Monday, 12 March 2018

Poirot Project: Death in the Clouds (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 lifelong 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 ABC Murders’, quite a while ago. Because of work commitments, it’s taken me a while to get back to my little project, but I’m hoping I can crack on now… let’s see how that goes…

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 12th January 1992. (Have a look at the previous post for an explanation of why I’ve put ‘series’ in inverted commas.) It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Death in the Air), which was published in 1935. The academic in me wants to note the edition of the novel I’m using here:

It’s the Hamlyn Collected Edition from 1969 (which also includes Murder on the Orient Express and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?). My grandma had a collection of these hardback triple editions, and I inherited them when she died. Obviously, where possible, I’m reading my grandma’s books for this project.

Death in the Clouds was published just a couple of months after the UK publication of Three Act Tragedy, and the two novels share a few minor details and plot points. I’ll come back to this when I get to Three Act Tragedy, I think. For now, let’s talk about Poirot’s airborne adventure.

By this point in Poirot’s story, Hastings has departed for South America (and this novel doesn’t feature one of his periodic returns), and Miss Lemon hasn’t yet joined his team (‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ wouldn’t be published until August 1935). So this is a Poirot story where our detective is flying solo, at least at first.

The story begins with a group of passengers boarding a plane, the Prometheus, from Le Bourget to Croydon. Amongst the passengers is, of course, Poirot, but we’re actually introduced to someone else first: a young hairdresser named Jane Grey. In fact, much of the novel is told from Jane’s POV, including quite a few scenes in which Poirot isn’t present. In the first chapter, Jane assesses her fellow passengers – including the ‘little elderly man with large moustaches and an eggshaped head’ – and reflects on the holiday she has just taken to Le Pinet and an incident that occurred while she was there.

Aside from Poirot, the passengers observed by Jane are: Lady Horbury, a cocaine-addicted former chorus-girl turned peeress-by-marriage; Venetia Kerr, a ‘horsey, county type’; a nice man in a periwinkle-blue pullover, who Jane had met at the roulette table one night; Dr Bryant, a tall man with a flute; the Duponts, two excited French archaeologists; Daniel Clancy, a detective fiction writer; and James Ryder, who is worrying about money. The final passenger to be mentioned, right at the end of the first chapter, is Madame Giselle. But Madame Giselle is already dead…

As the murder must have occurred while the plane was in the air, these passengers form our list of suspects (along with the two stewards, Mitchell and Davis, I guess… though no Christie fan would genuinely suspect a young lad called Albert Davis whose first word in the novel is ‘Coo!’). As the victim was sitting across the aisle from the great Hercule Poirot, the detective is naturally inclined to investigate. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to fly solo for long. When the plane arrives in Croydon, he’s joined by his old friend Inspector Japp, who views it all as a ‘rum business’.

You see, the initial investigation of the body on the plane (carried out by Poirot and Dr Bryant before they land) seems to suggest that Madame Giselle was killed by a poisoned dart. Daniel Clancy is able to supply further information:
‘“This object, gentlemen, is the native thorn shot from a blowpipe by certain tribes – er – I cannot be exactly certain now if it is South American tribes or whether it is the inhabitants of Borneo which I have in mind; but that is undoubtedly a native dart that has been aimed by a blowpipe, and I strongly suspect that on the tip –”
“Is the famous arrow poison of the South American Indians,” finished Hercule Poirot.’
Readers of Three Act Tragedy will already be aware of how seriously they should take this suggestion, of course, but Poirot can’t ignore the fact that a dart has been found, and that a number of the passengers were carrying tubes that could have been used as a blowpipe (Lady Horbury’s long cigarette holder, Dr Bryant’s flute, the Duponts’ collection of Kurdish pipes). It certainly does seem to be a ‘rum business’.

The investigation, then, turns to the background of the victim. Madame Giselle – or Marie Morisot (her real name) – was a Parisian moneylender, who had a client list comprising ‘the upper and professional classes’. She travelled to England regularly, as she had a habit of learning her clients’ deepest, darkest secrets, and then using this knowledge to ensure they didn’t fail to repay their debts. In order to find out more, Poirot and Japp have to work with the Paris Sûreté, specifically M. Fournier, who has heard all about Poirot from a M. Giraud. Readers familiar with Murder on the Links will already know about Poirot’s relationship with Giraud, but fortunately it doesn’t cause any problems on this case!

What’s interesting about Death in the Clouds, though, is that this is not the only investigation. Jane Grey and Norman Gale (the nice man in the periwinkle-blue pullover) are also keen to team up to solve the crime and exonerate themselves. Or are they just keen to team up (wink wink)? Poirot sees an opportunity and deputizes the young couple into his investigation, using them as a fake secretary and a disguised blackmailer in turn. After all, he can trust these two as they’re without doubt the most unlikely suspects from the plane. And at least the reader can trust that the killer would never be one of the characters from whose perspective the story is told. Lol.

In a bit of typical Christie slight-of-hand (or arrogance), we’re directly warned against trusting these deputy-detectives. But of course, we pay no attention to the warning, couched as it is in a sly joke from Japp at his friend’s expense:
‘“Well,” said Japp with a grin, “detectives do turn out to be criminals sometimes – in story books.”’
Similarly, we probably paid no attention to the barrage of clues that appeared before Madame Giselle’s inquest, as it’s so very easy to gloss over the wealth of incriminating details Christie often stuffs into the opening chapters of her books.

I’m going to move on to the adaptation in a sec, but there’s a few other bits of the book that are worth noting first…

There are a few references to other Poirot books in Death in the Clouds, but the weird thing is that some of them were yet to be written. Poirot is clearly still thinking about two of his previous cases, for instance, as he makes mention of both Three Act Tragedy and Murder on the Orient Express. When he and Fournier discuss the possibility of a ‘psychological reason’ why no one on the plane noticed someone whipping out a blowpipe to dispatch Madame Giselle, Poirot says:
‘I remember a case in which I was concerned – a case of poison, where that very point arose. There was, as you call it, a psychological moment.’
I should think you do remember it, Poirot – it only happened a couple of months ago!

Then, when an exasperated Japp says that he’s already questioned the passengers about this ‘psychological moment’ to no avail, declaring ‘Everyone can’t be lying’, Poirot notes that in one case he investigated ‘everyone was!’ (Japp just shakes his head at this – ‘You and your cases!’)

But then, we also have a few hints at the future as well. Jane Grey’s performance as Poirot’s secretary (‘As an efficient secretary, Miss Grey has at times to undertake certain work of a temporary nature – you understand?’) reminds us that in a few months Poirot will have engaged the services of a very efficient secretary (though she won’t always be willing to ‘undertake certain work of a temporary nature’). Jane accompanies Poirot to interview Daniel Clancy, a crime writer whose detective, Wilbraham Rice, is a very popular character with a number of quirks and a predilection for eating bananas. In just over a year, Poirot will have teamed up with another creator of popular detective fiction (though it’s Ariadne Oliver, rather than Sven Hjerson, who has the fruit habit).

But the future hint that made me smile most on rereading comes in Chapter 14. We get one of our little glimpses into the mind of dentist Norman Gale – the book really is quite head-hoppy – who briefly considers what it must be like for his patients: ‘Nasty helpless feeling you have in a dentist’s chair. If the dentist were to run amuck…’ Now, perhaps this is just one of those moments where Christie near enough tells you whodunit, but I like to imagine that, at some point over the next few years, she remembered this line and thought, ‘Now that could be a good plot to use.’ And it’s interesting that the programme-makers chose to follow Death in the Clouds with an adaptation of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

A flippant point, and then a serious one before I go on to the TV version.

Flippancy: In one of the early chapters, there’s a list of items included in all the passengers’ hand luggage. I was a bit thrown to discover that Venetia Kerr, Jane Grey and Lady Horbury were all carrying some delicious oaty treats, presumably for a snack on the plane. Thinking about it, though, it is possible that a ‘flapjack’ here means a powder compact.

On a less palatable note, it would be wrong of me not to mention one of the most uncomfortable passages in the book. Jane, as I’ve said, is a hairdresser. She works at a salon run by a man who calls himself ‘M. Antoine’, but whose real name is Andrew Leech. We’re told that his ‘claims to foreign nationality consisted of having had a Jewish mother’. Jane’s co-workers are… not cool with this. One woman, Gladys, refers to their employer as ‘Ikey Andrew’, after the man has (probably rightly) questioned Jane’s demands for a pay rise while she’s still a suspect in a murder investigation. Then, on the same page as Gladys’s anti-Semitism, comes another bit of gross casual racism: Jane and Norman go on their first date, and discover that they have a lot in common. They both like dogs and smoked salmon; they both dislike fat women and Katherine Hepburn. And: ‘They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes.’ Wow. Nice couple.

It’s easy to dismiss these racial slurs as being a product of their time – and in many ways that’s what they are. There are other examples of such views going unquestioned in Christie’s work. But it’s notable that, here, the racism is coming almost entirely from unpleasant characters. Gladys is not a sympathetic character – she is described as having a ‘haughty demeanour’ in public and being ‘hoarse and jocular’ in private. Jane can’t seem to wait to be away from her. The other comment comes during a date with a murderer, so I’m not sure there’s any moral high ground here.

As it turns out, Poirot has a scheme in mind to draw Jane away from these anti-Semitic hairdressers and racist murdering dentists… he sees a different path for his heroine and hatches a match-making plot. It’s not clear whether this plot is due to his suspicion of Gale, or whether he just genuinely believes it is a better match for Jane, but he devotes some time and money to orchestrating a relationship between Jane Grey and Jean Dupont, the French archaeologist from the plane. After Gale’s arrest, Poirot believes he has finally been successful in this, noting that Jane and Dupont will likely soon be married. Jane will be accompanying Dupont to Persia, and specifically tells Poirot that she’s looking forward to having her worldview expanded.

Of course Agatha Christie would see hooking up with an archaeologist as a happy ending.

Okay… time to talk about the TV version…

‘Death in the Clouds’ was written by William Humble and directed by Stephen Whittaker. It follows the book in having Poirot ‘flying solo’ (so there’s no Hastings or Miss Lemon), then picking up Japp (Chief Inspector Japp here) along the way.

The adaptation keeps the bones of the story and characterization from the novel, but there are a few revisions and omissions to fit the television format. Dr Bryant, James Ryder and Armand Dupont (Jean’s father) are dropped, presumably to streamline the list of suspects. Jane Grey is no longer a hairdresser, but instead is one of the air stewards, replacing Albert Davis (Coo!). There’s also no mention of Giraud in the TV episode, which makes sense given there’s been no previous mention of him in the series.

Not only are things streamlined, some of the ‘hidden secrets’ of the novel are presented more explicitly in the adaptation. Lady Horbury’s gambling addiction and money problems are clear from the start; her relationship with her husband, and with Venetia Kerr, aren’t hidden either. We also see the wedding of Anne Giselle – the victim’s daughter – on screen, though we don’t find out who the groom is until the end.

Christie’s first chapter is a very neat piece of introduction and subterfuge. It introduces the various suspects – giving us a glimpse into everyone’s thoughts – without telling us what the crime is, or why we might need to know about these people. This technique wouldn’t translate well onto the screen, so we get some pre-flight sequences in Paris to establish the characters. It is 1936, and so several of our cast are attending the French Championships, watching von Cramm vs. Crawford, and then von Cramm vs. Fred Perry.

Although we don’t meet Jean Dupont and Daniel Clancy at this stage, these early scenes set up the love triangle between Lord Horbury, Cicely Horbury (who is a drinker, but not a cokehead in the episode) and Venetia Kerr. It also allows the ‘nice’ Norman Gale to accidentally meet Jane Grey without having the pair of them gambling the night away in Le Pinet, though Jane appears to prefer the company of the avuncular Belgian detective who talks her through the Surrealist art in a gallery. And who wouldn’t?

Because we see the pre-death activities of the main characters, rather than just having them narrated from the perspectives of the characters themselves, this set-up means that the programme-makers have to pull off a trick that’s had mixed results in the series as a whole: we have to see a character playing two parts, and it’s important we don’t see through her disguise (okay, maybe not as important as it is in some other stories, but still). In my opinion, they pull it off here to an extent. Jenny Downham’s first appearance on screen is as Madeleine, Lady Horbury’s maid. Madeleine is undoubtedly in frump-face – a technique used in other Christie adaptations – but she’s not as unbelievably made-up as, say, Mrs Middleton in 'The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge'. I think they just about get away with us not thinking of Madeleine when Poirot asks if he’s ever met Anne Giselle before (perhaps they were playing with the idea that nobody notices a maid particularly).

The other effect of the pre-flight scenes is that we get a sense of Madame Giselle (Eve Pearce) before she dies – in the novel, we don’t even know she exists until she is dead. Still, the adaptation doesn’t labour the point of Madame Giselle too much; she remains a shadowy figure, who seems to have a hold on Lady Horbury but is giving nothing away.

Reading other reviews of this episode, there seems to be a bit of disagreement among fans as to whether this is a faithful or good adaptation of the novel. Personally, I think it’s a good one. The plot is pretty much unchanged, and many of the minor alterations are due to the constraints of the format.

The biggest changes, really, are to do with characterization and the relationships between characters. Anne Giselle, for instance, is slightly revised to become a willing accomplice in her mother’s death (though not, obviously, an accomplice in the second murder). The inexplicably German-sounding Jean Dupont (Guy Manning) is a little more sinister – orchestrating a meeting with Jane Grey (Sarah Woodward) for the purpose of getting money out of Poirot – and the detective doesn’t do any match-making in the TV version. And Fournier (Richard Ireson) is much less competent here, playing sidekick to a rather bombastic Japp. (I find it ironic that Japp happily invades Fournier’s office and steals his desk, given how much he hated it when a foreign detective did that to him in 'The Adventure of the Cheap Flat'!)

One of the questions I’ve mused on with this episode is whether or not Lady Horbury is a more sympathetic character in the TV adaptation. In the book, she’s a rich, pretty drug addict (often a figure of pity in the Poirot novels – c.f. Freddie Rice and Coco Courtenay). Her husband clearly prefers – and is possibly having an affair with – Venetia Kerr, to whom he is engaged by the end of the book. Poirot, however, is having none of it: ‘[s]he is not the type I admire,’ he says.

In the TV version, Cathryn Harrison plays the actress-cum-peeress with a mixture of brash arrogance (she’s rude to waiters and stewards) and tragic vulnerability (she’s ignored by waiters and stewards). She’s no longer a cokehead, but rather someone who likes partying, while her husband (David Firth) is out being horsey with his mistress (Amanda Royle). Harrison’s portrayal makes us question, through small gestures and facial expressions, if Cicely is neglecting her wifely duties, or if she was never given a chance to fulfil them in the first place. I like this interpretation of the character.

Some final – rather random – observations about the episode…

1. Daniel Clancy’s character is a little exaggerated here. In the TV version (played by Roger Heathcott), he’s a rather distracted man who talks to his fictional creation. He tells Poirot that he can’t help solve the crime, as it’s only Wilbraham Rice who’s able to do solve mysteries. This underlines Clancy’s character as a proto-Ariadne, as Christie’s more developed character often mentions talking to her detective Sven. I like that the programme-makers kept the title of Clancy’s book, The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, to stay faithful to Christie’s version; however, in Christie's novel The Clue of the Scarlet Petal features death by South American arrow poison, but in the TV show Clancy is familiar with the poison but has never included it in a published book. (They take out some red herrings, they put some red herrings in.)

2. In this episode, the French characters actually speak French. Japp has to ask Fournier to speak English, and Poirot questions Giselle’s maid Elise (Gabrielle Lloyd) in French. The show won’t always be consistent with this, but at least here there’s no weird speaking-English-with-a-French-accent characters.

3. Nice return of one of Poirot’s classic accessories: the walking stick spyglass.

4. There’s a line in the adaptation – which is based on a line (earlier) in the novel – in which Poirot describes the disguised Gale as ‘wearing American spectacles’. This seems to have caused a bit of confusion with reviewers and commenters, so I looked into this. ‘American spectacles’ or ‘American-style spectacles’ are horn-rimmed glasses. Thanks to Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction Since 1900 by Kerry Seagrave, I now know that horn-rimmed glasses were introduced to the UK in the early 1930s and popularized after King George gave them a whirl. Prior to that, they’d been associated entirely with Americans, and cartoonists and satirists had used them in images lampooning our transatlantic cousins. So there you go.

5. Okay. I shouldn’t care about this one. I shouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this one as I have done. I shouldn’t be so bothered about this. But I can’t stop pondering it, so I have to get it out. Maybe you can help me clear this up?

When Poirot goes to see Japp to discuss Lady Horbury’s connection to Madame Giselle, he walks in on his friend reading the Daily Mirror. We get a quick shot of the paper Japp is reading:

That’s a pretty believable copy of the Daily Mirror. The masthead, layout and fonts are from the 1930s. It’s a broadsheet (the Mirror didn’t go tabloid until 1937). The advert on the back page appears to be for Genaspirin, which was advertised in the top right-hand corner of the back page of the Mirror in the 30s. (You can see I’ve spent far too much time on this.)

A genuine Mirror front page from 1933 for comparison

But it’s ALL WRONG. And I’m so confused.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that headline definitely says ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’, doesn’t it? And if I squint, I’m pretty sure the subheading says ‘Record crowd for Petersen win’. (I’m not 100% sure of that one, but I think I’m right.)

But that’s ALL WRONG. That would mean that the front page of the paper is referring to the light-heavyweight fight between Jack Petersen and Jack Doyle at White City, which drew an audience of 30,000 and ended with Doyle being disqualified in less than two rounds (trust me, I went through all of Petersen’s fights till I found one that matched). But the Petersen vs. Doyle fight took place on 12th July 1933!

To make matters worse, I’ve had a look through issues of the Mirror from 1933 (because that’s the sort of madness I’m prone to), and there’s quite a bit of coverage of the controversial fight, the massive audience, and Doyle’s subsequent six-month ban – but I can’t find the ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’ front page in the online archive. (But it is clear that the masthead and the Genaspirin advert are from 1933 and weren’t used in 1936.) ARGH! PLEASE HELP ME!

My working theory is that this is a copy of the late edition of the 12th July paper, or an early edition from the 13th. The online archive has a different edition, and the controversial fight was either bumped to or bumped from the front page at a later stage.

But that means that Japp is definitely reading a paper from 1933, despite the tennis match we saw at the beginning setting the episode firmly in June 1936.

When Poirot notes Japp’s choice of reading material, he wryly points out that he’s reading an old paper. But then he simply points out that it’s a day old. What he should have said is that the paper is nearly three years old, and so it’s unlikely to have any bearing on the case.

Alternatively, I’ve read the headline wrong.

It doesn’t really matter, does it?

Anyway, all this talk of dentists and disguises is making me keen to move things along. On to the next episode: ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’

Sunday, 4 March 2018

My Year in Books 2018: February

So I managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for another month. Yay! I'm still making time to read for pleasure (even if I didn't read quite as much as last month), and I'm still sticking to my 250-word limit for my reviews.

If you missed it, you can click here for my reading list in January. But here are the books I read in February...

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read Thomas’s novel for some time now, as it was recommended to me a couple of years ago. The person who told me about it really enjoyed it, and the blurb sounded right up my street. Ariel Manto, a PhD student working on nineteenth-century thought experiments, stumbles upon a copy of a supposedly lost and cursed work by obscure writer Thomas Lumas (the eponymous The End of Mr Y). The only person Ariel knows who has read Mr Y is her PhD supervisor, but he disappeared eighteen months earlier. As Ariel begins to read Mr Y, she discovers the secret that (presumably) drove Lumas to his death and her supervisor to disappear. I really wanted to like this book, as it’s a fabulous premise. But sadly, The End of Mr Y left me rather disappointed. I know I’m going to sound like a bit of a snob here, but, for all its academic pretensions, it just wasn’t quite clever enough. There are casual mentions of various ‘classic’ thought experiments (from Schrödinger’s Cat to Einstein’s theory of relativity) and philosophical principles, but these are never really treated in much detail. There’s also a tendency to stick to the famous examples, which makes Ariel’s PhD research seem a wee bit superficial. Strangely, for all Ariel’s insistence, Lumas’s novel doesn’t seem to be a thought experiment at all, in the end. However, for all that, I really liked the book’s ending, which is presented with a wonderfully light touch.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (2017)

I read McGregor’s debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about ten years ago, on the recommendation of a Yr 10 lad I was tutoring at the time. I completely fell in love with the book and read So Many Ways to Begin shortly afterwards. I loved that McGregor’s first (and, to a lesser extent, second) book was, essentially, a prose poem, and that the narrative isn’t constructed in a particularly easy way. You sort of let the fragments wash over you, until you somehow know (without really being told) what is going on. I was hoping Reservoir 13 would do something similar – and I wasn’t disappointed. The book has thirteen chapters, and each one tells a year in the life of an English village, moving from New Year through the seasons until it reaches Christmas. But, as with McGregor’s first two novels, the thread of the story is strung on a communal tragedy. The first chapter tells of the first ‘new year’ since the unexplained disappearance of a young teenager who was visiting the village with her family. As in Remarkable Things, this is the story of how life continues around the hole formed by a devastating event, with characters and events presented through fragmentary and semi-objective snippets. The pace of the novel constantly reminds you of the unstoppable march of time and change, but the use of repetition and echoed phrases suggest that, perhaps, things aren’t changing as much as you think. I really enjoyed this one.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka (2009)

Some people don’t get Lewycka’s work, which blends madcap and often absurd comic writing with serious themes and references, but I really like the way that this works, as there’s something so human and so hopeful about the way life unfolds in her books. In her third novel, the protagonist is Georgie Sinclair, who is a copy-writer for a magazine called Adhesives in the Modern World and an aspiring romance writer. When Georgie’s husband walks out, she decides to chuck his stuff into a skip. She’s surprised to find her odd elderly neighbour, Mrs Shapiro, rooting items out and taking them away in a pram. She’s even more surprised when, a short time later, she is called by the hospital because Mrs Shapiro has listed Georgie as her next-of-kin. A quirky kind of alliance forms between the two women, with Georgie stumbling into taking care of Mrs Shapiro’s rambling, squalid home and assortment of earthy felines. She begins to get a glimpse into her neighbour’s past – taking in the Holocaust, Jewish diaspora, and the foundation of the Israeli state. A chance encounter with a Palestinian shop assistant with a side line in home repairs, the underhanded behaviour of a social worker of dubious morals, and the predations of an array of estate agents fixated on acquiring Mrs Shapiro’s house add further absurdity and trauma to the mix. I didn’t find this mix ‘glib’ as some reviewers have, but rather a testament to the extraordinary resilience of the survivor.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)

Okay, this one is a reread. I originally read Career of Evil when it first came out but ended up rereading it after the first episode of the BBC adaptation on 25th February. I knew the TV version had cut a lot of subplots out/down to fit the format, so I wanted to remind myself what was missing! Career of Evil is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). As I’ve said to too many people (I’m such a hipster), I’ve never read anything by J.K. Rowling, but I do love Robert Galbraith. I couldn’t put The Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm down. Career of Evil is a longer read – not so easy to finish in one sitting! – but it’s still a real page-turner. Galbraith’s detective, Strike, is a man out of time. He’s part hardboiled P.I., part whodunnit-unraveller. Like the rest of the characters who surround him, Strike is a larger-than-life figure, with enough quirks to keep a fleet of fictional detectives going. But there’s something so enjoyable about the novels, and I think it’s the story-telling. Galbraith sure can weave a yarn. Career of Evil sees Strike facing a figure from his past – someone who has sent a severed leg to his office, with a cryptic note that can only be meant for him. The mystery is: which unsavoury character is out for revenge? Strike gives us three suspects, the police offer up another, and there’s always a chance it’s someone else entirely. A really fun mystery novel.