Monday, 11 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Case of the Missing Will (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 Yellow Iris’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th February 1993. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch on October 1923 – though the closeness of this adaptation is something I’m going to come back to shortly.

Christie’s short story is a neat – but rather straightforward – little puzzle for the great detective. It begins with Poirot and Hastings receiving a new client, which Hastings says is ‘rather a pleasant change from [their] routine work’ (though he doesn’t say what, exactly, he counts as ‘routine work’). Hastings’s happiness is short-lived, however, as it transpires that the client, Violet Marsh, is… shock, horror!... a New Woman:
‘I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favour.’
Poirot seems to quite like Violet, though, so the reader is prepossessed in her favour. Is this fair? Hastings can be a pretty bad judge of women… but then again, so can Poirot. After all, it’s Poirot who is taken in by Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson, and he’s got a definite soft spot for Jacqueline de Bellefort and (obviously) Vera Rossakoff. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry too much about these murderers and jewel thieves, as Violet Wilson has come with quite a different sort of puzzle.

Violet was the niece (and only relative) of rich businessman Andrew Marsh. During his lifetime, her uncle held ‘peculiar and deeply-rooted ideas as to the upbringing of women’, and was not happy when his niece decided to go to Girton. To teach her that her new-fangled ‘book learning’ is no match for his masculine brains, he uses his will as a final posthumous battle of wits: Marsh leaves all his property to Violet for one year, during which time she must ‘prove her wits’ or the fortune will pass to charities.

After Marsh died, Violet made a quick search of the house, couldn’t find anything obvious, and so immediately came to hire Poirot to solve the puzzle for her. Which he does.

It really is as simple as that.

Poirot visits Crabtree Manor, Marsh’s former home, spots a couple of inconsistencies, and then uses these to ascertain the whereabouts of a second will (dated shortly after the first), which leaves everything unconditionally to Violet. To be brutally honest, it’s a bit of a waste of his excellent little grey cells.

Hastings is thoroughly disappointed by the whole business. He seems bored as he narrates Poirot’s forensic search of the house, unimpressed by Poirot’s discovery of a label that doesn’t match the others, and confused by a last-minute epiphany on a train. As Poirot makes a dash back to Crabtree Manor for the big reveal, Hastings is grumpy and complains that Poirot isn’t paying him enough attention.

Despite his friend’s strop, Poirot is delighted by the case and sums it all up with ‘triumph’. He’s worked out the puzzle, and his client has won the battle of wits. He suggests that this means she has ‘justified her choice of life and elaborate education’, and also that her uncle’s trick was always intended to vindicate his niece’s academic career (assuming she was successful, of course).

Cranky Hastings sees things differently. ‘The old man really won,’ he grumbles.
‘“But no, Hastings. It is your wits that go astray. Miss Marsh proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women by at once putting the matter in my hands. Always employ the expert. She has amply proved her rights to the money.”
“It’s not fair! You never listen to me! I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted, as I ran out of the room and slammed the door.’
Okay. I made that last bit up.

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is probably not on many Top 10 Poirot Stories lists. It’s a little bit of fun for both Poirot and the reader (not Hastings though), but it’s not the most memorable case. Nevertheless, Christie was clearly quite happy with the central conceit, as it’s one of the plots she reused later on.

The Miss Marple story ‘Strange Jest’ was first published in the US in 1941 and then in the Strand Magazine in 1944 (under the title ‘A Case of Buried Treasure’).* In this little tale, Miss Marple is introduced to kissing-(third)-cousins Edward Rossiter and Charmian Stroud, the sole heirs to their shared Great-Great-Uncle Mathew. Edward and Charmian are convinced that their Uncle Mathew was in possession of a large fortune in gold bullion, but when he died there was no sign of any fortune. Their friend Jane Helier convinces the lovebirds to enlist Miss Marple’s assistance to get their hands on the loot.

As in ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, the detective here accompanies the putative heirs to the dead man’s house, rifles through his property, and then produce the booty with a flourish. But it’s the differences between the stories that are most interesting.

What I really like about this pair of stories is the way that Christie fitted each of the ‘missing will’ pranks to the idiosyncrasies of the respective sleuths. So, in the earlier story, the clue comes in the form of a label that doesn’t match the others; in the later one, the hints come in sly uses of outdated slang (‘gammon and spinach’, ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’). In ‘Missing Will’, Poirot pores over an account of the day of the will’s writing and finds an interesting item in the schedule; in ‘Strange Jest’, Miss Marple sees a possible parallel with her own Uncle Henry.

It’s lucky that Charmian, Edward and Violet picked their detectives so carefully. I wonder if Miss Marple would’ve guessed Andrew Marsh’s invisible ink – and what would Poirot have made of Uncle Mathew?

I must admit, I really warmed towards ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ after I read ‘Strange Jest’. I thoroughly recommend reading them as companion pieces to remind you of the important differences between Christie’s two famous sleuths.

And now… controversy! It’s time to look at the ITV adaptation of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, and the first Poirot episode to veer substantively away from its source story. Dun dun dunnnnnn…

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ was directed by John Bruce and written by Douglas Watkinson. It does not follow the plot of Christie’s short story, though it makes some allusions to it.

I’m just going to get this out of the way up front: I don’t think this is a problem. Christie’s short story would not have made a good episode of the TV show – or, at least, not one that would have fit with the rest of the series. I know the 90s was a simpler time, but I just can’t imagine us all curling up in front of the TV to watch David Suchet meticulously looking through drawers for an hour while Hugh Fraser stropped about in the background. I mean, obviously I’d watch that now. But I probably wouldn’t have liked it so much when I was fourteen. I would’ve probably changed over to… *checks 1993 TV listings*… So Haunt Me?? Urgh. Only one thing for it…

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Fortunately, Douglas Watkinson stopped teenage me from having to make the choice between So Haunt Me and Bamboozle, as the TV version of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is a pretty standard Poirot episode. It’s also, in my opinion, very well done – I only realized that it’s not actually a Christie story years later when I started reading the early Poirot short stories.

So, let’s talk about the episode…

We begin with a flashback to 1926. A man named Andrew Marsh (played by Mark Kingston) is seeing in the New Year with friends. As the clock strikes twelve, he announces that he has made a will leaving most of his fortune to a medical foundation, with some to be held in trust for his ward (Violet Wilson)’s education. Violet (played as a child by Stephanie Thwaites) excitedly watches through the bannisters with the sons of Marsh’s friends, Robert Siddaway (Simon Owen) and Peter Baker (Glen Mead), but is dismayed to hear that her guardian imagines that her future lies in marriage, possibly to one of her young companions. Marsh’s friend Phyllida Campion (Susan Tracy) remonstrates, but it is clear that Marsh has rather fixed views on the role of women.

Thus, the stage is set for an episode that alludes to, but doesn’t follow, Christie’s story. We have a rich man named Andrew Marsh, who made his money farming in Australia (as Christie’s character had done), a young (sort of) heir named Violet, and some eyebrow-raising at the idea of women’s education. However, we also have a gang of Siddaways and Bakers (the Bakers here are not quite the household servants of the same names from the short story), a Miss Campion and Dr Pritchard who are not found in the source text. And, most important, Marsh’s will is definitely not missing.

The episode then jumps ahead to the present day. The present day being 1936, of course. Poirot and Hastings are attending a Cambridge University debate in the company of Violet Wilson. (As a side note, the adult Violet is played by Beth Goddard, in the first of her two Poirot appearances. Her second appearance will be in Appointment with Death ¬– another rather loose adaptation of Christie’s work. But we’ll talk about that one later.)

The debate is on women’s education – and women’s rights generally. Marsh is speaking against, and Robert Siddaway (played as an adult by Edward Atterton) is speaking for. Robert makes an unsurprisingly prescient speech, arguing that – when the inevitable war in Europe comes – women will be expected to work in factories, munitions works, and even the armed forces. The guffawing idiots in the audience (clearly oblivious to the roles women played during the war that ended less that twenty years earlier) shout him down with derogatory comments about the W.I. Overcome with outrage at the sexist nonsense she’s hearing, Violet interjects and the meeting descends into boorish chaos.

Robert’s invocation of an upcoming war is interesting here. I’ve said several times in these posts that the TV series conjures up a world that is permanently on the brink of WWII, but never actually fighting it. This episode comes closer than many to accepting that a war will happen: Robert makes specific reference to an alliance between Hitler and Mussolini, and – unexpectedly – we actually see a young British man in army uniform, as the Bakers’ son Peter (now played by Neil Stuke) is home on leave for the duration of the episode.

All this is perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the series, but it just feels a little bit heavy-handed in these opening scenes. That probably doesn’t mean anything though. It’s not like Britain’s relationship with other European nations was a particularly hot topic in early 1993 or anything.

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Anyway… as I’ve said above, Christie’s short story is simply a treasure hunt for our little Belgian detective. The TV episode has to add a few extra twists and turns to keep us away from Bamboozle. Those twists include… Andrew Marsh decides to change his will! Then he gets murdered! Japp turns up to investigate! And he recognizes shifty Dr Pritchard (Richard Durden)! The will goes missing! Hastings rides a horse! Dr Pritchard says he thinks Andrew has a secret son! Miss Campion gets pushed down a moving staircase! Poirot questions Margaret Baker (Gillian Hanna) about her son Peter! Sarah Siddaway (Rowena Cooper) hints that Robert in Marsh’s son! Miss Lemon investigates!
‘What’s going on? What on earth is happening?’
(Violet has obviously read Christie’s short story.)

Joking aside, the story plays out in a typically Poirot way. A man is murdered shortly after making a new will (which goes missing), and there is a small circle of suspects. A red herring is dismissed (Japp recognized Dr Pritchard from an earlier case), and a misunderstanding is revealed (Marsh’s comments about parenthood meant that he had a daughter, not a son). And in typical Christie fashion (though not actually written by Christie), the case hinges on the question of who has specific medical knowledge (were you listening carefully?).

I have kinda mixed feelings about the episode’s ending. On the one hand, I like that Watkinson brings us back to Christie’s short story at the end. It’s revealed that Violet is, in fact, Marsh’s daughter (her mother is Miss Campion). After the pesky business of the murder has been cleared up, Poirot assures Violet that Marsh wanted to change his will to leave everything to her: ‘As proof that she was his daughter!... And his equal.’ This is a nice echo of Poirot’s assertion in the short story that Violet has ‘proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women’. At least the TV version of Marsh saw the error of his assessment before he died.

On the other hand, the revelation that Violet is Marsh and Miss Campion’s daughter leaves a couple of question marks. Violet grows up believing that she is the daughter of Marsh’s late business partner in Australia. When this unnamed partner – and, presumably, his wife/girlfriend – died, Marsh benevolently assumed guardianship of the orphan and employed Australian Margaret Baker as a nanny. When Marsh moved back to England, he was ‘called away to fight in France’, and Margaret married a policeman (played by Jon Laurimore) and had Peter.

The problem is… this isn’t true. Violet was born in 1913 to Phyllida Campion, while the woman was a student at Cambridge. Her birth was registered in England. So how did the baby end up in Australia? (Presumably she did end up in Australia, as Margaret Baker gives no indication that the nanny story was a lie.) Did Miss Campion send her straight over? Did she go with her? What exactly was the relationship between Phyllida and Andrew? Did no one spot that Andrew made a quick jaunt to Cambridge from Australia in 1912, and then miraculously produced his dead business partner’s child nine months later? Did Andrew falsely register Violet’s birth in Australia – giving her the surname ‘Wilson’? Did no one question why a single man, with apparently no blood relationship to the child, was registering the birth of a baby at least two weeks old (and that’s assuming Miss Campion gave birth and then immediately shoved the baby on a boat), with the implausible claim that both the child’s parents had died. The more you look at it, the harder to swallow it seems.

Quick! Let’s distract ourselves with Hastings on a horse!

Despite my concern about Baby Violet’s ocean voyage, I still really like this episode. There are some great little details to enjoy. Hastings’s horse ride, for instance… This is the moment when our intrepid sidekick discovers Marsh’s body. As he rides across the countryside with Violet, he looks up and exclaims:
‘What a charming folly!’
This always makes me smile – follies are never good news in Agatha Christie stories.

But by far my favourite bit of the episode is the return of Miss Lemon’s investigative skills. Obviously, I enjoy seeing her peering over card catalogues and registers with her acute eye for the detail of a filing system. But I also like the fact that it is specifically Miss Lemon who spots a slip from the doctor – he refers to ‘Mrs Campion’, rather than ‘Miss Campion’ – and, from the way she questions this, it seems she guesses the reason for the slip before any of the men. For this reason, Poirot entrusts the task of hunting down Miss Campion’s records to her, leaving poor old Hastings kicking his heels on his own in the car park (at least he doesn’t have a strop this time).

And so, ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ might not follow Christie’s original story, but it’s still a great episode. Watkinson does a good job of riffing on Christie’s story to create a script that is convincing as an adaptation (for viewers unfamiliar with the original). There are just enough allusions to reassure fans of Christie’s stories that the writer had read the original as well.

Oh, and we get to see Poirot in his pyjamas again. I’m building up a collection of these pictures, because I have a theory that the detective’s bedtime attire gets distinctly fussier as the series progresses. As you can see, he is not wearing a hairnet or moustache protector in this episode. I doubt anyone apart from me cares.

Right, onto the next episode (and a real favourite of mine) – ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’

* Academic footnote ahoy! Just to say, I have the version of ‘Strange Jest’ that appears in the eBook edition of the Miss Marple and Mystery: The Complete Short Stories collection, published by HarperCollins in 2011 (2008).


  1. Better yet, those two aren't the only posthumous searches for a will / treasure in Christie - there is also a Tommy and Tuppence story along similar lines! (To make matters worse and to make one doubt one's memory and the writers' originality, there's also a Sayers story along similar lines. Each of those stories features a different sort of puzzle, but they all feature late eccentric elderly relatives who decided to make their heirs' life difficult.)

    I've been greatly enjoying this series. I can lay it all at the door of my Christie completist grandma (she probably has all of Christie's books that have been translated into Czech) and her love of Suchet's Poirot. She's still with us, but I'm sure you can see where the draw of your series lies. :-)

    1. Thank you! I'm really glad you're enjoying my posts. I'm hoping to get a couple of new posts up soon. :-)