Monday, 15 October 2018

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-18(?) 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 ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

And so, after a short run of adaptations of Christie’s novels, we return to the short stories for the final series of hour-long episodes. The first episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ – was first broadcast on 17th January 1993, and it was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in September 1923. Having wandered ahead to 1940 with One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, it’s nice to come back to that first run of Poirot Sketch stories again.

And it’s familiar territory here – Hastings is our narrator, and he’s in full-on Watson mode:
‘I have always considered that one of the most thrilling and dramatic of the many adventures I have shared with Poirot was that of our investigation into the strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra.’
After narrating this investigation to us, Hastings ends his story with another Watson-like pronouncement:
‘The case was hushed up as far as possible, and, to this day, people talk of the remarkable series of deaths in connection with the Tomb of Men-her-Ra as a triumphal proof of the vengeance of a bygone king upon the desecrators of his tomb – a belief which, as Poirot pointed out to me, is contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.’
The story is situated as one of Hastings’s chronicles of Poirot’s past cases. There’s a bit of a suggestion that, much like ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, this is a story that Hastings has held back until the time is right for its narration.

But this tone doesn’t seem quite right here. While the investigation may well have been ‘one of the most thrilling and dramatic’ undertaken by the dynamic duo, it’s surely also one of the most recent.

Hastings draws explicit attention to the real-life inspiration for the story in the opening paragraphs:
‘Hard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon, Sir John Willard and Mr Bleibner of New York, pursuing their excavations not far from Cairo, in the vicinity of the Pyramids of Gizeh, came unexpectedly on a series of funeral chambers.’
Now, the tomb of Tutankh-Amen (to use Christie’s spelling) was only discovered by Howard Carter in November 1922, less than a year before Christie’s story was published. The high-profile death of Lord Carnarvon, which cemented the myth of Tutankh-Amen’s curse (clearly the inspiration here), didn’t occur until April 1923. So, despite the Hastings-as-chronicler introduction, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ is a story inspired by a ‘hot’ news story – Hastings’s ‘to this day’ claims feel a bit like an affectation here, to be honest.

Still, let’s have a look at the story itself. Poirot is called upon by Lady Willard, the widow of Sir John Willard, who died (à la Lord Carnarvon) shortly after the tomb of Men-her-Ra was opened. Lady Willard is scared that the pharaoh’s curse might still have victims to claim. Poirot states that he believes superstition to be one of the world’s most powerful forces and agrees to look into the case. Hastings is surprised, but (naturally) goes along with things.

Lady Willard is particularly fearful for her son, who has gone out to Egypt to continue his late father’s work. He is part of a party that includes Mr Bleibner, an American archaeologist, Dr Tosswill of the British Museum, Mr Schneider of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Dr Ames, the expedition’s physician, and Hassan, a ‘native servant’ (ignore him – when has someone called ‘Hassan’ ever been the murderer in an Agatha Christie?). Previously, the party had also included Rupert Bleibner, nephew to the archaeologist, but this young man has recently taken his own life. Was young Mr Bleibner a victim of the pharaoh’s curse? Can there possibly be any connection between his death and that of Sir John Willard?

Only one man can work that out… but he’ll need to go to Egypt to investigate.

‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ isn’t one of my favourites, to be honest. It’s not a great mystery – though it has a lovely sleight-of-hand in Rupert’s suicide note, which I’ll come back to when I talk about the adaptation – and some of the motive is held back way longer than I expect from Christie. I’m not sure a reader could really work this one out, and that’s a bit naughty.

However, it’s fun to see an early example of Christie’s love of archaeology. And it’s always great to have Poirot and Hastings on the road. There’s a little reminder of how much Hercule hates ‘the sea! The hateful sea!’, and a description of him waging ‘an unceasing war on the dust’. Sadly, though, our narrator holds back on what could have been quite the memorable scene:
‘I pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel.’
(Though he does give us a flavour of his friend’s wild discomfort, before noting that he ended the journey on a little donkey.)

Overall, this isn’t the best of the Sketch stories, but it’s another nice little slice of Poirot ’n Hastings, and the start of the archaeological thread that will run through many more of Christie’s stories.

And so to the adaptation…

The episode was written by Clive Exton and directed by Peter Barber Fleming. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the short story, though Miss Lemon has been added to the mix (no Japp this time – either in the short story or the episode).

This might seem a bit weird, given that I’ve just said I’m not especially enamoured of the short story, but I remember really liking this episode when it first aired. And I can remember exactly what it was that I loved about it: it was that trick with the suicide note. I thought it was brilliant.

The trick is quite simple (the best ones always are). Rupert Bleibner leaves a note saying that he’s a ‘leper and an outcast’. Eventually, it dawns on Poirot that perhaps that first bit should have been taken literally. He didn’t kill himself because he’d been cast out by his friends; he killed himself because he thought he’d contracted leprosy. It’s one of those neat little details that appear in the best detective fiction – you’re given explicit information in the full knowledge that you’ll make the wrong interpretation.

Thinking about it, I’m not sure it’s so weird that I enjoyed the episode as a teenager, while being disappointed by the story as an adult. I think this is one of the episodes (there aren’t many, and they’re mostly written by Exton) that is actually better than its source material. It’s not that the plot or characterization is dramatically altered, but rather that there’s some subtle restructuring and reframing that makes for a more satisfying mystery.

The first alteration comes with the way Poirot finds out about Rupert Bleibner’s death. In Christie’s story, the detective sends a cable to New York for details. In the TV version, he has a more immediate source – as Miss Lemon points out, Hastings is currently in the States and so could do some on the spot investigation. This is probably why the ‘leper’ trick works better in the episode than in the story. Hastings actually gets to meet Rupert Bleibner (played by Paul Birchard), and so we get some additional visual clues (even if we don’t necessarily process what we’re seeing) to the young man’s plight. (And, here, it’s Hastings that discovers Rupert Bleibner’s body when he goes to talk to him about the death of his uncle.)

Of course, it’s never actually explained why Hastings is in America. Miss Lemon says he’s been doing some business in California. What business?? As I keep coming back to, Hastings is clearly a bit of a hapless, family-less posh lad. There’s a mention of him working for Lloyd’s at one point, but otherwise we see no evidence of him being involved in ‘business’. He hasn’t even got his own flat (most of the time). He certainly doesn’t make a habit of popping over to California, so his trip here seems a bit odd. In fact, Exton’s script makes it seem odder, as Hastings is a complete fish-out-of-water in the US of A. He doesn’t seem like a seasoned transatlantic traveller – he doesn’t even know what ‘over easy’ means.

That aside, the story does work better when the clues are presented more directly. There’s still the problem of Rupert Bleibner’s will, though, which is my biggest beef with both the episode and the story. In Christie’s story, the fact that Rupert made a will in favour of Dr Ames is just dropped in as near-speculation in the fourth-to-last paragraph, with the detective simply waving his lack of evidence away as ‘doubtless’. In the adaptation, we get a little bit more of a hint (there’s some reference to Ames’s previous acquaintance with young Bleibner), but Poirot still gets the detail from a Miss-Lemon-ex-machina phone call that the viewer can’t hear.

I guess, though, if you’ve worked out the ‘leper’ clue, then there’s only one possible suspect, and so the will isn’t that important. I guess.

The other alterations to the episode are minor, and mostly work to involve Miss Lemon (kind of) in the plot.

Exton retains Poirot’s comments on superstition being a powerful force and Hastings’s disbelief in his friend’s apparent gullibility. This is now paralleled by Miss Lemon’s rather earnest belief in the power of the supernatural, which is something we’ve seen before (and will see again).

Other changes are a bit more pragmatic. One that makes me giggle is the change in name for the British Library representative (played by Jon Strickland). I love the fact that someone thought ‘Dr Tosswill’ sounded a bit too snicker-inducing and so changed it to ‘Dr Fosswell’.

The timescale of the episode is also a little tighter – Poirot’s investigations in the series tend to be spread over days and weeks, rather than the months of some of the short stories – and so, with the delay caused by waiting for Hastings to return from America, our dynamic duo simply don’t have time to get the boat to Egypt. Instead, they fly, and so we miss out on Poirot’s sea-sickness. (In case you’re curious, regular flights from the UK to Cairo began in 1927, so it’s not an anachronism to have the TV characters taking this flight. It wasn’t an option for their literary counterparts.)

Sadly, the scriptwriters also chose to ‘pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel’ and replace the journey to the expedition with a wild car ride, gleefully piloted by Hastings. I think they still capture Poirot’s dramatic discomfort though.

But, although the method of travel is different, Poirot’s dislike of dust is retained (as well we might expect, given the characterization in the series). Poirot’s recourse to his clothes brush is still present – as is one of Hastings’s cheekiest lines from Christie’s story: ‘Come, now, there’s a lot of sand in Belgium.’ Not in Brussels, Hastings. Not in Brussels.

Throughout the episode – as with all his scripts – Exton’s knowledge of and affection for Christie’s text is apparent. He even has his Poirot reading the same book Christie’s character consults: The Magic of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. This is a really nice touch, as you could easily miss the title of Poirot’s volume, so it’s almost like an (admittedly niche) Easter Egg for Christie fans.

But I’m going to end this review with something else that’s been added in for the episode. It’s certainly not something we’d find anywhere in Christie’s Poirot stories, but it’s a lovely little addition for the TV series.

In case we hadn’t guessed, this episode tells us that Miss Lemon likes cats. But, sadly, her beloved pet Catherine the Great (or Catherine the Grate, given that she was named for her love of sleeping by the fire) has died. As Hastings points out to Poirot, much of Miss Lemon’s spiritual dabblings (tarot, automatic writing) are attempts to try and communicate with her departed feline companion.

At first, this seems like one of those times when Hastings and Miss Lemon’s friendship is developed, with Poirot unable to fully understand the vagaries of their ‘normal’ emotions. Certainly, he seems a little dismissive of Miss Lemon’s grief, as though he can’t quite understand what his secretary is going through.

We shouldn’t have doubted him though. At the end of the episode, when Poirot and Hastings return to London, our little Belgian detective comes good. He has understood Miss Lemon’s pain, and he’s had an idea how to comfort her. In the final scene, he presents Miss Lemon with a small statue of King Men-her-Ra’s favourite cat, a feline protector that, Poirot insists, will ensure that Miss Lemon is visited by Catherine in her sleep. It’s a really sweet moment, and the episode ends with a reminder of the warmth these characters feel towards each other (something that’s a big part of the TV series).

Does Miss Lemon believe that Poirot thinks her dead cat will come to her in a dream? Or does she know he’s just humouring her? I think she knows, deep down, but she also knows that he’s doing what he can to make her feel better. She seems so genuinely touched by his gesture – it’s such a lovely ending to the episode.

And so, time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Underdog’

Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Year in Books 2018: September

Here's the latest update from my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. This is definitely the longest I've ever stuck to a resolution, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep this up for the rest of the year. I read five novels in September (though I did go a bit faddy again this month). So here are my reviews...

(You can read the reviews from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August)

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

So, I picked this book up on a trip to Blackpool in August with the residents of the care home my mum and brother manage. The residents I was with were all buying books, and so I couldn’t not get one as well. I will admit, I judged this book by its cover – I was very intrigued by the design here. The blurb also looked like something I’d enjoy: a group of children are exiled by Elizabeth I to a place called Rotherweird; years later, the town has developed into a secretive and arcane place, excelling in science and technology, but restrictive of any knowledge of its past. The book begins with two strangers arriving in Rotherweird – a new history teacher, Jonah Oblong, and a mysterious millionaire, Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has bought the old manor house. Rotherweird’s inhabitants are an odd bunch, laden with quirks and old-time affectations, and its history is shrouded in obscurity. Except… it isn’t really. The ‘mystery’ of Rotherweird isn’t particularly hidden from the reader, and this makes much of the story somewhat ponderous. I found myself impatient for the characters to catch up and do something – perhaps it would’ve been better not to have so much insistence that there was a puzzle to be solved. The book is clearly indebted to the Gormenghast trilogy, but it lacks the absorbing intricacy of Peake’s work, and it feels more frivolous and – in places – silly. It’s Gormenghast-lite, and, sadly, I was a bit disappointed in the end.

The Private Patient by P.D. James (2008)

Another book I picked up in August – this time it’s one I bought from a jumble sale at a local fun day. I have to admit I haven’t read a lot of P.D. James (and until this month hadn’t read any of the Adam Dalgliesh books). I love the Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh), and I’m a big fan of the other Baroness of Crime (Rendell), so I thought it was about time I made a start on the Adam Dalgliesh novels. But, weirdly, this involved reading the last of the series first. The Private Patient is set (funnily enough) in a private clinic specialising in plastic surgery. Journalist Rhoda Gradwyn checks in before an operation – but someone ensures she’ll never check out. Dalgliesh and his team investigate. This is a classic country house mystery, though the country house has now been transformed into a clinic (there are shades of Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in the description of the forced sale of the hall – though James’s book was published 46 years later than Christie’s). Now, I’ll say up front that the denouement is a bit of a let-down, but I was completely engrossed in the story. It was a real page-turner, and I really enjoyed the way the plot unfolded. I was quite struck by the attention given to the victim before the murder, making her much more of a character than you normally find in detective fiction. I really enjoyed this one.

Cover Her Face by P.D. James (1962)

In for a penny, in for a pound… I thought I’d make a start on the rest of the Adam Dalgliesh novels. And this time, I started in the right place. Cover Her Face is James’s debut novel, which introduces her series detective (and isn’t it weird that James’s first and Christie’s last published novels use the same quote from The Duchess of Malfi?). We’re back in the world of the country house murder – this time, it’s the home of the Maxie family, who are just realising their way of life is on its way out and that their country house won’t be in the family forever. They take on a new maid (Sally Jupp) from the local home for unmarried mothers, but it isn’t long before Sally is found murdered. Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate, uncovering various secrets as he goes. It’s a very enjoyable murder mystery, though James isn’t quite as slick with her clues as Christie. And I’m fascinated by the parallels between this novel and Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which was published the same year. The Maxies of the former are in a similar boat to the Bantrys of the latter, though they haven’t yet been forced to sell their ancestral home – there’s even a set-piece garden fête in each novel. In many ways, though Christie’s novel is more accepting of the march of progress – James’s book has a much harder heart. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away.

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

Maybe – just maybe – I read too much P.D. James in one go. I went straight from Cover Her Face to the second Adam Dalgliesh novel, but I found this one really grated on me. A Mind to Murder is set in – surprise, surprise – a former posh house (townhouse this time) that’s been converted to another use. Here, the house is now a psychiatric clinic, and the administration manager is the unfortunate victim. There were some things I really liked about this one. Descriptions of the house, the city and the season (autumn) were vivid and compelling, and it was interesting reading a depiction of a psychiatric clinic in the early days of NHS mental health treatment. However, I find that I’m starting to dislike Adam Dalgliesh – he’s like an emo Lord Peter Wimsey – and while he has plenty of personality quirks, he doesn’t seem to have any particularly acute powers of detection. I’m pretty sure any other policeman could have solved this one, and I like my detectives a little more indispensable. After reading three Adam Dalgliesh novels, I also feel like it’s really obvious which benches this Baroness of Crime sat on in the House of Lords – and I can’t help comparing them to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. There are points in A Mind to Murder that make Miss Marple look like Jeremy Corbyn. Personally, I also struggled with some of the descriptions of ECT and LSD treatment in the clinic, but that was the 60s for you.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

Here’s another one I bought at the fun day in August. Now, this might sound shocking, but I’d never read anything by J.K. Rowling before. I love Robert Galbraith, though, so I had a sneaking suspicion I’d probably like Rowling too. Hmm… The Casual Vacancy was Rowling’s first ‘adult’ novel after the final Harry Potter book. It’s set in the West Country village of Pagford, and tells the story of the confusion, conflict and machinations set in motion by the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. It’s an overtly political book (even making direct reference to certain political parties), and its sprawling cast are drawn into debates on social housing, addiction and education in the run-up to the election. And… I really didn’t like it. Clearly trying to shake off the Hogwarts dust, Rowling has created a nasty, cynical little tale, where casual sexual assault, physical abuse and crime mount towards a painful climax (and an election that, by that point, really doesn’t matter). As the novel progresses, it’s clear that this is intended to be a ‘social issues’ novel, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot (it was dubbed Mugglemarch by some). Krystal Weedon becomes our council estate Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and we watch, pity and analyse (but don’t identify with) the horrors of Krystal’s life. To ensure no identification accidentally occurs, Krystal’s speech is written entirely phonetically, and this really really annoyed me. Turns out, I don’t like J.K. Rowling books. But I still love Robert Galbraith.