent, he’s hooked (just as Holmes was hooked as soon as he ‘heard of the assistant having come for half wages’).

Outside of this jokey homage to Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a delightful story and is on my list of favourite Poirot short stories (which, admittedly, is quite long). It begins with a brief glimpse of Hastings out on his own without Poirot. It is Hastings who first meets the Robinsons – he’s at a party thrown by his friend Parker – and it is Hastings who is first urged to explain the puzzle. Parker describes Hastings as their ‘criminal expert’ and ‘a great unraveller of mysteries’, which reminds us of Hastings’s aspirations to be a detective in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and his attempts to take on a case in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (which was published before but adapted after ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, so I’ll be coming to that one later).

Encouraged by Parker, the Robinsons explain that they discovered a flat listed at way below market price. They arranged to view the property, but were met on the stairs by a friend who had just been told the flat was already let. The couple decided to try their luck – even suggesting they might offer the landlord ‘a premium’ to gazump the other prospective tenants. To their surprise, however, they aren’t turned away from the flat. As soon as they give their names, they are invited in and shown around. Hastings is asked to explain the curious circumstances, which he does with a casual confidence:
‘“‘Obvious, my dear Watson,’” I quoted lightly. “She went to the wrong flat.”
“Oh, Captain Hastings, how clever of you!” cried Mrs Robinson admiringly.
I rather wished Poirot had been there. Sometimes I have the feeling that he rather underestimates my capabilities.’
Sadly, though, Poirot isn’t particularly impressed. He is certain that there’s more to the case, and takes a flat in Montagu Mansions in order to investigate further. What he discovers is a transatlantic intrigue, involving stolen naval plans (to be sold to the Japanese), a Mafia hitman named Luigi Valdarno, an international spy named Elsa Hardt and the United States Secret Service. While Poirot conducts his undercover investigations in the Knightsbridge flats, Inspector Japp (who is working with Agent Burt of the US Secret Service) fills him in on the background details. Poor Hastings is left thoroughly confounded.

Interesingly – and, again, this isn’t something I picked up on until I reread the story for this project – the apprehension of the culprits in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ has a very Holmes/Watson flavour. Unusually, Poirot plays an active role in doing this. He instructs Hastings that they will be conducting an ‘all-night vigil’ in Montagu Mansions and – also very unusually – asks Hastings to come ‘armed with that excellent revolver’ (and this change of pace clearly appeals to Hastings, as he is ‘slightly thrilled’ when Poirot asks if he has a gun). This surely reminds us of ‘The Red-Headed League’, which also culminates in an ‘all-night vigil’ in order to apprehend the culprits, and in which Holmes asks Watson to ‘kindly put [his] army revolver in [his] pocket’.

In a more action-packed denouement than we’re used to, Poirot and Hastings are confronted by Valdarno:
‘We sprang together, Poirot with a quick movement enveloped the intruder’s head with a light woollen scarf whilst I pinioned his arms.’
In a shock twist, Valdarno is able to gain control of Hastings’s revolver, and attempts to shoot Elsa Hardt. However, as he pulls the trigger, the gun simply clicks harmlessly. It turns out that Poirot really isn’t as comfortable with firearms as Holmes is:
‘Never will you trust your old friend, Hastings. I do not care for my friends to carry loaded pistols about with them and never would I permit a mere acquaintance to do so.’
With the reveal of the unloaded gun, we move back into ‘classic’ Poirot territory, with the detective explaining everything to his colleague, before, in a final flourish, he jovially presents the stolen naval plans (concealed in a stuffed cat telephone cover) to Japp by sticking the toy’s head around the door and shouting ‘Miaow’: ‘Oh, it’s only Monsieur Poirot at one of his little jokes!’ says Japp. (I can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes messing about with Lestrade like this.)

The TV episode was written by Russell Murray and directed by Richard Spence. It’s a fairly close adaptation, with just a few changes that aren’t really surprising in the context of the series generally.

The episode begins with Poirot, Hastings and Japp at the pictures, watching a gangster film. Hastings and Japp are clearly loving the film, but Poirot winces and screws up his eyes every time a gunshot is heard. This is a nice touch – it’s not inconceivable, after ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, to imagine Christie’s characters hanging out like this, but it seems even more fitting for the TV characters, particularly after their night out at the magic show in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’. Moreover, it gives us a hint of the significance of a line from later in the short story, which is retained in the adaptation, when Poirot claims that the story of Elsa Hardt and Luigi Valdarno will remind Hastings of his ‘favourite cinema’. And, of course, it sets up Poirot’s dislike of guns.

After the film, Japp explains that he is working with the FBI on a ‘spy case’, and that he will be liaising with Agent Burt on the case. This reverses the order in which information is presented: in the short story, we meet the Robinsons before we hear a single thing about spies, but here we know that the FBI are in town before we meet the house-hunting couple.

In the episode, we see Mr and Mrs Robinson (played by John Michie and Samantha Bond) arriving at Montagu Mansions to view the flat, rather than hearing about it in retrospect. All the references to Mrs Robinson’s auburn hair are removed – the TV series is actually less concerned with Hastings’s penchant than Christie’s short stories – and she’s more confident than the ‘charming little bride’ of the source text. I don’t care, though, because Mrs Robinson is played by Samantha Bond, which means I’m inclined to be very fond of her. This isn’t because Samantha Bond was Miss Moneypenny, but because she played one of my favourite Agatha Christie characters of all time.

Julia Simmons is a character from A Murder is Announced (a Miss Marple novel), and Bond played her in the 1985 BBC adaptation (surely the only adaptation that counts). As a kid (and I was only seven when A Murder is Announced was first broadcast, though I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it since), I was utterly entranced by the ‘Pip and Emma’ puzzle in this Miss Marple story. I thought it was the cleverest puzzle I’d ever seen – and it is pretty slick, and absolutely classic Christie – and it still has a very special place in my heart. So, since she played the ‘Emma’ half of the conundrum, I’ll always be fond of Samantha Bond. Oh, and Julia Simmons has some awesome lines as well: ‘If I had shot at you, Letitia Blacklock, I wouldn’t have missed.’

But back to Poirot… in the TV episode, both Poirot and Hastings attend Parker’s party and hear the story of the cheap flat. Again, Hastings is called on to explain it, and again he says that the previous visitor must have inadvertently called at the wrong flat. The episode somewhat redeems Hastings, though, as he later tells Poirot that he doesn’t really believe this: he was being tactful, as he’s actually convinced that the Robinsons have overlooked a clause in their contract. (This is a slightly more astute Hastings than the one in Christie’s fiction!)

Japp’s dealings with Agent Burt of the FBI are handled in more detail than in the short story. Burt (played by William Hootkins) is an overbearing and very ‘American’ character, who commandeers Japp’s office and calls the policeman ‘Jim’ (and also calls Poirot a ‘gumshoe’). The ‘spy case’ once again revolves around stolen naval plans, though they have been stolen specifically for ‘Il Duce’ here. Burt refuses to believe that the Mafia are involved; in fact, he refuses to believe that the Mafia exists at all. He’s also reluctant to investigate Japp-and-Poirot style, and is keen to have as many firearms involved as possible. In the final showdown, Japp actually takes Burt’s gun away from him, revealing that Poirot isn’t the only investigator who’s uncomfortable about a shootout.

As well as the expansion of Burt’s character, the TV adaptation also makes some changes to the ‘Mafia’ backstory – though these aren’t a huge deviation from the source text. The woman at the heart of the case is now named Carla Romero (played by Jenifer Landor), and she is known as ‘la femme fatale who dared to double-cross the Mafia’. She is hiding out in England as Elsa Hart (not ‘Hardt’ anymore) and performing as a nightclub chanteuse (or shan-toozy, as Burt pronounces it). We are given a flashback to a charmingly artificial New York nightclub to narrate the events that have led to Carla’s betrayal of the Mafia, which cements the idea that this is something that would happen in ‘your favourite cinema’.

The tracking down of Carla Romero to a London nightclub allows another character to play a part in the investigation. While Poirot is unable to find out much about ‘Elsa Hart’, he has an associate who might have more success. It’s time for Miss Lemon to go undercover!

Posing as Penelope Maitland of The Lady’s Companion, Miss Lemon is able to infiltrate the shifty nightclub in which ‘Elsa’ is singing – though not before fending off the advances of Bernie Cole (Nick Maloney), the sleazy impresario who runs the place. (Interestingly, this impresario describes himself as ‘the King of the Clubs’, which may well be a reference to the pun that was dropped from ‘The King of Clubs’, when Henry Reedburn was transformed from an impresario to a film producer).

I love Undercover Miss Lemon, as she reveals way more of a talent for detective work than Hastings ever does. Not only is she able to coax ‘Elsa Hart’ into revealing certain facts about her stay in London, she also notes the significance of a number of clues that reveal the holes the woman’s story. Still, I can understand why Poirot only sends Miss Lemon out into the field sparingly – she might be the better sleuth, but can you imagine if the filing system was left to Hastings?

All in all, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a solid adaptation of a very enjoyable short story. From the ‘trivial’ beginning, it grows into a transatlantic gangster story with military implications (and the specific mention of ‘Il Duce’ makes it clear how serious the espionage really is).

A couple of highlights to finish…

I’ve mentioned several times that this series is definitively set in 1935, and the programme-makers use various details to subtly fix this setting. There are three such details (and one possible goof) in this episode, and I think they are among the best used.

The film that Poirot, Hastings and Japp are watching at the pictures is the James Cagney film ‘G’ Men, set during the early days of the FBI and released in 1935. The sheet music that Miss Lemon spots in Carla Romero’s dressing-room, which reveals that Carla has been in the States that year, is ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (published in 1935). And when Bernie Cole claims that Elsa Hart is Canadian, he says ‘like those Dionne quintuplets’ (who were born in 1934, but were moved into the Dafoe hospital in 1935).

The possible goof comes when Poirot makes enquiries at the police records office. He asks the records agent (played by Gordon Wharmby) if there have been any unsolved crimes in which the suspects were a husband and wife couple. The agent says that there haven’t been, but then adds: ‘There’s that Bonnie and Clyde, of course. But they’re at large somewhere in the American Midwest.’ Given that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in May 1934, I can’t quite work out what this line is all about. Either it’s an accidental error on the part of the scriptwriter, or it’s a joke suggesting that the records officer isn’t particularly up-to-date with the news from America (or that he’s bought into some conspiracy theory that Bonnie and Clyde actually escaped). However you read it, it’s a bit jarring, especially after the classiness of the ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ reference.

Amidst all the G-men and femme fatales, it’s nice to see Poirot being Poirot at various points in the episode. As in the short story, the detective takes a flat in the Robinsons’ building in order to investigate them further. I love the beautifully presented toolkit that he uses to rig their lock – but I love Hastings’s attempts to distract the Robinsons more (‘Should I use badger hair, or will an ordinary brush do the trick?’). And there’s some pretty quick thinking from Hastings when his associate is nearly rumbled. (As an aside, in the short story, Poirot has to explain how it is possible to ‘descend after the method of the dustbins’ to Hastings, as this is the first short story in which such a method is used. In the TV episode, there’s no need for him to explain this, as the events of ‘The Third Floor Flat’ have already taken place, and Hastings, though not present in the 1929 short story, was added to the TV version of this mystery. It seems the dustbin lifts in serviced apartments were open to all sorts of abuse!)

So to finish, I stand by my initial assessment that ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a playful riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’, but what Christie creates is a thoroughly modern take on the ‘trivial incidents’ that kick off the Holmes adventure. With its mansion flats and Mafioso hitmen, Christie’s story shakes off the late Victorian concerns of Doyle’s tale and turns it into something that’s pure 1920s. The TV adaptation seamlessly shifts us into 1935, while still retaining the plot and much of the characterization of the source, leaving us with an episode that’s a lot of fun to watch.

Time to move on, then, to ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’

Friday, 8 April 2016

Poirot Project: Double Sin (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 Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 11th February 1990. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘By Road or Rail’), which was first published in the Sunday Dispatch in 1928.

In my last post, I talked a bit about Poirot and Hastings’s living arrangements in the early short stories. This domestic set-up changes after The Murder on the Links (1923), which signals the end of the cosy ‘shared rooms’ of the Sketch short stories; by The Big Four (1927) and Peril at End House (1932), Hastings is ensconced in his ranch in Argentina with his wife, only popping back occasionally to meet up with his old friend. In the scheme of Poirot and Hastings’s friendship, ‘Double Sin’ takes place during this time – Poirot is now living alone in ‘rooms’ (he’s not yet moved into his swanky serviced apartment), and Hastings is living elsewhere. The story begins with Hastings arriving at Poirot’s lodgings:
‘I had called in at my friend Poirot’s rooms to find him sadly overworked. So much had he become the rage that every rich woman who had mislaid a bracelet or lost a pet kitten rushed to secure the services of the great Hercule Poirot. My little friend was a strange mixture of Flemish thrift and artistic fervour. He accepted many cases in which he had little interest owing to the first instinct being predominant.’
There are a couple of things that interest me about this introduction. Firstly, this story is set during the height of Poirot’s fame as a private detective, despite the fact it was published after The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and his first failed ‘retirement’ from detective work. The rich women with missing bracelets returns to an idea from one of the earlier short stories, ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (the adaptation of which will appear later in this series), that Poirot became quite fashionable for a time. Secondly, although Hastings clearly no longer shares rooms with Poirot, there’s no mention of his wife or his ranch anywhere in the story. In fact, there’s a little moment where Poirot behaves as though Hastings is still single (and Hastings responds as though he is still single):
‘“You were observing the pretty young lady who booked No. 5, the next seat to ours. Ah! Yes, my friend, I saw you. […]”
“Really, Poirot,” I said, blushing.
“Auburn hair – always the auburn hair!”’
I’m not sure if this little exchange means that the story is set earlier than it was published – though this wouldn’t really make sense as Hastings lived with Poirot right up until his bachelordom ended. Instead, I like to think of it as an indication that the two men find it easy to slip back into their old ways, even after Hastings has got married and moved away. If you remove the first sentence, ‘Double Sin’ could very easily be one of the 1923 Sketch stories.

Hastings arrives at his ‘overworked’ friend’s rooms and is quickly told that Poirot has promised to undertake some work for ‘Joseph Aarons, the theatrical agent’. Aarons doesn’t actually appear in the short story, but he appeared in the novels The Murder on the Links, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Big Four. So, if you’re reading Christie’s stories in the order in which they were published, this character’s name will be familiar. Of course, I’m rereading them in the order ITV chose to adapt them, so have to keep referring to texts I’ve not got to yet in order to remind myself of who appears where. Had I not already read Links, Blue Train and Big Four, the name of Joseph Aarons would mean nothing. In this case – as with other minor recurring characters in Christie’s texts – it doesn’t really matter whether the reader is familiar with Joseph Aarons or not. Hastings makes this clear in his narration, when Poirot asks him if he calls the theatrical agent: ‘I assented after a moment’s thought. Poirot’s friends are so many and so varied, and range from dustmen to dukes.’ As is often the case, Hastings is acting as a stand-in for the reader; we don’t need to worry about the details, all that matters is that Aarons is one of the detective’s many random friends. His role within the story is clear without any knowledge of his backstory: all you need to know is that it is a letter from Aarons that has compelled Poirot to temporarily leave his cases in London and travel to Charlock Bay in Devon.

As travelling to Charlock Bay by train is somewhat difficult, Hastings books the two men on a Speedy Cars ‘motor coach’ – much to Poirot’s chagrin. On board the coach, they meet a young woman named Mary Durrant, who is carrying a collection of valuable miniatures that are to be sold to an American dealer (Mr J. Baker Wood). Also travelling with them is a man who is ‘trying to grow a moustache and as yet the result is poor’. Hastings is quite taken by the flame-haired Miss Durrant; Poirot is intrigued by the man with the ‘indeterminate moustache’.

At Ebermouth, the coach stops for lunch, and the man with the indeterminate moustache (Norton Kane) removes his suitcase from the coach and leaves the party. Later in the day, when they arrive at Charlock Bay, Miss Durrant discovers that her suitcase has been forced and the miniatures stolen. Poirot is fascinated, and promises to help the distraught young woman.

Just in case the reader is still labouring under the illusion that the ‘business’ with Joseph Aarons is going to play any part in the plot, Hastings summarily dismisses this:
‘We lunched with Joseph Aarons, and after lunch, Poirot announced to me that he had settled the theatrical agent’s problem satisfactorily, and that we could return to Ebermouth as soon as we liked.’
Whatever the problem was, the detective managed to solve it over one lunch date, leaving us in no doubt that a) Poirot can work pretty fast when he needs to, and b) this was really all just an excuse for Poirot and Hastings to go on a coach trip. Sure enough, there’s no more mention of this problem, and Poirot devotes his attention for the rest of the story on the mystery of the missing miniatures.

Like the other earlier Poirot short stories, the puzzle is wrapped up quickly and neatly by the great detective. The solution is a satisfying one, but what really makes this story for me is Poirot’s explanation of how/why he was so interested in the case. At the end of the story, he offers several insights, which are so perfectly Poirot you can’t help but smile.

On ruling out Norton Kane as a serious suspect, Poirot says: ‘With that moustache? A criminal is either clean shaven or he has a proper moustache that can be removed at will.’ While this is partly a continuation of what seems to be a small obsession with Kane’s moustache on the part of our fastidious dandy, what Poirot says makes complete sense. We’ve been told several times that Kane’s ‘indeterminate moustache’ simply draws attention to the man – not very handy for a jewel thief. It’s interesting that the TV adaptation of ‘Double Sin’ followed ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, as dramatic and removable facial hair is central to the disappearing act in that story.

On explaining how Mary Durrant attempted to use the two men in her nefarious scheme, Poirot (with characteristic snark) explains:
‘Mademoiselle Mary has only to find a couple of mugs who will be sympathetic to her charm and champion beauty in distress. But one of the mugs was no mug – he was Hercule Poirot!’
For once, the implications of this don’t go over Hastings’s head, who grumpily thinks to himself: ‘I hardly like the inference.’ But Poirot’s cheeky little comment does remind us that Mary Durrant isn’t the first pretty girl to think she can play Poirot for a mug (that would be Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan – aka Gertie – in ‘The Veiled Lady’), and she won’t be the last (Nick Buckley is just around the corner). Poirot will be approached and befriended by a number of young women in his career – and he’ll always be sympathetic to their charms and a champion in their distress – but because of the likes of Millicent and Mary, we never really know whether we should trust any of them.

Finally, in a hasty attempt to retract his implied insult, Poirot claims that the other ‘mug’ was actually J. Baker Wood, and that the detective felt a strong need to help the hapless American: ‘we visitors, Hastings, must stand together. Me, I am all for the visitors!’ This isn’t a sentiment that Poirot always expresses directly, but there are other stories in which he forms an unspoken bond as a result of shared ‘foreignness’ (e.g. with Mrs Vanderlyn’s French maid in ‘The Incredible Theft’). Significantly, though, it’s rare for Poirot to express this sense of solidarity with Americans; more usually, when confronted by someone from the US, the Belgian aligns himself with his fellow Europeans (the English) against the transatlantic ‘other’. Perhaps it’s the fact that J. Baker Wood has been duped by two (apparently) quintessential English women that provokes his statement.

The TV adaptation of ‘Double Sin’ was directed by Richard Spence and written by Clive Exton. With the exception of the double-length series opener, all the other episodes so far in this series have been adaptations of Sketch short stories (i.e. the 1923 series of stories in which Poirot and Hastings live together). As I’ve said ‘Double Sin’ is a later post-Links story, but because it’s so similar in style to the 1923 stories, Exton hasn’t had to do too much to make it follow on from ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and the rest of the series. Hastings doesn’t need to be added, as he was already there as narrator; the story is set when the two men are sharing a flat in London so Miss Lemon fits right in; Inspector Japp, as usual, can replace ‘the police inspector in charge of the case’… except actually that’s not what happens here (but more on that in a moment).

The episode begins with Poirot in a bad mood. The two friends are visiting a park, and Poirot is in a funk. He wants to retire and complains to Hastings that his career is over. This is a departure from the ‘overworked’ Poirot of the short story, but it continues a theme that runs throughout this series of the TV show.

It’s Poirot’s bad mood, rather than a communication from Aarons, that prompts the men to go on a little trip – though it’s up north, rather than down south, that they head here. They travel to Whitcombe (a fictional Lancashire town, actually filmed in Morecambe). Soon after they arrive, Hastings discovers that their old friend Japp is in town – the policeman is doing a ‘North Country’ lecture tour – what a coincidence!

As Poirot doesn’t seem interested in attending his friend’s lecture, Hastings suggests they take a ‘Speedy Tours’ coach to Windermere. Here, they meet Mary Durrant (played by Caroline Milmoe) and Norton Kane (the man with the indeterminate moustache) (played by Adam Kotz) and, as in the short story, Hastings is charmed by the young woman, while Poirot is curious about the young man. There is a small detail removed from the short story, which is a shame. In Christie’s text, Poirot orchestrates the seating arrangements with a delightful tact that goes straight over his companion’s head:
‘Poirot, rather maliciously, I thought, assigned me the outside place as “I had the mania for the fresh air” and himself occupied the seat next to our fair neighbour [Mary Durrant]. Presently, however, he made amends. The man in seat 6 was a noisy fellow, inclined to be facetious and boisterous, and Poirot asked the girl in a low voice if she would like to change seats with him.’
Is it just me? or does it seem like this might have been Poirot’s plan all along? (Though, is it not also a little odd that Poirot appears to matchmaking his married friend, while Hastings’s poor wife waits patiently on the ranch?)

The TV episode omits this little detail – though it would have made more sense within their chronology! – and simply has Hastings sitting next to Mary from the start.

The disappearance of the miniatures is revealed in a similar way to in the short story, and Norton Kane is once again framed as the main suspect. The TV episode gives more attention to the poorly-moustachioed man, making him seem even more suspicious than in the source text, but adds an expanded backstory to explain his bizarre behaviour. I suppose it should also be noted that the miniatures themselves are also slightly elevated here: they’re now Napoleonic and have increased in value from £500 to £1500.

It’s the investigation that is most altered in the adaptation. As Poirot is insistent he is ‘retired’, he refuses to accept the case. It falls to Hastings to take on the mantle of detective, as he does in other episodes in the series (‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’). This leads to some comical moments, as Hastings puts his theories to the local policemen (played by David Hargreaves and Gerard Horan) and is shot down by the common-sensical northerners, and then is given a series of subtle hints by Poirot, despite the fact that the detective is ‘not investigating’. I particularly like Hasting’s attempts to look after his little grey cells through diet and sleep, and his joyous exclamations when he wakes up with (what he believes is) the solution: ‘It must have been the haddock! I feel wonderful!’

Poirot, though, remains in his funk. He takes no enjoyment in his friend’s investigations, and refuses to accompany Hastings on the case. We discover why in due course: when Hastings goes to bed early to let the haddock do its work, Poirot sneaks out of the hotel to attend Japp’s lecture.

This is a lovely moment. Up until this point, we’ve been led to believe that Poirot is simply jealous that Japp has been asked to do a lecture tour – and this is probably partly the case. But as Poirot listens to Japp discussing private detectives, it becomes clear that Poirot is actually worried that the policeman will either slight his abilities, or else leave them out entirely. I’ve always felt that this isn’t just about Poirot’s ego – throughout the series, the friendship between the men is emphasized, and I’ve always felt that part of Poirot’s worry comes from the fear that his friend might say something mean.

His fears are unfounded, of course. Japp sings Poirot’s praises to the rafters, speaking of his pleasure and gratitude at being able to work alongside the little Belgian detective. David Suchet plays Poirot’s response to this beautifully, allowing a series of emotions to play over his face that take us from his initial surprise, through his touching affection, and back to his characteristic pride. At one point, you can even see the tiny hint of a tear in his eye.

The three men come together to wrap the case up and confront the thief at the end of the episode. Japp and Poirot light-heartedly tease Hastings for barking up completely the wrong tree; however, the tables are then turned when Hastings discovers a newspaper clipping in Poirot’s wallet – it seems he knew about Japp’s lecture all along, and that was the reason for his sudden desire to see the Lake District. Now it’s Hastings’s turn to rib his friend – and Japp laughs along. It’s quite charming, really.

So… while the boys are on their jollies in the Lake District, what’s Miss Lemon up to?

Poirot’s secretary isn’t in the short story, and it seems there’s no place for her on the TV version of the Speedy Tours coach either. Instead, she gets her own (rather odd) little story. After being confronted by some kids doing penny-for-the-guy, Miss Lemon is flustered and loses her keys. This means she can’t leave the flat until she finds them – and she can’t find them until she employs the ‘order and method’ espoused by her employer.

While this little vignette is a bit superfluous, there are a couple of nice bits. George Little is back as Dicker – hooray! – in his last (physical) appearance in the series. It’s Dicker’s longest scene, as well, and we get a slight sense of him as a character as well.

When poor Miss Lemon is forced to sleep in her office, as she can’t leave Mr Poirot’s flat unlocked, she has a very weird dream. In an evocative mist, the faces of Poirot and Hastings float towards her, speaking snatches of characteristic dialogue – only Hastings’s voice comes out of Poirot’s mouth, and vice versa. It’s bit trippy, but I kind of like it.

To finish, some miscellaneous thoughts…

I’m afraid I don’t like the TV version of Miss Penn (played by Elspet Gray). In the short story, Mary’s aunt is a sweet little old lady with ‘pink-and-white skin’ and ‘a cape of priceless old lace’. This exterior ensures that Hastings (and, perhaps, the reader) never suspects that Miss Penn might be the ‘masculine woman’ who sold the ‘stolen’ miniatures to J. Baker Wood.

In the TV episode, Miss Penn uses a wheelchair, and this serves as the reason Hastings doesn’t suspect her. However, she does seem like she could disguise herself as a ‘masculine woman’. Even in the chair, her height is apparent, and she’s been divested of the frilly, lacy, pink-and-white innocence of her literary counterpart. (As soon as my husband Rob saw her – bearing in mind he’d never seen a single episode until I started this project – he pointed at the screen and shouted ‘It was her!’) Turns out a fake wheelchair is a much weaker disguise than simply ‘being a little old lady’.

The episode makes up for its far-too-obvious Miss Penn with some stunning settings. Maybe it’s because I’m Cumbrian, but I’m glad the programme-makers switched the location to the Lakes (Poirot goes to Devon far too much). The Midland Hotel in Whitcombe is actually the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, and J. Baker Wood’s hotel is being played by the gorgeous mock-Gothic Wray Castle in Ambleside.

Also nice is a little exchange between Hastings and Miss Lemon at the beginning of the episode. After Poirot and Hastings return from the park, the detective continues to grumble. Miss Lemon comments sotto voce that her employer is acting very middle-aged, to which Hastings replies: ‘Well, he’s always been middle-aged. Have you seen that picture of him at his christening?’

Finally, there’s another detail that shows Clive Exton knew his source material well. In Christie’s short story, Poirot explains to Mary Durrant that he will discover the whereabouts of her miniatures:
‘Ah! But it is an idea that! You think I take the rabbits out of the hat? No, mademoiselle. Me, I am the opposite of a conjurer. The conjurer, he makes things disappear. Me, I make things that have disappeared, reappear.’
(That’s right… it’s another reference to conjuring!)

As the TV Poirot refuses the investigate, this little speech is cut from the adaptation. Instead, Poirot simply asks Mary if she knows who he is. She replies:
‘You’re not that conjuror, are you?’
After Poirot’s little hobby in the previous episode, she can be forgiven for making this mistake.

Time to move on though, as these reviews seem to be getting longer and longer. God knows how much I’ll be writing by the time I get to Curtain.

The next episode is ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’

Friday, 1 April 2016

Poirot Project: The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim (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 Cornish Mystery’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 4th February 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name. ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ was first published in The Sketch in March 1923.

As is usually the case with the early Poirot stories, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ is narrated by Hastings, and takes place during the time that Hastings and Poirot are living together in London. There is a little bit of confusion surrounding these living arrangements, but I think this comes down to a discrepancy in Hastings’s descriptions. In the first of the Poirot short stories – ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ – Hastings makes it clear that he is living with Poirot, but calls their accommodation ‘Poirot’s rooms’. In ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, he describes their arrangement as ‘sharing rooms’. However, in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Hastings again calls their home ‘Poirot’s rooms’. The Mrs Hudson-esque landlady is sometimes called ‘the landlady’ (e.g. in ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’) and sometimes ‘our landlady’ (e.g. in ‘The Cornish Mystery’ and ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’).

This has led to some people questioning Hastings’s status – is he Poirot’s employee? (See the comments on this blog post, for instance). Hastings rarely mentions any alternative employment and, even if he did have a job, he spends so much time running round the country with Poirot, he’d surely have lost it by now. And yet, Hastings clearly isn’t independently wealthy, as he has worked in the past (for Lloyds) and occasionally worries about his overdraft (see ‘The Lost Mine’). So has Poirot put him on a retainer? Does this include board and lodgings? And does Hastings sometimes make himself a bit too comfortable and start thinking he’s a guest, rather than staff?

I don’t think so. Although we don’t get a clear sense of Hastings’s background in Christie’s texts, we can tell a lot from his friends, especially John Cavendish in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Assuming Hastings and Cavendish are from similar backgrounds – and adding the revelation that he attended Eton (Dumb Witness) and the fact that, though he was working in insurance before the war, Hastings was a captain by 1916 – we can make an informed guess as to Hastings’s family background. He’s comfortably upper middle class, well-bred and well-educated, but with no land or title to inherit.

So why does Hastings have to worry about his bank balance? Again, we could compare him to John Cavendish – and also to Charles Arundell in Dumb Witness (who is made into an old friend of Hastings in the TV adaptation of the novel) – concluding that, even if Hastings ever did have an income/inheritance from his family, he may well have spent it at some point in the past (perhaps on one of his ‘doubtful’ speculations), leaving him as one of Christie’s many upper middle class men with absolutely no head for personal finance. While this might suggest Hastings needs an income from Poirot to avoid being completely destitute, I think he’s probably scraping by on an army pension (after all, he was wounded at the Front in 1916, and this wound was bad enough to ensure he didn’t see any more active service) and his other occasional bits of employment. Hastings takes lodgings with Poirot because he can’t afford to take his own flat – and, no doubt, because both men are glad of the company – but he is definitely the ‘lodger’ in ‘Poirot’s rooms’, rather than an employee. My own personal theory is that, while Poirot and Hastings generally refer to the premises as ‘shared rooms’, Hastings isn’t always able to pay his friend any rent. This would explain why he often sees it as ‘Poirot’s’ (and also why Poirot is occasionally a bit exasperated about his friend’s spending habits, and, in Peril at End House, he assumes Hastings’s wife is the one who manages the ranch in Argentina). It’s a mark of the men’s friendship that they are comfortable enough with this arrangement to call the London accommodation ‘our rooms’, and the woman who shows guests in ‘our landlady’. No matter who is actually paying the rent in these early stories, Poirot and Hastings live together in amiable domesticity.

And that’s where we find them at the beginning of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’:
‘Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cup and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.’ [That’s because she’s your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper.]
I love this opening – it reminds me of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, as we get to see the three men hanging out as friends and not just because there’s a mystery afoot.

Of course, there is a mystery afoot. Japp’s just got back from talking to Inspector Miller (possibly the same Miller who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’ as well as some other stories) about a perplexing case: a wealthy financier named Davenheim has apparently disappeared into thin air. Japp is convinced that Miller will discover clues to Davenheim’s disappearance (‘he won’t overlook a footprint, or a cigar-ash, or a crumb’), but Poirot disdains this method of investigation. He insists that all that is needed to solve a case like this is ‘the little grey cells’. Japp finds this amusing, and bets Poirot a fiver that he can’t solve the case without leaving his room – Poirot, of course, accepts the challenge.

Poirot investigates this case simply by examining the details as narrated by Japp; part of their agreement is that the policeman will bring ‘any fresh developments’ that arise. At one point, Poirot specifically asks for information to be gathered (he wants to know if Mr Davenheim shared a bedroom with his wife), but otherwise he relies solely on the story that Japp tells. Japp’s updates on the case are a rather neat way of presenting the puzzle to the reader, as we’re encouraged to search for the significance Poirot has found in the ‘little details’ in order to come up with a plausible solution. Christie will use the technique of having Poirot listen to stories told by multiple unreliable narrators and work out the truth behind them in Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember, but, for now, we just have the (reliable) Japp to fill us in.

Naturally, Poirot is able to solve the case of the disappearing financier (with a solution that isn’t completely unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, a story that also has something in common with Christie’s ‘The Lost Mine’). Still treating the case as something of a game between himself and Japp, Poirot doesn’t immediately reveal the solution, but rather sends Japp a cryptic telegram: ‘Advise you to withdraw any money deposited with firm in question.’ When the news breaks the next day of the ‘sensational failure’ of Davenheim’s bank, ‘the door flew open and Japp rushed in’, determined to find out ‘how the blazes’ Poirot could have known.

The mystery is a nice cerebral little puzzle, designed to make the reader flex their little grey cells or to make them feel like Japp at the end, but what really makes the story is the interaction between the three friends – and the little details of Poirot’s character that are thrown into sharp relief by the lack of other characters (Poirot only talks to Japp and Hastings in the story). My personal highlights are: Japp being bemused by Poirot’s question about the shared bedroom (‘Poor old fellow! War’s been too much for him!’); Poirot lamenting the lack of uniformity in eggs (‘What symmetry can there be on the breakfast table?’), before ‘gently collect[ing] every fragment of shell from his plate, plac[ing] them in the egg-cup, and revers[ing] the empty egg-shell on top of them’; and Japp’s sending a fiver to Poirot via registered mail. Poirot’s response to his victory is really quite lovely:
Ah, sacré! But what shall I do with it? I have much remorse! Ce pauvre Japp! Ah, an idea! We will have a little dinner, we three! That consoles me. It was really too easy. I am ashamed. I, who would not rob a child – mille tonnerres! Mon ami, what have you, that you laugh so heartily?’

The TV adaptation of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by David Renwick. It begins in a similar fashion to the Series 1 episodes ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, in that we get a dramatic little vignette that introduces us to the central premise of the story. Here, we see Matthew Davenheim (Kenneth Colley) preparing for a meeting with Gerald Lowen (Tony Mathews). Davenheim leaves the house to meet Lowen from the station, walks into the fog… and never comes back.

We then cut to our three friends hanging out together. However, they’re not simply having tea as in the short story, they’ve gone out to a magic show. I’ve mentioned the relationship between stage magic and Golden Age detective fiction in a previous post, but here the connection is made absolutely explicit – Poirot watches, then explains, the conjuring tricks performed on stage, while his friends seem happy to be swept along by the illusion. When they return to Poirot’s flat for a nightcap, Japp tells Poirot he knows of a disappearing trick that the detective won’t be able to explain, and, as in the short story, the two men make a bet. (As a side note: Japp is apparently less of a gambler than Hastings, as he only bets a fiver. In the adaptation of ‘The Third Floor Flat’, Hastings is willing to bet twice that much that Poirot will work out the ending of a play. No wonder he can’t afford his own rooms!)

Although the central conceit of Poirot not being able to leave the flat is retained from the short story, there are some minor alterations. In the TV episode, Hastings is allowed to act as Poirot’s agent, leading to a couple of comical exchanges as Hastings and Japp cross over in their investigations. There’s no mention of Inspector Miller in the episode, and it’s Japp who leads the police enquiry and oversees the dragging of the lake. A boatman named Merritt (played by Richard Beale) becomes a key witness, and Billy Kellett (played by… well…) has a few more scenes and, on his first introduction, a drunken associate.

The character of Gerald Lowen is fleshed out in the TV episode. As well as being Davenheim’s business rival (embroiled in a feud that’s much more intense than in the short story), Lowen now has a side-line in racing cars – much to Hastings’s excitement. In a very enjoyable (though arguably superfluous) sequence, Hastings follows Lowen to Brooklands motor racing circuit. A slightly silly case of mistaken identity almost leads to Hastings being able to take Lowen’s Bugatti out for a spin, but sadly this dream doesn’t become a reality. There are plenty of shots of the Bugatti in action, however, as Pathé are on hand to shoot a newsreel about Lowen (as in ‘The Dream’, we are treated to a short Pathé Gazette to get us in the 1935 mood).

Now… all this larking about with boatmen and racing cars is fine for Japp and Hastings, but we mustn’t forget that poor old Poirot is stuck in his flat, with nothing to do but wait for his friends to return with information. And this is where the episode wanders off into its own territory.

Inspired by the magic show he attended, Poirot has got hold of a copy of The Boy’s Book of Conjuring and decides to spend the time teaching himself magic tricks. He makes handkerchiefs disappear, practices his prestidigitation, and (in his slickest move) tears up a newspaper and magically reassembles it in front of Miss Lemon’s delighted eyes. I love the way David Suchet performs this trick, as his hands move just like a magician’s, but I love his disappearing card trick more – deep in conversation with Miss Lemon, Poirot studies his book and plays around with a card, making it vanish and reappear, while apparently having no idea how he is actually doing it.

It’s certainly interesting that it’s in this episode that the detective becomes a (literal) conjuror. The episode was written by David Renwick, who would later go on to create Jonathan Creek – a show in which the detective is a magician.

Sadly, Poirot’s magic tricks aren’t quite enough to fill the long days, and Renwick adds an extra (notorious) flourish. For some reason – and I’ll admit, I’ve seen the episode numerous times and I’m still not totally sure of the reason – a parrot is delivered unexpectedly to Poirot’s flat. This does lead to a nice bit of Poirot-Hastings banter:
‘Do not fraternize with that creature. I am still training him.’
‘It’s only a parrot.’
‘I was talking to the parrot.’
But it also involves one of the more ridiculous bits of dialogue in the series, in which the parrot-delivery-man mispronounces Poirot, is corrected, and politely announces, ‘I’ve got a pwa-ro for Mr Poyrott.’

Parrots aside, this is a nice little episode based on a really enjoyable short story. The playful bet between Poirot and Japp is handled well, and I’m glad that Hastings got to go to Brooklands. The episode is also notable for involving one of the more successful disguises of the series.

A number of episodes will feature a character in disguise, but these are often fairly obvious (thick glasses are usual, as are heavily made up faces). ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ avoids these typical tricks, and instead relies on careful camera work. Rewatching the episode once you know the solution, it’s striking how little of ‘Mr Davenheim’ we actually see – his face is never really in shot for very long. We see a lot more of ‘Billy Kellett’, but he doesn’t really seem to be in disguise, so it’s harder to connect him with the missing man.

One final gem and one final question then…

The gem: Davenheim’s house is being played by Joldwynds, a modernist house in Surrey, designed by Oliver Hill. This house will reappear in Series 3, in ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

The question: Why wasn’t Davenheim’s wife suspicious when he went to Buenos Aires (in the short story)/Johannesburg (in the TV adaptation) and didn’t contact her for three months? (Obviously, by the end, we know he was really in prison as ‘Billy Kellett’, but at the time she thought he was just on an extended overseas business trip.) Either they had a rotten marriage and she was glad of the break, or Davenheim had an associate ‘on the outside’ who was able to send fake letters or telegrams to his wife. Poirot didn’t twig about the accomplice, did he? Too busy talking to his parrot…

Next up: ‘Double Sin’