Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Dream (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 King of Clubs’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

We’ve reached the end of the first series! I’m woefully behind schedule, so am seriously doubting that I’ll get to Curtain by Christmas – but it’s been so much fun revisiting Series 1 that I don’t mind that this project is probably going to take a lot longer than I envisaged. And I get to end this series with a great episode.

The tenth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th March 1989, and was based on the short story of the same name (first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1937, then in The Strand in February of the following year).

The story begins with Poirot arriving at Northway House, the residence of Benedict Farley. Farley is an eccentric millionaire, who lives in a house that is a ‘relic of an earlier age – an age of space and leisure, when green fields had surrounded its well-bred arrogance’. The description of Northway House continues:
‘Now it was an anachronism, submerged and forgotten in the hectic sea of modern London, and not one man in fifty could have told you where it stood.’
This evocative description of the house prepares us for its reclusive inhabitant. Mr Farley is known for his odd habits and erratic behaviour, and his summons to Poirot is characteristically strange. When the detective is shown into Farley’s room (in fact, into his secretary’s room), he discovers that he has been called in to consult on a recurring nightmare – not the detective’s usual fare. Farley has been repeatedly dreaming about shooting himself – always at the same place and the same time. He has consulted three doctors, who have advised him (respectively) that the dream is caused by poor diet, childhood trauma and subconscious suicidal urges. Farley has dismissed all these explanations, and asks Poirot whether it is possible that a murder could be effected through such means. The detective is unable to do much more than rule out hypnotism, so Farley dismisses him.

Naturally, of course, Farley is soon found dead – apparently having committed suicide at the very place and time predicted in his dream. Poirot is called in by his old friend Dr Stillingfleet, as the police have discovered the letter Farley sent requesting a consultation with the detective. Stillingfleet explains that, without this letter, the death would have been recorded as a suicide, but Poirot’s involvement suggests the matter may be more complicated. Additionally, Mrs Farley is able to corroborate the story of the dream, and Farley’s secretary says that he wrote the letter to Poirot on his employer’s instruction.

Because Poirot (and Stillingfleet) are quick to rule out suicide, the reader does so too. This, then, is a murder, which took place in a locked room with no access via window, and which the victim apparently predicted in a series of recurring dreams. It’s a locked room mystery – and I do adore locked room mysteries. (Agatha Christie was no John Dickson Carr and used the ‘locked room’ conceit more sparingly in her stories – but I feel that her Poirot locked rooms do stand up against the acknowledged masters of the subgenre. ‘Problem at Sea’ has always been a favourite of mine, for instance.)

The clues to the trick (for locked room mysteries always rely on a ‘trick’) are to be found in Poirot’s odd meeting with Benedict Farley – the bright lighting of the room, the man’s inability to distinguish between his letter and a letter to Poirot’s laundress, his refusal to let Poirot see the room which is to be the scene of the crime. Some details of the crime scene also help – a pair of ‘lazy-tongs’, the blank wall that faces Farley’s window, the traffic noise from the street below. The detective puts these seemingly random details into a comprehensible order, and the solution is a satisfying one. It’s worth noting, by the way, that there is yet another reference to stage magic in the story: in response to Poirot denying any deception on his part, Benedict Farley chuckles, ‘That’s what the conjuror says before he takes the goldfish out of the hat! Saying that is part of the trick, you know!’

[Update: I wrote the above last night, but then I had a bit of a realization after I slept on it. I seem to remember that I worked out the solution of ‘The Dream’ when I first watched it. And I was only ten at the time. This possibly means that the ‘trick’ isn’t particularly sophisticated, or that it’s easy to spot its workings. However, ‘The Dream’ will always have a special place in my heart for this reason, as it’s the locked mystery I cut my teeth on.]

The TV adaptation was written by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. As is usual with Exton’s adaptations, it’s fairly faithful to Christie’s short story. Like many of the other earlier episodes, the ‘family’ are added to the story – Miss Lemon, Hastings and Japp aren’t in Christie’s story – but their inclusion is a little less clunky than in some other episodes. Miss Lemon has a little sub-storyline about a broken typewriter, and Japp neatly replaces Inspector Barnett, the ‘tame police inspector’ of the short story. The inclusion of Hastings necessarily downgrades Dr Stillingfleet (played by Paul Lacoux) from his role as the ‘Watson’ character, but I guess that’s a sacrifice that has to be made.

The TV version of Farley is fairly close to his literary counterpart. However, the eccentric is now the owner of a successful pie factory, rather than being something vaguely connected to transport. Unlike in Christie’s story, we get more of a sense of Farley at work – a Pathé Gazette newsreel introduces us to Farley’s Pies, and we see the owner addressing his workforce on the factory’s fiftieth anniversary. This Benedict Farley is a more straightforwardly obnoxious man. Christie’s short story mentions the millionaire’s ‘strange meanesses’, but also his ‘incredible generosities’; it is only the ‘meanesses’ (his attempts to block unionization, his dismissal of his daughter’s boyfriend) that are on show in the adaptation. But we still get no real sense of the man outside a few glimpses and reports from others, which is very much in-keeping with the original story.

Like ‘The Incredible Theft’ and ‘The King of Clubs’, the episode features some fantastic location shots. In this case, it’s the use of the Hoover Building in Perivale, which doubles as Farley’s factory. Like the other iconic buildings used in these early episodes, the art deco Hoover Building is both dramatically stylized and contemporary to the show’s setting (it was built in 1933). Unlike the other buildings, though, it’s now a branch of Tesco.

Weirdly, given that I really like both the episode and the short story, I find that I have a lot less to say about ‘The Dream’ than some other instalments. It’s just a neat little puzzle that was faithfully adapted for the screen. There are some nice interactions between Poirot and Miss Lemon (particularly the detective’s enthusiasm after Miss Lemon’s strange time-keeping leads him to his solution, and his final (misguided) thank you gift). And I like Poirot’s lamenting that his little grey cells have been ‘weakened by the old age and the fast living’ (which Hastings questions, but is informed that Poirot did indeed live fast in his youth). The episode sees the welcome (well, welcome to me) return of Dicker (played by George Little), the concierge of Whitehaven Mansions, who is the show’s most minor recurring character.

Since it’s the final episode of the series, it’s only fitting that we have one last chase scene as well. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the (silly) chase scenes are a regular feature of the early series, taking place on foot, by car and by boat. In ‘The Dream’, we round off the series with a motorbike-and-sidecar heading in hot pursuit of the murderer – complete with a dramatic leap from the driving seat to apprehend the fugitive.

And that brings me to the end of the first series – making me ten episodes closer to finally watching Curtain. It seems sort of fitting to end this review with a quote from Christie’s ‘The Dream’, I think:
‘“I wonder if you’ll ever commit a crime, Poirot?” said Stillingfleet. “I bet you could get away with it all right. As a matter of fact, it would be too easy for you – I mean the thing would be off as definitely too unsporting.” “That,” said Poirot, “is a typical English idea.”’
Onwards, then, to Series 2


As I said, I adore locked room mysteries. To hear more about some of my favourite examples of the genre (including a couple of Agatha Christie’s mysteries), have a listen to the radio show I did on this subject last year:

Poirot Project: The King of Clubs (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 Incredible Theft’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The penultimate episode of Series 1 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 12th March 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, first published as ‘The Adventure of the King of Clubs’ in The Sketch (March 1923).

Like all of the original Sketch stories, the story is narrated by Hastings, and it begins with the good captain attempting to interest his illustrious companion with an odd story in a daily newspaper. An ‘impresario’ by the name of Henry Reedburn has been murdered, and his death was announced in a strangely dramatic fashion. The previous night, as a ‘neat suburban’ family (the Oglanders) played bridge in their drawing-room, a woman in burst through their French windows and shouted, ‘Murder!’ The woman’s evening dress was stained with blood, and she fainted after her sinister proclamation.

At this point in the story, Poirot decides to put Hastings out of his misery and admits that he knows all about the Oglanders’ surprise visitor. The woman is Valerie Saintclair, ‘the famous dancer who has lately taken London by storm’, and Poirot has been contacted by Prince Paul of Maurania about the case – the prince, it seems, has recently become engaged to Valerie, and is keen to banish any trace of suspicion of the woman’s involvement in Reedburn’s murder. The prince explains that, while he knows that his family won’t officially sanction his marriage to a dancer (despite the fact that she is allegedly the daughter of ‘a Russian grand duchess’), he is free to enter into a morganatic marriage – provided the woman isn’t accused of murder, that is.

Poirot and Hastings take on the case and travel to Mon Désir, Reedburn’s ‘exceptionally fine villa’, and then to Daisymead, the ‘unpretentious little house’ of the murdered man’s neighbours, questioning the various characters as they go. Valerie Saintclair admits to being at Reedburn’s house at the time of the murder, but she insists that the impresario was attacked by ‘a dreadful-looking man, a sort of tramp’. Terrified, she escaped through the window and ran to the first house she saw. As the case proceeds, the detective discovers that Valerie has previously consulted a psychic, who warned her to beware ‘the King of Clubs’ – the assumption was that this referred to Reedburn, though the phrase takes on a different meaning as Poirot’s investigation progresses.

I like Christie’s short story. It’s not my favourite of the 1923 Sketch series, but it’s an enjoyable puzzle nonetheless. It’s got some nice subtle clues, especially when Poirot draws attention to seemingly irrelevant details (particularly an old photograph) that turn out to be vital. And the mildly incongruous aspects of the crime scene (and that of Valerie’s dramatic entrance) lead neatly to a satisfactory conclusion.

And now… the adaptation. The TV episode was directed by Renny Rye, and dramatized by Michael Baker (with Clive Exton as script consultant). Sadly, it’s not a high spot of the series. It’s not the loosest adaptation of the series (it’s positively faithful compared to some of the others), but some of the narrative changes that have been made here dilute the original mystery until the central puzzle is all but lost. In fact, despite having seen the episode a couple of times, it was only when I read the short story that I understood what the puzzle actually was.

In the adaptation, Valerie Saintclair is no longer a dancer, but is a famous film actress (played by Niamh Cusack, the first of the Cusack sisters to appear in the show). She is shooting a film at Parade Studios, which is owned by the arrogant and aggressive Henry Reedburn (David Swift). The episode opens with Valerie attempting to shoot a scene, as Reedburn boorishly hectors and demeans the cast and crew. Poirot and Hastings are witnesses to this scene, as they have been invited along by Hastings’s old friend, Bunny Saunders (played by Jonathan Coy), the film’s director. Also present is Prince Paul of Maurania (Jack Klaff), Valerie’s fiancé. As in the short story, Poirot is acquainted with the prince – His Highness thanks the detective for ‘all you have done for my family’.

After this opening, we are taken to Mon Désir, Reedburn’s grand residence – where the studio head is being confronted by two of his disgruntled stars. Although I don’t know a huge amount about the locations used in the series, I do know that the exteriors of Reedburn’s house were filmed at High and Over in Amersham, a Grade II* listed building designed in 1929 by Amyas Connell. Occasionally, particularly in the early series, locations are used that almost seem unreal. There’s something about ‘Mon Désir’ that seems too modernist, too stylized, too Poirot to be real – so it’s good to pause occasionally and look at the buildings. As Hastings says at the beginning of Christie’s short story: ‘Truth […] is stranger than fiction!’

Back to the episode, I have some serious reservations about the changes made to Valerie Saintclair’s character. Cusack performs her as a reserved and genteel actress, beloved by the dashing Prince Paul and popular with both viewers and colleagues. Gone is any trace of the ‘scandalous’ nature of Valerie’s profession in the short story, and there is no hint that the Mauranian royal family will be anything other than welcoming of their new daughter-in-law (there are definite echoes of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco in the relationship). The only potential obstacle is that Valerie may be implicated in Reedburn’s death, which Paul is keen to avoid.

While there’s nothing wrong with these changes per se, making Valerie more respectable has the effect of lessening the social divide between her and the Oglanders. In the episode, Valerie’s appearance in the ‘neat suburban’ sitting room of the Oglanders lacks all the wild incongruity of Christie’s short story. This is what confused me the first couple of times I watched it – there’s just no sense that she shouldn’t be there. There’s no sense of discomfort between Valerie and Mrs Oglander (played by Avril Elgar), or any animosity between Valerie and Geraldine (Abigail Cruttenden). The Oglanders’ son Ronnie (played by Sean Pertwee, in his first of two appearances in the series – he’ll be back in Dead Man’s Folly, though who knows when I’ll finally get to that episode!) is nothing but solicitous towards Valerie, and there’s a sense of the family protecting the famous actress from the moment Poirot arrives at The Willows (the new name for Daisymead). I must confess that, until I read the short story, I always assumed Valerie was a friend of the family, possibly a relation. And so I could never understand why Poirot questioned why the actress has arrived at The Willows in the first place. It just seemed obvious that she’d gone to their house deliberately.

In Christie’s short story, the reveal that Valerie is the Oglanders’ daughter, and that the family is protecting their own (despite being estranged), is explained by Poirot with characteristic elegance:
‘The interesting thing is that Valerie is ashamed of her family, and her family is ashamed of her. Nevertheless, in a moment of peril, she turned to her brother for help, and when things went wrong, they all hung together in a remarkable way. Family strength is a marvellous thing.’
This is lost in the adaptation, as there’s no sense of estrangement in the Oglander family. Their secrecy turns out to be down to the fact that Oglander isn’t their real name – they are, in fact, the Hawtreys, and they’re living incognito (Valerie included) because the silent and disabled pater familias once committed a serious act of fraud. The problem is that this sense of a shared secret pervades all their interactions, which, again, removes any sense of Valerie’s outsider status.

The change in Valerie’s profession necessitates a change in Reedburn’s. The nightclub impresario now becomes a film studio executive: thus he is no longer the ‘king of clubs’. As such, Valerie’s reported trip to the clairvoyant is removed – the connection between the playing card and the man would be much harder to explain in this version of the story. While the mention of the psychic in Christie’s story seems fluffy and inconsequential, it serves the purpose of hinting at something premeditated or preordained about Reedburn’s death – and this is an important piece of misdirection, as the reader is being discouraged from seeing the impresario’s death as the spur-of-the-moment act of violence it is ultimately revealed to be.

The adaptation has no such misdirection, and so Reedburn’s death always appears as an accident committed in the heat of an argument. In order to create some sense of mystery, additional suspects in the form of Bunny Saunders and the recently sacked Ralph Walton (Gawn Grainger) are thrown into the mix. Valerie’s mysterious tramp from the short story is transformed into a gypsy and, as in the source, Poirot disdains the task of hunting for this phantom. As an aside, one of my favourite lines in the short story comes when Hastings suggests they look for the vagrant, and his friend formidably proclaims: ‘Hercule Poirot does not hunt down tramps’.

But someone has to hunt down tramps or vagrants, and the TV version knows just the man: Inspector Japp is on the case. ‘Dear oh dear… here we go again,’ the policeman says as he arrives at Daisymead and prepares to undertake a pointless search of the local gypsy camp. The little Belgian detective is more than happy to let his friend head off on a wild goose chase, and the episode ends with Japp still convinced he will find the shadowy Romany. (As is the case with Hastings, some Japp storylines feel a bit like they’ve just been added for the sake of it.)

There is one significant element of the original story that has been retained in the adaptation. The Oglanders have been playing bridge, but Poirot discovers that a single playing (the eponymous ‘King of Clubs’) is missing from the card table. Bridge has become something of a recurring motif in the second half of this series, featuring significantly in the previous two episodes. Here, however, the game isn’t simply used as a metaphor or for character development, but it’s an important clue to the mystery (this idea will be used again in Cards on the Table).

The missing playing card is still a good clue in the TV episode – in fact, it’s one of the only good clues – but the identity of the missing card has been divested of any (phony) significance. Yes – the missing card is still the king of clubs, but the clue would have worked with any card from the pack. (Naturally, this makes the title of the episode seem a little odd until you’ve read the short story.)

To conclude, then, this isn’t a favourite episode. Like ‘The Incredible Theft’ it lacks both the punch and the charm of other episodes in the series. Even the interactions between the ‘gang’ seem watered down – Miss Lemon is absent, and Japp is at a loose end – though I do enjoy Hastings’s attempt to explain modern art to Poirot when they arrive at Mon Désir.

One final comment… it’s always interesting to compare Suchet’s performance and appearance in these early episodes to that of the later series. Sometimes, the superficial details can be quite telling. For instance, when Prince Paul calls Poirot to tell him about Reedburn’s murder, we see our detective disturbed in his slumber. As in other early episodes, he’s wearing pyjamas, but no hair or moustache net. It’s worth keeping this image in mind when we get to later episodes (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express) – it seems the little Belgian is to get more fastidious with age… he almost looks like a man of action here.

Okay, so ‘The King of Clubs’ isn’t a huge favourite of mine, though the short story is enjoyable. On to the final episode of Series 1 – ‘The Dream’ – which is a very different kettle of fish.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Poirot Project: The Incredible Theft (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 ‘Problem at Sea’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The eighth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 26th February 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in 1937. That story was, in turn, a revision and expansion of ‘The Submarine Plans’, which was first published in The Sketch in November 1923. ‘The Submarine Plans’ isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it’s in Poirot’s Early Cases (Collins, 1974) and, since I don’t own a copy of that collection – and I hadn’t previously read the 1923 story – I’d like to say a big thanks to Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn for lending me a copy so I could compare the texts. It’s always nice when your friends understand your obsessive completism.

Like all of the ‘original’ run of Poirot stories that appeared in The Sketch, ‘The Submarine Plans’ is narrated by Hastings. It begins rather abruptly – ‘A note had arrived by special messenger’ – with Poirot being summoned to Sharples, the country house of Ralph Curtis, Lord Alloway. Alloway is the head of the ‘newly formed Ministry of Defence’, and is responsible for the ‘new Z type submarine’, the plans for which appear to have been stolen from Sharples. Poirot has been called in as police involvement would risk a scandal, and because Alloway remembers ‘only too well what you did for us during the war, when the Prime Minister was kidnapped in that astounding fashion’.

A collection of guests at Sharples make up the cast of suspects. Admiral Sir Harry Weardale, his wife and son (Leonard) are among them, as is Mrs Conrad (‘a lady well known in London society’). Alloway’s secretary, Mr Fitzroy, appears to have been the last person to see the plans, and Mrs Conrad’s French maid caused a disturbance shortly before the theft which, she claimed, was the result of her seeing a ghost on the stairs. Poirot cuts through all this nonsense to reveal a bait-and-switch plot designed to trap (or, as it turns out, trick) Mrs Conrad, who has dubious connections to foreign powers. Despite having set up the whole affair, Lord Alloway is revealed to be a patriotic hero, who goes on to become Prime Minister.

I’m afraid to say, ‘The Submarine Plans’ is not a particularly memorable short story. For me, the only notable feature is the excellent bit of snark at the end of Hastings’s narration. After Poirot sums up his findings with his characteristic arrogance – he announces to his companion that he ‘spoke to Alloway as one great man to another – and he understood perfectly’ – Hastings accuses his illustrious friend of simply guessing at the explanation. A short epilogue follows, in which it is revealed that the Z type submarine was a huge success and Lord Alloway acknowledged his gratitude to Poirot after becoming Prime Minister, and Hastings again asserts his scepticism about Poirot’s deductive powers: ‘But I still consider that Poirot was guessing. He will do it once too often one of these days.’

‘The Incredible Theft’ is a fairly straightforward expansion of the 1923 story, with little additional plot added (though, as in Christie’s ‘Murder in the Mews’, Hastings has now been removed). The character names are changed: Lord Alloway becomes Sir Charles McLaughlin, Lord Mayfield; Harry Weardale becomes Air Marshal Sir George Carrington, his wife is now named (Julia) and his son is called Reggie rather than Leonard; Mr Fitzroy becomes Mr Carlile. Mrs Conrad is now an American woman named Mrs Vanderlyn, and more emphasis is placed on the woman’s dubious connections, and an additional guest – Mrs Macatta MP, ‘a great authority on Housing and Infant Welfare’ – is included.

Perhaps as a result of the different context of the stories, Christie also makes further changes to the details of the plot. The original story was written five years after the end of WWI, and the military implications of the submarine and Alloway’s career are barely mentioned. ‘The Incredible Theft’ was published two years before the outbreak of WWII (and just months before the Sudetan Crisis), and so the implications of the stolen plans seem more serious. In ‘The Incredible Theft’, Mayfield has been created ‘first Minister of Armaments, a new ministry which had only just come into being’, and the plans are for a bomber, rather than a submarine. As such, Carrington is Air Marshal Sir George Carrington, head of the Air Force (his counterpart, Weardale, was an admiral in the Navy).

Hints of impending conflict pepper the later story, though these are kept rather vague. In discussing the bomber, Carrington notes that Britain has fallen behind other nations in engineering a new plane:
‘Lots of gunpowder everywhere all over Europe. And we weren’t ready, damn it!’
Mayfield counters this by saying:
‘A lot of the European stuff is out of date already – and they’re perilously near bankruptcy.’
Note that Christie sticks to the generic ‘European’, and offers no specifics about which countries might be ‘near bankruptcy’. This vagueness continues in the comments about Mrs Vanderlyn’s suspicious connections. The men talk of her association with foreign nations, but give no actual details: ‘We will just say to a European power – and perhaps to more than one European power.’ Even the past scandal in Lord Mayfield’s career isn’t specified:
‘You were suspected of friendship with a European Power at that time bitterly unpopular with the electorate of this country.’
Nevertheless, the story ends with a less subtle nod towards contemporaneous events. Like Lord Alloway before him, Lord Mayfield is tipped to become the next Prime Minister. But, unlike the earlier character’s dignified discretion, Mayfield concludes his business with Poirot with more self-assertion:
‘You are much too clever, M. Poirot. I will only ask you to believe one thing. I have faith in myself. I believe that I am the man to guide England through the days of crisis that I see coming. If I did not honestly believe that I am needed by my country to steer the ship of state, I would not have done what I have done – made the best of both worlds – saved myself from disaster by a clever trick.’
Modern readers can see, of course, just how prescient Mayfield’s ‘days of crisis’ speech really was.

The TV adaptation was directed by Edward Bennett, and dramatized by David Reid and Clive Exton. Again, as with ‘Murder in the Mews’, Hastings is returned to the story, along with Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon (neither of whom appeared in either version of the short story).

Miss Lemon has little to do in this episode, sadly – aside from bearing the brunt of some full-on Poirot sarcasm when she refuses to take an anonymous call: ‘Life first, Miss Lemon. Filing second.’ Hastings is also at a bit of a loose end. His presence in ‘The Submarine Plans’ was as the (admittedly somewhat cynical) narrator, and so there’s not much space for him in ‘The Incredible Theft’. This is literally true, as Hastings isn’t able to stay at Mayfield’s house with Poirot. He has to stay in an overcrowded pub in the village instead and, as the pub’s rooms are all booked, this results in his sharing a room (and a bed!) with Inspector Japp. This does lead to one of the funniest bits of the episode, as Hastings glumly explains to Poirot that Japp talks in his sleep. Apparently Hastings has been kept awake all night by shouts of ‘Now I’ve got you, young sonny me lad’, ‘Japp of the Yard strikes again!’, and (my favourite) ‘Stand back, lads, he’s got a blancmange!’

While Hastings and Miss Lemon get through the episode by just sort of being Hastings and Miss Lemon, the presence of Inspector Japp is a bit more of a problem. As I said, in both versions of the short story, Poirot is called in precisely to avoid any police involvement. In order to be able to include Japp, some aspects of the plot have had to be revised.

In this version of the story, then, Lord Mayfield becomes Tommy Mayfield (played by John Stride), an engineer who is struggling to rebuild his relationship with the British government after a scandal (‘that Japanese business’). As such, he isn’t being completely trusted with his plans for a new aircraft. Sir George Carrington (John Carson) is in attendance as a representative of the government, and he has called on Japp to be stationed nearby (without informing Mayfield of this) in case something happens to the secret documents. Carrington is staying at Mayfield’s home with his wife (played by Phyllida Law, in her first of two appearances in the series) and son Reggie (Guy Scantlebury), who appear as exaggerated versions of their literary counterparts (though, unlike in the short stories, poor Reggie doesn’t get his snog with a French maid in the TV episode).

Although the literary Lord Mayfield was unmarried, Tommy Mayfield has a wife who is becoming increasingly concerned about her husband’s involvement with Mrs Vanderlyn. It is Mrs Mayfield (Ciaran Madden) who contacts Poirot – before the theft of the plans – and requests that he visits them at their home. This additional plot element does result in a lovely little sequence shot on location at London Zoo (perhaps one of the most iconic locations used in the first series). Mrs Mayfield – posing, initially, as Miss Smith (Miss Lemon’s anonymous caller) – meets Poirot by the zoo’s famous Penguin Pool. Now a Grade I listed building (and no longer inhabited by penguins), this structure was designed by Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton Architectural Group and opened in 1934. I’m a bit torn by its use here: on the one hand, there seems absolutely no reason for Mrs Mayfield to insist on an incognito meeting at London Zoo; on the other, the Penguin Pool is an absolutely perfect addition to the show’s early aesthetic.

Sleeptalking Japp and Penguin Pool aside, the TV episode turns out to unfortunately be as lacklustre as its source. Mrs Macatta MP and the French maid are dropped – which is a shame, as I liked the little ‘after all, what is a kiss?’ exchange between Poirot and the maid, which appears in both versions of the short story – in favour of more emphasis on the impending war in Europe. As I said in my review of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Agatha Christie’s Poirot sets almost all its episodes in the years just prior to WWII, and this episode draws attention to this context directly throughout. Characters engage in discussions about the military situation in Europe – specifically the role of the League of Nations and the possibility of using ‘radio echoes’ to track aircraft – and Mrs Mayfield states that her husband believes Britain is ‘on the brink of war’. In this version, there is no prevarication as to the enemy either. Mayfield jovially proclaims that Hitler and Mussolini need to be ‘taken down a peg or two’, and the newly designed aeroplane (named the ‘Mayfield Kestrel’) is compared favourably to the Messerschmitt.

Most striking of all is the alteration to Mrs Vanderlyn’s character. The TV Mrs Vanderlyn (played by Carmen Du Sautoy) is far removed from Mrs Conrad of ‘The Submarine Plans’ – though her role in the narrative remains the same.

In the 1937 short story, Mrs Vanderlyn is unobtrusively American: ‘Her voice held a soupçon of American accent, just enough to be pleasant without undue exaggeration.’ By contrast, the TV character is all about ‘undue exaggeration’. Her Americanness is stated repeatedly, and she comments on the Britishness of her surroundings several times. Moreover, her dubious associations are now explicitly ‘pro-German sympathies’. In case this hasn’t been made obvious enough, Mrs Vanderlyn hot-foots it to the German ambassador’s house as soon as she has the (phony) plans in her possession (chased – of course – by Poirot and Hastings in a stolen police car). And as a final cherry on the cake, she performs a Nazi salute on her arrival. A far cry from the nebulous threat of Mrs Conrad in the 1923 short story.

All in all, the TV episode is a solid, but not particularly exciting, adaptation of a solid, but not particularly exciting, short story. If I had to choose, I’d say that ‘The Submarine Plans’ is my favourite of the three versions, if only because of Hastings’s narration.

We watched this episode as part of a little set of Series 1 episodes: ‘Problem at Sea’, ‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The King of Clubs’ and ‘The Dream’. Watching/reading these stories back-to-back highlights a couple of recurrent motifs that will pop up at various point of the series as a whole.

Firstly, a game of bridge is featured, and this game is used to illuminate character. As I mentioned in my review, bridge features prominently in ‘Problem at Sea’ – and it will also be of importance in the next episode, ‘The King of Clubs’, and in later episodes as well. Bridge is a clear marker of class, and immediately evokes the world in which Poirot and Hastings circulate. It’s also an apt metaphor for the work of the golden age detective, I suppose.

An even more potent metaphor is that of the conjuror. Conjuring crops up in ‘Problem at Sea’, though the conjuring trick itself is a piece of misdirection. Although stage magic isn’t mentioned in the TV version of ‘The Incredible Theft’, there’s a nice little comment in the 1937 short story. When Lord Mayfield suggests calling in Hercule Poirot, Carrington is sceptical: ‘[he’ll] come down here and produce the plans like a conjuror taking rabbits out of his hat, I suppose?’ This isn’t the first time Poirot has been likened to a magician – and it won’t be the last.

As a fan of both golden age detective fiction and conjuring, I’m always happy when stories draw attention to the close relationship between the two. (I love Clayton Rawson’s Great Merlini stories for this, and some episodes of Jonathan Creek.) With his debonair dramatics and theatrical flair (as well as his taste for misdirection and production), Poirot is the classic conjuror-detective, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of this as the series goes on.

But it’s time to move on now… the next episode is ‘The King of Clubs’

Poirot Project: Problem at Sea (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 ‘Triangle at Rhodes’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th February 1989. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in This Week in January 1936. The story was first published in the UK in The Strand in February 1936, under the title ‘Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66’.

Thanks to Liam Adler for providing this image.

The short story is set during a cruise around Egypt, and begins with Miss Ellie Henderson in conversation with General Forbes. As Miss Henderson gently probes the general for information about a fellow guest – Colonel Clapperton – we become aware that another traveller is present: Hercule Poirot. So, once again, we find Poirot enjoying a bit of female company on his holidays – this theme is going to come up several more times, by the way.

Ellie’s interest in Colonel Clapperton has been inspired by his seemingly mismatched marriage. The colonel is a pleasant, quietly spoken man; his wife is a domineering woman, disliked by all the other occupants of the boat. General Forbes is the only person who voices any criticism of the poor browbeaten husband – but this is presented as old-fashioned snobbishness. The general is disdainful of the fact that Clapperton was once a music hall performer; he believes the man is socially beneath his wife (the former Lady Carrington). Nevertheless, the general’s blustery haughtiness is the only voice of dissent – Colonel Clapperton is liked (even loved) by everyone else.

When the boat arrives at Alexandria, two cheeky young women (Kitty Mooney and Pamela Cregan) attempt to lure Colonel Clapperton off the boat for a day of fun. In front of a small audience, the henpecked Clapperton asks his wife’s permission and is angrily dismissed through a locked door. However, he quickly gets over his embarrassment and joins his female friends for the trip.

Clapperton returns from the trip and discovers… shock! horror!… his obnoxious wife has been murdered! The only clue is a string of beads found on the floor of Mrs Clapperton’s cabin, implicating a local vendor. Poirot, of course, isn’t fooled.

I love this short story. In fact, I love it so much that I sort of ‘borrowed’ the solution for a murder mystery game I wrote for Hic Dragones. This means that I know from experience how hard a trick it is to pull off. One whiff of ventriloquism and the whole things falls to pieces. I handled this by slipping in a reference to a ‘vent act’ when no one was paying attention; Christie did it by never actually saying what Clapperton did on stage, allowing the other characters (and the readers) to jump to the wrong conclusion. The ‘wrong conclusion’ here is that Clapperton was a conjuror – an error that Clapperton perpetuates by performing card tricks. Even Poirot is briefly fooled, noting that the ‘conjuror had shown himself through the mask of the pukka sahib’. (I’m going to come back to the idea of the conjuror in another blog post.)

Another reason why I like ‘Problem at Sea’ is the character of Ellie Henderson. According to the Wikipedia page for the series (hmmm…), the TV programme often made changes to ‘present female characters in a more sympathetic or heroic light, at odds with Christie’s characteristic gender neutrality’. Though this might be true for some major characters in the later feature-length episodes, it obscures some of the fascinating minor characters in the short stories, who are often written with subtle depth and sympathy. Ellie Henderson is one such character – a beautifully tragic woman, whose initial good humour belies an aching loneliness. The most poignant example of this is when Clapperton leaves the boat with Kitty and Pam. Miss Henderson watches the three disembark, and is asked by Poirot whether she will also be going ashore. The detective notes that Miss Henderson is wearing a sun hat and smart clothes, but she quietly insists that she was planning to stay on board. Poirot, naturally, is too much of a gentleman to question this.

The TV adaptation was written by Clive Exton and directed by Renny Rye. As with most of Exton’s other scripts, it stays close to its source material, and so given how much I love the short story the episode is one of my favourites (one of my many favourites). If I had to say what stuck with me the most after I first watched it (and remember, I was only ten at the time), it would undoubtedly be the bonkers denouement – and more on that shortly.

As with most of the episodes in the first series, the biggest change comes with the insertion of characters who weren’t in the original story. Hastings is now accompanying Poirot on his cruise, and is strangely wrapped up in organizing a clay pigeon tournament. While this little subplot is rather silly, it does nothing to distract from or alter the main mystery. It’s a classic ‘give Hastings something to do’ plot, of which there are several in the early series. The TV adaptation also adds a few other passengers to the cruise: the Morgan sisters and their young niece (played by Dorothea Phillips, Sheri Shepstone and Louisa Janes), and the Tollivers (played by Geoffrey Beevers and Caroline John).

Additionally, there are a few changes to characterization, though, again, this doesn’t deviate too dramatically from the source story. Colonel Clapperton (John Normington) is a little less reserved than his literary counterpart. In Christie’s story, Clapperton is a ‘distinguished grey-haired’ gentleman who is difficult to reconcile with ‘with a red-nosed comedian singing mirth-provoking songs’. In the TV episode, it is much easier to imagine Clapperton on the stage, even before his mask ostensibly slips during the card trick.

Mrs Clapperton (played by Sheila Allen) is also slightly different. In the short story, Christie describes the woman thus:
‘Mrs Clapperton, her carefully waved platinum head protected with a net, her massaged and dieted form dressed in a smart sports suit, came through the door from the bar with the purposeful air of a woman who has always been able to pay top price for anything she needed.’
This is followed up with a wonderfully cutting statement:
‘From the distance she had looked a possible twenty-eight. Now, in spite of her exquisitely made-up face, her delicately plucked eyebrows, she looked not her actual forty-nine years, but a possible fifty-five.’
Despite this, I must admit to feeling a bit of sympathy for Christie’s Adeline Clapperton. Colonel Clapperton is a bit of an arse, to be honest. He spends half the cruise openly flirting with two girls young enough to be his daughters, and the rest batting his eyelids at Miss Henderson. He refuses to play bridge with his wife, meaning that, unless there’s a single person present, she’ll be unable to play. I’ve always felt that Clapperton seems to be deliberately trying to humiliate his wife (before bumping her off). So I’m just going to say it: Mrs Clapperton has funded her husband’s entire lifestyle since he came out of the army and – do you know what? – she’s absolutely right to point out that the car she paid for isn’t actually his car.

Perhaps because of this, the TV episode exaggerates Mrs Clapperton’s ‘odious’ nature, making it easier for viewers to sympathize with her husband (though not me, I’m afraid). Adeline’s appearance is no longer deceptive – she is clearly a woman in her late forties/early fifties – but her vanity is retained (even heightened). We first see her gazing into a mirror, plucking her eyebrows (in a nod to the description in Christie’s story). As she plucks and preens, she sings ‘Stay as Sweet as You Are’ (by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon), which is not only an awfully vain song to sing to oneself, but also an incongruously modern song (it was first performed in 1934) for an older woman to croon. (Now, I’m not going to go on about this too much, but I can’t help but feel that Adeline’s desperate attempts at ‘youth’ here could maybe, just maybe, have something to do with the fact that her husband makes no secret of his infatuation with two eighteen-year-olds. ‘Stay as Sweet as You Are’ is a song usually sung by a man to a woman – Adeline singing it to herself is rather sad.)

Interestingly, although Exton’s Mrs Clapperton is more dramatically ‘odious’, this is tempered by a slight expansion of General Forbes’s character (played by Roger Hume). As in the short story, it is the general who questions Clapperton’s military record and reveals his music hall past. However, in the adaptation, Forbes is more clearly fond of Mrs Clapperton (who he calls ‘Adeline’), and there are definite hints of unrequited affection here.

But, as in the short story, any glimpses of Adeline’s softer side are overshadowed by the presentation of Miss Henderson – Colonel Clapperton’s other victim. Played by Ann Firbank, the TV Miss Henderson captures the dignified sadness of Christie’s character perfectly. In a slight change to the story, Miss Henderson (in her sun hat and smart clothes) does go ashore at Alexandria; however, when she runs into Poirot, she says that she thought she would be part of Colonel Clapperton’s party (i.e. the arse has stood her up). Poirot, with careful tact, prevaricates on the subject, before admitting that Clapperton came ashore with ‘the two little girls’. Miss Henderson sighs and says, ‘They’re not children, Monsieur Poirot.’ And then adds, ‘Nor am I.’

Oh! Miss Henderson – I love you.

Of course, during all this, Hastings hasn’t had much to do. The clay pigeon storyline has been flogged to death – and it’s never really clear (either to the viewers or, indeed, to Poirot) why Hastings is taking it so seriously. Time for a change of pace… Cut to: Hastings posing for a photo on a wooden camel.

As I said above, when I first watched this episode it was the denouement that really stuck in my mind. And it is an absolute cracker. Unlike many of the other early episodes, there’s no chase scene, but there is a truly grand gather-the-suspects reveal, which allows David Suchet to revel in Poirot’s taste for the dramatic. The thing is though… for once, the TV denouement is actually less crazy than that of the short story.

In the adaptation, the passengers are enjoying a bit of post-prandial, post-homicidal entertainment. Mr Russell (the old man known only by the disrespectful nickname ‘the Grandfather of All the Tea Planters’ in the short story, here played by James Ottaway) is reciting a bit of Kipling, when he is interrupted by the ship’s captain (Ben Aris). Poirot is to have centre-stage, and he arrives dramatically carrying a suitcase under a cloth. He whips the cloth away, revealing a suitcase. After working his audience for a short time, he opens the suitcase and produces a doll. This doll, he says (with pure showmanship), can speak – but only if no one is looking. He places her back inside the suitcase, and an eerie voice begins to recite the words Mrs Clapperton ostensibly spoke through her bedroom door on the morning of the murder. The ventriloquism is revealed, and all eyes are on Colonel Clapperton.

Now, much as this might seem like an embellishment written for the TV episode (along the lines of the theatrical capture of George Lorrimer in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’), it’s actually taken from Christie’s short story. However, Christie’s version is – believe it or not – even stranger. In the source text, the passengers find handwritten notes by their dinner plates, instructing them to go to the lounge at 8.30. There, the captain stands on the orchestra stage and announces Poirot as though he were the evening’s star turn. The little Belgian detective arrives with a bulky object covered with a sheet – he removes the sheet to reveal ‘an almost life-sized wooden doll, dressed in a velvet suit and lace collar’. Poirot then performs what appears to be a ventriloquist act (though the doll’s voice is actually provided by a stewardess concealed behind the stage) and implicates Clapperton.

Erm… where did Poirot get this almost life-sized wooden doll? In the TV adaptation, his prop is clearly explained: we see Poirot approaching the Misses Morgan’s niece, who we have previously seen playing with dolls, and requesting ‘a favour’. But at no point in Christie’s story do we see anyone playing with a large wooden mannequin – meaning Poirot fortuitously discovered that there was an almost life-sized doll just kicking around on the boat waiting to be put into action. Or he went out and bought a ventriloquist’s dummy (from one of the many ventriloquism emporia at Alexandria harbour, no doubt) for the sole purpose of giving a murderer a heart attack.

That’s right, did I forget to mention? Poirot’s little show gives Colonel Clapperton a fatal heart attack. And Poirot did this intentionally. As he explains to Miss Henderson, he’d found a prescription for digitalin in the Clappertons’ cabin, and he deduced it belonged to the colonel. Unlike in the TV version, where Poirot’s performance is intended to provoke a confession, in the short story the detective is trying to literally scare the man to death. Come on, Poirot, I know he was an arse, but isn’t that a bit too far?*

And as if this wasn’t enough weirdness, let’s not forget that Poirot puts on a special voice to do his little show. I don’t mean the dummy’s voice (that’s done by the hidden stewardess), but rather Poirot’s own voice changes when he talks to the doll: ‘it was no longer foreign – it had instead a confident English, a slightly Cockney inflection’. WTF? Why does he do that?? (As with the bizarre disguised-as-an-Irishman subplot in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, I can sort of see why Exton chose to drop this bit from his adaptation. It just raises too many questions.)

But there’s one final little flourish in Poirot’s Cockney ventriloquism routine that is absolutely golden. When he presents his ‘witness’ to the crime, he gives the doll a name. The dummy, apparently, is named ‘Arthur’. As in, Arthur Hastings (who doesn’t actually appear in the short story). I’ve mentioned my love of Hastings’s snark in reviews of previous episodes, but it’s just lovely to see Poirot take a light-hearted swipe at his companion here. It’s this sort of thing that really differentiates Poirot and Hastings from Holmes and Watson.

Okay, I’ve gone on too long about this episode now – and there are lots more to go before I get to Curtain. It’s just that this really is a fantastic adaptation of a great short story, and I love talking about it. Two final little gems before I finish…

Although we’ve had a glimpse of Poirot’s moustache-care kit, this is the first episode in which we get to see a really classy Poirot travel accessory. In this case, it’s his walking stick telescope. Nice.

And, while the dialogue is pitch-perfect throughout, the story has one standout exchange between Poirot and Mrs Clapperton (retained verbatim from the short story):
‘“‘You’re so alive, Adeline,’ they say to me. But really, Monsieur Poirot, what would one be if one wasn’t alive?”
“Dead,” said Poirot.’
Can’t argue with that. Next up: ‘The Incredible Theft’

*Actually, Poirot’s causing Colonel Clapperton’s heart attack isn’t quite as sinister as it might sound. Most of the Poirot stories were written before the abolition of the death penalty in the UK, and Christie’s detective frequently offers murderers a way to ‘avoid the rope’ – if he feels some sympathy towards them, that is. Moreover, Poirot is sometimes reluctant to let British killers face foreign courts (as we’ll see in Death on the Nile), which may have been the case had Clapperton lived. Nevertheless, ‘avoiding the rope’ is more commonly achieved by a discreet dose of poison or the concealing of a gun – this is the only story in which it’s effected through a ventriloquism-induced heart attack.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Call for Submissions: Nothing (anthology)

Bleak landscapes, empty hearts, insignificant lives, dystopian futures, extinction, limbo, uncertainty, death. A beautiful void or a horrific state of being. The simple complexity of nothingness.

Submissions wanted for a new anthology of short stories based on the theme of nothing.

What we want: Edgy, dark and weird fiction. Any interpretation of the theme is welcome – and we have no preconceptions about what ‘nothing’ might mean. Any genre considered: dark fantasy, urban fantasy, Gothic, horror, sci fi, steampunk, cyberpunk, biopunk, dystopian, slipstream. We’re looking for original and fresh voices that challenge and unsettle. (And, please remember, we do not publish misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia or racism.)

Editor: Hannah Kate

Publisher: Hic Dragones

Word Count: 3000-7000

Submission Guidelines: Electronic submissions as .doc, .docx or .rtf attachments only. 12pt font, 1.5 or double spaced. Please ensure name, story title and email address are included on the attachment. Email submissions to Hic Dragones. Submissions are welcome from anywhere, but must be in English.

Submission Deadline: Monday 5th September 2016

Payment: Contributor copy (1 copy of paperback plus eBook in ePub and/or mobi format); permanent 25% discount on paperback (resale permitted); 1 free eBook from our catalogue.

For more information: email or visit the Hic Dragones website

Monday, 29 February 2016

Poirot Project: Triangle at Rhodes (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 Third Floor Flat’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Two phrases always spring to mind when I think of this episode: ‘unnecessary snake’ and ‘awesome drink’. To explain the first, I have a very visceral, physical phobia of snakes – even thinking about them makes me feel a bit nauseous and weak at the knees – and am slightly annoyed by the fact that TV shows and films aren’t required to warn you about snake appearances. I put this phobia down to the fact that, when I was eight, we moved to an area near a nature reserve that had adders, and so suddenly I was confronted by (what seemed like) terrifying signs everywhere warning me about the forest of snakes that lay on the other side of our garden fence. I haven’t been able to look at snakes since. Fortunately, I’ve seen this episode enough times now to know exactly when to look away from the screen, and simply listen to Poirot deliver a portentous comment on human nature, inspired by the discovery of a viper. And more on the awesome drink shortly…

‘Triangle at Rhodes’ was first broadcast on 12th February 1989; it was directed by Renny Rye and written by Stephen Wakelam. As with ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, Clive Exton acted as script consultant – there’s a great blog post about Exton’s contribution to the Poirot series here, by the way. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in This Week in February 1936. It also appeared in The Strand, published as ‘Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes’ in May 1936. In the story, Poirot has taken a holiday to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of Rhodes. And just to note, in the story and adaptation, Rhodes is still part of the Isole Italiane dell’Egeo (so, an Italian island rather than a Greek one): there’s a little joke about this in the episode, when Douglas Gold (played by Peter Settelen) proclaims that he hadn’t known where Rhodes was before they arrived, noting that it ‘turns out it’s Itai’. Back to the short story though, befriended by the bubbly Pamela Lyall and Sarah Blake, Poirot engages in a gentle bit of people-watching, observing the ostentatious Valentine Chantry and the mousy Marjorie Gold (and the women’s respective husbands). He quickly recognizes the pattern that he sees in his fellow holiday-makers’ interactions, sketching the shape of a triangle into the sand.

Despite giving a stern warning to Marjorie Gold – ‘Leave this place at once – before it is too late’ – Poirot is unable to prevent the inevitable tragedy from occurring. Valentine Chantry is murdered, just as (it transpires) Poirot had feared. In a quirky deviation from the usual formula, Poirot has already noted all the significant clues prior to the murder taking place, so the ‘reveal’ comes quite quickly after Valentine’s demise. He is asked by a shocked Pamela why he did nothing to stop events transpiring, and makes a typically Hercule pronouncement:
‘And say what? What is there to say – before the event? That someone has murder in their heart? I tell you, mon enfant, if one human being is determined to kill another human being –’
In a lot of ways, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has much in common with Evil Under the Sun (first published in 1941), and some people have seen the later novel as an expansion of the short story. There are certainly a couple of recycled features (as well as a plot point that had previously been used in Lord Edgware Dies), but personally I prefer to think of the two as discrete texts. Perhaps this is because I really like both of them, and because the characters in both are rather distinctive.

On to the adaptation (because it’s starting to look unlikely that I’m going to get to Curtain by Christmas unless I get a wriggle on)… the episode begins with an overcast shot of Whitehaven Mansions. A postman arrives with mail for 56B (the address used for Poirot’s flat in the TV series – I’ll return to the question of Poirot’s address in a later post), concierge Dicker (portrayed by George Little, in his second appearance in the role) tells him not to bother: ‘they’re all on holiday’. Thus, we’re set up for the first episode that doesn’t feature Japp, Hastings or Miss Lemon, and also the first episode to take place overseas. While Hastings has ‘gone off shooting things’ and Miss Lemon is visiting her sister in Folkestone, we follow Poirot to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of the Mediterranean.

As with the previous episode, the central mystery follows the short story quite closely. The means, motive and perpetrator of the murder are almost identical to those in the source text – though the nature of the poison used is different, which leads to some additional post-murder investigation that is not found in the short story. A number of other changes have been made; some of these are rather superficial, but some are more substantial.

The characters of Pamela and Sarah are conflated into one, Pamela Lyall (played by Frances Low). The TV version of Pamela latches on to Poirot when he rescues her from the over-attentive Major Barnes (Timothy Kightley). Poirot appears here as a sort of avuncular figure, a role he’ll reprise again in other stories, and it’s in-keeping with the show’s repeated suggestion that Poirot is very comfortable in the company of women. In the short story, Poirot seems somewhat less avuncular and even more comfortable in the women’s company. The story gives no indication of how or why Pamela and Sarah have befriended the detective, but simply opens with a ‘dandified’ Poirot (in ‘white flannels and a large panama hat’) happily sitting on the beach with a young woman who is ‘wearing the barest minimum of clothing on her sun-browned person’. He’s a bit of player, is Poirot.

In fact, one thing I did notice on rereading the short story is that the TV episode is far coyer about the opening/early sunbathing scene. In Christie’s text, Pamela is scantily dressed and Valentine has ‘slip[ped] the straps of the white bathing-dress from her shoulders’ in order to tan more completely. In the adaptation, Pamela (presented as a borderline spinster, rather than a flirtatious young girl) is more modestly dressed and Valentine’s straps stay resolutely in place. Given that a number of the later episodes introduce sex scenes that aren’t present in Christie’s books, this coyness in an early episode is quite charming.

As I say, other alterations are a bit more substantial. Christie’s General Barnes, ‘a veteran’ who serves as little more than an additional guest with whom Poirot passes a little time, becomes Major Barnes, a suspiciously overfamiliar man who claims to be in Rhodes for the fishing. I’m not a huge fan of the Major Barnes subplot in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ – it feels too much like padding and doesn’t really add anything apart from a red herring and a silly maritime chase scene. There is also a deviation involving Poirot’s abortive attempt to leave the island. As his holiday has come to an end, Poirot tries to board a boat at the harbour; however, he is detained by customs officials and accused of being a spy.

While the Major Barnes subplot is a bit pointless, the customs incident does serve some purpose other than padding, and it needs a little explaining. Chronology in Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories is a tricky thing, and it doesn’t always run smoothly. The stories and novels have shifting settings, with contemporary mores and references often making it hard to pinpoint the timeline of Poirot’s life (and making the detective, who had already had a full and successful police career in Belgium by the outbreak of World War I, very very old by the time of his death). Moreover, mores and styles shift with time, and this is reflected through the course of the books, making the decades that divide ‘The Third Floor Flat’ from Third Girl (for instance) very apparent. The makers of the TV show, therefore, had a difficult decision to make about chronology and setting. Do they adapt the stories in the order they were written? Or in a reflection of the stages of Poirot’s career? And should the timeline follow a logical aging of Poirot starting at his arrival in England during WWI? Or set each book at the time of writing, making Poirot’s implausible longevity more obvious?

The programme makers decided to take a different approach, which results in a rather trippy experience of time in the series. With the exception of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set during WWI), ‘The Chocolate Box’ (set, partially, in flashback to Poirot’s career in Belgium) and Curtain (to be set in the 1940s), the producers set out with the intention of setting all episodes in 1935-36 (or thereabouts). This doesn’t hold strictly true, and some of the later feature-length episodes deviate a little from this, but the majority of episodes are indeed set at some point between about 1935 and 1939. Some fans have found this to be rather frustrating, and at least one person has gone to some lengths to divine a more detailed chronology for the cases featured in the series. I’m happier to simply accept that – like Heartbeat – this is a show pretty much permanently set in one particular year, with a coherent aesthetic inspired by this setting.

This perma-35 setting has a significant result. The world of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is always on the brink of World War II, but never quite there. Fascism is always on the rise; international relations are always unstable; political beliefs and allegiances are always under suspicion. There will be other episodes that deal more directly with the threat of Nazism, invasion and trauma, but ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ gives us our first taste of this recurrent theme. Rhodes is peppered with Italian blackshirts; Major Barnes gives a stark warning about the world being ‘on the brink of war’; and Poirot’s apprehension at customs has sinister overtones. All this serves to heighten Poirot’s role as an embodiment of (perhaps futile) order in a world about to descend into chaos.

There’s probably a lot more I could say about ‘Triangle at Rhodes’. It’s always been an episode that’s fascinated me, but I don’t want to risk turning this review into a full-blown essay. So I’ll end with a comment on that ‘awesome drink’.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was only ten when this first series aired, so my memories of watching individual episodes for the first time are a little patchy. What seems to have happened is that certain details stuck in my mind, even if the plot and solution faded away. Like the ‘white slavers’ in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and the bowl of cherries song in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, the means used to deliver the poison in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ lodged itself firmly in my young mind.

In both the TV episode and the original short story, Valentine Chantry is killed by a poisoned pink gin. As a child, I was intrigued by this drink, which Valentine (played by Annie Lambert) repeatedly demands throughout the episode, and it seemed to fit with the glamourous 1930s Mediterranean setting. Then, when I was an older teenager, the drink took on an added layer of allure, as I realized that I’d never heard a reference to pink gin in anything other than Poirot. It wasn’t a drink that you could get in the pub; it wasn’t something that my friends or family drank. Pink gin started to take on something of a mythical quality for me, and I was sure that I would one day discover the secret. (This was in the 1990s, by the way, so I couldn’t just Google it.) Finally, when I was about twenty, I worked in a pub that had an old cocktail book gathering dust under the bar, and I finally discovered the elusive ingredients of a pink gin: it’s just Plymouth gin with a dash of Angostura bitters. While this discovery might sound a bit anti-climactic, I was delighted. I immediately embarked on a night of celebration with my new-found tipple.

Probably best to gloss over the details of that night, but suffice to say, come the next morning, I did not look as glamourous as Valentine Chantry.

To bring this review to a close, then, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has its problems as an adaptation, but it’s always been an episode that’s close to my heart. For me, it was one of the more memorable episodes of the first series, and it introduces Poirot as the international traveller with an eye for the wickedness in human nature. It’s also the first episode of the series to rely on a really really important ‘rule’ of Agatha Christie’s fiction… but I’m not sure I want to say what that is, as once you know the rule an awful lot of detective fiction is spoilt (so let’s just call it the Peril at End House rule).

Time to move on, though. Next up, it’s ‘Problem at Sea’.

Poirot Project: The Third Floor Flat (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th February 1989. It was directed by Edward Bennett and written by Michael Baker. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in Hutchinson’s Story Magazine in 1929.

Christie’s short story opens with a group of fashionable young things returning to Friars Mansions from a night out, only to discover their hostess, Patricia Garnett, has lost her latchkey. The two men of the party decide to use the service lift to get into Pat’s kitchen (she lives in a flat on the fourth floor of the apartment block), but they miscount the floors and stumble into a third floor flat instead. And something in that third floor flat isn’t right…

Poirot enters the story in a rather odd way, which serves to raise more questions than it answers. When Pat’s friends, Donovan and Jimmy, return to the third floor flat and discover the body of its resident (Mrs Ernestine Grant), they realize they have to call the police; as they discuss this, a man appears behind them:
‘They stood staring at the little man with a very fierce moustache and an egg-shaped head. He wore a resplendent dressing-gown and embroidered slippers. He bowed gallantly to Patricia.’
This is, of course, our Belgian detective – but his next statement is, to say the least, a little baffling:
‘I am, as perhaps you know, the tenant of the flat above. I like to be up high – in the air – the view over London. I take the flat in the name of Mr O’Connor. But I am not an Irishman. I have another name.’
Why has Poirot been living in this apartment block under the name of Mr O’Connor? Why has he been pretending to be an Irishman? We never find out – but the image is rather charming. Having revealed his true identity, he proceeds to investigate the scene of the crime, partake of an omelette cooked by Pat, put together the clues he discovers, and reveal the murderer of Mrs Grant.

It’s a neat story, with a nice little piece of misdirection at its heart. And the TV episode is a fairly close adaptation, which retains much more subtlety to its clueing than some of the previous episodes.

The TV version moves the location to Whitehaven Mansions (Poirot’s home), thus removing the bizarre Friars Mansions/O’Connor subplot, and adds the usual ‘family’ of Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon. In this version of the story, Poirot is suffering from a cold (something he merely pretends to in the short story), and Hastings takes him out to the theatre to cheer him up. The play that they go to see, The Deadly Shroud, is a murder mystery, and the two men make a £10 wager that Poirot can solve the mystery by the end of the first act. This is quite a charming touch – a bit more of the Poirot-and-Hastings bonding that is such a key feature of the early series – made even better by the fact that Poirot loses the bet (he believes the butler did it). When the men return from the theatre, they find Pat (Suzanne Burden) and Mildred (Amanda Elwes) locked out of their flat; Donovan (Nicholas Pritchard) and Jimmy (Robert Hines) soon arrive to announce their gruesome discovery.

As a little anecdotal note, I do remember watching and enjoying this episode when it was first broadcast (I was ten at the time). In particular, I remember being quite taken by the service lift the men use to get into the apartment – and, of course, I wasn’t the only person to fall in love with the Whitehaven Mansion sets used in the series – but also by the song Pat and Mildred sing on the stairs as they wait for Donovan and Jimmy. When I was older, I found out that this is quite a well-known song: ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown. The song was first performed by Ethel Merman in 1931, so its use here is a nice way of presenting Pat and Mildred as bright young modern things.

Unlike in the previous episode, the details of the mystery are unchanged in the adaptation. Some scenes that are described very briefly in the story are shown visually (and a little differently) in the episode. For instance, Pat mentions that she thinks Mrs Grant has requested a meeting with her because she wants to complain about the noise of Pat’s piano; in the TV episode, we see Pat and Mildred dancing to music from a gramophone, which appears to lead Mrs Grant (played by a rather underused Josie Lawrence) to post a note through her door. However, these little changes do nothing to alter the overall arc or the subtlety of the clues.

Much of the characterization also remains the same in the adaptation. One lovely detail is to be found when Pat cooks Poirot an omelette. In both the story and the episode, this leads Poirot to wistfully comment that, once, he fell in love with an English girl who was very like Pat – except that she couldn’t cook, so he knew it wasn’t meant to be. This is the first of several references to Poirot’s thwarted love life that add a slightly sad air to his character: unlike for Sherlock Holmes, it seems there was more than just ‘one woman’ for Hercule. (Alternatively, perhaps, he is making up the beautiful English girl who couldn’t cook in order to charm and flatter Pat. In which case, and this is a distinct possibility, Poirot is an incorrigible flirt!)

When I wrote about ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’, I mentioned the ‘car porn’ that is used in these early episodes – and this episode has plenty of shots of Hastings’s gleaming Lagonda. Unfortunately, the Lagonda gets caught up in the episode’s obligatory chase scene, leading to heartbreak for Hastings. While the climactic chases are usually faintly silly in these early episodes, I always find this one to be a bit different. Hastings’s response to the destruction of his beloved car is genuinely moving, and Poirot’s sympathetic response is very sweet.

There are a couple of other points to note about this episode. It is the first of four (well, technically five) episodes to feature George Little as minor recurring character Dicker, the concierge of Whitehaven Mansions. We also have a couple of good Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp moments that expand on their relationship with Poirot. For the former, this comes when Poirot is laid low with a cold, and she is tasked with ensuring (or takes it upon herself to ensure) that the Belgian sleuth is well-dosed with Friar’s Balsam. For the latter, it’s in a little scene where Poirot attempts to persuade the policeman to let him search the murder victim’s flat – Poirot does this entirely via facial expressions, and Japp’s resigned acceptance of this manipulation is endearing.

Ultimately, this is a very good episode. For me, it strikes the perfect balance of recreating the original story and sticking to the format of the early TV series. And, like quite a few episodes, it has a classic Japp line delivered perfectly by Philip Jackson. When he arrives to investigate the murder at Whitehaven Mansions, our long-suffering policeman shoots his friend a mischievous look: ‘You’ll be having murders in your back bedroom next, Poirot.’

Next episode: ‘Triangle at Rhodes’

Poirot Project: Four and Twenty Blackbirds (review)

This post is part of my 2016 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 Johnnie Waverly’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Episode 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 29th January 1989. It was dramatized by Russell Murray (with Clive Exton as script consultant) and directed by Renny Rye. The episode was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘Poirot and the Regular Customer’), which was first published in Collier’s Magazine in November 1940.

UPDATE: I have been reliably informed that 'Four and Twenty Blackbirds' was in fact first published in The Mystery Magazine in 1926, but didn't see its first UK publication until 1941 (in The Strand).

I don’t clearly remember watching this episode when it was first broadcast, though I’ve seen it a few times since. I do remember reading the short story for the first time though, and it remains one of my favourites. The adaptation is interesting, as it removes some of my favourite features of the short story (boo!) but adds some extra details that I really love (yay!).

Christie’s short story begins with Hercule Poirot having dinner with his friend Henry Bonnington at the Gallant Endeavour. While the two are enjoying their meal, the waitress tells them a curious story. She points out an old man who has been dining regularly at the restaurant for nearly ten years, and says that, like all ‘gentlemen’, he always orders the same thing. However, the week before, the old man had not only varied the day on which he came to the restaurant (he went on a Monday, as well as his usual Tuesday and Thursday), but he also ordered something quite different from the menu – thick tomato soup (despite never having ordered a thick soup before), steak and kidney pudding (despite hating suet pudding), and blackberry tart (despite hating blackberries). Poirot finds this occurrence fascinating, and his little grey cells begin to tingle.

This is what I love about ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’. It begins with this simple little curiosity and the reader, like Poirot, is invited to start thinking about explanations. Why would a man who has been so fixed in his eating habits for nearly a decade suddenly deviate so dramatically from habit? When I first read the story, I remember pausing at the section break after Poirot and Bonnington’s meal, running through possible scenarios that might explain the weird occurrence. And I’m quite proud of myself for actually working it out, too. Although this opening section of the story doesn’t give any information as to whodunit – in fact, at this point in the story, no one has actually ‘dun’ anything – I did work out the puzzle of the old man’s dining habits…

… but the fun of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ lies in its ‘double puzzle’ structure. Three weeks after their meal together, Poirot runs into Bonnington and learns that the old man hasn’t been to the Gallant Endeavour for over a week. Poirot is now completely hooked, and begins to investigate. He estimates the old man’s age and searches for reports of deaths that might match. With luck, the first death he finds (that of Henry Gascoigne) turns out to be the right one, and away he goes. But even if you (like Poirot) solved the first puzzle – that the ‘Henry Gascoigne’ who ordered the blackberry tart was an imposter – this only serves to make the second puzzle – who killed Henry Gascoigne, and why? – more confusing. The man was a poor artist, with only a nephew and an estranged twin brother, and there seems no reason for his death. Stranger still, Poirot discovers that the twin brother himself has died earlier the same day. All that remains is for Poirot (and the reader) to put the various pieces together and work out what has happened. There’s some nice clueing, and a little red herring, in the story to lead you on your way.

The TV adaptation makes quite a few alterations to the source story, some good, some not so good. Let’s begin with the not so good…

As with several of the early episodes, key details and clues are made much more obvious in the adaptation than in the short story. I’ve forgiven this in some previous episodes, but I find it a bit more frustrating here. Perhaps this is just because I’m fonder of the short story, I’m not sure.

The episode begins with a short disconnected scene (the same technique is used in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’), showing the death of Anthony Gascoigne, and mentioning his brother Henry and nephew George Lorrimer. We also quickly learn that George (played by Richard Howard) works in the theatre, and is devoted to both his uncles.

Poirot enters the story, as in the source text, at dinner with Bonnington (Denys Hawthorne). Bonnington is now Poirot’s dentist – allowing for further development of a recurrent joke about Poirot’s fear of the dentist – and the restaurant is now called the Bishop’s Chop House. Molly the waitress (Cheryl Hall) tells the men about the regular customer, but in this version there’s no mystery about his identity. She then interrupts the men’s meal to tell them that Henry Gascoigne has, for a second time, ordered thick soup, suet pudding and blackberry crumble. This conflates the events of the short story into one meal, and removes the need for a later chance meeting of Bonnington and Poirot. To be honest, I can understand why this meeting would have to be changed for the TV adaptation – it’s quite hard to imagine Suchet’s version of Poirot travelling on the tube – but I feel that this collapsing of events into one strange dinner weakens the mystery somewhat. The clues, which were handled quite neatly in the short story, are being presented a bit too heavy-handedly.

In addition to this, the plot has undergone some changes. The TV version of Henry Gascoigne is now a successful artist, who prevented sales of his highly-prized paintings during his lifetime. Two new suspects are introduced as a result of this change: Henry’s model Dulcie Lang (played by Holly De Jong) and his agent Peter Makinson (Clifford Rose), who both own paintings that have become highly valuable with Gascoigne’s death. Furthermore, a specific cause for the Gascoigne brothers’ feud is introduced: Anthony’s wife, Charlotte, was previously Henry’s model and muse. As Hastings comments, it now seems like ‘everyone stands to benefit from the old man’s death’. These changes turn out to be something of a red herring, however, as the final motive (and murderer) is revealed to be the same as that of the short story.

The episode’s slightly altered plot leads to a different denouement. This is the case with a number of the shorter episodes, as the short stories don’t all feature a confrontation with (or apprehension of) the perpetrator. As a result, these endings are often inserted into the TV episodes. As well as this, the change in George Lorrimer’s profession (from doctor in the story to theatre manager/performer in the adaptation) – and the inclusion of Japp and a team from Scotland Yard (see below) – leads to a very theatrical denouement indeed (which looks ahead, in a way, to The Big Four). It’s a bit over-the-top but, as I’ve mentioned before, the early TV episodes are known for their dramatic endings – and at least it’s not a chase scene this time.

While the puzzle is a little less subtle in the TV adaptation, there are some changes that I do like. As in other episodes, these relate to the inclusion of the ‘family’. Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp are included in the story, despite not being in the original short story, and George is removed, despite being mentioned briefly (we’ll have to wait a while longer to meet George). And just like in other early episodes, these ‘family’ scenes are a complete joy.

Highlights of the episode include the revelation that Miss Lemon adores Raffles, the gentleman thief, and tunes in religiously to a radio adaptation of E.W. Hornung’s stories (much to Poirot’s affectionate amusement); the first hint in the series of Hastings’ predilection for redheaded women, and Poirot’s love of Surrealist art; Poirot’s cooking of a traditional Belgian rabbit dish for Hastings, which the latter says ‘tastes more... well... rabbity than any rabbit I’ve ever tasted’. By far my favourite addition, though, is a little scene with Japp, in which the policeman shows Poirot around Scotland Yard’s brand new forensics lab. As specialists pore over microscopes and samples, Japp explains that this is the future of policing and that, very soon, men like himself and Poirot will be obsolete. Poirot counters this by asking for a favour and, when Japp agrees, the little Belgian detective happily notes that no amount of forensic science could ever replace their ‘camaraderie’. It’s a lovely moment.

All in all, this is a good solid episode, though it isn’t a favourite of mine. There’s lots of good character moments – and it’s worth watching just for the cricket joke that runs throughout the episode (with a brilliant punchline right at the end) – but the storyline doesn’t quite live up to the excellent source story.

Time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Third Floor Flat’.