Saturday, 11 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon

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 Mysterious Affair at Styles’.

I’ve said a few times that this project is going to be rather completist – I can’t watch ‘Curtain’ until I’ve rewatched all the other episodes and reread all the stories and novels. But as I approached ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, it occurred to me that, to be truly completist, I might have to dip into some of Agatha Christie’s other writing as well. You see, there are some characters in the Poirot stories who appear in non-Poirot stories as well. To do justice to the project, shouldn’t I be looking at the full careers of these characters?

As far as I remember, there are five significant characters who appear in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories: Miss Lemon, Ariadne Oliver, Mr Satterthwaite, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. (And there’s also Mr Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway from Cat Among the Pigeons – but I must confess I’d completely forgotten about these characters until I started writing this post, so I’ll have to decide what to do about them later.) My plan is to write about the ‘further adventures’ of each of these characters just before I reach the first Poirot story/novel in which they appear. In some cases (like Miss Lemon), that means writing about a character who has already appeared in the TV series; in other cases (like Superintendent Battle), it means writing about a character who doesn’t appear in the TV series at all. Interestingly, all five characters made their debuts in non-Poirot stories (either standalone novels or less well-known detective series) before entering the world of the famous Belgian sleuth, so their earlier appearances (possibly) act as backstory to their roles in the Poirot stories.

So… the first character with a backstory is Poirot’s efficient secretary Miss Lemon.

Miss Lemon (and it’s just ‘Miss’ Lemon for now – she won’t get a first name until 1955 and Hickory Dickory Dock) made her first appearance as Poirot’s secretary in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, which was first published in 1935. I’m going to talk more about that story in my next post, so for now I want to look at a couple of stories featuring Miss Lemon from 1932.

Parker Pyne Investigates was first published by William Collins in 1934. (For info, I’m using the 1968 Pan Books edition, which I apparently bought for 29p in an Oxfam shop. As I’m sure I’ll mention in some future posts, I worked full-time in an Oxfam shop after finishing my A-Levels, and I read a lot of Christie during this time. Most of the older paperback editions I own have Oxfam prices pencilled on the first page, so I assume most of them were bought at that time.)

Parker Pyne appears in fourteen short stories by Agatha Christie – the twelve that are collected in Parker Pyne Investigates, ‘Problem at Pollensa Bay’ (published in 1935) and ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (more on that one in a later post). As a detective, he is quite a different kettle of fish to Hercule Poirot. In fact, in the first six stories in which he appears, he is hardly a ‘detective’ at all.

Parker Pyne advertises his services with a cryptic – but enticing – announcement in newspapers:
‘Are you happy? If not, consult Mr Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.’
The cases he takes on in the first six stories are, then, cases of (usually domestic) unhappiness, as is clear from the titles: ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Husband’, ‘The Case of the City Clerk’ and ‘The Case of the Rich Woman’ (all first published in 1932). In each of these stories, a client comes to Pyne with a tale of unhappiness, discontent or boredom, and the consultant agrees to rectify the situation in exchange for cash (which appears to be simply to cover expenses).

Pyne’s expertise derives from a background in the civil service:
‘You see, for thirty-five years of my life I have been engaged in the compiling of statistics in a government office. Now I have retired, and it has occurred to me to use the experience I have gained in a novel fashion. It is all so simple. Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads – no more, I assure you. Once you know the cause of the malady, the remedy should not be impossible.’
Some people, including whoever wrote the ‘Parker Pyne’ entry on Wikipedia (this article has multiple issues), seem to think that Pyne’s government work might have been along the same lines as that of Mycroft Holmes. I don’t see it myself. I see Pyne more as a somewhat mundane statistician, who is logical enough to be convinced of the predictability of human nature but romantic enough to meddle in domestic affairs. The first six Parker Pyne cases are quite charming, in their own way, but could hardly be called ‘mysteries’. The main appeal of these tales is the quirky consultant and, possibly more importantly, his unusual staff, rather than the cases they work on.

As an aside, the second half of Parker Pyne Investigates collects six stories published in 1933. In these stories, Pyne is travelling (without his staff) and investigates a series of more traditional ‘mysteries’. I’ll be returning to some of these stories in a (much) later blog post.

Back to the 1932 stories, obviously the most important person for the purposes of the current post is Parker Pyne’s secretary. She is introduced to us in ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’:
‘When she had gone he pressed a buzzer on his desk. A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles answered it.
“A file, please, Miss Lemon. And you might tell Claude that I am likely to want him shortly.”
“A new client?”
“A new client. At the moment she has jibbed, but she will come back. Probably this afternoon about four. Enter her.”
“Schedule A?”
“Schedule A, of course.”’
And that’s all we get. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young but stern, and she wears glasses. From her brief exchange with Pyne, we can see she’s brisk and efficient – and, perhaps, we can also discern a little hint of the mutual unspoken understanding that develops between Poirot and his Miss Lemon later on.

There are only two other mentions of Pyne’s secretary in any of the short stories. In ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, she’s again mentioned by name. At the story’s opening, she buzzes Pyne to inform him that a young lady wishes to see him, but that the visitor hasn’t got an appointment (Pyne agrees to see her anyway). And at the beginning of ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, when the eponymous client enters the office ‘[a] plain young woman looked up from her typewriter and glanced at him inquiringly’. I assume that this is also Miss Lemon, though she isn’t mentioned by name.

I like these two mentions of the character because, although they are very brief, we get a sense of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who’ll become more familiar in Christie’s Poirot stories. But, in addition to this, there are some nice little echoes of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who appears in the ITV adaptations. Although Miss Lemon didn’t appear in either of the source stories, the TV Miss Lemon also expresses consternation about clients who don’t have appointments or give their full names (‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Veiled Lady’), and she is frequently seen behind her typewriter, even when it doesn’t work properly (‘The Dream’). There are just enough points of similarity between Pyne’s secretary, Poirot’s secretary and the TV character for us to imagine that these are all versions of the same character.

But are they the same character? I’ll talk about the relationship between Christie’s Miss Lemon and the TV character in the next post, but how sure can we be that Pyne’s ‘Miss Lemon’ and Poirot’s ‘Miss Lemon’ are meant to be the same person?

At the beginning of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, Poirot’s confidential secretary is described for the first time:
‘Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so. […] Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night.’
There are definitely some similarities between this character and the one who appears in the Parker Pyne stories. Neither of them are particularly attractive – one is ‘plain’ and ‘forbidding-looking’, the other is ‘unprepossessing’ and like ‘a lot of bones flung together’. Both are efficient and, when we see them for the first time, immersed in filing. Poirot’s secretary is described as a ‘machine’; Pyne’s secretary is professional to the point of being brusque.

But I can’t ignore the discrepancy in their ages. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young, but Poirot’s secretary is 48. The stories were only published three years apart, so can this really be the same person? (And I’ll just add that there’s no suggestion the Parker Pyne stories are set much earlier than their publication dates. In addition to all the cars, office equipment and slang that allow us to roughly date them, there’s a cute little giveaway in ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’: at the end of the story, Pyne observes a ‘gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds’ on the street. Dismal Desmond, a bizarrely popular stuffed toy of (from what I can ascertain) a bereaved dog, was created in 1926 and continued in popularity throughout the 1930s.)

Postcard of Dismal Desmond posing with Louise Brooks, c. 1928. Thanks to Carrie Lewis for this providing this image.

This is something that some Christie fans have pondered over. The ‘Parker Pyne’ Wikipedia page (this article has multiple issues) insists that we are meant to understand that it’s the same person, but that her work with Parker Pyne happened a number of years prior to her employment with Poirot. Personally, I think that’s looking for more consistency than is actually present. It’s really tempting to see Christie’s work as a ‘fictional universe’, in which we can discern a chronology of events and a continuity of character, but it really doesn’t work like that (unless you’re happy with the idea that Poirot doesn’t age substantially between WWI and the 1960s, while Miss Lemon ages a couple of decades in the space of two or three years).

Instead of thinking of Pyne’s Miss Lemon as a younger version of the same character, I prefer to think of her as a prototype for the character that appears in the Poirot novels. Clearly something about the ‘forbidding-looking young woman’ stuck in Christie’s imagination and led her to give the character another outing (albeit in a somewhat different guise) – and one in which the character is more developed and fleshed out (even, twenty years later, acquiring a first name and a sister). Of course, this also suggests that Christie thought the character worked better as an older woman, as it’s as a middle-aged spinster that Miss Lemon really takes form. I find this very interesting, as it seems to imply that Christie saw more scope for developing an interesting older female character (and a spinster too... quelle surprise).

Significantly, this is not the only minor or incidental female character from a Parker Pyne novel who is revisited and developed further in the Poirot stories. Of course, there’s Ariadne Oliver (who actually got her own novel before entering the world of the great Belgian detective). However, there is another, less sympathetic woman (who I actually quite like) from a Poirot story who has her prototype in a Parker Pyne story… but that, mon ami, is a post for another day.

This post has been about Miss Lemon’s background. In the next post, I’m going to look at the first Poirot story in which she appears, but also write a bit more about the relationship between Christie’s character and the character portrayed by Pauline Moran in the ITV series.

On to ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ then. And would the real Felicity Lemon please stand up?

Monday, 6 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (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 last review was of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and the previous post was a guest post about The Mysterious Affair at Styles by a newly converted fan.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel. It was first published as an eighteen-part serial in The Weekly Times (the colonial edition of The Times) between February and June 1920. The final instalment of the story included an advert for a full edition, to be published by John Lane in the US. The novel was published in the US in October 1920, and then by Bodley Head in the UK in early 1921. According to the dust jacket of the first edition, the book was the result of a bet. Agatha Christie had wagered that she could write a detective novel in which the reader would be unable to spot the murderer, despite being given exactly the same clues as the detective. The blurb also asserted that, not only had she won the bet, she had also introduced ‘a new type of detective’ in the form of Hercule Poirot.

The academic in me needs to note here that the edition of the novel I’m using is the one that appears The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 2003).

The novel takes place during WWI – Christie wrote it around the middle of 1916 – and is told through the narration of a man named Hastings (just Hastings, by the way, as we don’t find out his first name or rank until later) who has been ‘invalided home from the Front’ (we find out in ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ that he was wounded on the Somme but Styles isn’t so specific). From the off, Hastings sets himself up as the appointed chronicler of Poirot’s exploits (the Watson to his Holmes) – he says he has been asked ‘to write an account of the whole story’, though he doesn’t tell us where or when this account was due to be published. I think we have to assume that the conceit here is that the 1920 publication in The Times is the vehicle for Hastings’s narration, but it’s not made clear either here or in other stories where (or why) Hastings is publishing his accounts of the great Belgian detective.

I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts the relationship between Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson, and I think it’s worth reflecting on the way Christie uses the legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s earlier detective fiction in setting up The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In A Study in Scarlet (1887) – the first part of which is subtitled Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department – Doyle introduces Dr John H. Watson in some detail. Not only do we learn his full name (or, at least, his Christian name and middle initial) and his profession title, the novel begins with several paragraphs outlining the background to Watson’s fateful meeting with Sherlock Holmes. He took his medical degree in 1878 at the University of London and then studied as an army surgeon. He was then attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and stationed in India during the second Afghan war. He served in Candahar, before being attached to the Berkshires at the battle of Maiwand. During this battle, he was shot in the shoulder, damaging his subclavian artery. He was saved by Murray, his orderly, who managed to (eventually) get him to a hospital at Peshawar. There, Watson contracted enteric fever, and he was sent back to England. He was granted nine months’ leave to recover, on an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day (£210 a year), and moved to London as he had ‘neither kith nor kin in England’. For a while, he stayed in a private hotel in the Strand, but this quickly drained his finances. Just as he has decided to leave London and find somewhere cheaper to live, Watson runs into a man named Stamford (who had been a dresser at St Bartholomew’s Hospital) at the Criterion Bar. He explains his situation to Stamford, who offers to introduce him to a ‘fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital’, who is looking for a flat-mate. That fellow, of course, is Sherlock Holmes.

In the first five paragraphs of A Study in Scarlet, we learn more about Watson’s background than we learn of Hastings’s in the entirety of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know his educational background, his military history, the exact nature of his injury, his subsequent income, his place of residence, and even the nature of the publication that will bring the exploits of his illustrious friend to the public eye. In Styles, we never even find out Hastings’s first name. Indeed, there are some details (his income, his place(s) of residence, the nature of his war injury) that we’ll never find out.

The more I think about the opening to Styles, though, the more I think we can see the beginning of the little game Christie was playing with Doyle’s work. On the surface, it seems that she omits the specifics of Hastings’s background because, in light of Doyle’s creation, it’s not needed. By this I mean, the reference to Hastings as an injured military man chronicling the cases of a detective is enough to make the reader go, ‘Ah. So he’s the Watson, then.’ We don’t need to know anything else, because we’ve seen this before. At the beginning of Styles, it’s tempting just to fill in the Hastings blanks with recourse to the more detailed CV of Watson.

However, there’s much more to it than that. If you consider the opening of A Study in Scarlet in light of the stories that follow (and in light of their legacy), you realize just how much of the information about Watson is… well… a bit superfluous. Sure, some of it turns out to be useful background in later adventures. But do we really need to know the name of the orderly who carried him to Peshawar? I guess it’s important to know Watson was shot in the shoulder, but do we need to know that it was specifically the subclavian artery that was damaged? Or how much his pay was before he met Holmes? (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, and these little details give us a great introduction to the way Watson looks at the world… but still…)

In introducing Hastings, it feels like Christie is almost actively rejecting the superfluity of Doyle’s introduction. Here’s a military man, he’s been invalided, he knows a great detective – you know the type. What was his rank? Doesn’t matter. How was he injured? Doesn’t matter. Where did he serve before he was injured? Doesn’t matter. What’s his name? Doesn’t matter. Bring on the great detective.

But then, just when you start to suspect that this ‘Hastings’ is a poor man’s Watson, Christie starts to scatter little details to differentiate her creation from his forebear. And these details, which will continue to accumulate throughout the Hastings-narrated stories, turn him into a beloved character with more depth than Watson ever had. Dispensing with the ‘facts’ of Hastings’s background (aside from the little details that he worked at Lloyds before the war, and he has ‘no near relations or friends’ in England), Christie focuses on a far more engaging concern: the way Hastings likes to imagine himself.

In the first chapter, we see our narrator besotted by his first sight of his host’s wife, and then embarking on a series of ‘humorous’ anecdotes that he flatters himself ‘greatly amused [his] hostess’. Sitting amongst his new friends, he then announces that he’s ‘always had a secret hankering to be a detective’. What follows is the first introduction to our illustrious Belgian detective:
‘I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. My system is based on his – though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.’
The tone struck here tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between Hastings and Poirot – and it reveals more of Hastings’s character than any CV could.

Before I turn to the adaptation, I guess I should say a little bit about the plot of Christie’s first novel.

As I’ve said, Hastings has been invalided out of the army. After staying for a while at a convalescent home, he meets an old friend, John Cavendish, and is invited to stay at Styles Court while he recovers. Here, he is introduced to the residents of Styles Court: John’s wife Mary, his brother Lawrence, his stepmother Emily and her new husband Alfred Inglethorp, Evie Howard (Emily’s companion), and Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of Emily’s friend. Cynthia has been adopted into the family and works as a dispenser for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (just as Christie herself did during WWI). In addition to the family, Hastings learns of Dr Bauerstein, a London doctor who is a specialist in poisons and is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Mrs Raikes, the ‘pretty young wife’ of a local farmer.

Shortly after arriving at Styles, Hastings takes a trip into the village and runs into an old friend… it turns out Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective Hastings met before the war, is now living in Styles St Mary. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Poirot is a refugee from the German occupation of Belgium, and he is staying with a group of other Belgians at the invitation of Emily Inglethorp. The first description of Poirot is worth quoting in full, because this is a pretty momentous introduction (if you’re a fan):
‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, but he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’
Not long after this, Emily Inglethorp is murdered in very mysterious circumstances, so it’s pretty handy that Poirot is in the village. Just before the investigation gets properly underway, there’s one last member of the team to introduce… ‘Detective-Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard – Jimmy Japp’ (though Poirot never calls him Jimmy again – clearly this wasn’t a welcome nickname). Poirot knows Japp of old, and the Scotland Yard man seems more than happy to be reacquainted with his old colleague:
‘Why, if it isn’t Mr Poirot! […] You’ve heard me speak of Mr Poirot? It was in 1904 he and I worked together – the Abercrombie forgery case – you remember, he was run down in Brussels. Ah, those were great days, Moosier. Then, do you remember “Baron” Altara? There was a pretty rogue for you! He eluded the clutches of half the police in Europe. But we nailed in Antwerp – thanks to Mr Poirot here.’
We never learn any more about these cases – perhaps, like the giant rat of Sumatra, the world just isn’t ready to hear about them – but I love this little glimpse into Poirot and Japp’s early adventures and the idea of the pair hunting down a fake baron in the backstreets of Antwerp.

Now that the cast is complete, The Mysterious Affair at Styles concerns itself with the unfolding investigation. I know I’ve put a spoiler warning on this post, but I can’t really bring myself to give too much away about the details Poirot uncovers. I assume that anyone who’s read this far will already have either read the book or seen the TV adaptation, but I’m also assuming that it might have been a while ago. Spoilers now might ruin the enjoyment of a reread – and Styles definitely rewards rereading. Suffice to say, Christie plays a wonderful trick on her readers. Okay, it’s not Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but for a debut novelist who has wagered that no one will be able to spot her murderer, it’s a pretty bold move!

There are two main threads to Styles. The first is the investigation of Emily Inglethorp’s murder, and the reader is encouraged to use ‘order and method’ to work their way through the various clues that are placed before them. There’s a definite sense of a puzzle to be solved, as the book contains floorplans, descriptions and facsimiles of clues, and transcripts of testimony and conversation – we really are meant to have access to everything that the detective sees. In case we’ve missed anything, we have the voice of the detective nudging Hastings (but really the reader) along throughout: ‘So you think that the cocoa – mark well what I say, Hastings – the cocoa – contained strychnine?’

But it is easy to forget about following the clues, as Christie’s genius stroke in Styles (and, possibly, one of the reasons she thought no one would spot the murderer) is that the reader is frequently distracted from the puzzle because they’re watching the detectives bicker and banter their way through the investigation.

Up until the final revelation, our narrator remains absolutely convinced of his own ‘talent for deduction’, no matter how many times his companion points out his errors. They fall out about coffee cups and cocoa, Poirot makes fun of Hastings’s theories, and in return Hastings wonders whether Poirot has actually gone mad. The detective shows a seriously sarcastic streak, and many of his quips go whizzing right over his companion’s head (as though Hastings is more Bertie Wooster than John Watson). Here’s my favourite example of this, as it sets the tone for the men’s relationship in Christie’s later stories:
‘“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.’
(Going through the book again for this post, it’s interesting how many important clues are revealed just before or just after a bit of banter like this – like a seasoned conjuror, Christie seemed to know from the start that the more the audience watch the magicians, the more likely they’ll miss the trick.)

The investigation is wrapped up in a denouement that will set the tone for later Poirot stories, with the detective gathering the suspects and revealing the mechanics of the murder with theatrical flair. And, as one last intriguing treat, the book ends with the promise that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Christie’s dynamic duo:
‘Console yourself, my friend. We may hunt together again, who knows? And then –’

The ITV adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first broadcast on 16th September 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Ross Devenish. Although the episode is now sometimes listed as either the last episode of Series 2 or the first episode of Series 3, it was actually a standalone episode, broadcast to mark the centenary of Agatha Christie’s birth.

Although the rest of the early episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot are almost exclusively set in 1935, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is, like its source text, set during WWI. (Of course, that makes the chronology of the TV show a little wonky, as there’s nearly twenty years between ‘Styles’ and ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, which does make you wonder… what have they been doing for all that time?) But, as with all of Exton’s scripts, there’s a clear desire to stay faithful to Christie’s text and, given that Styles is perhaps the novel with the clearest connection to the time of its setting, that means staying faithful to that setting.

Christie’s novel is rather circumspect about the nature of Hastings’s war injury. Additionally, there’s never any real sense of Hastings being traumatized by his experiences. For modern readers, now used to talking openly about the horrors young men faced during WWI, Hastings’s casual attitude to his military experience can be a little unsettling. At one point in the novel, Hastings gazes out across the ‘green and peaceful’ Essex countryside and muses on how hard it is to remember ‘that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course’. As I’ve said in a previous post, in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Hastings reveals a reluctance to see ‘premature peace’ and a desire to see the war played out until military victory is achieved. There is very little indication that Hastings has been permanently affected by his wartime service (except for, possibly, recurring bouts of fever – but that’s assuming that the malaria he mentions in Peril at End House was contracted during the war).

Exton’s adaptation stays faithful to this depiction of Hastings as a man who (on the surface) is rather blasé about his experiences. However, it’s impossible to ignore the few details given in Christie’s text. Hastings wasn’t a military man before the war – he worked in insurance – but he fought at the Front, and he was so severely injured that he didn’t see active service again (at the end of the novel he’s offered a desk job at the War Office). So, although Hastings rarely evinces any sign of trauma, we know this is a man who has endured just as much pain and fear as John H. Watson before him (although he’s only given one month’s sick leave to Watson’s nine).

In the TV episode, Exton subtly plays with this material. Although Hastings is never anything other than cheerful when talking about himself – dismissing his injury as ‘just a scratch’ when offered sympathy – we occasionally get to see a hint of what might lie beneath that mask. The episode opens with Hastings in his convalescent home, watching a film about General Haig’s 1917 Flanders campaign. A close-up of Hugh Fraser’s face is enough to convey something of the trauma that lies beneath the fatuous surface.

As in Christie’s novel, Hastings is rescued from the hospital by the arrival of his old friend John. He travels to Styles St Mary (by a gorgeous steam train) and joins the family at Styles Court. Again, this is fairly faithful to the source. The house is presided over by the imperious but generous Emily Inglethorp (played by Gillian Barge), though she is now John and Lawrence’s mother, rather than stepmother. This small change, along with the removal of Dr Bauerstein from the plot, is simply the result of having to condense an entire novel into two hours of television – and it’s far from being the most dramatic change to a novel that we’ll see in the series.

Similarly, the adaptation keeps the basic shape of Christie’s plot and some of the more memorable bits of dialogue, with most of the ‘big’ clues retained, but streamlines and jettisons some of the flourishes in order to fit the puzzle into its new form. Obviously, as a big fan of the book, there are a couple of clues that I miss in the TV version (and I’m sure other fans will have their own examples), but the main ‘trick’ is kept – and, in my opinion, done very well indeed.

Just like with Christie’s book, though, a lot of the joy of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ lies in the characterization, particularly the relationship between Poirot and Hastings (and, to a lesser extent, Japp). We get to see the lovely reunion of the two central characters…

… and the adaptation retains Japp’s enthusiastic nostalgia for the ‘Abercrombie forgery case’, with the addition of a few throwaway lines for Japp that, while not found in the source, viewers will find familiar from Philip Jackson’s earlier performances (‘My word, Poirot, you’re the goods!’, ‘Haven’t had my tea yet, you know.’).

However, while I have nothing but love for the way in which Exton (and Suchet, Fraser and Jackson) translate Christie’s characters to the screen, I’ve got mixed feelings about some of the other characters.

It’s fair to say that the Cavendish brothers are not dramatically different in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While there is plenty of information about how their lives are different – and they definitely do behave differently in the aftermath of their stepmother’s death – they aren’t exactly chalk and cheese. In some of Christie’s later country house mysteries, she would create families with much more clearly differentiated siblings (4.50 From Paddington springs immediately to mind), but that’s just not the case here. The TV versions of John (David Rintoul) and Lawrence (Anthony Calf) reflect this, as they’re really not that dissimilar.

The brothers’ mother and stepfather – the stepmother and step-stepfather of the novel – also feel very close to their literary counterparts. In my opinion, Michael Cronin’s portrayal of Alfred Inglethorp is just perfect, and absolutely captures the ‘rather alien note’ struck by Christie’s character.

Sad as I am to make a criticism of the episode, the women just aren’t quite right. Evie Howard (Joanna McCallum) feels a little too young and (at least when she sneaks crumbs of seed cake) a little too wry for the sensible factotum with the manly voice. Weirdly, McCallum was actually exactly the right age to play Evie Howard, as she was forty when the episode aired. But Christie’s story was careful throughout to distract the reader from the fact that Evie is probably about the same age as Mary and five years younger than John – and I just don’t think the TV Evie is quite as successful in this.

Cynthia Murdoch and Mary Cavendish are also a bit further away from their literary counterparts. The former (played by Allie Byrne) is pretty and charming, and it’s very easy to see how she charms the men she meets. However, some of the character’s more sparkling dialogue is cut and there’s very little reference to her working in the dispensary. This is a bit of a disappointment, as Christie’s female dispensing chemists are always a bit feisty (like Tuppence Beresford and Julia Simmons, for instance) – and it’s always tempting to imagine that these characters are a tiny little bit based on the author herself. Even more egregious though: the TV version of Cynthia Murdoch doesn’t have red hair.

In Christie’s novel, Cynthia’s auburn hair is one of the features that Hastings admires early on. This particular predilection will become a running joke in the subsequent stories, with Poirot frequently teasing his friend about his fondness for redheads. For some reason, and I’ve never been sure why, the TV series mentions this aspect of Hastings’s characterization early on (in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’) but then drops it, replacing some of the literary redheads (e.g Mary Durrant in ‘Double Sin’) with brunettes. Between darkening her hair and playing down her chemistry, the TV adaptation waters down Cynthia a little too much for my liking.

Finally, then, there’s Mary Cavendish. Played by Beatie Edney (in her first of two appearances in the series), the TV character is also somewhat watered down from the source.

In the novel, Hastings’s descriptions of his friend’s wife are remarkably effusive:
‘I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body – all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.’
While Edney’s performance occasionally captures a sense of wildness, I’m not sure there’s really an ‘intense power of stillness’ or ‘slumbering fire’. Part of the problem is that, in removing some of the subplots from the adaptation, the character of Mary has been substantially reduced. In the TV version, she is a nervous and jealous wife, driven to wildness by her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity (and, possibly, worse). This is a far cry from Christie’s ‘proud wild creature’, who is the daughter of a beautiful Russian woman and a world-travelling English father. In the novel, Mary Cavendish’s malaise derives more from her husband’s monotony than his adultery.

It’s time to finally wrap this post up now, I think. I’ll end with a high point… I really like the fact that the adaptation retains the scene in which Hastings watches Poirot build card houses. This is such an important part of the story – both in terms of the detective’s investigation, but also in setting up the character of Poirot – that it’s nice to see it played out on screen. And it is a very impressive house of cards…

Overall, Exton’s adaptation is a fitting tribute to Christie’s debut novel. Although it’s not actually our introduction to the characters – as it was made after two solid series of adventures – it works as an affectionate flashback to where it all began. The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced readers to a duo that (despite a pretence at similarity) were very very different to Holmes and Watson, and the 1990 adaptation captures the essence of this relationship beautifully. I think the programme-makers were aware of the significance of their centenary adaptation, and the result is something designed to delight Christie fans.

But it can’t be denied that this episode is all about the boys. The female characters in The Mysterious Affair at Styles don’t get much of a look-in here, which is a shame because (despite some claims to the contrary) Christie created an array of complex and fascinating female characters in the Poirot stories.

Speaking of which… it’s time I looked at one of those characters in more detail

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Poirot Project: Reading My First Poirot Novel – a guest post by Rob Shedwick

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 Adventure of the Western Star’.

Even though he was a bit reluctant at first, I’ve managed to persuade my husband Rob to join in with my Poirot Project this year. He’s watched all of the first two series with me, and he’s listened to hours and hours of me talking about Christie’s fiction and the ITV adaptation. Up until this year though, he’d never read an Agatha Christie novel. Before we got to the adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I thought it would be cool if he read the novel. And I asked him to give me his thoughts after he read it.

Over to Rob…

My wife Hannah is a huge fan of Agatha Christie and the David Suchet TV series of Poirot. I’ll admit, Poirot has some negative associations for me – when I was younger, anything aired during primetime on a Sunday was stained as heralding the inevitable arrival of Monday morning, which I hated with a passion. Plus I’m not a huge fan of art deco. That alone was enough reason to avoid the show when it was first shown on television (that’s just how petty I can be).

Christmas 2015, and the BBC produced a three-part dramatization of And Then There Were None, starring Miranda Richardson, Sam Neill and Aidan Turner, to name a few. In stark contrast to the Poirot stories, I’ve always had a soft spot for this tale (I’m very much the horror fan, and this particularly dark story by Christie is right up my street), and though I can’t recall specifics I’m sure I’ve seen at least two previous film or television versions. After the third and final part of the BBC adaptation (no spoilers here, but I will say I was humming the Saw theme by Charlie Clouser with the final reveal), Hannah suggested I read the novel. I’d never read Agatha Christie before, and I’m pleased to say I absolutely loved the book just as much as I’d enjoyed the three-part serial.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the BBC mini-series, I strongly suggest you do!

I’m drifting off course here. All of this preamble is leading to the inevitable: reading my first Poirot novel.

Around the same time, Christmas 2015, Hannah came up with a plan to finally watch Curtain, the final Poirot story. As she’s been unable to bring herself to watch this episode (the thought of it alone makes her eyes well up), she decided to watch every single episode of the TV series and read the corresponding short stories and novels, and blog about her progress. Effectively forcing the completist in her to watch Curtain. And I’ve been watching the episodes with her, despite my previous ill-feeling toward them (which has now been eradicated you’ll be pleased to hear!).

So when it came to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hannah suggested I read the novel first. With it being the first Poirot novel Christie wrote, it would be a good place for me to continue with Agatha Christie’s books. It’s worth noting despite Styles being Agatha Christie’s first novel, and also the introduction of Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and Inspector James Japp, the episode itself doesn’t appear until the start of the third series. At time of writing I haven’t seen the episode yet.

The story is set during the First World War at Styles Court, a country manor house belonging to Emily Inglethorp (was Cavendish). It is told in the first person by Hastings, a guest at the house and present when the body of Emily is found, a victim of strychnine poisoning. On the day of her murder, Emily Inglethorp was heard arguing with someone, possibly Alfred (her husband) or John (her stepson). Following the argument, she was quite upset and supposedly rewrote her last will and testament, but the case assumed to hold the freshly written will has been forced open by someone and the document is missing. The mechanics of Mrs Inglethorp’s poisoning are a mystery.

Poirot, a Belgian refugee and remarkable (retired) detective, and also a friend of Hastings, is staying at a village close by and so Hastings enlists his help in solving the mystery (despite noting that he has himself improved on Poirot’s methods of detection).

Naturally, it would be absolutely rotten of me to say much more about the plot because I’d hate to give away any spoilers. The interaction between Poirot and Hastings is fantastic, with Poirot constantly dropping hints to his friend as to what nuggets of information will be important in apprehending the killer, regularly leaving Hastings bewildered (much to the amusement of the great detective).

Before I started to watch the series, I assumed the relationship between Poirot and Hastings was like the relationship between Holmes and Watson, quite stuffy and grave. One of the things I really like about the ITV adaptation of Poirot is that the relationship between the detective and his friend is actually jovial and affectionate. Reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I was pleased to find out that this isn’t something created for the TV show, but is in Agatha Christie’s original stories. In the novel, Poirot ribs Hastings but not out of a need to be superior. It seems to be purely out of affection for his friend. And even though Hastings is very British and very much of his time, he is also clearly fond of his dandy little Belgian friend.

If I had to give any criticism at all, it would be that the characters other than Poirot and Hastings are not always as easy to follow. Although we get plenty of facts about each of the characters, they didn’t always feel as ‘human’ as Hastings and Poirot, so remembering where everyone fits in is a little tiring, though it doesn’t detract from the story at all.

I think I’m rapidly becoming a fan of Agatha’s.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Western Star (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 Kidnapped Prime Minister’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The ninth episode of the second series of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 4th March 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name.

‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ was first published in The Sketch in April 1923, and so is one of the original run of Poirot short stories. As with many of the other Sketch stories, it begins with Poirot and Hastings in full Holmes and Watson mode: Hastings is ‘standing at the window of Poirot’s rooms’, encouraging his friend to make deductions about the scene he witnesses on the street. (Just as an aside: this story is curious in appearing to suggest that Hastings doesn’t live with Poirot. The rooms and landlady are described as ‘Poirot’s’, which contradicts Hastings’s use of ‘our’ in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, published only two weeks earlier. At one point in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Poirot goes out and asks Hastings to stay in the flat until his return, and the wording really implies that Hastings is a guest rather than a flatmate. I’m really starting to suspect that Hastings is a bit of a mooch, and just drifts in and out of Poirot’s lodgings when he’s short of cash.)

Anyway, what Hastings sees on the street is the famous film star Mary Marvell, who is being followed by a ‘bevy of admirers’. It isn’t long before the actress is shown in to Poirot’s rooms (landlady, dear, not housekeeper), and she presents her case to the great detective. Mary Marvell is in possession of a valuable diamond nicknamed ‘The Western Star’, and she has recently received an anonymous letter announcing that it is ‘the left of the god’ and that it ‘must return whence it came’ (she also believes this letter came from a Chinese man – but this turns out to be more red herring than yellow peril).

As Mary Marvell reveals, the diamond has a sibling, which is known as ‘The Star of the East’ and belongs to Lady Yardly of Yardly Chase. Sure enough, it isn’t long before Lady Yardly herself arrives at Poirot’s lodgings to share stories of anonymous letters and threats.

I really like ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’. The mystery is a nice little puzzle with a satisfying twist. Unlike some of the short stories, it doesn’t particularly suffer for having a small cast of characters, as the mystery is more ‘what’s happened’ than ‘whodunit’. But what really makes the story are the nuggets of information we get about Poirot’s career and about the development of his relationship with Hastings.

It’s interesting reading this story immediately after ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ (even though it was actually published earlier), as we can see a distinct shift in Poirot’s position in London. In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot modestly proclaims that he is ‘unknown’ and ‘obscure’ in London, having only one reasonably famous case under his belt. But by ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, all this has changed: Poirot isn’t just famous, he’s fashionable:
Oui, my friend, it is true – I am become the mode, the dernier cri! One says to another: “Comment? You have lost your gold pencil-case? You must go to the little Belgian. He is too marvellous! Everyone goes! Courez!” And they arrive! In flocks, mon ami! With problems of the most foolish!’
What’s nice about this story is that it gives some indication of how Poirot’s fame has spread, and the reasons why Mary Marvell and Lady Yardly would consult him. And, interestingly, there are some slight differences in the reasons why the two women have approached the Belgian detective (both on the surface and looking deeper).

Two specific cases are mentioned in relation to Mary Marvell’s visit to see Poirot. The detective reminds Hastings of ‘the case of the dancer, Valerie Saintclair’, and Mary Marvell herself says she was encouraged by the words of Lord Cronshaw, who ‘was telling [her] last night how wonderfully [Poirot] cleared up the mystery of his nephew’s death’. The cases being referenced here are ‘The King of Clubs’ and ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’, both of which involve the scandalous activities of London’s ‘fashionable society’ (which are, apparently, still being talked about at parties). By contrast, Lady Yardly approaches Poirot on a more personal recommendation: she has been ‘sent’ to Poirot by Mary Cavendish – a reference to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first ‘country house’ murder solved by Poirot.* This is a nice touch for fans familiar with the earlier stories, as it subtly indicates the very different spheres in which Mary Marvell and Lady Yardly move.

Another bit of the story that I really like is that we get to see the return of Hastings-the-Detective. In the TV series, we’ve already seen this played for comic effect in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, but it’s also a recurring aspect of Christie’s stories. As I’ll come to very shortly, Hastings is introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as a man harbouring ambitions of detective work, and he seems to have built up a reputation amongst his friends as being a bit of a sleuth in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’.

In ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, Poirot accidentally leaves Hastings to deal with Lady Yardly’s first visit… with disastrous consequences. The landlady (who Hastings calls Mrs Murchison, though he still treats her like a housekeeper) shows the woman in, and we get a little insight into Hastings’s reaction:
‘I felt a desire to rise to the occasion. Why not? In Poirot’s presence I have frequently felt a difficulty – I do not appear at my best. And yet there is no doubt that I, too, possess the deductive sense in a marked degree. I leant forward on a sudden impulse.’
Of course, Hastings’s ‘sudden impulse’ leads him to immediately make an almighty blunder:
‘“Lady Yardly,” I said, “I know why have come here. You have received blackmailing letters about the diamond.”’
Hastings’s error here (in giving Lady Yardly the idea of fabricating her own story of blackmail to cover up the truth about her diamond) doesn’t go unnoticed by Poirot. But, with a dastardly blend of arrogance and jest, he decides not to point out the mistake to his friend. He lets Hastings continue believing in the twin diamonds, the ancient curse and the threatening Chinese man until the very end, when he patronizingly explains that the entire thing was a fiction concocted by Lady Yardly (jumping on the idea suggested to her by Hastings) to cover up the fact that she was being blackmailed by her ex-lover (Mary Marvell’s husband).

I’ve talked a lot about Poirot and Hastings’s snarky attitude to one another, but this denouement leads to an actual falling out between the men, with Hastings seriously losing his rag:
‘“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.’
I don’t know which bit of this I like the most: the image of Hastings storming out and banging the door like a petulant teenager; the fact that he doesn’t deny that he will forgive Poirot, but he doesn’t want to do it too quickly; or the fact that, just seven days later, The Sketch published ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’, which begins with Hastings wandering into their rooms and finding Poirot about to embark on a case – his simple response of ‘What is our plan of campaign?’ suggests that he couldn’t stay mad at his friend for very long.

The TV adaptation of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ was written by Clive Exton and directed by Richard Spence. As with most of the early series, Miss Lemon and Japp have been added to the story, though neither of them really have very much to do as the source material was so focused on Poirot and Hastings’s relationship. There are some good Japp moments, particularly when he’s discovered hiding in a bush outside Yardly Chase. And a couple of ‘classic’ Japp lines, including (and you really have to imagine these with Philip Jackson’s deadpan delivery):
‘Don’t come the old acid with me, Poirot!’
And (particularly funny after ‘The Lost Mine’):
‘Here we are again... sinister Chinamen...’
Aside from this, though, we’re very much focused on Poirot and Hastings throughout the episode, with Miss Lemon and Japp relegated to rather minor bit-players.

While Exton’s script stays fairly close to the plot of Christie’s original story, there are some interesting changes in characterization. The most notable of these is the alternation of Mary Marvell, a somewhat tawdry film star for whom Poirot has very little sympathy, to Marie Marvelle (played by Rosalind Bennett), the Belgian star of La tendresse religieuse and Drôle de coeur with whom Poirot is utterly infatuated. (Japp’s reaction? ‘Belgian film star? You’re pulling my leg!’) After the introductory ‘tense’ scene of Japp investigating Henrik Van Braks (played by Struan Rodger) for selling stolen gems, the episode proper begins with a very flustered Poirot preparing an afternoon tea for his screen crush, laying out cakes and flowers with geometric precision. When Miss Lemon has to break it to him that Marie Marvelle has cancelled, he looks utterly heartbroken (shades of Countess Rossakoff in the ITV version of Murder in Mesopotamia) – but, of course, Marie Marvelle still wants to consult with the famous detective.

In Christie’s original short story, Poirot’s sympathies lie entirely (and rather curiously) with Lady Yardly. Despite the fact that Lady Yardly has committed adultery, lied (to Poirot and to her husband) and been party to fraud, Poirot sees her as the victim of the piece. Mary Marvell – the woman who has been completely honest throughout – is nothing but an attention-seeker. Poirot’s deification of Lady Yardly seems entirely to stem from his having seen her at home with her angelic children (and I’m just glossing over the bit in Christie’s story where Poirot ‘makes friends’ and ‘romps’ with the children, because it’s just too weird). Poirot’s final insistence that it is Lady Yardly, not Mary Marvell, who has suffered the most is ridiculously over-the-top – and it’s not a view that is shared by his friend:
‘“It seems a little unfair on Mary Marvell. She has lost her diamond through no fault of her own.”
“Bah!” said Poirot brutally. “She has a magnificent advertisement. That is all she cares for, that one! Now the other, she is different. Bonne mère, très femme!
“Yes,” I said doubtfully, hardly sharing Poirot’s views on femininity.’
It’s quite weird to say, but I’m with Hastings on this one. And it does seem rather odd that the man who was happy to lie for Valerie Saintclair would be so quick to disdain Mary Marvell. Exton’s adaptation corrects this incongruity by switching Poirot’s sympathies from the lady of the manor to the fragile starlet. And this is done beautifully, as Poirot shifts from besotted fan to chivalrous protector as the story unfolds. The final exchange between Poirot and Marie, as the detective comforts the deceived woman, is heart-breaking, not least because the entire exchange is in French. This is a nice touch, but it is quite unusual (in both the TV series and Christie’s fiction). For instance, in ‘The Submarine Plans’ (and the later version ‘The Incredible Theft’), Poirot strikes up a momentary rapport with the French maid of one of the house guests, but this is conducted entirely in English; similarly, as far as I can recall, though Poirot is very sympathetic to Zélie in Elephants Can Remember, the two of them also converse in English. The use of French at the end of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ creates a sense of tenderness and poignancy, and when Marie signals her acceptance of what Poirot has told her – ‘C’est fini!’ – Poirot looks genuinely distraught his pauvre petite.

So… what about Hastings and his ill-fated attempts to play detective?

The TV adaptation retains this in all its glory. Not only does Hastings carry out his wonky consultation with Lady Yardly (Caroline Goodall), Hugh Fraser’s performance is wonderfully comic. Sitting behind Poirot’s desk, giving his best ‘Tell Me Everything’ expression, Hastings looks exactly like a man playing detective – and a man who’ll get in big trouble when his associate finds out. This is one of the moments where the adaptation captures the feel of the source material perfectly, as though Christie’s character has wandered off the page and onto the screen.

However, while Hastings does indeed get caught out in his performance (and Poirot’s face when he finds out what his friend actually said to Lady Yardly is an absolute picture), this doesn’t result in the almighty bust-up of Christie’s text. Instead, the TV Hastings is much quicker to admit his error and forgive Poirot for letting it persist. The episode ends with Hastings confessing that he was baffled by the case, and he reveals a determination to learn from his illustrious friend. He’s even bought a special notebook to keep track of all the questions that he is unable to answer. The two men sit down to dinner together – cooked by Poirot, presumably as an attempt to pre-empt his friend slamming out of the flat in a strop like his literary counterpart – and the detective (with even more condescension than in Christie’s story) encourages his friend to put the confusion behind him:
‘Now close your little book, and eat your dinner.’

It’s probably best that Exton chose to alter the ending of Christie’s story, of course, because this brings us to the end of the second series, and it would’ve been pretty downbeat to end with the dynamic duo falling out. The next episode won’t appear for another six months, and that will be a flashback to when the two men first met, so it’s for the best that ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ ends with the two friends raising their glasses in a toast to their adventures (no matter how much I would’ve loved to see Fraser acting out the scene from Christie’s story).

All in all then, ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ is a great episode, based on a very enjoyable short story. It’s definitely right up there in my top seventy episodes.

One final gem to end with… I’ve been cataloguing some of my favourite Poirot accessories as we’ve been working through the series. To add to the collection, this episode has an excellent close-up shot of Poirot’s business card.

Look at that subtle off-white colouring. The tasteful thickness of it.
Oh my God. It even has a watermark.

Time to move on to the next episode… and to go back to where it all began

* I’ve just realized that there are some semi-spoilers in this story that I hadn’t noticed before. If Lord Cronshaw and Mary Cavendish are still around to send clients to Poirot, it does kind of imply that they weren’t the murderers in their respective cases!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Kidnapped Prime Minister (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 Adventure of the Cheap Flat’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The eighth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 25th February 1990, and it was based on the short story of the same name.

‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ was first published in The Sketch in April 1923. Although it was the eighth Poirot short story to appear (it was published the week after ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’), it’s actually set before the others – the story takes place shortly after the events of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There is a reference to the events of ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ in one of the other Sketch stories; in ‘The Submarine Plans’, Lord Alloway is tipped to replace David MacAdam as prime minister, and he refers to the reputation Poirot acquired as a result of his rescue of MacAdam towards the end of WWI. (In the revised version of the story, ‘The Incredible Theft’, in which MacAdam is replaced by Mr Hunberly and the events take place later in Poirot’s career, this reference is dropped.)

Reading the stories in the order in which they were published, ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ appears as a sort of sequel to Styles – the great detective has solved his first country house murder, but this is the case that will cement his new position in London. However, if you read the stories in the order in which they were adapted (as I’ve done here), it appears as a flashback that fleshes out a casual comment in ‘The Submarine Plans’. Either way works, as the important thing about this story is that it’s an early step in Poirot’s London career, and one that will bring him to the attention of ‘the great and the good’.

And this is a really significant detail. While it’s fairly well-known that Christie was inspired to create her Belgian detective after coming into contact with Belgian refugees in Torquay, what is less well-known is that the majority of these refugees didn’t enjoy the fame and fortune of their fictional counterpart.* Recent research has shown that, while the 250,000 ‘plucky’ Belgian refugees who sought shelter in the UK during 1914-18 were initially welcomed, this welcome began to wane as money ran out and the war didn’t end by Christmas. As people struggled for housing, employment, running water and fresh food, the purpose-built villages (like Elisabethville in Tyne and Wear, which was built to house 6000 Belgian refugees) began to be a cause for resentment. At the end of the war, when additional housing, hospitals and employment were needed for returning soldiers, many Belgians found their contracts and leases terminated, and the government even offered them a time-limited one-way ticket back to Belgium to make the point clearer. By mid-1919, nearly 90% of the refugees had returned to Belgium.

So why did Poirot stay? And why was it so easy for him to stay?

The answer to the first question is tricky. Poirot had a good career in Belgium and appears to have no ties to the UK when he arrives as a refugee in Styles. However, although the detective is full of complaints about his adopted home (the food, the beds, the countryside, the golf, etc.), he also seems to be a bit of an Anglophile on the sly. He genuinely enjoys a number of ‘English’ activities – like his very English weekend break with Hastings and Japp in ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ and (until the murder) his marrow-growing retirement in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – and the fondness he has for his English friends (and not just Japp and Hastings) is a driving force in the narratives. And, let’s not forget, in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, Poirot wistfully confesses that he was once in love with an English girl. All this suggests that, continental horreur aside, Poirot very much enjoys his new home.

The answer to the second question is much easier: there’s no pressure on Poirot to leave Britain at the end of the war, as by then he has rescued the prime minister from a kidnapping plot.

The opening of ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ serves both to fill in the gap between the events of Styles (c.1916) and the events of the Sketch short stories (presumably c.1923), and to point forward to the illustrious (second) career upon which Poirot is about to embark. As with all the early stories, our narrator is Hastings, who explains that he was given a recruiting job after being invalided out of the army. Poirot is now living in rooms in London, and Hastings has started to call on him regularly in the evenings to ‘talk with him of any cases of interest that he might have had on hand’.

Unusually, Hastings begins his narration with a rather impassioned explanation of why he has decided to tell this particular tale – though, as usual, there is no indication of who he is telling it to:
‘Now that war and the problems of war are things of the past, I think I may safely venture to reveal to the world the part which my friend Poirot played in a moment of national crisis. The secret has been well guarded. Not a whisper of it reached the Press. But, now that the need for secrecy has gone by, I feel it is only just that England should know the debt it owes to my quaint little friend, whose marvellous brain so ably averted a great catastrophe.’
This is quite a charming opening, as it sets Hastings up as the guardian of his friend’s reputation: he thinks it’s ‘only just’ that the world learns that Poirot is more than a ‘quaint little friend’.

Hastings then sets up the story as happening towards the end of WWI, when Poirot was operating as a private detective (no doubt cashing in on his success in the Styles case). The little Belgian detective’s cases are relatively mundane at this point, as he explains to his friend:
‘I assist a – how do you call it? – “charlady” to find her husband. A difficult affair, needing the tact. For I have a little idea that when he is found he will not be pleased. What would you? For my part, I sympathize with him. He was a man of discretion to lose himself.’
This little glimpse into Poirot’s early London career is particularly amusing when you consider ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ (published in November 1923). In this later story, the detective disdains being employed to find a domestic servant, but before he establishes himself he is actually employed by domestic servants.

All this domestic mundanity is swept to one side as Poirot’s landlady announces the arrival of two men who have called to see the detective. (Once again, I don’t know why she does this… she’s his landlady, not his housekeeper.) The gentlemen in question are Lord Estair, Leader of the House of Commons, and Mr Bernard Dodge, a member of the War Cabinet, and they need Poirot’s help with a matter of national emergency: the prime minister has been kidnapped!

Now, if the incongruity of two such illustrious personages requesting help from a foreign private eye with a good line in tracking down absconding husbands escapes the reader, it certainly doesn’t escape Poirot:
‘What made you come to me? I am unknown, obscure in this great London of yours.’
Turns out, Poirot has been recommended by someone ‘whose word was once law in Belgium’. Given the automatic salute Poirot gives on hearing this, we can guess who that person might be. On the word of his esteemed ‘master’, the British government have decided to entrust this most sensitive of cases to Poirot.

While the set-up and introduction to the story is interesting in terms of the broader presentation of Poirot’s (and Hastings’s) character, the case itself isn’t one of my favourites. The ‘twist’ is too easy to spot, and there aren’t enough suspects to create an intriguing puzzle. The prime minister set off for a conference in Paris, but after leaving Boulogne, his car was switched with a ‘bogus’ car and driver. The prime minister’s real car was discovered at the side of the road with the chauffeur tied up and the PM nowhere to be seen. The only suspects are Captain Daniels, one of the prime minister’s secretaries, and the chauffeur himself, an Irishman named O’Murphy. Poirot has just twenty-four (and a quarter) hours to rescue the prime minister before the conference goes ahead – and the men fear that, without David MacAdam, the conference will agree to ‘Peace by Negotiation’ and a premature end to the conflict in Europe (more on that below).

Of course, Poirot solves the case. He recognizes the ruse that has been pulled, exonerating O’Murphy and getting MacAdam to the aerodrome just in time to fly to France for the conference. The British government owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

Ah… now to the adaptation…

While Christie’s story is set during the early days of Poirot’s residence in London, the ITV adaptation (directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Clive Exton) is moved into the continuous timeframe of the early TV series. Thus, the events are moved to 1935 and appear to follow such cases as ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘Double Sin’, rather than The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There’s no question in the episode as to why Poirot would be consulted on the case: after all, this is the man who has (twice) helped the royal family of Maurania, worked with Scotland Yard to foil murderers, kidnappers and Mafia hitmen, and has been lauded by Inspector Japp as ‘the most extraordinary of private detectives’ and a ‘doyen of the Belgian police force’. In the TV version, saving the prime minister isn’t Poirot’s big break, it’s just another day at the office.

This isn’t the only change that the move to 1935 (and 1990) necessitates. In Christie’s original story, the ‘national crisis’ concerned the negotiations to end WWI. David MacAdam is on his way to Paris to prevent premature peace in Europe – something that Hastings describes as the ‘parrot-cry of England’s enemies’. While Christie’s short story is based on historical circumstance – there were a number of failed peace initiatives throughout WWI, with British politicians (including then prime minister David Lloyd George) opposing them in expectation of military victory and resistance to offering colonial concessions to Germany – this facet of WWI history is not particularly well-known to modern audiences, and may seem somewhat unpalatable. Having a man like Hastings, who was disabled fighting at the Front, cheering on the prospect of further military conflict might not have sat very well with viewers in 1990 (or today, for that matter).

Moreover, the ITV series is set, not towards the end of the ‘war to end all wars’, but at the brink of the deadliest conflict in human history – the motivation behind the abduction of the PM needed to be changed to reflect this altered setting.

Interestingly, while other episodes in these early series make reference to growing military threat from Germany and Italy, ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ draws on conflict of a different kind. Taking its cue from a throwaway line in Christie’s short story – when suspicion is thrown on O’Murphy, Poirot is told that the chauffeur is an Irishman and, more significantly, he comes from County Clare (‘Tiens!’). This allusion hints at the approach of the Irish War of Independence, with the mention of Clare in particular perhaps evoking the election of Éamon de Valera as MP for East Clare and president of Sinn Féin in 1917 and the fact that County Clare was placed under martial law by the British in 1919.

The spectre of ‘County Clare’ is a red herring in Christie’s story. As elsewhere in her work, the suspicious ‘other’ turns out to be innocent, and the ‘good Englishman’ turns out to be guilty. Like the prime minister, O’Murphy is a victim of Captain Daniels, the suspiciously linguistic Englishman who is league with the Germans. However, Christie’s red herring becomes the basis for Exton’s 1935-set tale, with some interesting implications.

The first clear alteration to the source story is the introduction of Daniels’s (ex-)wife (played by Lisa Harrow). Despite seemingly estranged from her husband, whose political views she describes as ‘torpid’, this woman is of immediate interest to Poirot. He learns that her maiden name is Donohue, and that she is the daughter of the Earl of Connemara. Immediately, this suggests a link between Mrs Daniels and the prime minister’s chauffeur (played here by Jack Elliott), who is renamed Egan but is still from County Clare.

An early comment about Commander Daniels’s (David Horovitch) background gives a further hint as to the underlying motivations of the kidnappers. The commander’s father, we are told, suffered political humiliation as he was vehemently ‘opposed to Asquith on the Home Rule Bill’. While Exton’s adaptation is careful not to join the dots too obviously for the audience, the significance of this family history isn’t lost on Poirot. After interviewing Daniels for the first time, Poirot takes his leave with an ominous ‘Éirinn go Brách’. The man pretends not to understand, but the point is made.

The actual kidnapping of the prime minister (still Christie’s fictional MacAdam) follows pretty similar lines to that in the source text. The prime minister is due to attend a UN summit to prevent German rearmament, but is abducted prior to leaving England and substituted with a double, and a fake kidnapping is staged in France. However, while Christie’s story gives the kidnapper a fairly straightforward motivation (he’s working with the Germans), Exton’s adaptation muddies the water a little. Commander and Mrs Daniels, along with their accomplice Egan (who, unlike O’Murphy, is not exonerated) aren’t simply German collaborators. Rather, the kidnappers are working on the basis that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, and that preventing the prime minister’s appearance at the UN summit is a direct act against Britain (rather than for Germany). When Poirot foils their plan, Mrs Daniels chooses to take her life – very defiantly – with a final call of ‘Éirinn go Brách’, rather than face capture by the British police.

At first glance then, it seems that Exton’s adaptation takes the ‘Irishmen are dangerous’ red herring from Christie’s text and works it into an actual case of dangerous Irishmen (and women) – after all, Mrs Daniels, her husband and Egan are actively working to allow the rearmament of Germany (and the 90s viewer had enough hindsight to know exactly what that meant) – but it isn’t quite as simple as that.

What I find really interesting in this episode is Poirot’s reaction to Commander and Mrs Daniels. Although Poirot’s initial ‘Éirinn go Brách’ is said (quite darkly) to provoke a reaction from Daniels, there is an undercurrent of understanding in David Suchet’s delivery of the words. But it’s at the death of Mrs Daniels that this understanding moves into something approaching sympathy. Watching the woman’s suicide with a knowing solemnity, Poirot echoes her final words softly as she falls, like a sort of eulogy: ‘Yes. Éirinn go Brách. Ireland forever.’

Poirot’s sympathy here can be explained in three different ways: (1) character development; (2) context; (3) Hannah over-romanticizing and reading way too much into things.

(1) Throughout the series, Suchet’s Poirot reveals an increasingly developed sense of ‘justice’ that transcends both legal and governmental systems. It is completely in-keeping with the character that Poirot would be more attuned to the nuances of Anglo-Irish relations, and would reject knee-jerk patriotism in the face of a nation struggling against the remnants of colonial rule and civil war. As the series progresses, we will see much more of Poirot’s awareness of the shades of grey.

(2) The episode was aired in 1990, some years prior to the Good Friday Agreement. While the story is set in 1935, and deals with the aftermath of the Home Rule Bill, the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Economic War, it was inevitable that audiences would link the episode with contemporaneous conflicts in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. By 1990, people in the UK (where the episode was first aired) were slowly beginning to reject jingoistic representations of the Irish as terrorists and were becoming familiar with more nuanced accounts of the historical and political basis for the Troubles (the controversial Death on the Rock documentary was broadcast two years before this episode and the BBC’s complex and morally ambiguous Children of the North was broadcast in 1991). Poirot’s signs of understanding towards Mrs Daniels are a very subtle nod to this increasing sense of complexity and ambiguity.

(3) Or maybe… Poirot’s sympathy has a more personal note to it. Maybe the reference to County Clare means something else to the little Belgian detective. Perhaps he remembers that Lord Inchiquin of County Clare was one of the Southern Irish unionists who opposed the Home Rule Bill and petitioned George V against its ruinous consequences. Perhaps he also remembered that Lord Inchiquin’s wife, Ethel O’Brien, played a major role in housing Belgian refugees in Co. Clare during WWI – being given a medal by the Queen of Belgium in thanks. Romantic an idea as it is, I like to think Poirot is aware of this history and, maybe, feels a lingering sense of solidarity and kinship.

Anyway, this is a very long blog post about an episode that is incongruously serious, and which paves the way for the more morally complex feature-length episodes of later series. Let’s end on a lighter note…

Early in the episode, we find out that Poirot has a personal tailor named Fingler who lives in a rather unprepossessing street in the East End (filmed on Quilter Street, E1). The purpose of this little scene is simply humour, as Poirot complains that his tailor is cutting his suits too small, and Fingler warns his client not to ‘kvetch’. Not only is this a nice foreshadowing of later episodes where Poirot will deny gaining weight, it also offers a little nod to the short story, which has a moment where Hastings watches Poirot remove a grease spot from his suit and notes:
‘Never was there a dandy such as Hercule Poirot.’
Next up: ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’

* UPDATE: I’ve just found out that there is a conference on WWI in Belgium and the Netherlands at QMUL this month, which has a number of papers that look at this very topic. And I found out about the conference on the blog of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, which is dedicated to research into the lives and experiences of Belgian refugees (mainly in the UK during WWI).