Showing posts with label Philip Jackson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Jackson. Show all posts

Monday, 26 June 2017

Poirot Project: The ABC Murders (review)


This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 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 Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’.

Due to the various commitments and stresses of life, I’ve had to take a little bit of a break from this project. It’s been over six months since my last Poirot Project post. But I’m pushing on now, and I’m totally sure I’ll get to Curtain by Christmas this year (haha!). In a way, it’s kinda appropriate that I’ve had a six-month break, as that fits quite nicely with The ABC Murders, which is where I’m picking up.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The first episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 5th January 1992. I’ve put inverted commas around ‘series’ here, as the 1992 episodes were a bit of a departure from the previous adaptations. There were only three stories shown this year, and each one was a feature-length adaptation of a novel, rather than the (at this point) standard hour-long short story episodes. It’s now usual to refer to these three episodes as the ‘fourth series’, and they were broadcast in a regular weekly slot that January, but I’m just not sure we really thought of them as a ‘series’ in 1992. In fact, I don’t think we thought about TV in terms of series in the same way at all back then. We had ‘serials’ (usually long-running dramas, often soap operas, where a continuous narrative developed episode-to-episode) and ‘series’ (often sit-coms and crime dramas, where a set of related episodes – most commonly six – were shown weekly, though the narrative wasn’t necessary continuous). But we also had a lot of one-off or self-contained programmes, where a single story was presented (either in one go or in instalments). The BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories were like this, as were The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. I don’t remember ever referring to these as a ‘series’ in the 90s – you’d just say ‘there’s a new Inspector Wexford on this week’, not ‘there’s a new series of Inspector Wexford starting on Sunday’.

But time – and technology – have changed all that. Once long-running shows were packaged up (retrospectively) for VHS, DVD and then streaming, they were divided up into series. So ‘The Dead of Jericho’, ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’ and ‘Service of All the Dead’ stopped being ‘three feature-length dramas shown in January 1987’ and started being ‘Series 1 of Inspector Morse’. And so ‘The ABC Murders’, ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ became ‘Series 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot’. On the whole, this makes sense: these particular episodes of Poirot, like the Inspector Morse adaptations, were shown weekly as a short series, and they were sandwiched between two clearly defined series of eight and ten episodes. But I might have to return to this niggly little point when we move on to the run of feature-length episodes, as they’ve been lumped together into ‘series’ almost at random, in order to better fit the boxset model of TV-watching that we’re all more comfortable with now (at least, that’s the only reason I can think of why ‘Appointment with Death’ is counted as part of ‘Series 11’ and ‘The Clocks’ as ‘Series 12’).

NB: There is no ‘Season 4’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, just as there is no ‘Season 4’ of Sherlock. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I start referring to UK TV shows in terms of ‘seasons’.

Right… that said…

‘The ABC Murders’ was based on the novel of the same name, which was published in early 1936. Just to satisfy the academic part of me, I should say that the edition I’m using here is the paperback edition published by HarperCollins in 1993. This is the first Poirot book I’ve had to go out and buy specifically for this blog project, as (weirdly) I discovered that I didn’t actually own a copy of The ABC Murders. Turns out my Agatha Christie collection is a little haphazard – I own four copies of Death on the Nile, but had to buy ABC.


Although The ABC Murders was published after Murder on the Links, it is narrated by Hastings. Like The Big Four and Peril at End House, it begins with Hastings making a trip back to England and reconnecting with his old friend. As the opening pages tell us, it’s now June 1935, and Hastings has come to England for six months to deal with certain business affairs. However, he soon forgets that was the reason for leaving his wife in Argentina:
‘I need hardly say that one of my first actions on reaching England was to look up my old friend, Hercule Poirot.’
Hastings discovers that some things have changed. Poirot has moved out of lodgings and into a brand new flat:
‘I found him installed in one of the newest type of service flats in London. I accused him (and he admitted the fact) of having chosen this particular building entirely on account of its strictly geometrical appearance and proportions.’
This flat, as we later discover, is in Whitehaven Mansions, EC1 (the postcode area covering City of London, Islington, Camden and Hackney). The TV show had this as Poirot’s permanent address throughout the episodes – though the style and size of the building’s interior changed as the programme progressed – but Christie only moved her Poirot into this ‘newest type of service flat’ in 1935. The 1930s saw a number of new art-deco constructions in central London that might have inspired Christie’s description of a building with ‘strictly geometrical appearance and proportions’ – including Guy Morgan and Partners’ Florin Court, EC1, which was being constructed as she was writing The ABC Murders and which, of course, was used by LWT as the TV version of Whitehaven Mansions.


While Poirot’s residence has changed, the man himself remains curiously unaltered. Hastings is initially baffled by this, exclaiming that his friend looks ‘hardly a day older than when I had last seen him’. This feels, at first, like Christie having a little joke at her famous creation’s longevity. After all, given that Poirot had a distinguished career in the Belgian police force before The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set c.1916), he has to be in his 60s by now – and yet, he seems no different to when he made his first appearance. But it turns out this isn’t the case. In fact, Hastings’s comment on Poirot’s unchanged appearance kicks off a weird little hair obsession that runs throughout the story.

Hastings notes that Poirot has ‘fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last’, which makes his friend beam with pride and reveal a little secret:
‘REVIVIT – To bring back the natural tone of the hair. Revivit is NOT a dye. In five shades, Ash, Chestnut, Titian, Brown, Black.’
After this little exchange, Poirot reveals to Hastings that he has received an anonymous letter (signed only ‘A.B.C.’) suggesting that a crime will take place in Andover on the 21st of the month. Poirot believes that the note should be taken seriously, and so the two men head over to visit another old friend and begin their new adventure.

Inspector Japp has previously dismissed the anonymous letter, but he seems pleased enough to see his old sleuthing buddies back together again. He gives Hastings a ‘hearty welcome’, but this camaraderie is short-lived. Never mind the anonymous note, we’re back to hair again. Japp’s enthusiastic surprise at seeing Hastings reveals something of a raw nerve in our narrator:
‘Quite like old days seeing you here with Monsieur Poirot. You’re looking well, too. Just a little bit thin on top, eh? Well, that’s what we’re all coming to. I’m the same.’
This does not go down well. Hastings winces, as he believed the ‘careful way’ he brushes his hair ‘across the top of [his] head’ made its thinness ‘unnoticeable’. A couple of pages later, he’s still not let it drop. When Poirot jokes that Japp ‘does not change much’, Hastings can’t resist making a dig:
‘“He looks much older,” I said. “Getting as grey as a badger,” I added vindictively.’
Poirot – tactful as ever – realizes that Hastings is still smarting after Japp’s jape, and suggests that Hastings could buy a toupee. This also does not go down well. Hastings has a massive rant, ‘roaring’ about Poirot’s ‘confounded hairdresser’ and the fact that Japp ‘always was an offensive kind of devil’, and blaming his hair loss on the ‘hot summers’ in Argentina. He eventually recovers his temper and admits he is a bit touchy about his hair, but this doesn’t stop him making several sly digs about other characters’ hair later in the book (he comments on Poirot’s moustaches drooping in the heat, and bitchily notes that Megan Barnard’s hair must have recently been permed, as ‘it stood out from her head in a mass of rather frizzy curls’). Let it go, Hastings, let it go.

Anyway… that anonymous letter… obviously, The ABC Murders isn’t really a book devoted to Hastings’s insecurities about his bald patch. It’s about a serial killer. The letter Poirot receives is only the beginning of the case. As forewarned, there is a murder in Andover (Mrs Alice Ascher), and a copy of the ABC railway guide is left near the body. Shortly afterwards, Poirot receives a letter warning that the next murder will take place in Bexhill-on-Sea.


This type of crime is a complete departure for our dynamic duo. As Hastings himself says:
‘Do you know, this is the first crime of this kind that you and I have worked on together? All our murders have been – well, private murders, so to speak.’
When the murder of Carmichael Clarke at Churston follows Betty Barnard in Bexhill, the pattern of the killings is clear, and Poirot has to face the fact that he is well and truly out of his comfort zone. The victims are unrelated, and appear to have been chosen simply for their initials. The main clue – the ABC guide left at the site of each murder – is more a ‘calling card’ than a clue. Poirot’s investigation has to unfold in quite a different way than is usual, with lengthy ‘conferences’ (with police experts and psychologists) replacing the more common one-to-one interviews. There are discourses on the nature of serial killing, expositions on the motivations of anonymous letter writers, and discussions of ‘deadly mania’ and varying types of ‘insanity’.

And it isn’t just the investigation that’s different. The narrative itself is different. Although Hastings is our narrator, and he pretty much carries out this role as he always did, he’s not the only voice we hear. Interspersed with the first-person reportage of our follicly-challenged friend are short chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’s Personal Narrative’, which are written in third person and describe the movements of a character named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Poirot (and the rest of the gang) have no knowledge of Cust’s existence until the end of Chapter 27, and even then they only have a signature (which they misread as A.B. Case or Cash).

So The ABC Murders offers the possibility of a technique that Christie very rarely uses in her detective fiction – dramatic irony. The readers are aware of a character and a set of actions that are explicitly not known to the detective (or the narrator). From Chapter 2 onwards, we know that there is a man who has the initials A.B.C., and we know he has both a railway guide and a list of names that he’s checking off methodically. The mystery is not whodunit, but (as all those confabs about psychology and motive reminds us) whydunit. What a dramatic departure for Poirot and Hastings! No domestic intrigues or jealous family members, no murderers hiding their true nature under a façade of jovial compliance! Not a country house or an inheritance to be seen!

LOL. This is Agatha Christie we’re talking about.

The ABC Murders is an absolute gem of a bastard of a book. Of course there’s no dramatic irony. Of course the reader doesn’t know the murderer’s name before Poirot does. Of course the question is whodunit (with the ‘why’ turning out to be the most mundane of all Christie’s stockpile of motives). As with a lot of Christie’s ‘trick’ books, rereading this book is a lot of fun, as you spot all the ingredients that you weren’t supposed to notice the first time round. Christie is in cahoots with the murderer, forcing us to investigate the wrong sort of crime, when the real clues were under our nose all along.

Before I move on to the adaptation, just a couple of other things I like about Christie’s novel (aside from the fact that Hastings is back! and this time he’s paranoid about his hair!)

A few of the Poirot stories refer back to earlier stories (in more or less spoiler-y ways, depending which one you’re reading). The ABC Murders pulls off the interesting trick of referring to stories that have yet to be published (or even written). In Chapter 3, Poirot outlines his ‘ideal’ murder case:
‘“Supposing,” murmured Poirot, “that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he is dummy, has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?”’
Hastings isn’t convinced.
‘“Well,” I said. “I can’t see any excitement in that!”’
If Hastings isn’t enthused by this teaser for Cards on the Table (which was published in November 1936, just ten months after The ABC Murders), Japp has a bit more fun coming up with future plotlines for the detective:
‘“I shouldn’t wonder if you ended by detecting your own death,” said Japp, laughing heartily. “That’s an idea, that is. Ought to be put in a book.” “It will be Hastings who will have to do that,” said Poirot, twinkling[.]’
Now. There’s an idea.

In some previous posts, I’ve had a bit of a muse over Hastings’s financial situation, and the reason why he spent so much of the 20s apparently mooching off Poirot. A while ago I suggested that Hastings might be upper middle class, but without any real family money or property. His lack of aptitude or enthusiasm for a career may have left him cash-strapped and in need of free board with his illustrious associate. It seems in The A.B.C. Murders that Hastings is still trying to make a go of things in South America, though his ranch has been struggling due to the ‘world depression’. (That he’s left his wife to manage things for six months on her own isn’t too much of a surprise – after all, Poirot slyly suggested that in Peril at End House that Mrs Hastings is the real business brain in that family.) As I’ve said, we don’t learn very much about Hastings’s background in the Poirot stories, though we can deduce certain things from his character. There is a little nugget in The A.B.C. Murders though – a blink and you’ll miss it moment that confirms my suspicions about Hastings’s class and status.

Towards the end of the novel – just before Poirot meets Cust for the first time – he and Hastings overhear some children singing a song about catching a fox. Poirot comments that fox-hunting is a ‘strange sport’. Hastings is quick to defend the practice, attempting to claim that it isn’t really as cruel as it sounds. So far, so upper-crust English gent. But then, when Poirot asks if people really hunt foxes in England, his friend says: ‘I don’t. I’ve never been able to afford to hunt.’ Poor old Hastings – follicly and fiscally challenged as ever.

One final little detail that always makes me giggle before I move on (though it’s probably just me): after Poirot receives the letter warning them about Bexhill, the Chief Constable of Sussex (one of the many people drawn into the investigation) demands that the local constabulary keep a watch on any small shopkeepers with a ‘B’ initial, and also that they keep tabs on all strangers arriving in Bexhill. The local superintendent immediately objects:
‘With the schools breaking up and the holidays beginning? People are fairly flooding into the place this week.’
Nous aurons besoin d’un bateau plus gros, mon ami.


So on to the TV adaptation… ‘The A.B.C Murders’ was written by Clive Exton and directed by Andrew Grieve. With that team at the helm, it probably goes without saying that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. All of the key elements of the story are included, and the changes that are made are necessary to fit the format (and chronology) of the TV series as a whole.

Just as in Christie’s book, we begin with Hastings arriving back in England after a period of absence. However, as we’ve not reached Murder on the Links yet, Hastings hasn’t actually moved to Argentina. Instead, he’s been on holiday to South America for six months. His old friend picks him up at the station, and the two have a warm reunion. Hastings is meant to be staying at a hotel, but Poirot won’t hear of it:
‘There is no hotel, mon ami. Until you regain your apartment, you stay with Poirot!’
This neat little switch allows for some of the dynamics of Christie’s novel to be replicated in the adaptation (despite the fact that TV Hastings hasn’t yet left home for good). It means that Japp can beam with pleasure at being reacquainted with Hastings – and also that he can comment on his thinning hair without it seeming out of place. Part of this exchange is retained from the source material, though the TV-Hastings lets it drop a lot quicker than his literary counterpart, but the earlier reference to Poirot dyeing his hair is removed (presumably because his pride in doing this wouldn’t fit with the hint dropped in the adaptation of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ that Poirot is surreptitiously tinting his barnet).

What does have to be dropped, though, is the reference to Poirot having moved to a new flat. Obviously, within the TV series, he hasn’t moved at all, and so they return to a Whitehaven Mansions that is familiar from previous adventures. Similarly, the reference to Poirot having previously retired to grow vegetable marrows is removed, as we’ve not got to that yet in the TV series. Oddly, one of the more domestic scenes between Hastings and Poirot is also removed (despite the fact that this would have fitted in well with the on-screen version of their relationship). In Christie’s novel, after the misdirected Churston letter arrives, Hastings decides there’s no time to waste, and so bursts into Poirot’s bedroom and starts packing his friend’s clothes into a suitcase. To be fair, Hastings is only following suit here – after the Bexhill murder, Hastings wakes up to discover his friend standing over him, offering to bring him a cup of coffee.

The adaptation seems a bit coy about showing Hastings and Poirot popping in and out of each other’s bedrooms, folding each other’s clothes and bringing each other coffee in bed. So we lose the lovely ‘regard what you have done to my pyjamas’ line from Christie’s novel. Instead, it’s replaced by a similarly domestic (but less boudoir) scene of domestic harmony, in which the two friends do the dishes together while discussing the case.


The investigation is also played out on similar lines to that in Christie’s original novel, but with some changes made here and there to keep the episode to time. The murders and anonymous letters follow the same pattern as in the book, and the ‘Legion’ of interested parties formed to assist Poirot is retained, though it meets for the first time with much less preamble than in the novel. Miss Lemon is sadly not present in this episode, but she was also absent from Christie’s novel, despite having made her debut appearance as Poirot’s secretary the previous year (George is also missing from Christie’s novel, by the way – it’s almost as though these surrogate Watsons are just sent away the second Hastings sets foot in England).


Some things are cut from the adaptation. Many of the investigators are cut, with their roles being conflated into the all-purpose Japp (a common occurrence in the early episodes of the series). A lot of the early interviews, particularly those conducted in Andover, are also cut, as are the lengthy conferences on the nature of serial killers and mania. Presumably the programme-makers thought they were on safe ground excising most of the explanations of ‘the “chain” or “series” type of murder’ in 1992. The psychology of serial killers might have been brand-new when Christie was writing her novel (the German term Serienmörder was coined in 1930), but it needed little exposition in the early 90s. (First principles, Clarice. What does he do, this man you seek?)

However, the episode is very clear on when it is set (August 1936, which doesn’t really give Hastings time to have had a six-month holiday since their last case, so it’s a good thing I’ve given up on any sort of coherent timeline), so the programme-makers needed to keep some sense of the ‘newness’ of this type of murder investigation. To keep things concise, they give a flavour of the more academic discussions of A.B.C.’s crimes through a number of shots of newspaper stories and headlines.


Despite the condensed investigation and the chastened Poirot/Hastings relationship, the episode does a good job in capturing the flavour of Christie’s novel. There are trains everywhere, and much of the ‘action’ consists of the gang running back and forth to catch trains to other destinations. There are plenty of fab shots of steam trains hurrying across the countryside, and a number of head-to-heads with Poirot and Hastings discussing the case in various train carriages.


In addition to this, an attempt is made to keep the feel of Christie’s narration style. On the whole, the episode follows the dynamic duo’s perspective, just as the book was told through Hastings’s first-person reportage. However, interspersed throughout are little scenes of the man we’ll come to know as Cust going about his daily business in a more and more suspicious way. This is a nice touch, and a good way of remaining faithful to Christie’s novel, but it does lead to a slightly annoying anachronism early on. When we first see Cust, he is in the cinema. The man on the screen exclaims:
‘That’s where you’re wrong. I am the Dorset murderer! I killed Lily James, and all the others, and now I am going to kill you!’
Cust is enraptured by this, his excited face picked out in the flickering glow of the screen, while the rest of the audience remain obscured by shadows. The snatch of dialogue we’re given allows us (perhaps) to spot that the film is Black Limelight, which is about a series of random murders carried out by a madman and which spark a sensationalist press frenzy. It’s a very apt film to use in this first introduction to Cust, and it plays along with Christie’s game. But it came out in 1939. Sigh.

(We see Cust in the cinema again towards the end of the episode. This time he’s watching Number 17, which came out in 1932. I can only assume from this that the programme-makers wanted to suggest that Doncaster was somewhat behind the times.)

What about Cust though?


The casting in this episode has its ups and downs. But Donald Sumpter’s portrayal of Alexander Bonaparte Cust is just perfect. He is exactly the character I imagined when I read the book. In particular, Sumpter manages to capture the darkness of the character – Cust is a man who, unusually for Christie’s fiction, is utterly broken by his experiences in WWI. The scene in which Cust has a conversation with a younger man about the Churston murder is retained (though it’s conducted in a library, rather than in a public gardens, in the TV episode), and it conveys perfectly the sense of a man mentally unravelling:
‘“Sorry, sir, I expect you were in the war.”
“I was,” said Mr Cust. “It – it – unsettled me. My head’s never been right since. It aches, you know. Aches terribly.”’
Other casting is also good. Pippa Guard makes a good Megan Barnard (though she’s a tad more forceful than her literary counterpart), and Nicholas Farrell (in his first of two Poirot appearances – he’ll be back for another train-based adventure in The Mystery of the Blue Train) is a good choice for poor old Donald Fraser.

Where the casting falls down, though, is with Franklin Clarke (played by Donald Douglas). Christie’s Franklin was ‘a big fair-haired man with a sunburnt face’. When everything’s out in the open, Poirot describes ‘[t]he daring adventurous character, the roving life […] [t]he attractive free and easy manner – nothing easier for him than to pick up a girl in a café’. This really doesn’t fit with the character as portrayed by Douglas, who ditches ‘free and easy’ for ‘uptight and serious’. Annoyingly, the episode actually draws attention to this problem. After Cust’s arrest, Poirot throws a question over his guilt by asking whether or not Cust would have been able to flirt with Betty Barnard and persuade her to remove her own belt:
‘Can you imagine Monsieur Cust, as you English say, getting off with a pretty young girl?’
No we can’t. But neither can we imagine the staid old Franklin Clarke out on the pull on Bexhill beach.

These niggles aside, it’s still a great episode and a good adaptation of a very enjoyable book. I feel I may have waffled on far too much about this one (that’s what comes of taking such a long break from writing about Poirot), so I’ll end (as I often do) with some of the little details that made me smile.

Of course, I have to mentioned Hastings’s cayman.


Hastings has brought this ugly-looking specimen, which he calls Cedric, back from Venezuela as a gift for Poirot. There’s quite the story behind it as well – but Poirot and Japp seem a wee bit reluctant to hear it. Poirot is also rather unsettled to discover that he is expected to display Cedric in the middle of the ‘geometrical appearance and proportions’ of his cherished apartment.

For some people – like my husband Rob, who was watching this episode for the first time – it’s the resolution of the running Cedric joke that gets the biggest laugh. For me, though, it’s the moment when Poirot complains about the cayman’s smell and Hastings proudly announces that he’s doused it in some cologne he found in the bathroom. Poirot’s face is the perfect picture.

Cedric aside, my other favourite little snippet comes near the beginning of the episode. After Poirot and Hastings have their little reunion, we cut to Japp hard at work in his office. Except he’s not really – he’s taking down a shopping list being dictated over the phone by his wife, Emily. And he’s not happy about being asked to keep sausages in his desk drawer.


Good old Mrs Japp. If Mrs Columbo could get her own show, I have no idea why Emily Japp Investigates was never made.

And on that note, I really do think it’s time to move on. Two more episodes to get my teeth into for this ‘series’. Get my teeth into… do you get it? Well, you will do shortly.

Next up: ‘Death in the Clouds’

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.’
and:
‘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.’
Awww…


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’ [http://shewolf-manchester.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/poirot-project-double-clue-review.html] – 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’.