Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (review)


This post is part of my 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 Case of the Missing Will’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th February 1993… almost exactly 26 years ago… how time flies! The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch on 24th October 1923. And it’s a corker of an episode.

But let’s talk about Christie’s short story first…

Have you ever thought that Poirot and Hastings’s relationship is a bit too… well… close? Or rather, a bit closed off? While they’re obviously very good friends, and each has the occasional acquaintance who pops up in a story, they don’t really do much socializing with people outside their little duo. Almost all the people they spend time with are clients or suspects. The only person they repeatedly refer to as a friend is Japp, and he’s more a work colleague. They just don’t seem to have any relationships that aren’t formal or professional.
‘Poirot and I had many friends and acquaintances of an informal nature.’
Oops… sorry, Hastings. My bad.

I can’t decide whether this abrupt opening is defensive or lazy. It’s a pretty heavy-handed way to set the scene, either way. The point is, Hastings and Poirot are hanging out with one of the many, many friends – a Dr Hawker – when their evening party (yes, the pair are definitely living together in this one) is interrupted by a ‘distracted female’:
‘Oh, doctor, you’re wanted! Such a terrible voice. It gave me a turn, it did indeed.’
The distracted female is Dr Hawker, and the terrible voice was that of Hawker’s patient, one Count Foscatini, who was calling to beg for help after an attack. Hawker, Poirot and Hastings hurry to Foscatini’s flat and discover the man has been murdered. They investigate, and then call in their ‘Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Japp’ to wrap things up. (Japp proceeds to arrest the wrong guy, by the way.)

‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is an interesting story for two reasons (in addition to Hastings’s weird compulsion to point out how many friends he and Poirot have). Firstly, it continues Christie’s minor fascination with fancy new-build and serviced apartments. This was first seen in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and would be seen again in ‘The Third Floor Flat’. (Don’t be confused here… the order of publication is different to the order of adaptation.)

In ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’ the stories include details of modern design features, particularly fancy-pants dustbin storage and service staircases. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, Foscatini lives in a full-blown new-fangled serviced apartment:
‘Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices.’
Christie’s mild fascination with serviced apartments and their thoroughly modern mechanisms for murder inspired a bit of a mild fascination in me when I first saw these episodes. However, I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about the history of this type of building. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Regent’s Court’ in this story was fictional, so I have to assume it isn’t related to the current ‘Regent Court’ portered apartment building near St John’s Road – the proximity to Regent’s Park explains the similarity of names between the fictional and real-life buildings. Nevertheless, Christie didn’t invent the concept of a ‘new block of flats’ with ‘the latest service devices’.

Doing internet searches for the history of ‘serviced apartments in London’ is a bit tricky, as we seem to be going through a bit of a serviced apartments renaissance (flats like those in Regent Court, which have a porter service and function as a sort of vertical gated community). But I have found a few little interesting nuggets of information…

The type of apartment inhabited by Count Foscatini experience a brief boom in popularity in the 1920s and 30s. I can’t remember where I read this (so no footnote I’m afraid), but some have put this popularity down to the changing fortunes of the upper classes. After WWI, it became increasingly difficult for rich men to staff a house with live-in servants – and, in some cases, to run a large house at all – and so a smaller, more modern residence with a permanent staff must have appealed. While some residents of these apartment blocks might have a single live-in (e.g. Mrs Grant in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ has a maid, and Poirot himself will take valet George with him when he moves to Whitehaven Mansions), the main work of the building is done by a shared staff who look after the needs of all residents.

One of the earliest examples of this arrangement I’ve been able to find is St James’s Court (now St James’s Hotel) on Park Place. This building – it is claimed – open in 1892 as a block of 44 serviced flats. It described itself as a ‘gentleman’s chamber’, suggesting it was somewhere between a pied-à-terre and a gentleman’s club. Presumably, many of the impossibly posh blokes who owned/rented the flats (like David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather-in-law, for example) would have a ‘primary’ or ‘country’ residence elsewhere.

I don’t think St James’s Court is quite indicative of the type of flats Christie is using in her stories, though. Her apartment blocks tend to be inhabited by wealthy professionals and bright young things, rather than the landed gentry. Prospective tenants are young married couples, single women, consulting detectives and blackmailers, and the flats will be the primary residence for the inhabitants. By the 20s and 30s, these new apartment blocks were accommodating a wave of fashionable city centre living, where the wealthy urbanistas increasingly rely on staff rather than servants (note that Regent’s Court in this story employs a ‘chef’ and not a ‘cook’). Guy Morgan’s Florin Court (built in 1936) and William Bryce Binnie’s Addisland Court (also 1936) are surviving examples of later art deco-designed blocks. Claire Bennie makes this comment on her website London Deco Flats:
‘What these wonderful 1930s buildings remind us is that there used to be a particular kind of tenant, on a medium income, who demanded porterage, parking, perhaps a maid, and sometimes dining and sports facilities.’
The descriptions of city flats in Christie’s earlier stories suggests that the ‘particular kind of tenant’ was also in the market for rented housing in the 1920s. That’s as much as I know about serviced apartments, and I’m sure I’ve probably made some horrible errors in my summary. Please – please – if you have more info on this specific bit of British housing history, let me know. I’ve been interested in this type of flat since February 1993, so I’d love a reading list!

Now… back to the story… and the second reason ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is interesting. I’ve gone on a bit already, but I reckon I can sum this one up a bit more quickly…


When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Regent’s Court, they discover Count Foscatini’s valet-butler Graves, who, like many a helpful and deferential servant in Golden Age fiction, gives the detective a careful and thorough outline of his employer’s movements and visitors. He describes the gentlemen who called to see his master the previous day, the dinner that was served on the evening of the murder, and a simple overview of his master’s entertaining habits. Graves explains that he served a meal to his master and guests, and then was given the evening off. He went out at 8.30pm and returned just in time to find Poirot poring over the body of his erstwhile employer.

Graves’s evidence is standard. This is how servants are used in so much Golden Age detective fiction – they’re essentially depersonalised narrators of the ‘background’ events of the case. They give neutral evidence of the household’s comings and goings, the timings of meals, the layout and security arrangements of the building. In these cases, the word of the servant is taken as a matter of fact, because the staff are simply plot devices to convey the material situation in which the murder has taken place. At times, a detective like Poirot might be able to push a servant to speculate, gossip or reveal a secret they are not supposed to know but, again, this almost always taken as a matter of fact.

Now, sometimes, a servant might have a secret of their own. They may be guilty of a crime – fiddling the household accounts, for instance, or colluding with some wrong ’un from outside the household. They may not be who they claim to be, or they may have falsified their references, but they are never seriously in the frame for the murder.

The whole point of Golden Age detective fiction is that the murderer represents the dark heart of the domestic set-up. It’s the spouse, the child, the parent, the family doctor. The call is coming from inside the house.

Agatha Christie does love playing tricks though. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, she assumes that we assume that the valet-butler’s evidence is neutral evidence, a statement of fact. It’s enough for Hastings and Japp, who take everything Graves says at face value, leading to the hunt for Foscatini’s dinner guest and the erroneous arrest of Ascanio.

It’s not enough for Poirot (naturally):
‘What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and a host of inanimate objects.’
The characteristic Christie misdirection in this story was making us think we were listening to a butler, when really we were listening to a man.

(As a sidenote, I now wonder if my two ‘interesting points’ are actually related. The standard country house mystery has the murderer at the heart of the family/household, then how can this be updated to reflect the new fashionable urban living arrangements of the middle classes? For unattached men like Foscatini – well-to-do city renters – their household is their valet.)

(As a more pressing sidenote… OMG! What’s the deal with 1920s speed-eating??

To recap… Graves claims that two men came to visitor his master. A dinner (for three) is ordered and served at 8pm. This is a fact corroborated by the Regent’s Court chef. The meal consists of the following:
‘Soup julienne, filet de sole normande, tournedos of beef, and a rice soufflé.’

Okay, looks like a perfectly fine dinner. Apparently the men casually conversed about ‘politics, the weather, and the theatrical world’ while dining. Graves then placed the port on the table, served them coffee, and headed out to meet a friend.

Graves left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

8.30pm??

So, these men managed to put away soup, sole normande, beef tournedos, a little bit of rice soufflé (admittedly most of it was left) and some coffee, all the while conversing merrily… in half an hour? Seriously??

This gets even more indigestion-inducing when we discover the truth: in fact, there were no visitors, Foscatini was dead before 8 o’clock, and Graves himself consumed all of the ordered food. And then smoked a cigar and two cigarettes.

And then left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

Is it even possible to eat that much food in half an hour? He ate three quarters of a fish, for god’s sake! And around 15-21oz of steak! No wonder he bursts back into the flat later ‘with every appearance of grief and agitation’.)

Anyway… that’s enough beef for this vegetarian; I’ve spent enough time Googling what ‘sole’ and ‘tournedos’ actually are and asking my husband cryptic questions about how much fish he could eat in a single sitting. Let’s move on to the adaptation…


The episode was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Clive Exton. And it’s just excellent.

The beauty of this episode is that Christie’s story is retained faithfully, but the episode is fleshed out with the expansion of subplots and some lovely storylines for ‘the gang’. While this is true for a number of other early episodes of Poirot, the Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon storylines here are just beautiful.

Ironically, given that Christie’s story begins with Hastings curtly announcing that he and Poirot do have other friends, you know, the TV episode begins with him being utterly baffled by the concept of Miss Lemon having a social life. He enters Poirot’s office in a tizzy, because he’s discovered that Miss Lemon… isn’t there. Poirot tells him calmly that Miss Lemon is out with a gentleman friend.


I love this storyline – it belongs completely and utterly to the TV show and has absolutely no basis in any of Christie’s fiction. I love what it reveals about the ‘family’ dynamic of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon, with Hastings assuming the role of protective older brother and Poirot that of affectionate pater. I love that Poirot insists Miss Lemon’s friend comes to tea, and that both men appear to be sizing him up in their different ways. I love Miss Lemon’s comments on the class system (‘the way we were all brought up to think’) when she discovers Edwin is a butler and not a private secretary. And I love the fact that this is (I think) the first time we hear someone call Miss Lemon ‘Felicity’.


But, more importantly, I love the way the gang react when Edwin Graves’s (Leonard Preston) crimes are revealed. After apprehending the murdering, cheating butler (more on that shortly), Hastings gives him a proper punch in the chops:
‘You swine! That’s for Miss Lemon!’
Avuncular Poirot, however, has to break the news to Miss Lemon. And I love this too. The little Belgian tiptoes into Miss Lemon’s office, prepared to gently explain that her boyfriend was (a) married and (b) a murderer. It’s such a sweet scene, and I love the way Suchet conveys Poirot’s palpable concern and pain on Miss Lemon’s behalf.

But I also love the fact that Miss Lemon doesn’t care. She has to ask Poirot who ‘Edwin’ is, because Mr Graves is dead to her. Not because he killed his employer. Not because he stole a load of money. Not because he had a secret wife. Not because he was weirdly proficient at speed-eating beef. But because he was planning to have Foscatini’s cat put to sleep. For Felicity Lemon, that is the ultimate crime.

The Miss Lemon storyline is probably my favourite bit of this episode, but the Hastings bit comes a very close second. As cats are to Miss Lemon, cars are to Captain Hastings. And oh boy! There’s a car and a half here.

In this episode, Hastings has decided to ditch his beloved Lagonda and purchase a swanky Eliso Freccia (a fictional Italian make). In bare plot terms, this is done to allow an expansion of the ‘sinister Italian’ red herring of Christie’s story. In the original, Foscatini is not a count, but rather a blackmailer. Ascanio – presumed to be a political assassin – is actually Foscatini’s victim, and his earlier visit to the man’s flat was for the purpose of paying him off. (In the story, as in the TV version, Foscatini is revealed to be a very reasonable blackmailer.)

In the adaptation, Foscatini’s web of blackmail goes further, involving Bruno Vizzini (David Neal) and Margherita Fabbri (Anna Mazzotti) of the Eliso Freccia firm. This allows for two further expansions: (1) the obligatory reference to the brewing conflict in Europe, as Vizzini’s ‘crime’ is to have supported anti-fascist groups in Italy; and (2) a somewhat underwhelming subplot for Japp, where he’s on the trail of the ‘Maznada’, an Italian organized crime family that’s ‘older than the Mafia’. But while these are perfectly sensible reasons for including the Italian car firm in the episode, I think we all know the real reason for including it… it’s an excuse for some Hastings car porn!


There’s a bit of a joke among some fans of the series that early episodes shoehorned in car chases at the drop of a hat. Hastings does tend to jump behind the wheel with ease in the first couple of series, but ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ gives us the ne plus ultra of car chases.

When the police descend on Chichester to apprehend the absconding Mr Graves, the murderous valet spins his car round and floors it. Hastings spots an opportunity, jumps into a waiting Eliso Freccia car (apparently played by an Alfa Romeo 2900A with its understandably protective owner body-doubling for Hugh Fraser, in case you’re interested) and goes in pursuit. What follows is a brilliant sequence, in which the two men wheel their rather cumbersome cars through increasingly narrow streets, at a speed that could hardly be called ‘breakneck’. A passer-by shrieks and drops her crockery; the chase is held up by a wandering flock of geese; holiday-makers in an open-top bus point in amazement. It’s pure magic.

Fun as the car chase is, I do have some concerns about the Eliso Freccia car. You see, I paused the episode at the moment Hastings signs the purchase contract…


Woah… how much? £1900? So, about £130,000 in today’s money? Where on earth did Hastings get that much money from? Why is he still mooching off Poirot if he’s got £1900 burning a hole in his pocket? Once again, the finances of Captain Hastings baffle me.

Argh… it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m in danger of getting sidetracked by Hastings’s bank balance again. Time to wrap this one up, I think. Just a couple of additional points of interest with this one…

1. I like that Hastings employs the same visualisation techniques as Miss Lemon used in ‘Double Sin’ when she lost the flat keys. Here, Hastings has to cast his mind back to seeing a postcard of Graves’s boat in order to remember where it was docked.


2. The (fictional) Regent’s Court of Christie’s story is replaced by a real building – Addisland Court. The scenes at Foscatini’s flat were actually filmed on location at Addisland Court, which makes this block of flats one of the few buildings to actually play itself in the series.

3. The gut-busting reality of what Graves actually does clearly bothered Exton as much as it bothers me, as he makes some subtle changes to ease the strain on Graves’s digestive tract. While the menu is identical to that in Christie’s short story (the interview with the chef is one of the scenes adapted almost verbatim from the source), the TV Graves only pretends there is one guest coming. Thus, he only has to Man-versus-Food two full dinners, instead of three. Exton also makes a minor adjustment to the timings: the dinner is served at 8pm, but Graves doesn’t go out until just before nine, giving him a little bit longer to finish the steaks.

4. Poirot doesn’t respond well to the arrival of Count Foscatini’s cat.


And with that, it’s time to move on. The next episode is ‘The Chocolate Box’

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