Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Chocolate Box (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 Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot first aired on 21st February 1993. It was based on the sort story of the same name (aka ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’), which was first published in The Sketch on 23rd May 1923.

The story opens with Hastings and Poirot enjoying a quiet night in as a storm rages outside. Hastings is having a hot toddy, and his friend is drinking hot chocolate. It’s a cosy little domestic scene, and Poirot expresses his satisfaction with life.
‘“Yes, it’s a good old world,” [Hastings] agreed. “Here am I with a job, and a good job too! And here are you, famous –”’
I don’t know what to make of Hastings’s comment here, and I’m a bit reluctant to reopen my persistent confusion about Hastings’s background. There’s no explanation as to what job he’s got, and it’s never mentioned again. In later stories, he appears to be back living with Poirot, so it obviously isn’t a permanent change. Given the story’s ending (which I’ll come to shortly), I think this is another nod to the dynamic duo’s forebears: the scene evokes some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, where Watson visits Holmes after leaving Baker Street to set up his own rooms and practice.

Anyway, regardless of the questions raised by Hastings’s comment, the domestic setting serves simply to set up a rather unusual narrative. What’s important here is Hastings’s claim that Poirot is famous, and that he doesn’t know ‘what failure is’. Poirot, moved to a nostalgic mood by the hot chocolate and blazing fire, begins to reminisce about a time that he ‘made the complete prize ass’ of himself.

Slow dissolve…

The story that follows is narrated by Poirot, and it takes place in Belgium, prior to the detective entering the UK as a refugee of German occupation. As a member of the Belgian police force, Poirot was involved in the investigation into the death of Paul Déroulard, a French politician living in Brussels. Déroulard, despite being in good health, has died suddenly of heart failure, and the police do not believe the circumstances to be suspicious.

However, Poirot is drawn into the investigation at the request of a young woman named Virginie Mesnard, a cousin of Déroulard’s late wife, who was living in the household at the time of Déroulard’s death. Virginie does not believe that the man’s death was due to natural causes. She beseeches Poirot to look into the case – and he agrees.

Poirot’s investigation almost immediately leads him to the eponymous chocolate box. Déroulard died after a dinner party, during which all the guests ate and drank the same things. There seems to be no sign of poison being administered through other means. The only possible way the man could have been poisoned is suggested by a large box of chocolates in the man’s study. The chocolates in the box are untouched, but Poirot’s methodical eye is bothered by an anomaly: the box itself is pink, but the lid is blue.

Poirot looks into the case – seemingly as much to explain the mystery of the chocolate box lid than the death of Déroulard (a man whose death seemed ‘fortunate’ to Poirot). His sleuthing leads him to M. de Saint Alard, Déroulard’s neighbour, John Wilson, an Englishman, a prescription for trinitrine (angina medication) tablets, and a missing pill bottle. But, before he can get much further, Virginie visits him and begs him to drop the case.

Eventually, Poirot (after a bit of housebreaking disguised as a plumber) believes he has sufficient proof of Saint Alard’s guilt. The man has a motive, and the empty trinitrine bottle is discovered in his house. He returns to Déroulard’s house and announces his success to the dead man’s mother… who immediately tells him he’s got it wrong:
‘It was not M. de Saint Alard who killed my son. It was I, his mother.’
Poirot did not see that one coming – and that’s why he counts the case as his one and only failure.

As a short story, there are a couple of interesting points about ‘The Chocolate Box’ (aside from the obvious fact that it offers a little bit of insight into Poirot’s pre-Mysterious Affair at Styles life). For me, the best bits come at the beginning and end of Poirot’s tale.

In introducing the Déroulard case, Poirot offers the following background:
‘It was at the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state. M. Paul Déroulard was a French deputy of note. It was an open secret that the portfolio of a Minister awaited him. He was among the bitterest of the anti-Catholic party, and it was certain that on his accession to power, he would have to face violent enmity.’
This is quite a serious political backdrop to the story, and it raises the question of religion that is often side-stepped in other Poirot stories. Catholicism, where it is mentioned in other stories, is more usually a domestic matter – a barrier to divorce, in most cases. Here, it is a political issue, and one to which Poirot has a strong connection. He tells Hastings that he was not sorry about Déroulard’s death, because he remains ‘bon catholique’.

I think this is probably the strongest statement Poirot ever makes about his religion, his politics and his connection to his homeland.

If the beginning of ‘The Chocolate Box’ reminds us that Poirot was once a detective in the Belgian police force, the ending reminds us that he’s also (at times) a playful riff on another famous literary detective.

That’s right! ‘The Chocolate Box’ has another brilliant reference to a Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s one of my favourites. (I’ve mentioned some others that appear in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, ‘The Veiled Lady’, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and – notoriously – ‘The Double Clue’.)

After telling Hastings’s the truth about the Déroulard case, Poirot confesses that he is still haunted by the spectre of his failure:
‘An old lady commits a crime in such a simple and clever fashion that I, Hercule Poirot, am completely deceived. Sapristi! It does not bear thinking of! Forget it. Or no – remember it, and if you think at any time that I am growing conceited – it is not likely, but it might arise. […] Eh bien, my friend, you shall say to me, “Chocolate box”. Is it agreed?’
This is a direct reference to the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’, a rare example of Holmes’s deductions being proved false at the end of the narrative. ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes exhorting Watson:
‘If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.’
I don’t think there’s any question that Christie was making a clear and direct reference to Conan Doyle’s story here. But there’s a cheeky difference: ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes’s request to Watson, but ‘The Chocolate Box’ has a coda:
‘“After all,” said Poirot reflectively, “it was an experience! I, who have undoubtedly the finest brain in Europe at present, can afford to be magnanimous!”
“Chocolate box,” I murmured gently.’
Hee hee… let’s see how this is handled in the adaptation then…

‘The Chocolate Box’ was directed by Ken Grieve and written by Douglas Watkinson. Watkinson’s previous script for the series was ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, which was not exactly a faithful adaptation of Christie’s short story. ‘The Chocolate Box’ takes less liberties in its adaptation, but there some significant changes made to the story.

Firstly, while this episode is a two-hander, it’s not the two hands you might be expecting. This episode features just Poirot and Japp; Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent. This isn’t the first Poirot/Japp episode – ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ were also Hastings-less two-handers – but it’s the first (only) one to show the two men off on a little trip together.

For services to the Belgian police force, ever since the notorious Abercrombie forgery case, Japp is to be awarded the prestigious title of ‘Compagnon de la Branche d’Or’. The ceremony is to be held in Brussels, but Mrs Japp has decided not to accompany him.
‘Brussels is a far cry from Isleworth.’
So, instead, he is accompanied by his old friend and co-investigator on the Abercrombie case, M. Hercule Poirot.
‘It is an honour to deputize for Madame Japp.’

Of course, returning to Brussels (perhaps for the first time since WWI ended?) provokes Poirot to reminisce about past cases. He decides to tell Japp the story of his one and only failure – though the TV Poirot, unlike his literary counterpart, insists that this failure was the result of others’ mistakes, not his own. Nevertheless, he begins to narrative the tale.

Slow dissolve…

Watkinson’s adaptation presents a reasonably faithful version of the Deroulard/Déroulard case as it appears in Christie’s story. The man has died after a dinner party, and his death is believed to be due to heart failure. His neighbour, Xavier St Alard (played by Geoffrey Whitehead) was present, as was his friend Gaston Beaujeu (David de Keyser) who is an uncontroversial substitute for the English John Wilson. The mismatched chocolate box, trinitrine and housebreaking are all preserved here too.

The main difference to the Deroulard mystery itself comes in a slight tweaking of Madame Deroulard’s (Rosalie Crutchley) motive. The story downplays the political backdrop to the case, with Deroulard being presented as simply being ‘bad’ for Belgium and some non-specific comments about possible collaboration with the Germans (once again, we’re presented with a view of Europe on the brink of war, but it’s WWI rather than WWII this time). Instead, the episode places a heavier emphasis on the death of Deroulard’s wife prior to the events of the case. While the religious and political backdrop is retained – the women in Deroulard’s household are explicitly devout Catholics – a more domestic element is introduced in the (later confirmed) suspicion that Deroulard murdered his wife.

However, these minor tweaks don’t drastically alter Christie’s original plot.

Is this box green and pink? Or blue and black?

The big change comes in the addition of new backstory for Hercule himself. The episode introduces a personal relationship between the detective and Virginie Mesnard (played by Anna Chancellor).

The episode has Poirot fall head over heels in love with Virginie. Now, Christie was quite happy to hint at the women in Poirot’s past in her stories, but this isn’t something that’s really been present in the series to this point. In fact, the TV series has already suggested that there was only ‘one woman’ for Poirot – Vera Rossakoff. The revelation that Poirot’s real true love was a woman he once knew in Brussels is a bold move, and one that may have irritated hardened #TeamVera fans. For me, though, it fits perfectly. I’ve been ardently #TeamVirginie since the episode aired.

I think the thing that swung it for me was the story behind Poirot’s lapel pin that emerges during the story. As you may know, I’m quite the fan of Poirot’s accessories, and I’m building up a small folder of his stylish accoutrements – from spyglass walking stick to silver pocket ashtray. Since the first episode, Poirot has sported a silver pin with minute flowers on his suit. Until ‘The Chocolate Box’, it’s simply a distinctive part of his costume that appears in every episode, the changing (fresh?) flowers showing the man’s fussy attention to detail. I really like that this episode invests this little item with a sentimental value.

During the course of their investigation and burgeoning friendship (relationship?), Virginie presents the policeman with a token of her affection. The fact that he’s still wearing it years later shows that it is Virginie, not Vera, who is the woman.

I’ve always liked the backstory ‘The Chocolate Box’ gives Poirot. However, there are some unanswered questions at the end. Back in the present day, Poirot is reunited with his old friend Jean-Louis (Jonathan Barlow), the pharmacist who helped him identify trinitrine tablets as the source of the poison. It is a warm and heartfelt reunion, and it’s clear the two men were close friends.

But then Poirot is reunited with Virginie – the woman. In Christie’s story, Virginie enters a convent after the case is closed, but in the TV version it turns out Jean-Louis and Virginie have married, and they have two sons (one of whom they have named Hercule). Suchet plays this scene beautifully, capturing Poirot’s bittersweet happiness for his two old friends. However, this does raise the question of why Poirot wasn’t already aware of their marriage. Did he not keep in touch with Jean-Louis at all after he left Belgium? Has he not spoken to any of his old friends in Brussels? Why did Jean-Louis and Virginie not invite him to their wedding? Or at least inform him of it – after all, they obviously still think fondly of him as they’ve named their son in his honour?

There are two possibilities here. Either Poirot literally severed all ties with his old life in Brussels when he was forced to move to England in 1916, or there is more to the story than we see on screen. The first possibility doesn’t seem likely: throughout both the TV series and Christie’s stories, Poirot shows a tendency to long-standing friendships and associations, and to keeping in contact with the people who are important to him. Look at how much he misses Hastings after The Murder on the Links. Are we really to believe he cut Jean-Louis out without a second thought?

The second possibility is more intriguing. What – exactly – happened between the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’ and ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’? Here’s my hypothesis (and I think you’ll agree, it’s really the only viable solution): after the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’, Poirot proposed to Virginie, but she turned him down. Poirot was devastated, and the heartbreak remained with him when he fled to England. He didn’t cut his old friends dead out of malice or thoughtlessness, but because it was too painful for him to remember.

I’ve believed in this theory since I first saw the episode in 1993, and rewatching now has done nothing to change my mind. I think the ‘knowledge’ that Poirot was turned down by the love of his life has coloured my entire perception of the character, to be honest. And for that reason, I’ve always had a lot of affection of ‘The Chocolate Box’. I mean, who couldn’t love that episode?

(My husband – that’s who. He thought it was ‘dull’ and ‘nothing really happened’. I guess he’s not on #TeamVirginie then.)

Two final points…

Christie’s story has Poirot pretend to be a plumber to gain access to search Saint Alard’s house. Due to the increased involvement of Virginie in the TV investigation, this is no longer necessary. Instead, Virginie lures St Alard to the opera, and Poirot breaks into the house in his absence. Nevertheless, Poirot does alter his appearance slightly for his housebreaking.

I was delighted to note that Poirot’s housebreaking costume here is the same as the one he dons in ‘The Veiled Lady’. Mad Dog rides again!

And it would be remiss of me not to at least say something about accents in this episode. This is a problem that will arise in other episodes as well. ‘The Chocolate Box’ is set in Brussels. With the exception of Japp, every character in the episode is Belgian. And yet, not only do they all speak in English, they all speak with English accents (with the exception of Suchet’s Poirot, of course).

In Christie’s story, all the dialogue is given in English, with a few small interjections in French. This is understandable though, as the story is being narrated by Poirot to Hastings. In the adaptation, the flashback sequences are being narrated by Poirot to Japp, so I presume he would be rendering the dialogue into English. However, we also see Poirot’s Belgian colleagues and friends in the present day – why are they all speaking English?

This is, of course, simply a stylistic decision by the programme-makers. Giving everyone a Belgian accent would possibly only highlight the fact that they’re speaking the wrong language, and filming the entire episode in French would’ve been a bit too much for the audience. It’s one that will rear its head again – how to present conversations between Francophones – and one that will be handled differently in different episodes. I guess it’s just more obvious in ‘The Chocolate Box’ as everyone is Belgian.

On that note, it’s time to leave this one and move on. The next episode will be ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, but before I get to that I’d like to take a detour to have a little look at one of Christie’s minor recurring characters: Mr Satterthwaite.


  1. Team Virginie! That was basically my own interpretation of the episode as well, without ever having thought much about it.

  2. I just discovered your blog. I had listened to this full, short story while driving in the desert a week ago and this morning i punched into Google words to take me to anyone who had analyzed the story. I enjoyed very much reading your discussion of the story. It's one of the few Poirot episodes from the television series that I am not attracted to and don't really watch. (I bought the 36 episodes on 12 CDs back in 2012 and watched them over and over again instead of doing my work.) But your words are making me want to revisit the episode. Thank you for setting up your blog to discuss topics related to Hercule Poirot, as it is one of my favorite subjects to read about. Sandor