Showing posts with label Hugh Fraser. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hugh Fraser. Show all posts

Friday, 23 December 2016

Poirot Project: The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (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 Affair at the Victory Ball’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The tenth – and final – episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 10th March 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which first appeared in The Sketch in May 1923.

Reluctantly, this post comes with a bit of an admission. When I first began this project, I imagined that I would spend 2016 rereading and rewatching the Poirot stories, and that I would reach Curtain by Christmas. Well… it’s now the 23rd December and I haven’t even reached The ABC Murders yet. This has been a much bigger undertaking than I imagined – partly due to my tendency to obsessive completism, which has led to my posts becoming more and more detailed, and partly due to the fact that this year has been a very very busy one. So, sadly, I think I have to admit that ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ will be the last post in my Poirot Project in 2016.

But have no fear! I’ll be back on it and tackling The ABC Murders as soon as the festive season is over. I reckon I’ll totally get to Curtain by Christmas 2017. ;-)

Another slightly reluctant admission… I think the 2016 phase of this project is going to go out with a whimper, not a bang. ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ is an okay Poirot story, but it’s not one of the best. After the delights of ‘The Affair of the Victory Ball’ and the complexities of ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, the final story in Series 3 is a bit of an anti-climax.

This is especially galling as the story promises so much with its first line:
‘“After all,” murmured Poirot, “it is possible that I shall not die this time.”’
But this turns out to be just the little Belgian exaggerating as usual. He’s got the flu, and is sitting in bed, dosing himself up with a tisane and ‘a neatly graduated row of medicine bottles’. His good friend Hastings treats this occurrence with good humour, particularly when Poirot reads out a paragraph in Society Gossip announcing the detective’s illness to the world:
‘Go it – criminals – all out! Hercule Poirot – and believe me, girls, he’s some Hercules! – our own pet society detective can’t get a grip on you. ’Cause why? ’Cause he’s got la grippe himself!’
Throughout the Sketch stories, there are little moments that remind us of how famous Poirot is in London. In some stories – like ‘The Submarine Plans’ and ‘The King of Clubs’ – this is shown by the way government officials and royal personages seek the little Belgian out to solve their problems. But elsewhere – like in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ – we see Poirot’s fame more as ‘celebrity’, with socialites and fashionable types asking the detective for help with their asinine catastrophes. The paragraph in Society Gossip appears to belong to the latter category.

But all this talk of influenza and gossip columns is really just a way to immobilize Poirot so that the story’s conceit can play out. This is going to be a case to which the detective is physically unable to attend – and so it’s going to be down to Hastings to be his eyes and ears. This isn’t the first time Christie has removed Poirot from the actual investigation so as to showcase his cerebral powers: ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ also used this plot device. However, while the earlier story had Poirot remove himself in order to win a bet, here he is genuinely unable to investigate. Moreover, the stakes are a little higher here, as Poirot’s mental capacities are challenged by the flu – can he still solve a case while he’s ill?

Wait a minute… what case are we even talking about?

The answer to that question comes almost immediately after Poirot has read out the little column in Society Gossip. The men’s very own Mrs Hudson announces a visitor, a Mr Roger Havering, who has come to consult with them on a matter of urgency.

Poirot consults Who’s Who, which tells him that Havering is the second son of the fifth Baron Windsor, and is married to Zoe, daughter of William Crabb. Hastings has a different line on the man:
‘I rather fancy that’s the girl who used to act at the Frivolity – only she called herself Zoe Carrisbrook. I remember she married some young man about town just before the War.’
We never do find out anything more about Hastings’s old visits to the Frivolity, but it paints a rather cheeky picture.

Roger Havering has called on Poirot because he wants the famous Belgian to investigate the murder of his uncle. It is, he says, imperative that Poirot returns with him to Derbyshire to take the case. Hastings explains that Poirot isn’t able to travel, and offers to take up the investigation himself. To this, Poirot readily agrees – probably because he’s too ill to argue:
‘You want to go yourself, is it not so? Well, why not? You should know my methods by now. All I ask is that you should report to me fully every day, and follow implicitly any instructions I may wire you.’
And so… Detective Hastings is on the case.

Fortunately, things are helped along by two factors. (1) When Hastings arrives in Derbyshire, he finds that Japp is also investigating the murder; (2) It’s not really the most complicated case they’ve worked on, and it has a twist at its heart that’s not massively dissimilar to the one found in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’. Not that Japp and Hastings spot the similarity, of course.

The murder took place at Hunter’s Lodge in Derbyshire. Havering’s uncle, Harrington Pace, was at the lodge for the shooting season, and on the night of the murder he was in the house with Havering’s wife Zoe and the housekeeper Mrs Middleton (Havering himself had been unexpectedly called away to London).

According to the two women in their separate statements, a visitor called at the house shortly after dinner and was shown into Pace’s gun-room. Neither woman recognized the stranger, but they both gave an almost identical description of the man. After a short time, they heard the sound of raised voices, and then a shot. As the door was locked from the inside, they had to run around the house to reach the window – it was then that they discovered Pace had been shot, and the murderer had fled the scene.

Despite the running commentary via telegram from Poirot, Hastings is distinctly underwhelmed by his investigations:
‘I may as well confess at once that they were rather disappointing. In detective novels clues abound, but here I could find nothing that struck me as out of the ordinary except a large blood-stain on the carpet where I judged the dead man had fallen.’
While it’s rather comical seeing Hastings play detective again, I have to agree with him that the case is a bit disappointing. Although there is a neat riddle at the heart of it, there isn’t really much to get your teeth into. There are a few clues, and a couple of red herrings, but there aren’t really any suspects apart from the two people who turn out to have committed the crime in the end.

Instead of narrowing down a list of suspects, it’s more like we’re supposed work out what, exactly, has happened at Hunter’s Lodge. More importantly, we’re supposed (like Hastings) to decipher the cryptic messages from Poirot, who has apparently worked things out from his sick bed.

Ultimately, Hastings and Japp are able to piece together the deductions of their illustrious friend, but aren’t particularly excited by his conclusions. Hastings listens ‘fascinated’ to Poirot’s explanation of how the murder was carried out, but there’s a general feeling of deflation at the end of the story. Perhaps this is partly because there isn’t a bonkers Poirot denouement, but perhaps it’s also because there’s no arrest at the end of the story. Although Poirot has worked out what’s happened, he doesn’t really have any evidence and so has to just pass his findings on to Japp. The policeman is unable to arrest the killers, but the men later find out they were – karmically – killed in air crash a short time later.

As I say, it’s all a little bit of a let-down, really. I much prefer the jovial banter of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, which I think is a much stronger take on the ‘detective can solve a case without leaving his room’ theme. Poirot with the flu just isn’t the same as Poirot winding Japp up for a bet.

Ah well… can’t win ’em all, I guess. Let’s have a look at how the adaptation approaches things…

This episode was directed by Renny Rye and written by T.R. Bowen. And first thing’s first… after the disappointingly snowless scenes of ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ immediately treats us to some pretty impressive snowy vistas.

As with many of the early episodes, the events of the short story are slightly altered to insert the detective into the scene of the crime (rather than have him hear about it after the fact). In ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’, Poirot and Hastings are actually attending Pace’s shooting party, and so are able to get a sense of the key players before any skulduggery has taken place.

One thing I will say for this episode is that it is very good at evoking the effects of the weather. As the hunters crunch over snowy ground, and the women (and Poirot) muffle themselves up to observe, you really can feel the cold seeping into your bones. I’m writing this with a stinking cold, and this has really increased my sympathetic shivering with Poirot as he huddles in the cold to await the end of the shoot (equipped with a shooting stick and earplugs, of course).

The opening pre-murder sequence allows us to get a good idea of the ways in the writer has expanded on Christie’s short story. In the original, Pace was a rich American who didn’t get on with Havering’s father, but who was on reasonable terms with his nephew and his wife. The TV version of Pace (played by Bernard Horsfall) is now Irish, and has made his money from swindling his associates.

The TV Pace is distinctly not a nice man. He has an illegitimate brother who works as his gamekeeper (Jack Stoddard, played by Roy Boyd); he treats Stoddard with contempt, and refuses to give him money to enable him to marry. The cast is also augmented by the inclusion of Archie Havering, Roger’s cousin, a poor schoolteacher who’s disgusted by Pace’s shameless displays of wealth. As Archie points out, Hunter’s Lodge lies empty for most of the year, while some of his pupils ‘live six to a room’. Suspiciously, Archie has still agreed to take part in the shooting party, despite despising his host.

In addition to Jack Stoddard and Archie Havering, the list of suspects now also includes an unidentified ‘Bolshie’ who appears to be hounding Pace and, as the detective quickly discovers, probably anyone else who ever met the horrible man.

Following the shooting party, Poirot succumbs to a bout of flu. He really does seem to be very ill, and it’s quite sweet to see Hastings rush to his friend’s aid when the little Belgian is unable to get out of bed without falling.

Initially, Poirot’s illness does allow for Hastings and Japp to take over the investigation as in Christie’s short story. Again, there isn’t anything like the humour of ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, and there’s little sense of competition or rivalry between the two men. We do get to see little glimpses of Hastings in detective mode, but it’s just not as comically dramatic as in stories such as ‘Mr Davenheim’ or ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’.

Moreover, Poirot isn’t incapacitated for the entire case. In fact, he’s able to start interviewing suspects quite quickly. In particular, he focuses on the testimony of Mr Anstruther (played by Arthur Whybrow), a railway worker who had his bike pinched by a man matching the description of Harrington Pace’s mystery visitor. Poirot takes it open himself to retrieve Mr Anstruther’s bicycle, despite the fact that his associates can’t see any relevance in this to the case as a whole.

By the end of the investigation, Poirot is up on his feet again, ready to hunt down the missing bicycle and perform a slightly more dramatic denouement than that found in Christie’s short story (both of which feats involve the assistance of a helpful tracker dog, loaned to the detective by Stoddard).

These final scenes are probably the most entertaining in the episode. The return of Mr Anstruther’s bicycle is done with the humour that’s characteristic of the early series. And the sniffer dog denouement is more entertaining – and more typical of Poirot’s theatrical tendencies – than the anti-climactic explanation offered in the episode’s source material. The TV version of the story also throws in a reminder of Poirot’s repeated association with conjuring in the finale (something which is absent from Christie’s story) – as he offers a bag of clothes to the tracker dog’s nose, he promises ‘to make Madame Middleton appear in our midst as if by magic!’ In a way, this feels like a much more Poirot ending to the story than the one written by Christie.

There’s one other bit of the ending that I really like. After Poirot, Japp, Hastings and Stoddard discovers the unfortunate Mr Anstruther’s bicycle, there’s a brilliant shot of the men triumphantly returning from the field (in that epic almost slo-mo that’s used for portraying returning heroes). It’s only a short little sequence, but it’s very well-done and manages to be both dramatic and comical at the same time.

Now, I’ve got this far, and I’m really close to finishing up this post, but I need to talk about the elephant in the room. I hope you noted the spoiler alert at the beginning of this post, because there’s no way of discussing this particular pachyderm without giving away the story’s twist.

The fact is, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ involves one woman pretending to be two different people. And these two people are almost seen in the same place at the same time, and so the audience has to be thoroughly distracted from the fact that they’re the same person.

In Christie’s short story, this isn’t a problem. Obviously, we never see Zoe Havering or Mrs Middleton. We just have Hastings’s brief descriptions of the two women. He believes they are two different women, so we are led to conclude the same thing. But a TV episode is a different kettle of fish, and for this version of the story to work, the audience has to see both women with their own eyes.

And I just don’t think it works.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of effort has been put into making Diana Kent look drastically different in her two guises. But, perhaps, the difference is just too drastic. Because we’re watching the action unfold in front of our eyes, it’s just too noticeable that Mrs Middleton is always out of the room when Zoe Havering is in it (and vice versa). And, unlike in ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ (where careful camera angles are used so we never get a good clear look at either Mr Davenheim or Billy Kellet’s face), we get enough shots of Mrs Middleton to see that something isn’t quite right.

Even when I first watched the episode as a twelve-year-old – which was some time before I read the short story – I knew from the very start that Mrs Middleton was wearing a disguise. It’s not that she looked like Zoe Havering; it’s that she looked like she was wearing a costume.

Do you what it is that gives her away? It’s the glasses. No one in a TV programme has ever worn glasses that thick unless they were part of a disguise. And as soon as you twig this, you know she must be Zoe Havering, because there aren’t any other female characters who could get away with pretending to be the housekeeper.

This isn’t the first episode that has had to deal with showing a disguise that was described in Christie’s text – as I’ve said, it’s a key point in ‘Mr Davenheim’, but also in ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (although that disguise was actually invented for the episode, rather than taken from Christie’s story) – and it certainly won’t be the last. Some episodes – including one that I’ll be coming to very soon – manage to get away with it better than others. Sadly, ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ is not one of the more successful ones.

And so… on that slightly disappointed note, I come to the end of Series 3 and the last post of 2016. I’ve not reached Curtain as quickly as planned, but it’s been a lot of fun trying. My next post will be in 2017, when I’ll be rereading/rewatching The ABC Murders.

See you next year!

Poirot Project: The Affair at the Victory Ball (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 Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The ninth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 3rd March 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in March 1923.

After the madness of the last couple of posts – ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ turned out the be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating – it’s nice to end the series with two reasonably straightforward adaptations of classic Poirot short stories.

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was Christie’s first Poirot short story, written after Bruce Ingram, the editor of The Sketch, encouraged her to revisit the characters she’d created for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The story is interesting for the way in which it develops certain aspects of Poirot and Hastings’s character that were hinted at in the 1920 novel, but also for the way it sets the template for the subsequent series of short stories. It’s also a very entertaining read, and I’ve always been very fond of this story and its adaptation.

The story is narrated by Hastings, and the first paragraph gives us a very brief resume of what has happened in the years since The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Apparently, Poirot’s success in that earlier case ‘brought him notoriety’, and so he has decided to settle in London and set up as a private detective. Hastings himself was invalided out of the army after being wounded on the Somme – a fact hinted at, but never stated explicitly, in Styles – and so ‘finally took up [his] quarters with [Poirot] in London’. (It’s interesting to see this said so clearly, as many of the other short stories are a wee bit circumspect about the men’s living arrangements. It’s also intriguing that Hastings says he ‘finally’ took up residence with Poirot – Christie would come back to the question of what Hastings did before he took this decision in ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ at the end of 1923… but it’ll be a while before I get to that story.)

In case we’ve forgotten Hastings’s Watson-esque role as Poirot’s chronicler in Styles, he reminds us of it here:
‘Since I have first-hand knowledge of most of his cases, it has been suggested to me that I select some of the most interesting and place them on record.’
As in the earlier novel, Hastings never really tells us who suggested this – or where this record is being placed. But that doesn’t really matter… it’s just a literary conceit after all. (Every fan bone in my body just ached as I wrote that sentence.)

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ begins with a scene that will become very familiar to readers throughout the run of the Sketch stories – Hastings has completed his Perusal of the Morning News, and shares a curious report with his illustrious friend. He has been reading about ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ – i.e. the murder of Lord Cronshaw and the subsequent death of Coco Courtenay from an overdose of cocaine – and is keen to engage his friend in a bit of armchair detection.

Poirot doesn’t take the bait, though, as he’s too busy admiring the new pomade he has bought for his moustaches.

Before things can go any further, the men’s domestic scene is interrupted by the landlady, who announces the arrival of Inspector Japp. And the Scotland Yard man has a proposal for Poirot:
‘I’m on a case that strikes me as being very much in your line, and I came along to know whether you’d care to have a finger in the pie?’
Ah ha! The game is afoot…

As Japp explains, the murder of Viscount Cronshaw took place the previous week at a grand fancy dress ‘Victory Ball’. Cronshaw had attended with his friends – ‘Coco’ Courtenay, Mr and Mrs Davidson, Cronshaw’s uncle the Honourable Eustace Beltane, and an American widow named Mrs Mallaby. The party had worn the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte, modelled after a set of china figures in Beltane’s collection. Cronshaw was Harlequin, Coco was Columbine, the Davidsons were Pierrot and Pierrette, and Beltane and Mrs Mallaby were Punchinello and Pulcinella.

At some point during the evening, Cronshaw and Coco had a falling-out, and the actress was taken home by Chris Davidson. After this Cronshaw became moody and withdrawn, before finally disappearing completely. He was spotted briefly at around 1.30am, but not seen again. Eventually, his friends decided to look for him, and that’s when they discovered the body of the murdered Harlequin – he’d been stabbed through the heart.

To make matters worse, the following day Coco Courtenay was found dead in her flat. A known user of cocaine, the actress was believed to have taken a fatal overdose. But did this have anything to do with Cronshaw’s death?

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is an absolute classic. The clues are nicely subtle, the misdirection is almost imperceptible, and the cast of characters is intimate, but diverse enough to give you something to ponder over. And the Commedia dell’Arte costumes add a touch of theatrical glamour to the proceedings. (Incidentally, I absolutely love the Commedia dell’Arte, so that might be part of the reason why I’m so fond of this story. Christie, too, seemed to be rather fond of Harlequin, as one of her less well-known detective creations was a certain Mr Harley Quin – but more on him another time.)

In addition to the Poirot-Hastings reunion and the well-crafted puzzle, this short story also offers us a reminder of Poirot’s infuriatingly efficient grey cells, and our first taste of the detective’s penchant for ludicrously elaborate dénouements.

In the case of the former, it appears that Poirot gets his first inkling as to the puzzle’s solution before Japp has even finished outlining the facts. Hastings spots that his eyes are ‘shining with the green light I had learned to recognize so well’ as the policeman comes to the end of his narrative. But, of course, Poirot isn’t quite ready to share what he has deduced just yet. When pushed to explain his thinking, he simply says:
‘Ah, mon ami, you know my little weakness! Always I have a desire to keep the threads in my own hands up to the last minute. But have no fear. I will reveal all when the time comes.’
This doesn’t go down brilliantly with his associate, of course. It never really does, does it?
‘“Poirot,” I cried, “one day I shall murder you! Your habit of finding everything perfectly simple is aggravating to the last degree!”’
More hints of the way the relationships between the men are going to develop come when Poirot asks Japp if he ‘play out’ his resolution of the mystery in his own unique style. Not only does this give us a hint of the elaborate game the detective is planning to play, but it also allows for a really lovely response from Japp, which really gives you an idea of how the poor old policeman sees his mad Belgian friend:
‘“That’s fair enough,” said Japp. “That is, if the dénouement ever comes! But I say, you are an oyster, aren’t you?” Poirot smiled. “Well, so long. I’m off to the Yard.”’
Now, I’ve talked about some of Poirot’s bonkers dénouements before – the ones involving almost life-size ventriloquist’s dummies and fake séances complete with blood-stained hands and wandering ghosts – but this one is quite the sight to behold. It seems that, in the early days, Poirot actually has a team of guys on hand to help him create his bizarre little performances:
‘The preparations greatly intrigued me. A white screen was erected at one side of the room, flanked by heavy curtains at either side. A man with some lighting apparatus arrived next, and finally a group of members of the theatrical profession, who disappeared into Poirot’s bedroom, which had been rigged up as a temporary dressing-room.’
Japp’s reaction to all this? ‘Bit melodramatic.’

Of course, like many of Poirot’s escapades, this complicated endeavour is actually almost completely pointless. The ‘performance’ itself takes just a couple of minutes, and is merely intended to prove that it’s possible to hide a Harlequin costume under a Pierrot costume – something that’s surely blinding obvious to anyone who has seen the outfits. But still… it’s always fun watching Poirot playing the game, isn’t it?

So… how does the TV adaptation stack up?

The ITV version of ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ was directed by Renny Rye and written by Andrew Marshall, and it’s a fairly faithful interpretation of Christie’s story, with just a few alterations to fit the format and style of the TV series.

We have a little pre-Poirot scene, as we do in a number of episodes, but, unlike in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ or ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, this doesn’t give anything away that wasn’t said up-front in the short story. The opening scenes include a voiceover from Poirot explaining the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, and we see a bit of the relationships between Cronshaw and his friends. In order to establish Coco Courtenay as an actress, but also as a druggie, we see her (played by Haydn Gwynne, in the first of her two appearances on the show) arriving late to a radio performance on the BBC National Programme (you know, in case we’d forgotten it’s the 1930s…)

Given that the short story already contained quite a bit of Hastings and Japp, there’s no real attempt to change their roles particularly in the adaptation. As with a number of the early episodes, though, Miss Lemon is added to the episode. Sadly, poor old Pauline Moran doesn’t really get much to do here, except demonstrate Miss Lemon’s familiarity with how the radio works. She doesn’t seem very impressed with Deadly Alibi by Desmond Havelock Ellis (the play in which Coco is performing) though – clearly it’s not as good as Raffles, the Gentleman Thief (who, as we all know, Miss Lemon adores).

Another change made to the story – and, again, this is quite a common one for the series – in the insertion of Poirot and Hastings at the scene of the murder. As in ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, Poirot is actually present at the party where the murder takes place.

However… he nearly isn’t at the party. Although Hastings is over-the-moon about attending a costume ball, Poirot initially appears to have forgotten all about it. When his friend bounds in, clutching a large box containing his costume, Poirot is resolutely unimpressed. He can’t go to the ball, he says. Why?
‘I’m afraid I must rearrange my stamps in order of size.’
Hastings twists his arm, and they reach a compromise. Poirot will go to the party, but he won’t wear fancy dress. I don’t think this matters though, as Hastings has more than enough costume for the two of them.

Hastings has already given us a hint of what he will wear when he burst into Poirot’s study shouting, ‘They seek him here, they seek him there…’ But I love the fact that Hastings actually seems to be dressed as Sir Percy Blackeney, rather than his Scarlet Pimpernel alter ego – there’s something quite cute about Hastings dressing a mild-mannered fellow whose mask of stupidity hides the truth about his daredevil character. It’s how I imagine Hastings likes to think of himself.

Much as I love Hastings’s costume, the real stars of the Victory Ball are, of course, the Harlequinade. And the costumes in the episode really are gorgeous.

Finally, as might be expected from the series, there is a slight expansion of the puzzle aspect of the story in order to better fit the format of the TV show. A straightforward clue from Christie’s story is altered to create a bit more confusion (the cocaine boxed that was engraved with ‘Coco’ in the short story is now marked with a more ambiguous ‘C’); an additional red herring is added in the form of a cryptic note saying ‘Lowestoft’; and there’s a slight alteration in the meaning and motivation behind the pompom cut from Mrs Davidson’s costume after the ball. However, none of these really amount to massive changes, and so the story itself remains very close to Christie’s original.

Saying that, there is one further alteration that should be mentioned. Poirot’s staged dénouement plays out a little differently in the adaptation, which sort of makes sense given the shift from theatre to radio acting earlier in the episode. The TV finale is still bonkers – just in a different way to that of the short story.

In a bold – and probably illegal – move, Poirot decides to perform his unveiling of the murder live on the BBC. He enlists the help of producer James Ackerly (played by Andrew Burt) to help with the technical side of things (replacing the gang of lighting technicians and actors he employed in Christie’s story). And he brings along the set of china figures to help aid his little play.

It’s a somewhat toned-down version of the source story’s finale, as Poirot mostly narrates events, rather than revealing fully-clothed versions of the characters. I’m also not sure it works as piece of radio – Miss Lemon listens at home enraptured, but I’m not convinced Poirot’s monologue would be as engaging without the visual aids he has in the studio. Given that he also can’t show the dramatic costume switch that revealed the mechanism of the murder in Christie’s story, the unveiling of Davidson has to rely on yet another new detail: Poirot (clearly forgetting the constraints of radio) suddenly throws a china figure at Davidson (Nathaniel Parker), who catches it in his left hand and gives away the fact that he was the fake Harlequin witnessed by Mrs Mallaby at the Victory Ball.

It’s a bit flimsy, to say the least. Perhaps he should’ve hired that lighting rig after all.

Anyway, despite the slightly weakened ending, ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ is one of my favourite episodes from the early series. It’s just got everything you’d want from a Poirot story, and it’s a fitting adaptation of such a significant story in the Poirot canon.

One final detail that I really like comes about halfway through the episode, as Poirot, Hastings and Japp discuss aspects of the case. They walk past a newspaper boy who is selling issues of The Star: the front page headline is about the case, but specifically about Poirot’s involvement in the case (and his apparent inability to get to the bottom of it).

It’s not a particularly important detail – Poirot shrugs it off and makes a dismissive comment about safeguarding his ‘reputation’ – but it does remind us of Hastings’s words at the beginning of Christie’s short story: Poirot really has gained a fair bit of notoriety.

Time to move on the final episode in this series: ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Poirot Project: The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (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 Double Clue’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 17th February 1991. It was based (ostensibly) on the short story of the same name (first published in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding collection in 1960), which in turn was based on the shorter short story ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ (first published in The Strand in 1932). ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ isn’t included in The Complete Short Stories, but it is in While the Light Lasts, and so that’s the version I’m using for this post.

‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ is narrated by Hastings, and although it was written nine years after Murder on the Links, it appears to be set during the time the two associates were working together. There’s no mention of George in the story – and he pops up as Poirot’s valet as soon as Hastings is married off – and there’s no mention of the South American ranch or Dulcie/Bella. The story was published the same year as Peril at End House, which makes quite a lot of Hastings’s return to England to see his old friend (The ABC Murders does something similar), but none of that is present in this short story. In this way, it works along the same lines as ‘Double Sin’ (published in 1928), in that it simply transports us back to the heyday of the dynamic duo as though their relationship never changed.

And we’re on very familiar territory for the story’s opening, as it begins with Hastings’s beloved Perusal of the Morning News:
‘The words made a catchy headline, and I said as much to my friend, Hercule Poirot.’
‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ is a short, compact story, and so we’re thrown straight into the case from the off. The story Hastings is reading is a report of the murder of Mr Clayton, whose body was discovered hidden in the eponymous ‘Baghdad Chest’ at the home of his friend Major Rich.

Hastings summarizes the central puzzle. Edward and Marguerita Clayton were due to spend the evening with Major Rich, but Mr Clayton was unexpectedly called away to Scotland on business. The victim called at his friend’s house to give his apologies, but Major Rich wasn’t in. Clayton waited for some time, but then (according to Rich’s valet) must have let himself out when Rich didn’t return. Later that evening, the house party went ahead: Mrs Clayton attended, along with Mr and Mrs Spence and Major Curtiss. The next morning, Rich’s valet found the body of Mr Clayton – who’d been stabbed through the heart – hidden in a chest in the sitting-room. The assumption is that Rich murdered him, hid the body, then ghoulishly partied in the very same room.

Poirot isn’t convinced.

It is – like so many of Christie’s short stories – a neat little puzzle. The clues are well-placed, and all the information is there if you know what you’re looking at. There’s also a couple of red herrings, though these are more to do with characterization – we’re constantly being distracted from the real underlying motivations, and occasionally deceived about the sort of people we’re dealing with. This is pretty much classic Christie, as so many of her stories encourage us to trust the wrong people, and her character red herrings are always more numerous than her spot of candle grease/empty dispatch case tricks.

But as always, the pleasure of reading ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ doesn’t just come from the attempt to solve the puzzle. The nature of the investigation is also a big part of the fun. And, again, we’re on pretty familiar ground with this one.

We have moments of dazzling arrogance from Poirot, undercut by classic Hastings snark:
‘“The talents I possess – I would salute them in another. As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn red and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”
“There is certainly only one Hercule Poirot,” I agreed – not without a spice of malice of which, fortunately, Poirot remained oblivious.’
We have moments where Poirot announces the simplicity of the case, only to be met by his friend’s bafflement (which is probably echoing the reader’s sentiments at that point in the story):
‘“To me it is very plain, and I only need one point to clear up the matter for good and all.”
“It’s no good,” I said. “I’m not there.”
“But make an effort, Hastings. Make an effort.”
We see Poirot charming – and being charmed by – women of different ages and personalities. He purrs like a cat at the way one of his ‘most ardent admirers’, Lady Chatterton, fusses over him at a party, and he soothes Mrs Clayton with his sympathy and discretion, urging her to confide in him as she might her ‘Father Confessor’. (Of course, all this just backs up a point I made in the last post I wrote: Poirot really has no room in his life for an Irene Adler.) (Another aside: I love Poirot’s assertion, which is retained in the 1960 version of the story, that there are only three people a woman should ever trust – her detective, her priest and her hairdresser.)

And, finally, we see the boys get a little help from their friends, as a well-timed call to good old Japp of the Yard gives Poirot the background info needed to wrap the case up.

All in all, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ has everything you could ask of a Poirot story, and I’m really rather fond of it.

For Christie fans, there’s a nice like (perhaps) in-joke in the story. After Hastings has finished his Perusal of the Morning News, he comments that the circumstances of Clayton’s murder would make a good play. Poirot replies that the idea of a party going ahead while there’s a dead man hidden in the room has ‘been done’. But Poirot has a wry little caveat to his assertion:
‘“But console yourself, Hastings,” he added kindly. “Because a theme has been used once, there is no reason why it should not be used again.”’
Indeed, Agatha. Indeed.

Speaking of which… let’s turn to ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’…

Sometimes called a ‘novella’, but certainly a longer short story, ‘Spanish Chest’ is an expanded version of ‘Baghdad Chest’, which was first published in 1960. I’ve written about a couple of other short stories that Christie expanded into longer versions (‘The Market Basing Mystery’/‘Murder in the Mews’ and ‘The Submarine Plans’/‘The Incredible Theft’), and the next post I’ll be writing will also be about one of these expanded stories (‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, aka ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’). In many ways, ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ is one of the more straightforward expansions, as the puzzle and characterization is pretty much kept intact from the earlier version.

In this version of the story – which is told in third person – it is Poirot who discovers the story of the murder in the morning newspapers (more on that in a moment). The outline of the case is almost identical to that found in ‘Baghdad Chest’. The Claytons (now given new first names and ages – Arnold (55) and Margharita (‘some years younger’) – were due to attend a party at the home of Major Charles Rich (48), but Mr Clayton was unexpectedly called away to Scotland on business. He called at Rich’s house to leave his apologies (the later version of the story adds a line to explain that the telephone line ‘seemed to be out of order’, as it’s vitally important – but somewhat incongruous in 1960 – that Clayton goes to give his apologies in person), but Rich wasn’t at home. According to Rich’s manservant, William Burgess (unknown age), Clayton waited for a short time but must have let himself out at some point. The house party goes ahead, with Mrs Clayton, Mr Jeremy Spence, Mrs Linda Spence and Commander McLaren (the man formerly known as Major Curtiss) in attendance. The following morning, Burgess discovers the body of Mr Clayton in Rich’s Spanish chest – it had been there the whole time the group were partying.

Much of Poirot’s investigation follows the same pattern as that in the 1932 story, though the expanded version allows for more detail of his interviews. In particular, we get to see him talking to Mr and Mrs Spence, which increases the confusion around character and motivation that was a part of the original story. There’s also a little more interaction between Poirot and Burgess than there was with Burgoyne (the 1932 valet), which continues this.

Ultimately, though, it’s the differences, rather than the similarities, that are most entertaining in comparing the two stories. There are some cute little details that have been changed to reflect the shift from the 30s to the 60s – in ‘Baghdad Chest’, Rich’s guests dance to music on the ‘phonograph’, but in ‘Spanish Chest’, Rich has got himself ‘two stereophonic record players’ for use at parties; oddly, a party in 1960 is imagined to be a teeny bit more restrained (or the author is a teeny bit older), as the guests leave Rich’s house at 11.45pm in ‘Spanish Chest’, but ‘a little after midnight’ in ‘Baghdad Chest’.

While these details are nice – and I’ll talk a bit more about this sort of detail when I come to ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ – they don’t really count as notable changes to this story. They’re pretty much eclipsed by the complete change in the ‘gang’ who are involved in the investigation – and the very funny way in which this change is handled.

As ‘Spanish Chest’ is a later Poirot story, Hastings is now absent on a more permanent basis, and George is part of the furniture. (Poirot’s valet isn’t present for this investigation, but he is mentioned as he’s a part of the detective’s household.) Japp is also not included, as he – unlike Poirot – had the luxury of retiring from crime-fighting at a normal age.

But Poirot is teamed up with an associate and a policeman for ‘Spanish Chest’ – it’s just not the dream team he would have liked…

Representing Scotland Yard, we have the recurring character of Inspector Miller. Poirot has worked with Miller before and, in ‘The Lost Mine’, he memorably described him as ‘a man altogether different from our friend Japp, conceited, ill-mannered and quite insufferable’. Here, Poirot manages to muddle along with the anti-Japp, but there’s still no love lost between the two men:
‘Inspector Miller, who was in charge of the Clayton case, was not one of Poirot’s favourites. He was not, however, hostile on this occasion, merely contemptuous.’
If the switch from Japp to Miller is frustrating for Poirot, it’s nothing compared to the replacement Hastings he’s saddled with. That’s right… Poirot has to deal with the semi-robotic Miss Lemon as he tackles ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’. The story begins with some nice descriptions of Miss Lemon to further cement the picture of the hyper-efficient secretary that has its roots in Christie’s Parker Pyne stories:
‘At first sight Miss Lemon seemed to be composed entirely of angles – thus satisfying Poirot’s demand for symmetry.’
‘But Miss Lemon he had never considered as a woman. She was a human machine – an instrument of precision.’*
As I’ve said, in the absence of his friend, it falls to Poirot to Peruse the Morning News. He reads out the details of the Clayton case to Miss Lemon, but she’s singularly uninterested. This makes the detective rather sad:
‘Ah, thought Poirot. How my dear friend, Hastings, would have enjoyed this! What romantic flights of imagination he would have had. What ineptitudes he would have uttered! Ah, ce cher Hastings, at this moment, today, I miss him… Instead –
He sighed and looked at Miss Lemon.’

While this is cute for the Poirot and Hastings bromance, it’s also funny for readers familiar with ‘Baghdad Chest’, because we know what ‘flights of imagination’ Hastings had (he wanted to write a play about the case, for God’s sake). Poirot comments a few times on how he imagines his friend would have responded to the case, and we smile because we know that’s just what did happen in the 1932 version.

As Poirot tries (and fails) to get Miss Lemon to step up as a substitute Hastings, he finds himself becoming more and more enthusiastic about the Clayton case. Not only does he Peruse the Morning News, but he also waxes lyrical about the romance that underpins the story of Arnold and Margharita Clayton (particularly the latter). The irony isn’t lost on Poirot:
‘He had been so severe with ce cher Hastings on this point, and now here he was, behaving much as his friend might have done, obsessed with beautiful women, crimes of passion, jealousy, hatred and all the other romantic causes of murder!’
Ultimately, then, what we have here is a story where Poirot, Hastings and Japp investigate a case, which is then expanded into a story where Poirot, Miss Lemon and Miller investigate exactly the same case, and Poirot grouses about how the original team was better.

Time to have a look at how this was translated onto the screen…

The TV adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. The episode’s title follows Christie’s later version of the story, but there are a number of details that reveal a familiarity with ‘Baghdad Chest’ as well. There are also a few changes made that deviate from both versions of the story.

Happily, Poirot finds himself surrounded by his preferred team in this version – he’s investigating with Hastings and Japp again. While this is, of course, due to the format and chronology of the TV show, it also aligns the episode with the 1932 version of the story. Interestingly, this is one of several early episodes of the ITV series that doesn’t include Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Again, this isn’t particularly unusual for the show, but it does make things feel more ‘Baghdad Chest’ than ‘Spanish Chest’.

It also appears that some other characters have reverted to the 1932 version: Commander McLaren is back to being Major Curtiss (played by John McEnery) and William Burgess is once again called Burgoyne (played by Peter Copley). Mr Clayton (Malcolm Sinclair) loses his ‘Spanish Chest’ name of Arnold, and is now once again called Edward, and Mrs Clayton (Caroline Langrishe) is called Marguerite, which is closer to Marguerita (Christie’s 1932 spelling) than Margharita (1960).

Interestingly, the Spences – who are key characters in the 1960 version but only mentioned very briefly in the 1932 story – are completely removed from the 1991 adaptation. On the other hand, Lady Chatterton – whose role is pivotal in both versions of the story – gets plenty of screen-time (performed by Antonia Pemberton) – we even get to see Poirot attempting to dance with her (beat that, Rossakoff).

So really, although this episode is called ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, it’s actually an adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’. And this makes it quite unusual in the ITV series, as it’s more usual to find the later, longer stories being used as the source for episodes.

That said, the episode does make some slight changes to ‘Baghdad Chest’ of its own. The first – and perhaps most dramatic – is the way in which Poirot is brought into the investigation. In fact, this time, Poirot is drawn into the case before the murder has happened. He’s approached by Lady Chatterton prior to Clayton’s murder, because she’s worried about Marguerite. Lady Chatterton believes that her friend might be in some danger and wants the great detective to keep an eye on things.

This leads to Poirot accompanying Lady Chatterton to a party at the home of Major Rich (played by Pip Torrens, in the first of his two appearances on the show). This party is no longer the intimate little get-together of ‘Baghdad Chest’, but rather a lively society do with a fair number of guests.

I have mixed feelings about the change of party in the adaptation. On the one hand, it removes the claustrophobic intimacy of the gathering in Christie’s story, and so weakens the unsettling feeling you get when you discover Clayton’s body was in the room the whole time. On the other hand, though, it’s kind of good having Poirot attend the party, as there’s a bit of intrigue in having the detective Charlestonning away, oblivious to the corpse a few feet away. (And I did like seeing Poirot dance…)

I’m much clearer in my feelings towards some of the other changes that are made in the episode – and these are symptomatic of a general nudge that happens throughout the series. Some things are just made a bit too obvious for my liking.

As with other episodes (e.g. ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’), we’re treated to a little opening vignette that sets the ‘intrigue’ up. Here, it’s a sepia-toned sequence in which two men duel over a woman… but the significance of the duel in ‘Baghdad Chest’ was never meant to be highlighted so heavy-handedly. It’s mentioned in a seemingly throwaway comment that Poirot stores away, but the reader may easily miss (until its relevance is explained at the end, of course).

Elsewhere, we have Poirot expressing his dislike of Major Curtiss (he calls him ‘unpleasant’ from the start), which brings the character to our attention much more sharply than it was in ‘Baghdad Chest’. Curtiss also confronts Major Rich before the party, further setting up an antagonism that’s actually downplayed in Christie’s story. And – the worst offender, in my eyes – we actually see Clayton having a drink with Curtiss before he visits Rich’s house. It’s clear that Clayton is planning something, and that Curtiss is egging him on, and this reveals that their conversation wasn’t a straightforward drink between friends (something that is obscured in the short story). I really thought that this last example came pretty close to giving the game away, but my husband (who hadn’t read the short story) assures me that he didn’t twig what was going on. Maybe I’m just oversensitive to these details.

So I’m coming to the end of this post now, but there’s one other bit of the episode that it would be remiss of me not to mention. This is a ‘boys only’ investigation, and while this is in-keeping with the original short story, in the context of the show it does mean there’s a bit of a Miss Lemon-shaped hole that has to be explained.

It seems Poirot’s secretary has taken a break to visit her sister in Frinton. While this isn’t really very important, it does allow us a few little glimpses into how the boys cope in her absence. As expected, Hastings messes up her filing system… again.

For Japp fans, there’s also a rather sweet moment where Japp is troubled by a typewriter. He’s been told he has to tighten up on his paperwork, but struggles to work the blasted machine. He asks his old friend if he knows anything about typewriters (though why he thinks he would, I’ve got no idea), but Poirot simply shrugs and says that Miss Lemon handles that sort of thing. But, unfortunately for Japp, Miss Lemon is in Frinton and so can’t help him.

On that note, time to wrap up. ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ is a decent and fairly faithful adaptation of an enjoyable short story. It’s just not an adaptation of ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.

Ooh… one final thing… continuing my rundown of Poirot’s funky accessories, this episode features a rather natty little pocket ashtray that Poirot takes to parties. I love it.

The next episode is ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’

* Given my last post – about ‘The Double Clue’ [] – it’s maybe worth noting that Poirot’s assessment of Miss Lemon is part of an odd little musing on the detective’s ‘continental preference for curves’ on women. During this, he remembers ‘a certain Russian countess’, but dismisses the memory as a ‘folly of earlier days’. More proof, perhaps, that Vera Rossakoff is not Poirot’s Irene Adler, but rather just a woman he once thought was ‘lush’.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Poirot Project Update

So... in 2016 I set out to rewatch every episode of ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, rereading the original stories as I went along. The reason behind this is that I've struggled to watch Curtain, even though I've read the book several times. I thought that by being completist, I might finally be able to watch the finale of David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot (rather than switching it off after 30 seconds, which is the most I've managed so far).

In my usual style, though, I've been way more completist than I really needed to be. And so some of my posts have drifted into quite long pieces musing on Christie's creations, the context of the stories and their adaptations, and my memories of watching the episodes for the first time. This - along with the fact that 2016 has been exhaustingly hectic - has resulted in me most definitely not watching every episode. In fact, I've only made it through the first 3 series!

Since it's coming up to the end of the year, and I'm definitely not going to get to the end of the series in 2016, this is a little recap of the posts I've already written for my little project...

There's my Introduction post to get started (which includes a few more of the personal reasons for doing this). And then the episode-by-episode posts...

Series 1

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook
Murder in the Mews
The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
The Third Floor Flat
Triangle at Rhodes
Problem at Sea
The Incredible Theft
The King of Clubs
The Dream

Series 2

Peril at End House
The Veiled Lady
The Lost Mine
The Cornish Mystery
The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
Double Sin
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat
The Kidnapped Prime Minister
The Adventure of the Western Star

Feature Length Episode

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Series 3

How Does Your Garden Grow?
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
The Plymouth Express
Wasp's Nest
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
The Double Clue
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
The Theft of the Royal Ruby
The Affair at the Victory Ball
The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge

Other Posts

As I just can't help digressing, I've posted some other miscellaneous musings while I've been working my way through the episodes...

Reading My First Poirot Novel - a guest post by Rob Shedwick
The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon
Agatha Christie Inspired Music by Digital Front

And finally, we decided to have a bit of a Poirot-themed trip after we watched 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim'. In June, we went to Surrey to visit Brooklands Museum - one of the brilliant locations used in the series. The first picture below is from the TV show, but the rest are from our visit (including the pic of a 1930s Lagonda!)

So I'm going to press on and start 2017 with The ABC Murders... I reckon I'm definitely going to get to Curtain by next Christmas...

Poirot Project: The Double Clue (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 Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 10th February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in December 1923.

I might as well get this out of the way… ‘The Double Clue’ isn’t one of my favourite short stories (I don’t hate it – I’m just a bit meh about it), and the adaptation really isn’t one of my favourite episodes either. And – if I wanted to get into an Agatha Christie fandom fight – I’d also say that I don’t really like the way this story has been elevated into a more significant moment in the Poirot canon than it actually is.

As I’ve been rereading Christie’s Sketch stories, I’ve become quite taken with the way she riffs off Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in a rather affectionate homage-y sort of way. So, ‘The Veiled Lady’ references ‘The Speckled Band’; ‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ make little nods to ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’; and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ is a playful take on ‘The Red-Headed League’. Given this, it was probably only a matter of time before Christie turned her cheeky gaze on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ – the first of Doyle’s Holmes short stories.

And so we have ‘The Double Clue’, and Poirot’s version of Irene Adler.

In case it needs any introduction, Doyle’s story sees Holmes consulted by a member of the Bohemian royal family, who has become entangled with the retired opera singer and ‘well-known adventuress’ Irene Adler. The Grand Duke is now being blackmailed by Adler, and he needs Holmes’s help to retrieve some incriminating letters and a photograph, so that she can’t publicize the eponymous scandal and prevent the Grand Duke’s forthcoming marriage to the King of Scandinavia’s daughter. It’s a big case, but Holmes seems to act as though it won’t pose any particular challenge.

But in that the great detective is sorely mistaken. Despite Holmes utilizing his apparently superhuman powers of disguise, Adler is always one step ahead of him, and he is unable to apprehend (or even unmask) the criminal that lies beneath the woman’s respectable exterior. The story ends with Adler writing to Holmes to reveal that she was onto him from the start, but to return the incriminating photograph nevertheless (she’s now married, and gives the excuse of loving her husband to explain why she’s dropping the blackmail plan). She tells him that she’s decided to leave the country before he can catch her, and wishes him a cordial (perhaps even affectionate) goodbye.

Holmes is so taken with the intelligence of the woman – apparently he’s impressed with the way she saw through his disguise – that he asks to keep the photograph of Adler as a souvenir. And that’s it. That’s all there is to the story. But, for some reason (which I’ll come back to shortly), both Holmes and Watson are determined to build this little interlude into the most significant interaction the detective has ever had with the opposite sex. Watson begins the story by saying that, for Holmes, Adler ‘eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’, and he ends it by noting that this (rather underwhelming) case has completely changed Holmes’s perception of women:
‘He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.’
Christie’s take on ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ also sees a great detective running up against an ‘adventuress’. And it also ends with the adventuress heading off into the sunset. But ‘The Double Clue’ is not ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and (more importantly) Vera Rossakoff is not Irene Adler.

As with a few other Poirot stories, ‘The Double Clue’ sees Christie takes the basic outline of a Holmes story and transposes it into the fashionable world of the 1920s. Like his forebear, the detective is consulted at the beginning of the story – but by a ‘celebrity’, rather than a ‘hereditary king’. Marcus Hardman is a man who has ‘spent his money zealously in the pursuit of social pleasure’. Unfortunately, he has been relieved of some of this money/pleasure by a dastardly jewel thief. Loathe to call the police, Hardman has called upon the great Belgian detective (‘as a compromise’) in an attempt to retrieve the stolen jewellery.

The mystery should be a relatively straightforward one for Poirot. The jewels were stolen at a tea party the previous day. Among the guests were a South African millionaire named Johnston, Lady Runcorn, Bernard Parker and Countess Vera Rossakoff (‘a very charming Russian lady, a member of the old régime’). When the safe is examined, two clues are discovered: a man’s glove and a cigarette case engraved with the initials B.P.

‘The Double Clue’ isn’t as perplexing a mystery as many of the other Poirot stories, and it lacks the intricate clueing of much of Christie’s other writing. The central puzzle – the ‘double clue’ of the title – is a bit disappointing when compared with, say, the twin necklaces of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ or the disappearing bonds in ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’. But that’s because this story isn’t just about the puzzle – it’s also about one of the suspects.

Although Hardman tells us that Vera Rossakoff is a ‘charming’ lady, Hastings (our narrator) comes to a different conclusion. He is quite taken aback by the woman’s appearance:
‘Without the least warning the door flew open, and a whirlwind in human form invaded our privacy, bringing with her a swirl of sables (it was as cold as only an English June day can be) and a hat rampant with slaughtered ospreys. Countess Vera Rossakoff was a somewhat disturbing personality.’
Rossakoff bombards the men with a passionate defence of Bernard Parker – who is currently the chief suspect – before sweeping out of the room, insisting that she will clear the man’s name. Poirot says very little during this interaction, and offers Hastings (and the reader) little insight into his assessment of the Russian countess, save that he believes she is genuinely Russian.

However, when you read the story for a second time, you realize that Poirot has twigged a lot more about Rossakoff than he’s letting on. Just a few paragraphs after his first meeting with the countess, Poirot is found studying the Russian alphabet. When you know the story’s ending, you know that this is the point where Poirot has worked out the meaning of the cigarette case’s engraving, and so has a good idea who the culprit is.

So, ‘The Double Clue’, on the face of it, bears little resemblance to ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. The set-up, development and solution of the mystery are nothing like that found in Doyle’s story. Instead, the similarity lies in the eventual fate of the female culprit, and in the detective’s lingering admiration for her at the end of the case.

When Poirot has satisfied himself that Rossakoff is the jewel thief, he takes an unusual step. Rather than pushing for her apprehension – which he could no doubt do, as he’s had people arrested on far flimsier evidence and could always fake a séance if he wanted to make her confess – he speaks to the woman confidentially, and offers to let her escape if she hands back the jewels. It’s a rather nice little exchange, in which Poirot and Rossakoff are politeness personified, but utterly unambiguous about what has happened.

Rossakoff hands back the jewels, pays Poirot a compliment, and announces that she will be leaving London. In return, Poirot makes a neat little bow and hands back the cigarette case without comment. Immediately after this, Poirot expresses his admiration of the woman to Hastings:
‘“What a woman!” cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. “Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument – of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that – with a careless smile – will go far! She is dangerous, she has the nerves of steel; she –” He tripped heavily.’
Poirot’s exclamation of ‘What a woman!’ undoubtedly recalls Holmes’s lifelong admiration of Irene Adler (‘she is always the woman’). But there’s a really important difference here… Holmes admires Adler because she got the better of him; Poirot admires Rossakoff because she recognizes that he got the better of her. And isn’t that just Poirot all over?

It could be argued that, far from Rossakoff being the woman, Poirot is actually the man in this story. After all, like Adler, it’s Poirot who is in the driving seat the whole time (even if his opponent doesn’t realize it), and it’s Poirot who reveals that he saw through a ‘disguise’ (his handing back Rossakoff’s cigarette case is a bit like Adler revealing that she knew all along that the clergyman was Holmes). And it’s Rossakoff – not Poirot – who suggests that her opponent stands almost alone of his gender:
‘It is a great compliment that I pay you there – there are very few men in the world whom I fear.’
The fact is that Poirot doesn’t need an Irene Adler – Rossakoff was never going to be the woman for Poirot, because (unlike Holmes) the little Belgian has got plenty of women. Throughout the run of Poirot stories, there will be so so many more female characters than in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I don’t actually know for sure how many female murderers there were in Doyle’s stories, but I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head.* Poirot is surrounded by female murderers, thieves, fraudsters and blackmailers – and he falls for the charms of several of them (Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson are the obvious ones, but he’s also very sympathetic to Jacqueline de Bellefort). But the shoe is sometimes on the other foot, and Rossakoff isn’t the first female jewel thief to look on Poirot with ‘affectionate awe’ – Gertie (in ‘The Veiled Lady’) thinks he’s a ‘nippy old devil’, and even hires him herself. As well as the bad girls, Poirot is also surrounded by slightly better behaved women. Two of his regular associates are women, and he reveals a number of friendships – both old and new – with women of different ages (e.g. he acts as ‘avuncular’ to young women like Katherine Grey, but is also rather protective of older women such as Emily Arundell). He also flirts cheekily with younger women in ‘The Triangle at Rhodes’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’, waxes lyrical at the beauty of motherhood in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and admires the professionalism of the female chemist in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never mind how good a jewel thief she is, Poirot simply hasn’t got room in his life for an Irene Adler.

There’s an interesting little comment at the beginning of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ that reveals something about the differences in how Holmes and Poirot relate to women (or, perhaps, how they relate to their ‘significant others’ Watson and Hastings). Doyle’s short story begins with Watson paying a call on Holmes after a period of separation. Watson explains this:
‘I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.’
As the two men begin to talk, it’s quickly apparent that Holmes doesn’t have the slightest inclination to ask after Mrs Watson. He’s more interested in playing his usual parlour game of deducing odd little nuggets of information about his visitors (such as the fact that Watson has a clumsy parlourmaid) than talking about what’s going on in his friend’s life. So distant have the two men been that Holmes didn’t even know Watson was practicing medicine again. Compare this with Poirot and Hastings’s reunion in Peril at End House. Here, the pair have also been separated by the associate’s marriage. But Poirot and Hastings have been much further apart than Holmes and Watson (who both remained in London, just not in regular communication) – Hastings has moved to Argentina, where he runs a ranch with his wife Dulcie (or Bella, as Hastings can’t seem to remember her name). Nevertheless, it’s clear that, not only has Poirot kept in touch with his old friend, he is also acquainted with Mrs Hastings. In fact, he has a rather high opinion of her.

When Hastings rails at Poirot for questioning his intelligence, he asks whether or not he’d be able to run such a successful ranch if he was as stupid as Poirot continually implies. The detective shakes his head:
‘Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it – you and your wife.’
I think the implication here is pretty clear. Poirot has a high regard for Dulcie/Bella, as he believes she’s keeping Hastings on the straight-and-narrow. Holmes, on the other hand, seems monumentally uninterested in his friend’s marriage, and has no concern whatsoever for his old friend’s wife. For Doyle’s detective, there really is only one woman.

Anyway, time to move on to the TV adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’. But just one final point before I do…

Although the story and TV episode are naturally dominated by the introduction of Vera Rossakoff, it’s worth giving a little bit of attention to the presentation of two of the other characters – Marcus Hardman and Bernard Parker.

When Hastings and Poirot first meet Hardman, he is described as ‘a small man, delicately plump, with exquisitely manicured hands and a plaintive tenor voice’. The man describes the scene of the crime to the detective, and is then asked questions about the guests at his tea party. When they reach Parker, Hardman is evasive:
‘He is – er – he is a young fellow. Well, in fact, a young fellow I know.’
Now, it’s quickly explained that Hardman’s reluctance comes from the fact that Parker privately organizes the sale of heirlooms for upper class families who have fallen on hard times. His job is a sensitive one, and Hardman is hesitant to reveal such a role exists. However, there’s a lingering suggestion in the way Hardman introduced Parker, and this doesn’t go away when we meet the man himself. Hastings offers the following description of the ‘young fellow’:
‘We found him reclining on some cushions, clad in an amazing dressing-gown of purple and orange. I have seldom taken a greater dislike to anyone than I did to this particular young man with his white, effeminate face and affected lisping speech.’
Hardman and Parker are both described in terms of their effeminacy, and there is a question mark placed over their relationship to one another. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say these characters are coded as gay, there’s certainly something ‘other’ about them (particularly Parker) that Hastings finds distasteful. I’m not sure we’re supposed to imagine that Hardman and Parker are definitely in a relationship, but we’re certainly meant to be suspicious that this might be the case.

So now to the ITV adaptation…

The adaptation of ‘The Double Clue’ was written by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Andrew Piddington. On the whole, it’s a fairly faithful retelling of Christie’s story (plot-wise), with a few extra details thrown in to expand the story to fit the TV format.

The biggest alteration, in this respect, is the inclusion of Japp and Miss Lemon – but that’s to be expected from the early series. The addition of Japp alters the story’s set-up a bit, as the theft of Hardman’s jewellery is now part of a series of thefts that have baffled Scotland Yard. Japp is under pressure from his bosses to solve the case, and he enlists Poirot’s help to do so.

This alteration doesn’t really work, as Poirot is able to solve the case with remarkable ease (even for him). He very quickly ascertains that Rossakoff was the only guest present at all of the thefts, a fact which you’d think Japp would have picked up on at some point. There’s a rather clumsy suggestion that Rossakoff’s presence has been overlooked because the police are ‘too English’, but this doesn’t really hold water. In ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, the Russian woman was the first (and only) person anyone apart from Poirot suspected, so it seems strange that Japp would now assume a Russian countess was utterly beyond suspicion. Nevertheless, this explanation allows for Japp to be part of the gang for this episode, which is always welcome in my book.

Aside from this, the only major alteration to Christie’s puzzle comes from the revelation that Lady Runcorn’s maiden name was Beatrice Palmerston, which allows her to more obviously be in the frame for owning the cigarette case.

However, although the clues and puzzle are pretty much the same as in Christie’s short story, there are some quite dramatic alterations to tone in the adaptation. In particular, the two (possible) relationships that are hinted at in the short story undergo quite big changes in the TV episode. I’ll come to Poirot/Rossakoff in a moment, but first I want to look at Hardman/Parker.

The TV version of Hardman (played by David Lyon) is nothing like his literary counterpart. There is nothing of the effeminacy hinted at in the short story, and one would be hard-pressed to describe Lyon’s voice as a ‘plaintive tenor’. Rather than hosting an intimate little tea party, this version of Hardman throws a thoroughly respectable evening do, which is attended by a large number of people. And, while the TV Hardman is a little evasive about his relationship with Parker, this comes across more as dislike, rather than as embarrassment.

Parker, on the other hand, is even more exaggerated than the character in Christie’s story. In the adaptation, the ‘young fellow’ is transformed into a rather slimy – and undeniably camp – individual (played by David Bamber). While the literary character served an embarrassing, but necessary, function in high society, this Parker appears to have insinuated himself into fashionable circles by flirting with, and imposing on, the cash-strapped upper classes.

When Hastings visits Parker at home, he finds him much the same as in Christie’s short story. However, there’s an interesting moment in the TV episode that suggests that this version of the character is more clearly meant to be read as gay. The episode has an additional clue – the discovery of a piece of embroidery marked with the initials ‘B.P.’ – due to the enhanced confusion over who owns the cigarette case. Hastings confronts Parker and asks if this has anything to do with him. Parker says he has no idea what Hastings is talking about, and questions the implications of his being asked if he’s ever done any embroidery. But the way Bamber delivers his lines here is highly suggestive. He demurs and giggles at the question, lowers his eyes, and then looks searchingly at Hastings as if trying to work out a subtext. Parker seems flirtatious, but also curious. It’s like he’s trying to work out whether or not Hastings is speaking to him in code: ‘Are you asking if I’m gay? Do you want me to be gay? Are you gay?’

The uneasy outcome of this is that, while Christie’s 1923 text hinted at the possibility of a gay relationship (albeit not a particularly solid one, given that Hardman is more than happy when he believes Parker is the jewel thief), the 1991 adaptation is uncomfortable with this, and replaces it with a rather unpleasant effete man who flirts with both women (to slime his way into society) and men (when he thinks they’re possible conquests). By removing any effeminacy in the presentation of Hardman, the adaptation makes Parker seem more like a predatory weirdo than a (slightly dodgy) ‘young fellow’. It’s sad to think that the hint in Christie’s story that Hardman is worried his boyfriend has stolen his jewels needed to be played down for TV in the 1990s.

And as the homosexual relationship is erased, a heterosexual one springs up to fill its place. Sigh.

As I’ve said, Poirot’s admiration of Rossakoff in Christie’s short story is the result of her behaviour after he has identified her as the thief. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the ITV adaptation – instead, it appears someone thought it was time for Poirot to get a girlfriend.

The TV Rossakoff (played here by Kika Markham) is a very different kettle of fish to the character in Christie’s short story. Rather than bursting into the story swathed in fur and feathers, this countess arrives with an air of mystery and romance. We see her leaving a train, surrounded by shadows; we see her sitting at a window gazing wistfully at rain; we see her approach Poirot with grace, elegance and – of course – a hint of tragedy.

Poirot, in turn, is utterly charmed from the first moment he meets Rossakoff. He is visibly infatuated as he bows over her hand and mutters ‘Enchanté, madame,’ and he continues this rather awed approach each time he sees her.

Poirot and Rossakoff start going on dates together. Specifically, they visit an art gallery (filmed in Senate House, a location also used in ‘The Veiled Lady’) and flirt with an over-the-top repressed politeness. He winces when she calls him ‘Hercule’, but they each reveal a little of their souls as they point out art with which they feel a connection. They speak of feeling exiled from their countries, and walk arm-in-arm.

It’s completely rubbish, and it’s the reason I don’t like this episode.

Never mind that Poirot appears to have forgotten the investigation entirely at this point – even though his friend’s job is on the line – he seems to have forgotten all the values and morals that have underpinned his character from the start. While Poirot always has a soft spot for people displaced from their homeland, there’s nothing in any of the stories to suggest that he’d find a jewel thief who lifts necklaces from posh people’s parties any other than dull. Admittedly, Poirot does occasionally let criminals get away (or ‘escape the noose’ if the crime is murder) if he believes they aren’t really ‘bad’ people, but there’s no justification at all for Rossakoff’s thefts, other than that she wanted some nice stuff. So the fact that Poirot just lets her get away with it leaves us with the suggestion that he simply fancies her too much to see her arrested – and that’s not Poirot at all.

That’s right – he just lets her get away with it. And not in the brief ‘I’ve got no evidence, so if you give me the jewels we’ll say no more about it’ way he does in the short story. Oh no. Here, the detective lies to his friends to protect the countess, invents a story about a mysterious tramp, hires a man to play the tramp (which results in Hastings being shot at by the actor Poirot has employed), goes on a romantic picnic with the real thief, retrieves the jewels, puts the blame for the cigarette case on Lady Runcorn (inventing a spurious story about the innocent woman wanting to sell it to Hardman), and then hires two detectives (Redfern and Blake) to watch over Rossakoff as she makes her getaway. It’s a far cry from him simply telling Rossakoff to hurry up and give him the necklace, because he’s got a taxi waiting.

Poirot’s final comments on/to Rossakoff in each of the different versions reveal how much of a shift has occurred in their relationship. In the TV episode, he is clearly heartbroken by the impossibility of their being together. After the case has been ‘resolved’, Poirot and Rossakoff take tea at the railway station and say their goodbyes Brief Encounter style. Poirot admits to the affection and admiration he feels for the woman, but adds (with a note of tragedy) that they are opposites:
‘You must continue your work, and I must continue mine. But not in the same country.’
Wait… what? Did Poirot just say that she must continue nicking rich people’s necklaces? How bizarre.

By contrast, Christie’s version of the story has the detective more impressed by the woman’s boldness in defeat. He enthusiastically gushes to Hastings about Rossakoff’s audacious acceptance of the outcome, and the way she didn’t flinch when he confronted her:
‘A remarkable woman. I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall meet her again. Where, I wonder?’
I like this ending better.

To finish up, I want to say something about the way the other characters respond to Poirot getting a girlfriend. Because this doesn’t sit well with Hastings and Miss Lemon, who are thrown together for most of the episode as a result of their friend’s strange behaviour (in fact, a couple of the interviews that are conducted by Poirot and Hastings in the story are carried out by Hastings and Miss Lemon in the adaptation). Neither of them seem able to understand what is going on.

There’s something quite sweet about the way Hastings and Miss Lemon mourn the potential loss of their friend, but also something a bit uncomfortable. Hastings’s reaction – he is utterly baffled and bereft – is in-keeping with the men’s relationship in both the TV show and Christie’s fiction. I’ll be coming on to the ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ soon, but there’s a bit in the 1923 version of that story where Poirot confesses his heartbreak at Hastings’s marriage in a similar tone to the way Hastings’s responds to Poirot’s relationship here. I also quite like the way Hastings becomes rather protective of his friend, determining to complete the investigation and (if necessary) reveal that Rossakoff has been lying.

But Miss Lemon’s reaction is a bit less cute. Her utter distress at the thought of Poirot getting a girlfriend is a bit… well, a bit much. We know how fond of the little Belgian she is, but it borders on downright jealousy here. In one conversation, as she takes a sombre tea with Hastings, she actually seems to be choking down tears as she blurts out: ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ Never mind that this is a million miles away from the ‘perfect machine’ Miss Lemon of Christie’s fiction, it seems to cross a line in the presentation of the TV character – Miss Lemon doesn’t fancy Poirot, and it’s weird to see her behaving as though she does.

As you can see, this episode irritates me a bit. I much prefer the affectionate fun of Christie’s short story than the doleful ‘star-crossed lovers’ nonsense of the TV version. The 1923 version really reads like a playful take on a Sherlock Holmes story, particularly when it’s read in context of the other Sketch stories. But the TV version removes this playfulness and turns it into something rather melodramatic. I suppose one consolation is that this is definitely not the worst presentation of Poirot’s relationship with Rossakoff in the ITV series – as the detective predicted in Christie’s story, he would run into her again. But it’s going to be a while before I get to that…

One final thing before I finish… it would be remiss of me not to point out that Christie would recycle one half of the story’s ‘double clue’ in a later, much more famous Poirot story. Using the Russian alphabet to decipher a monogram? To paraphrase Poirot:
‘I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall see that again. Where, I wonder?’
Next up… it’s ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’.

* Thank you to Ian Preston, who just reminded me on Twitter that there is a female killer in ‘The Adventure of the Second Stain’. I’m sure there are a couple of others as well, but I can’t remember them.