Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Poirot Project: The Yellow Iris (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 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 Underdog’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Yellow Iris’ – was first broadcast on 31st January 1993. It was based on the short story ‘Yellow Iris’ (aka ‘The Case of the Yellow Iris’), which was first published in the Strand in 1937. Christie’s original short story has Poirot flying solo, as there are no recurring characters (not even George) in this one.

I loved this episode when I first saw it. When I come to talk about the adaptation, I’ll try and put my finger on what it was that intrigued me so much. But first, I have to say something about Christie’s story – and its successor.

‘Yellow Iris’ begins with Poirot sitting home alone, admiring his electric radiator: ‘Its neat arrangement of red hot bars pleased his orderly mind.’ It’s clear that Hercule is a teeny bit bored tonight. When the phone goes at half eleven, he gets a bit excited and fondly imagines it might be some mad case that only he can solve:
‘“And it might,” he murmured to himself with a whimsical smile, “be a millionaire newspaper proprietor, found dead in the library of his country house, with a spotted orchid clasped in his left hand and a page torn from a cookbook pinned to his breast.”’
(This jokey idea for a case seems to ring a bell with me… I don’t know if it’s an allusion to an actual story, or if it crops up in the series as one of Ariadne Oliver’s plots. If you know why it seems familiar, do let me know in the comments.)

The phone call, though, is even more cryptic. A woman’s voice – ‘with a kind of desperate urgency about it’ – tells Poirot that she’s in danger, and asks him to go to the Jardin des Cygnes immediately. He is to find the table with the yellow irises. Poirot is intrigued, and he hurries along to the fancy French restaurant (which is owned by a man named ‘fat Luigi’).

The table with yellow irises has been booked by Barton Russell, a wealthy American, who has gathered a motley crew of friends around him for the evening: Pauline Weatherby (Russell’s sister-in-law), Anthony Chapell, Stephen Carter (a man is diplomatic service known as ‘Silent Stephen’) and Lola Valdez (a South American dancer). As it happens, Poirot has a prior acquaintance with Tony Chapell, and so he manages to get himself invited to the table. No one admits to being the mystery caller, and the party speculate as to what the great detective might be doing at the Jardin des Cygnes:
‘“He’s got an appointment with a body, I believe, or is it an absconding financier, or the Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby? […] The stolen plans must be found or war will be declared tomorrow!”’
(I know why these jokes all sound familiar – they all have echoes of actual cases Poirot has worked. The ‘appointment with a body’ could be anything, but the ‘absconding financier’ sounds like ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, the ‘Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby’ could be ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and the final joke evokes ‘The Incredible Theft’.)

Poirot demurs and pretends to just be out for a standard night on the tiles, and the party open up and tell him what they’re doing at the Jardin des Cygnes.

Four years earlier, Barton Russell’s wife Iris died at a party in New York attended by the same guests. Although a verdict of suicide was returned, Russell believes it was murder. He has gathered the suspects together that night in order to uncover the ‘truth’.

Iris’s death occurred during a cabaret performance. The lights went down as the singer took the stage, and when they came up again Iris was slumped dead on the table. A packet of potassium cyanide was found in her handbag. Russell is determined to recreate the events of that night, and so after explaining the circumstances to Poirot, he hurries off to make an arrangement with the band.

The lights go down, and a singer takes the stage to perform the same song as that fateful night four years ago. When the song ends, Pauline drops down dead.

The story is quite a simple one and the puzzle has an elegance to it – Poirot is able to solve it without even leaving the restaurant. In fact, Pauline isn’t dead. The little Belgian warned her not to drink any champagne, but to simply pretend. He then reveals that it is Pauline’s brother-in-law himself who is responsible. Under the pretence of speaking to the band, Russell disguised himself as a waiter, topped up glasses at the table, and sneaked cyanide into Pauline’s glass. Since Iris’s death, Russell had been Pauline’s guardian, and Poirot surmises that the man had been dipping into her inheritance. He couldn’t allow her to reach her majority and uncover his embezzlement, and so he sets up the dinner at the restaurant to get rid of the problem. Poirot is unable to say for sure whether Russell killed Iris four years ago, but he knows that it was Pauline who telephoned and summoned him to the restaurant.

With that, Russell snarls a lot, Pauline decides not to press charges, and Poirot has a bit of a boogie with Lola Valdez.

‘Yellow Iris’ isn’t the most developed or intriguing Poirot story, but it has a couple of neat little features. Namely, the idea of the remembrance party (with the eponymous ‘Iris’ being present, but absent from the entire story), and the ‘no one notices the waiter’ trick to effect the murder. These features are the threads that hold together some quite disparate retellings of ‘Yellow Iris’ over the year, beginning with Christie’s own revision of the story in 1945.

A few years after the publication of ‘Yellow Iris’, Christie rewrote and revised her short story (as was her wont). She turned it into a novel, Sparkling Cyanide, and replaced Poirot with Colonel Race. Colonel Race is a recurring character in Christie’s work, who pops up in a couple of Poirot novels as well. I’ll be writing a separate post on Colonel Race later, so I won’t say much more about his appearances here.

Sparkling Cyanide is recognisably related to ‘Yellow Iris’, but it’s a quite different take on the story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed until a number of years after I’d seen the ITV version of ‘The Yellow Iris’ (which, as I’ve said, was a firm favourite). I accidentally stumbled on the 1983 film version on telly one night. I didn’t know it was even an Agatha Christie adaptation, but it soon became clear that it shared certain important features with ‘The Yellow Iris’ – namely, the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, and the waiter disguise. Later on, I saw the 2003 version of Sparkling Cyanide with Oliver Ford Davies and Pauline Collins, in which Colonel Race becomes Colonel Reece and acquires a co-investigating wife. The story gets an espionage subplot, and the whole thing has a Tommy-and-Tuppence feel to it. But those key features are retained, of course.

I don’t want to get into the respective merits of the adaptations of Sparkling Cyanide here, but I do want to admit that I hadn’t read the novel until I was preparing this post. I think I’d been put off by the adaptations, to be honest, as they both felt a need to ‘update’ Christie’s work and make it ‘glamorous’, whereas I always had a soft spot for the simplicity of the mystery plot in ‘The Yellow Iris’. Perhaps, also, I was quite loyal to the earlier story, and I didn’t want to cheat on it with the non-Poirot rewrite.

But, this blog is nothing if not completist, so I took the plunge and gave Sparkling Cyanide a go. (The academic in me insists I point out that all references to the book are from the 2017 Kindle edition, published by HarperCollins.)

It was… really not what I expected! I loved it!

Sparkling Cyanide really focuses on the remembrance aspect of the story. It’s divided into three books, and the first one is literally just the main characters remembering the events of nearly a year earlier (and preceding circumstances). In this version of the story, the dead woman is Rosemary Barton (though she still died of drinking poisoned champagne after a cabaret show). Her younger sister is Iris Marle, who has been under the guardianship of Rosemary’s widowed husband George Barton. Other characters include Ruth Lessing (Barton’s competent secretary), Anthony Browne (Iris’s kind of boyfriend, who was previously infatuated with Rosemary), and Stephen and Alexandra Farraday (friends – or are they? – of the Bartons).

As this is a novel, these characters are substantially fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the short story. It should be said, as well, that they are different characters to those in ‘Yellow Iris’. Most notably, George Barton is not Barton Russell. He’s a ‘kindly, pleasant, but definitely dull’ man who, while he does eventually become obsessed with the idea his wife was murdered, is nothing but kindness and compassion to his young sister-in-law.

Being familiar with ‘Yellow Iris’, I was expecting this all to be a ruse to throw you off the scent. But then Christie pulled the rug from under my feet… when the suspects get together for their remembrance party, one of their number drops dead from poisoned champagne… but it’s George Barton, not Iris Marle. Was not expecting that!

So that’s the big change between ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide (which clearly I hadn’t paid much attention to on my cursory viewings of the adaptations). The significant details remain the same though, with the memory element played up even more in the novel (hence the name changes: Rosemary, as we’re repeatedly reminded, is for remembrance) and the murder technique kept the same.

I did enjoy Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, and it made for an interesting companion piece to ‘Yellow Iris’ (I’m always fascinated as to which bits of a story Christie retains, and which she changes in her rewrites). However, I will say… Colonel Race is almost entirely redundant in the novel. I can understand why Christie removed limelight-stealing Poirot from the mix, but she doesn’t exactly put his replacement to work. He only appears halfway through and, even then, he doesn’t do an awful lot of investigating.

Poor Colonel Race… hopefully his time will come in another novel.

Right… on to the ITV adaptation of ‘Yellow Iris’, which gains a definite article and becomes ‘The Yellow Iris’.

This episode was directed by Peter Barber Fleming and written by Anthony Horowitz. As I’ve said, it was always one of my favourites of the early series, so it does pain me a little that I’m going to point out historical inaccuracy and an icky race thing in this post – but rewatching the episode in the context of this project has sadly brought a couple of negative points to my attention.

Let’s start with the positives though, shall we?

Overall, as might be expected, Horowitz’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the plot of ‘Yellow Iris’ (though the setting and set-up have been changed). And it was this plot structure that I fell in love with all those years ago.

During a tetchy argument with Hastings about the failings of English cuisine, Poirot discovers that a restaurant called the Jardin des Cygnes is to open in London. This stirs up an unhappy memory for the detective, which is only exacerbated when Miss Lemon arrives bearing a yellow iris that has arrived with the post.

The remembrance element of the story, here, is all Poirot’s, and he decides to recount a painful story to his associates that took place during a disastrous trip to Argentina two years earlier. He tells them that, while staying in Buenos Aires, he came upon a party of people – Barton Russell (played by David Troughton), his sister-in-law Pauline Wetherby (Geraldine Somerville), his business partner Stephen Carter (Hugh Ross), journalist Anthony Chapell (Dorian Healy) and dancer Lola Valdez (Yolanda Vasquez). Also in the party, though Poirot saw little of her, was Russell’s wife Iris (Robin McCaffrey). One night, Poirot ended up at the same restaurant as the people who had attracted his attention – the Jardin des Cygnes, run by an Italian named Luigi (played by Joseph Long and not, as he is in Christie’s story, nicknamed ‘fat’). At dinner, the group watched a cabaret performance, raised their glasses in a toast to Iris, and then looked on in horror as the woman died from drinking poisoned champagne. Poirot wished to investigate, but he was arrested by a certain General Pereira (Stefan Gryff), accused of espionage, and unceremoniously deported. It was a shameful episode, and he decided never to speak of it again.

Now a new Jardin des Cygnes is opening, and a yellow iris has been sent to the detective. Poirot fears that history might be about to repeat itself.

Ultimately, that is the story of ‘The Yellow Iris’. While Poirot and Hastings do a little bit of investigating to find out the party’s backstory (which is a little different and much expanded from the source story), the main focus of the episode is on the tragedy in Buenos Aires and the remembrance party in London two years later. The denouement comes when Pauline drinks her champagne and falls down dead, only to reappear at the key moment when Poirot reveals how the murder/attempted murder was pulled off by Russell.

The plot elements that had me enthralled as a teenager are the ones that Christie obviously thought were the central points – since they’re the ones she retained in her otherwise much revised novel. They’re also the points that are common to all adaptations of ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide – the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, the waiter disguise. The episode makes the latter even clearer, as it introduces a little trick on the part of the detective during his climactic reveal. While in Christie’s story, Pauline simply sits up at the right moment and says ‘Resurrection of Pauline’, the adaptation has the young woman disguise herself as a waitress and serve the suspects coffee to prove that no one notices the waiting staff (this was my favourite bit of the episode when I first watched it).

There are some other little details that are retained from Christie’s story – in the source, it’s Pauline who makes the panicked phone call to Poirot inviting him to the restaurant, and here it’s Pauline who sends the yellow iris as a cry for help. And the all-important cabaret song – ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ – is included in the episode with lyrics taken directly from Christie’s story (in fact, I think Christie wrote these lyrics specifically).

In addition to this, there are some added touches in-keeping with the rest of the TV series that are quite nice. In particular, I like Poirot’s classy art deco breakfast.

It is this slice of toast that leads to Poirot and Hastings falling out about food. It’s a grumpy little argument that is put to one side when Hastings spots the advert for the Jardin des Cygnes. But we come back to it nicely at the end when, having been deprived of a fancy French dinner by the machinations of Barton Russell, Poirot is treated to some fish and chips by his old pal.

Awww… sweet.

But now… Argentina. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

As I’ve said, the backstory – the murder of Iris – is transposed to Argentina from New York, and in this version Poirot was actually present at the first dinner. There are three reasons this really doesn’t work, and they all hinge on the fact that the episode’s opening scene pins the date of Iris Russell’s death to 1934.

Clearly, the ‘present day’ bit of the episode is meant, as other episodes in the series are, to be set in 1936. Characters keep referring to Iris’s death as happening ‘two years ago’, so we don’t really need the gravestone to tell us she died in 1934. But it’s there nevertheless, literally setting the date of the Argentina section in stone. Which causes the following problems:

1. Poirot is in Buenos Aires en route to visiting Hastings who is living in Argentina on a ranch in La Pampa. Is he?? Why hasn’t this been mentioned before? Does he still own the ranch? Why has he come back to mooch off Poirot if he owns a ranch in Argentina? Is someone running it for him in his absence? How did he afford it in the first place? How come, in August 1936, he spends ages telling Poirot and Japp about his six-month holiday in South America without mentioning anything at all about a ranch in La Pampa? Had he lost it by then? Does he buy another ranch after he gets married? Is Hastings some sort of mad ranch addict?

This does raise another question in my mind about Hastings’s ranch-o-philia. In Christie’s stories, Hastings makes the switch to Argentinian farming in the early 1920s. When he comes back for a visit in 1936 (in The A.B.C. Murders, he bemoans global and local economic circumstances that are making it hard for him to succeed. This isn’t surprising. The 1930s in Argentina are known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, during which time political unrest, corruption and the Great Depression caused huge economic upheaval in the country. It’s not surprising that Hastings’s ranch, which had seemed a sensible investment in the early 20s, is struggling by 1936.

And yet, in the TV series, Hastings actively chooses to start farming in Argentina in the middle of the Infamous Decade. I know he’s a bit daft, but surely this is an unwise decision even for him?

2. Now, this talk of the Infamous Decade reveals another potential problem with the episode, though I’m not 100% sure I heard the dialogue correctly here, so feel free to correct me if necessary.

When Poirot arrives in Buenos Aires, things are a bit hairy. There are regular power cuts, general strikes, and a foreboding military presence. Poirot quickly befriends Anthony Chapell, who gives him a bit of background as to the situation. Now, I’ve listened to the scene over and over again, and I’m convinced Chapell says:
‘The rumours are that President Yrigoyen can’t last much longer.’
This bugs me, as the series is normally so careful with historical detail. Hipólito Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup in 1930 and died in 1933 (the year before this part is supposedly set).

I could have misheard – perhaps Chapell doesn’t say ‘Yrigoyen’ – but the episode certainly adds in an Argentinian coup d’etat that has no basis in historical fact. This just seems a bit disappointing given the eye for detail elsewhere in the series. Looking at the episode now, I really wonder why the story of Iris’s death was moved to Argentina in the first place. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and…

3. Isn’t it all a bit of a coincidence?

In Christie’s stories, Poirot and Race aren’t actually present at the first dinner. They are invited to the remembrance dinner in order to find out the truth about what happened to Iris/Rosemary. In the TV episode, however, Poirot was an eye witness to Iris’s death.

And then, two years later, not only does (not fat) Luigi decide to open an identical restaurant with an identical name down the road from Poirot’s house, but it also has its opening night on the anniversary of Iris’s death. And all the attendees from the first party are now living in London as well (while this is understandable in the case of Russell, Carter, Chapell and Pauline), is it not stretching it a bit to reveal that Lola Valdez also happens to be in town at just the right time?

Now, you might say that it’s not really a coincidence, that Russell took advantage of Luigi’s new restaurant to bump off Pauline. But the episode is at pains to remind us that Pauline is just one month off reaching her majority – and discovering that Russell has nicked her inheritance – and that Russell’s company is literally on the verge of financial ruin.

So Luigi opens a new restaurant and Lola moves to London and it’s the anniversary of Iris’s death at the exact moment that Russell needs to do something to cover his financial tracks? Suspicious… very suspicious.

I blame Luigi.

Anyway, as I’m nit-picking over an episode that I keep saying I love, I might as well raise one final uncomfortable point. It’s a bit of a strange one.

There is one final element that is common to Christie’s ‘Yellow Iris’, Sparkling Cyanide and ITV’s ‘The Yellow Iris’ – the race of the singer who performs at the cabaret.

In ‘Yellow Iris’, the singer of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is described thus:
‘A girl walked out into the middle of the floor, a coal black girl with rolling eyeballs and white glistening teeth. […] The sobbing tune, the deep golden Negro voice had a powerful effect. It hypnotized – cast a spell.’
In Sparkling Cyanide, the cabaret is described as ‘one of those negro shows’, a fact which is affirmed several times by different suspects.

In the TV episode, the singer at the Buenos Aires cabaret is played by Carol Kenyon (probably best known for her vocals on Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’, which I’ve had stuck in my head for most of the time I’ve been writing this post). She is replaced by a white singer (played by Tracy Miller) for the second rendition of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’, which I’d suggest is performed in a much less ‘hypnotic’ way.

It was the insistent repetition of the description of a ‘negro show’ in Sparkling Cyanide that drew my attention to this detail, and I started to wonder why. Why does the race of the singer matter? It’s clearly not meant to denote a particular type of cabaret or venue, as it appears in both versions of the story (where the parties are otherwise quite different). The cabaret itself should be an irrelevance – it’s simply the thing that distracts everyone while the murderer is slipping cyanide into the champagne – so why give such specifics? And then to see Kenyon doing the ‘big’ performance in the TV episode, with Miller being simply the replica chosen for the rerun, really does make this detail stand out.

I suspect the answer is to be found in Christie’s original description in the original short story. ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is meant to work like a spell – just as the figure of Iris/Rosemary will exert an almost supernatural power over those who saw her die. Its singer, then, functions almost as a ‘Magical Negro’ (or, at least, a ‘soulful’ singer), hypnotizing the dinner guests into a state of melancholic remembrance. Christie used this trope in 1937 and 1945 – and it was then replicated in 1993. Some things, perhaps, don’t change.

I feel like I’ve been way too critical of this episode. Sorry. I still really like it though. So let’s end with a picture of Poirot enjoying his fish and chips.

This post was way too long. And way too obsessed with Hastings’s ranches, Argentinian politics and dodgy racist tropes. It’s possible that this is the point where I start getting accused of overthinking Poirot.

Anyway, it’s the first day of 2019! Onwards and upwards! I reckon this is the year when I’m finally able to watch ‘Curtain’ – only a few more episodes to go (haha!).

Next up: ‘The Case of the Missing Will’


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! Hopefully I'll get the next few posts up soon. They're almost finished. :-)

  2. Suppose you were presented with an unsigned manuscript. What hallmarks would you be looking for that you would say, "EUREKA! Dame Agatha I presume!"

    Ever since I was very young, I always felt that there was something very other-worldly about what goes on in her books. I couldn't discern if it was the settings. No, other authors had similar settings. Or the Dramatis Personae, but other authors had similarly colorful characters.

    Since you are the closest thing to a Christie scholar in my sphere, what do you think are the unique qualities that separate Agatha for the rest of the mystery writing universe?

    Is there anyone you put on an equal (or above) footing?

    If you have already discussed this, I apologize. If you could point me to the appropriate link I would be most grateful.

    1. That's a very good question!

      I think when it comes to setting and characters, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh are probably on an equal footing. I'm a big fan of Allingham's Campion. :-)

      For me, though, Christie's real forte lies in the puzzles. I've not come across any other writer who can construct clues (and red herrings) like Christie, and the way these are woven into the story so you don't even notice you've read them is just perfect. I don't think anyone really comes close to her on this.