Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Monday, 12 March 2018

Poirot Project: Death in the Clouds (review)


This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 lifelong 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 ABC Murders’, quite a while ago. Because of work commitments, it’s taken me a while to get back to my little project, but I’m hoping I can crack on now… let’s see how that goes…

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 12th January 1992. (Have a look at the previous post for an explanation of why I’ve put ‘series’ in inverted commas.) It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Death in the Air), which was published in 1935. The academic in me wants to note the edition of the novel I’m using here:


It’s the Hamlyn Collected Edition from 1969 (which also includes Murder on the Orient Express and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?). My grandma had a collection of these hardback triple editions, and I inherited them when she died. Obviously, where possible, I’m reading my grandma’s books for this project.

Death in the Clouds was published just a couple of months after the UK publication of Three Act Tragedy, and the two novels share a few minor details and plot points. I’ll come back to this when I get to Three Act Tragedy, I think. For now, let’s talk about Poirot’s airborne adventure.

By this point in Poirot’s story, Hastings has departed for South America (and this novel doesn’t feature one of his periodic returns), and Miss Lemon hasn’t yet joined his team (‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ wouldn’t be published until August 1935). So this is a Poirot story where our detective is flying solo, at least at first.

The story begins with a group of passengers boarding a plane, the Prometheus, from Le Bourget to Croydon. Amongst the passengers is, of course, Poirot, but we’re actually introduced to someone else first: a young hairdresser named Jane Grey. In fact, much of the novel is told from Jane’s POV, including quite a few scenes in which Poirot isn’t present. In the first chapter, Jane assesses her fellow passengers – including the ‘little elderly man with large moustaches and an eggshaped head’ – and reflects on the holiday she has just taken to Le Pinet and an incident that occurred while she was there.

Aside from Poirot, the passengers observed by Jane are: Lady Horbury, a cocaine-addicted former chorus-girl turned peeress-by-marriage; Venetia Kerr, a ‘horsey, county type’; a nice man in a periwinkle-blue pullover, who Jane had met at the roulette table one night; Dr Bryant, a tall man with a flute; the Duponts, two excited French archaeologists; Daniel Clancy, a detective fiction writer; and James Ryder, who is worrying about money. The final passenger to be mentioned, right at the end of the first chapter, is Madame Giselle. But Madame Giselle is already dead…

As the murder must have occurred while the plane was in the air, these passengers form our list of suspects (along with the two stewards, Mitchell and Davis, I guess… though no Christie fan would genuinely suspect a young lad called Albert Davis whose first word in the novel is ‘Coo!’). As the victim was sitting across the aisle from the great Hercule Poirot, the detective is naturally inclined to investigate. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to fly solo for long. When the plane arrives in Croydon, he’s joined by his old friend Inspector Japp, who views it all as a ‘rum business’.

You see, the initial investigation of the body on the plane (carried out by Poirot and Dr Bryant before they land) seems to suggest that Madame Giselle was killed by a poisoned dart. Daniel Clancy is able to supply further information:
‘“This object, gentlemen, is the native thorn shot from a blowpipe by certain tribes – er – I cannot be exactly certain now if it is South American tribes or whether it is the inhabitants of Borneo which I have in mind; but that is undoubtedly a native dart that has been aimed by a blowpipe, and I strongly suspect that on the tip –”
“Is the famous arrow poison of the South American Indians,” finished Hercule Poirot.’
Readers of Three Act Tragedy will already be aware of how seriously they should take this suggestion, of course, but Poirot can’t ignore the fact that a dart has been found, and that a number of the passengers were carrying tubes that could have been used as a blowpipe (Lady Horbury’s long cigarette holder, Dr Bryant’s flute, the Duponts’ collection of Kurdish pipes). It certainly does seem to be a ‘rum business’.

The investigation, then, turns to the background of the victim. Madame Giselle – or Marie Morisot (her real name) – was a Parisian moneylender, who had a client list comprising ‘the upper and professional classes’. She travelled to England regularly, as she had a habit of learning her clients’ deepest, darkest secrets, and then using this knowledge to ensure they didn’t fail to repay their debts. In order to find out more, Poirot and Japp have to work with the Paris Sûreté, specifically M. Fournier, who has heard all about Poirot from a M. Giraud. Readers familiar with Murder on the Links will already know about Poirot’s relationship with Giraud, but fortunately it doesn’t cause any problems on this case!

What’s interesting about Death in the Clouds, though, is that this is not the only investigation. Jane Grey and Norman Gale (the nice man in the periwinkle-blue pullover) are also keen to team up to solve the crime and exonerate themselves. Or are they just keen to team up (wink wink)? Poirot sees an opportunity and deputizes the young couple into his investigation, using them as a fake secretary and a disguised blackmailer in turn. After all, he can trust these two as they’re without doubt the most unlikely suspects from the plane. And at least the reader can trust that the killer would never be one of the characters from whose perspective the story is told. Lol.

In a bit of typical Christie slight-of-hand (or arrogance), we’re directly warned against trusting these deputy-detectives. But of course, we pay no attention to the warning, couched as it is in a sly joke from Japp at his friend’s expense:
‘“Well,” said Japp with a grin, “detectives do turn out to be criminals sometimes – in story books.”’
Similarly, we probably paid no attention to the barrage of clues that appeared before Madame Giselle’s inquest, as it’s so very easy to gloss over the wealth of incriminating details Christie often stuffs into the opening chapters of her books.

I’m going to move on to the adaptation in a sec, but there’s a few other bits of the book that are worth noting first…

There are a few references to other Poirot books in Death in the Clouds, but the weird thing is that some of them were yet to be written. Poirot is clearly still thinking about two of his previous cases, for instance, as he makes mention of both Three Act Tragedy and Murder on the Orient Express. When he and Fournier discuss the possibility of a ‘psychological reason’ why no one on the plane noticed someone whipping out a blowpipe to dispatch Madame Giselle, Poirot says:
‘I remember a case in which I was concerned – a case of poison, where that very point arose. There was, as you call it, a psychological moment.’
I should think you do remember it, Poirot – it only happened a couple of months ago!

Then, when an exasperated Japp says that he’s already questioned the passengers about this ‘psychological moment’ to no avail, declaring ‘Everyone can’t be lying’, Poirot notes that in one case he investigated ‘everyone was!’ (Japp just shakes his head at this – ‘You and your cases!’)

But then, we also have a few hints at the future as well. Jane Grey’s performance as Poirot’s secretary (‘As an efficient secretary, Miss Grey has at times to undertake certain work of a temporary nature – you understand?’) reminds us that in a few months Poirot will have engaged the services of a very efficient secretary (though she won’t always be willing to ‘undertake certain work of a temporary nature’). Jane accompanies Poirot to interview Daniel Clancy, a crime writer whose detective, Wilbraham Rice, is a very popular character with a number of quirks and a predilection for eating bananas. In just over a year, Poirot will have teamed up with another creator of popular detective fiction (though it’s Ariadne Oliver, rather than Sven Hjerson, who has the fruit habit).

But the future hint that made me smile most on rereading comes in Chapter 14. We get one of our little glimpses into the mind of dentist Norman Gale – the book really is quite head-hoppy – who briefly considers what it must be like for his patients: ‘Nasty helpless feeling you have in a dentist’s chair. If the dentist were to run amuck…’ Now, perhaps this is just one of those moments where Christie near enough tells you whodunit, but I like to imagine that, at some point over the next few years, she remembered this line and thought, ‘Now that could be a good plot to use.’ And it’s interesting that the programme-makers chose to follow Death in the Clouds with an adaptation of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

A flippant point, and then a serious one before I go on to the TV version.

Flippancy: In one of the early chapters, there’s a list of items included in all the passengers’ hand luggage. I was a bit thrown to discover that Venetia Kerr, Jane Grey and Lady Horbury were all carrying some delicious oaty treats, presumably for a snack on the plane. Thinking about it, though, it is possible that a ‘flapjack’ here means a powder compact.


On a less palatable note, it would be wrong of me not to mention one of the most uncomfortable passages in the book. Jane, as I’ve said, is a hairdresser. She works at a salon run by a man who calls himself ‘M. Antoine’, but whose real name is Andrew Leech. We’re told that his ‘claims to foreign nationality consisted of having had a Jewish mother’. Jane’s co-workers are… not cool with this. One woman, Gladys, refers to their employer as ‘Ikey Andrew’, after the man has (probably rightly) questioned Jane’s demands for a pay rise while she’s still a suspect in a murder investigation. Then, on the same page as Gladys’s anti-Semitism, comes another bit of gross casual racism: Jane and Norman go on their first date, and discover that they have a lot in common. They both like dogs and smoked salmon; they both dislike fat women and Katherine Hepburn. And: ‘They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes.’ Wow. Nice couple.

It’s easy to dismiss these racial slurs as being a product of their time – and in many ways that’s what they are. There are other examples of such views going unquestioned in Christie’s work. But it’s notable that, here, the racism is coming almost entirely from unpleasant characters. Gladys is not a sympathetic character – she is described as having a ‘haughty demeanour’ in public and being ‘hoarse and jocular’ in private. Jane can’t seem to wait to be away from her. The other comment comes during a date with a murderer, so I’m not sure there’s any moral high ground here.

As it turns out, Poirot has a scheme in mind to draw Jane away from these anti-Semitic hairdressers and racist murdering dentists… he sees a different path for his heroine and hatches a match-making plot. It’s not clear whether this plot is due to his suspicion of Gale, or whether he just genuinely believes it is a better match for Jane, but he devotes some time and money to orchestrating a relationship between Jane Grey and Jean Dupont, the French archaeologist from the plane. After Gale’s arrest, Poirot believes he has finally been successful in this, noting that Jane and Dupont will likely soon be married. Jane will be accompanying Dupont to Persia, and specifically tells Poirot that she’s looking forward to having her worldview expanded.

Of course Agatha Christie would see hooking up with an archaeologist as a happy ending.

Okay… time to talk about the TV version…


‘Death in the Clouds’ was written by William Humble and directed by Stephen Whittaker. It follows the book in having Poirot ‘flying solo’ (so there’s no Hastings or Miss Lemon), then picking up Japp (Chief Inspector Japp here) along the way.

The adaptation keeps the bones of the story and characterization from the novel, but there are a few revisions and omissions to fit the television format. Dr Bryant, James Ryder and Armand Dupont (Jean’s father) are dropped, presumably to streamline the list of suspects. Jane Grey is no longer a hairdresser, but instead is one of the air stewards, replacing Albert Davis (Coo!). There’s also no mention of Giraud in the TV episode, which makes sense given there’s been no previous mention of him in the series.

Not only are things streamlined, some of the ‘hidden secrets’ of the novel are presented more explicitly in the adaptation. Lady Horbury’s gambling addiction and money problems are clear from the start; her relationship with her husband, and with Venetia Kerr, aren’t hidden either. We also see the wedding of Anne Giselle – the victim’s daughter – on screen, though we don’t find out who the groom is until the end.

Christie’s first chapter is a very neat piece of introduction and subterfuge. It introduces the various suspects – giving us a glimpse into everyone’s thoughts – without telling us what the crime is, or why we might need to know about these people. This technique wouldn’t translate well onto the screen, so we get some pre-flight sequences in Paris to establish the characters. It is 1936, and so several of our cast are attending the French Championships, watching von Cramm vs. Crawford, and then von Cramm vs. Fred Perry.


Although we don’t meet Jean Dupont and Daniel Clancy at this stage, these early scenes set up the love triangle between Lord Horbury, Cicely Horbury (who is a drinker, but not a cokehead in the episode) and Venetia Kerr. It also allows the ‘nice’ Norman Gale to accidentally meet Jane Grey without having the pair of them gambling the night away in Le Pinet, though Jane appears to prefer the company of the avuncular Belgian detective who talks her through the Surrealist art in a gallery. And who wouldn’t?

Because we see the pre-death activities of the main characters, rather than just having them narrated from the perspectives of the characters themselves, this set-up means that the programme-makers have to pull off a trick that’s had mixed results in the series as a whole: we have to see a character playing two parts, and it’s important we don’t see through her disguise (okay, maybe not as important as it is in some other stories, but still). In my opinion, they pull it off here to an extent. Jenny Downham’s first appearance on screen is as Madeleine, Lady Horbury’s maid. Madeleine is undoubtedly in frump-face – a technique used in other Christie adaptations – but she’s not as unbelievably made-up as, say, Mrs Middleton in 'The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge'. I think they just about get away with us not thinking of Madeleine when Poirot asks if he’s ever met Anne Giselle before (perhaps they were playing with the idea that nobody notices a maid particularly).

The other effect of the pre-flight scenes is that we get a sense of Madame Giselle (Eve Pearce) before she dies – in the novel, we don’t even know she exists until she is dead. Still, the adaptation doesn’t labour the point of Madame Giselle too much; she remains a shadowy figure, who seems to have a hold on Lady Horbury but is giving nothing away.


Reading other reviews of this episode, there seems to be a bit of disagreement among fans as to whether this is a faithful or good adaptation of the novel. Personally, I think it’s a good one. The plot is pretty much unchanged, and many of the minor alterations are due to the constraints of the format.

The biggest changes, really, are to do with characterization and the relationships between characters. Anne Giselle, for instance, is slightly revised to become a willing accomplice in her mother’s death (though not, obviously, an accomplice in the second murder). The inexplicably German-sounding Jean Dupont (Guy Manning) is a little more sinister – orchestrating a meeting with Jane Grey (Sarah Woodward) for the purpose of getting money out of Poirot – and the detective doesn’t do any match-making in the TV version. And Fournier (Richard Ireson) is much less competent here, playing sidekick to a rather bombastic Japp. (I find it ironic that Japp happily invades Fournier’s office and steals his desk, given how much he hated it when a foreign detective did that to him in 'The Adventure of the Cheap Flat'!)

One of the questions I’ve mused on with this episode is whether or not Lady Horbury is a more sympathetic character in the TV adaptation. In the book, she’s a rich, pretty drug addict (often a figure of pity in the Poirot novels – c.f. Freddie Rice and Coco Courtenay). Her husband clearly prefers – and is possibly having an affair with – Venetia Kerr, to whom he is engaged by the end of the book. Poirot, however, is having none of it: ‘[s]he is not the type I admire,’ he says.

In the TV version, Cathryn Harrison plays the actress-cum-peeress with a mixture of brash arrogance (she’s rude to waiters and stewards) and tragic vulnerability (she’s ignored by waiters and stewards). She’s no longer a cokehead, but rather someone who likes partying, while her husband (David Firth) is out being horsey with his mistress (Amanda Royle). Harrison’s portrayal makes us question, through small gestures and facial expressions, if Cicely is neglecting her wifely duties, or if she was never given a chance to fulfil them in the first place. I like this interpretation of the character.

Some final – rather random – observations about the episode…


1. Daniel Clancy’s character is a little exaggerated here. In the TV version (played by Roger Heathcott), he’s a rather distracted man who talks to his fictional creation. He tells Poirot that he can’t help solve the crime, as it’s only Wilbraham Rice who’s able to do solve mysteries. This underlines Clancy’s character as a proto-Ariadne, as Christie’s more developed character often mentions talking to her detective Sven. I like that the programme-makers kept the title of Clancy’s book, The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, to stay faithful to Christie’s version; however, in Christie's novel The Clue of the Scarlet Petal features death by South American arrow poison, but in the TV show Clancy is familiar with the poison but has never included it in a published book. (They take out some red herrings, they put some red herrings in.)

2. In this episode, the French characters actually speak French. Japp has to ask Fournier to speak English, and Poirot questions Giselle’s maid Elise (Gabrielle Lloyd) in French. The show won’t always be consistent with this, but at least here there’s no weird speaking-English-with-a-French-accent characters.

3. Nice return of one of Poirot’s classic accessories: the walking stick spyglass.


4. There’s a line in the adaptation – which is based on a line (earlier) in the novel – in which Poirot describes the disguised Gale as ‘wearing American spectacles’. This seems to have caused a bit of confusion with reviewers and commenters, so I looked into this. ‘American spectacles’ or ‘American-style spectacles’ are horn-rimmed glasses. Thanks to Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction Since 1900 by Kerry Seagrave, I now know that horn-rimmed glasses were introduced to the UK in the early 1930s and popularized after King George gave them a whirl. Prior to that, they’d been associated entirely with Americans, and cartoonists and satirists had used them in images lampooning our transatlantic cousins. So there you go.

5. Okay. I shouldn’t care about this one. I shouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this one as I have done. I shouldn’t be so bothered about this. But I can’t stop pondering it, so I have to get it out. Maybe you can help me clear this up?

When Poirot goes to see Japp to discuss Lady Horbury’s connection to Madame Giselle, he walks in on his friend reading the Daily Mirror. We get a quick shot of the paper Japp is reading:


That’s a pretty believable copy of the Daily Mirror. The masthead, layout and fonts are from the 1930s. It’s a broadsheet (the Mirror didn’t go tabloid until 1937). The advert on the back page appears to be for Genaspirin, which was advertised in the top right-hand corner of the back page of the Mirror in the 30s. (You can see I’ve spent far too much time on this.)

A genuine Mirror front page from 1933 for comparison

But it’s ALL WRONG. And I’m so confused.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that headline definitely says ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’, doesn’t it? And if I squint, I’m pretty sure the subheading says ‘Record crowd for Petersen win’. (I’m not 100% sure of that one, but I think I’m right.)

But that’s ALL WRONG. That would mean that the front page of the paper is referring to the light-heavyweight fight between Jack Petersen and Jack Doyle at White City, which drew an audience of 30,000 and ended with Doyle being disqualified in less than two rounds (trust me, I went through all of Petersen’s fights till I found one that matched). But the Petersen vs. Doyle fight took place on 12th July 1933!

To make matters worse, I’ve had a look through issues of the Mirror from 1933 (because that’s the sort of madness I’m prone to), and there’s quite a bit of coverage of the controversial fight, the massive audience, and Doyle’s subsequent six-month ban – but I can’t find the ‘Big fight lasts 100 seconds’ front page in the online archive. (But it is clear that the masthead and the Genaspirin advert are from 1933 and weren’t used in 1936.) ARGH! PLEASE HELP ME!

My working theory is that this is a copy of the late edition of the 12th July paper, or an early edition from the 13th. The online archive has a different edition, and the controversial fight was either bumped to or bumped from the front page at a later stage.

But that means that Japp is definitely reading a paper from 1933, despite the tennis match we saw at the beginning setting the episode firmly in June 1936.

When Poirot notes Japp’s choice of reading material, he wryly points out that he’s reading an old paper. But then he simply points out that it’s a day old. What he should have said is that the paper is nearly three years old, and so it’s unlikely to have any bearing on the case.

Alternatively, I’ve read the headline wrong.

It doesn’t really matter, does it?

Anyway, all this talk of dentists and disguises is making me keen to move things along. On to the next episode: ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’

Sunday, 4 March 2018

My Year in Books 2018: February

So I managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for another month. Yay! I'm still making time to read for pleasure (even if I didn't read quite as much as last month), and I'm still sticking to my 250-word limit for my reviews.

If you missed it, you can click here for my reading list in January. But here are the books I read in February...

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)


I’ve been meaning to read Thomas’s novel for some time now, as it was recommended to me a couple of years ago. The person who told me about it really enjoyed it, and the blurb sounded right up my street. Ariel Manto, a PhD student working on nineteenth-century thought experiments, stumbles upon a copy of a supposedly lost and cursed work by obscure writer Thomas Lumas (the eponymous The End of Mr Y). The only person Ariel knows who has read Mr Y is her PhD supervisor, but he disappeared eighteen months earlier. As Ariel begins to read Mr Y, she discovers the secret that (presumably) drove Lumas to his death and her supervisor to disappear. I really wanted to like this book, as it’s a fabulous premise. But sadly, The End of Mr Y left me rather disappointed. I know I’m going to sound like a bit of a snob here, but, for all its academic pretensions, it just wasn’t quite clever enough. There are casual mentions of various ‘classic’ thought experiments (from Schrödinger’s Cat to Einstein’s theory of relativity) and philosophical principles, but these are never really treated in much detail. There’s also a tendency to stick to the famous examples, which makes Ariel’s PhD research seem a wee bit superficial. Strangely, for all Ariel’s insistence, Lumas’s novel doesn’t seem to be a thought experiment at all, in the end. However, for all that, I really liked the book’s ending, which is presented with a wonderfully light touch.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (2017)


I read McGregor’s debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about ten years ago, on the recommendation of a Yr 10 lad I was tutoring at the time. I completely fell in love with the book and read So Many Ways to Begin shortly afterwards. I loved that McGregor’s first (and, to a lesser extent, second) book was, essentially, a prose poem, and that the narrative isn’t constructed in a particularly easy way. You sort of let the fragments wash over you, until you somehow know (without really being told) what is going on. I was hoping Reservoir 13 would do something similar – and I wasn’t disappointed. The book has thirteen chapters, and each one tells a year in the life of an English village, moving from New Year through the seasons until it reaches Christmas. But, as with McGregor’s first two novels, the thread of the story is strung on a communal tragedy. The first chapter tells of the first ‘new year’ since the unexplained disappearance of a young teenager who was visiting the village with her family. As in Remarkable Things, this is the story of how life continues around the hole formed by a devastating event, with characters and events presented through fragmentary and semi-objective snippets. The pace of the novel constantly reminds you of the unstoppable march of time and change, but the use of repetition and echoed phrases suggest that, perhaps, things aren’t changing as much as you think. I really enjoyed this one.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka (2009)


Some people don’t get Lewycka’s work, which blends madcap and often absurd comic writing with serious themes and references, but I really like the way that this works, as there’s something so human and so hopeful about the way life unfolds in her books. In her third novel, the protagonist is Georgie Sinclair, who is a copy-writer for a magazine called Adhesives in the Modern World and an aspiring romance writer. When Georgie’s husband walks out, she decides to chuck his stuff into a skip. She’s surprised to find her odd elderly neighbour, Mrs Shapiro, rooting items out and taking them away in a pram. She’s even more surprised when, a short time later, she is called by the hospital because Mrs Shapiro has listed Georgie as her next-of-kin. A quirky kind of alliance forms between the two women, with Georgie stumbling into taking care of Mrs Shapiro’s rambling, squalid home and assortment of earthy felines. She begins to get a glimpse into her neighbour’s past – taking in the Holocaust, Jewish diaspora, and the foundation of the Israeli state. A chance encounter with a Palestinian shop assistant with a side line in home repairs, the underhanded behaviour of a social worker of dubious morals, and the predations of an array of estate agents fixated on acquiring Mrs Shapiro’s house add further absurdity and trauma to the mix. I didn’t find this mix ‘glib’ as some reviewers have, but rather a testament to the extraordinary resilience of the survivor.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)


Okay, this one is a reread. I originally read Career of Evil when it first came out but ended up rereading it after the first episode of the BBC adaptation on 25th February. I knew the TV version had cut a lot of subplots out/down to fit the format, so I wanted to remind myself what was missing! Career of Evil is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). As I’ve said to too many people (I’m such a hipster), I’ve never read anything by J.K. Rowling, but I do love Robert Galbraith. I couldn’t put The Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm down. Career of Evil is a longer read – not so easy to finish in one sitting! – but it’s still a real page-turner. Galbraith’s detective, Strike, is a man out of time. He’s part hardboiled P.I., part whodunnit-unraveller. Like the rest of the characters who surround him, Strike is a larger-than-life figure, with enough quirks to keep a fleet of fictional detectives going. But there’s something so enjoyable about the novels, and I think it’s the story-telling. Galbraith sure can weave a yarn. Career of Evil sees Strike facing a figure from his past – someone who has sent a severed leg to his office, with a cryptic note that can only be meant for him. The mystery is: which unsavoury character is out for revenge? Strike gives us three suspects, the police offer up another, and there’s always a chance it’s someone else entirely. A really fun mystery novel.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

My Year in Books 2018: January

This post is part of my New Year's Resolution. I realised at Christmas that I'd started to fall out of a couple of habits. (1) I haven't been finding time to read for pleasure. (2) I'm out of practice at writing short-form reviews (to be frank, I don't seem to be able to do any short-form writing at all at the moment!).

So, I have resolved to read more books just for fun, and to write short (250 words maximum) reviews of each one as I go along. These are just the books I've read because I liked the look of them - so I won't be including any books I read to 'officially' review, for academic research, for a long-form blog post, or for my radio show. The plan is to post the reviews on here each month (though, let's be honest, how long am I actually going to stick to a New Year's Resolution??).

Here are the books I read in January...

Faithful Place by Tana French (2010)


Faithful Place is the third of French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels. I loved the first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness (particularly In the Woods). The novels aren’t a series as such, but rather feature detectives from the same fictional squad. Each book has a narrator who had appeared as a minor character in an earlier novel. So, the narrator-protagonist of Faithful Place is Frank Mackey, who previously appeared in The Likeness. Frank is a murder detective, who is estranged from his dysfunctional family. He’s called back home on the discovery of a twenty-year-old suitcase during construction work on the estate (the ‘Faithful Place’ of the book’s title). The suitcase belonged to Rosie Daly, Frank’s girlfriend. Once upon a time, Frank and Rosie planned to elope to England, but on the night they were due to go, Rosie didn’t show up. For two decades, Frank believed that Rosie had gone to England on her own… but the discovery of her suitcase makes that seem unlikely. Frank is drawn back into his old life to find out the truth about Rosie’s disappearance. I love French’s writing, and Faithful Place is a gripping and compelling story. I didn’t like it quite as much as her two earlier books – perhaps because it doesn’t feel quite as richly layered (the earlier two were almost dazzling in the way past and present narratives intertwined), or perhaps because I found the denouement a bit predictable. Still, it was an enjoyable read and very well-written.

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)


Because I can be a bit bingey with my reading, the next book I read this month was another of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. But I made a mistake and went straight to the sixth and most recent title, instead of carrying on in order. Good thing it’s not a straight series, eh? The Trespasser features Antoinette Conway as the narrator (she’d previously appeared in one of the books I accidentally skipped), a hotheaded detective who’s teamed up with Stephen Moran (a minor character in Faithful Place). Conway and Moran are assigned to a case that looks like a straightforward domestic, but soon discover (obviously) that there’s much more to it. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t enjoy The Trespasser as much as French’s other novels, though it was still undoubtedly well-written. Conway is a bit of a cliché – the short-tempered rookie with a chip on her shoulder, the woman fighting to be taken seriously in a man’s world – and the case itself is a little flat compared to some of the others French has created. As Conway and Moran discover the victim’s hidden depths and secrets, I couldn’t help but think back to The Likeness, which was a much richer and more compelling read. That said, I’m not giving up on French, as she’s still one of the best writers of police procedural thrillers (not always my favourite genre) that I’ve come across. I guess she just set the bar high with In the Woods and The Likeness!

Broken Harbour by Tana French (2012)


Continuing with my Tana French binge: Broken Harbour is the fourth of the Dublin Murder Squad novels. The narrator-protagonist is Michael ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy, who appeared as a minor (rather unsympathetic) character in Faithful Place. This was the best example of French’s narrator series so far. On the one hand, Broken Harbour redeems and clarifies some of the negative characteristics seen in the previous book; on the other, the presentation of Kennedy here is always shadowed by what we saw in Faithful Place. The book is in first-person, so we’re seeing the narrator through his own eyes, and it’s good to have the earlier book as a reminder of how this comes across to others. The case in Broken Harbour is multiple murder: the seemingly happy Spain family have been brutally attacked in their home. It appears that Pat Spain has snapped and killed his children, attempted to kill his wife Jenny, and then committed suicide. But (obviously) there may be more going on here… The Spains lived in a house on a ‘ghost estate’ (a housing development abruptly halted mid-construction as a result of the financial crash). French creates a setting that is paradoxically claustrophobic and desolate, to great effect. Added to this, her detective brings further ghosts to the investigation, not least his memories of the estate’s former existence as Broken Harbour, a holiday village he visited as a child. I really enjoyed Broken Harbour, certainly as much as The Likeness and almost as much as In the Woods.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (2017)


I bought my mum this book for Christmas, as I’d heard good things (and it was shelved in the bookshop next to other writers that she likes). She read it, then passed it to me. She didn’t give anything away but wanted me to read it so we could talk about the ending. Behind her Eyes was marketed on this ending – the publishers claimed it was one you would never see coming, and exhorted readers not to give anything away after they’d discovered the twist. The book is told from alternating perspectives. Mostly, it switches between Adele, the fragile but devoted wife of psychiatrist David, and Louise, a much warmer and engaging character, who works as a secretary at David’s new practice. Almost accidentally, Louise begins a relationship with David and a friendship with Adele, quickly suspecting there’s something lurking beneath the surface of their marriage. In a way, it’s a shame the publicity for the book focused on the shock ending. Ignoring the twist, Behind her Eyes is really well-written and compelling, and Louise in particular is a wonderfully crafted unreliable narrator. The growing tension of the relationships between the three main characters make for a real page-turner. But, sadly, the ending is a let-down. You don’t see the twist coming because it belongs to an entirely different genre to the rest of the novel and feels somewhat incongruous. Turns out my mum wanted me to read it so she could tell me why she didn’t like the ending.

The Child by Fiona Barton (2017)


Barton’s second novel was apparently a Richard and Judy Book Club pick – and I’ve had some disappointing experiences with these in the past – but the plot description seemed right up my street. (And it’s another book with alternating first-person unreliable narrators, which appears to be my jam this month.) When the skeleton of a new-born baby is discovered during building work in London, journalist Kate Waters is intrigued and determines to find an angle on the story. Meanwhile, the discovery of the body causes anxiety for a woman named Emma, and hope for grieving mother Angela, whose daughter went missing several decades earlier. These three women are our main narrators, and we switch between their perspectives on the ‘Building Site Baby’ case. Barton’s novel is nicely readable, and the intertwining of the story’s threads is well done. I admit, I initially had a bit of trouble distinguishing Emma from Angela, but the book finds its voice(s) as the story progresses, and the decision to hold things together with Kate’s investigation was a good one. Of course, there’s more to the story than just the death of the child, and the various revelations were pretty well paced. The Child was an enjoyable and gripping enough read, which I finished in a couple of sittings. It’s a solid thriller, but I wouldn’t say it was a stand-out (and I did work out the ending about halfway through). Overall, I’d say this was a solid ‘cold case thriller’ novel, but not particularly mind-blowing.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)


The last book I read this month was Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, a book which got a lot of praise on its publication, and which has been compared more than once to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The novel’s narrator is Maud, an older woman with dementia, who is concerned that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing. As with The Curious Incident, we are given a mystery through the eyes of someone who doesn’t actually know what it is they’re investigating, and we’re encouraged as readers to look beyond what is being described to what must be ‘really’ happening. But Elizabeth is Missing is much more than this. Despite her narration being distorted, fragmented, repetitive and contradictory, Maud is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist. As she interacts with other characters (who, supposedly, understand what’s happening), I found myself empathizing with Maud’s frustration, internally shouting at one character in particular ‘Just answer her question!’. As the story progresses, Maud increasingly sees the behaviour of others as difficult and erratic, and it’s hard not to feel the same as a reader. That said, Maud’s occasional moments of self-awareness are painful and poignant (as is the ending). But my favourite part of the book was the copious notes that Maud left for herself, in order to retain a focus on the mystery of Elizabeth’s disappearance. These made the book feel a bit like an old lady version of Memento, which I very much enjoyed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (Greater Manchester Fringe)

Sunday 9 July 2017
Hope Mill Theatre, Pollard Street

On Sunday, I was at a performance of the verbosely titled The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, one of the shows being staged this year for the Greater Manchester Fringe. If that grand title itself doesn’t intrigue you, then I should tell you that this is a theatre production that is performed in complete darkness.


I must admit, I was rather excited when I saw this show was being staged at the Fringe. Forgive the self-promotion, but you may have seen that my edited collection She-Wolf has just come out in paperback from Manchester University Press. In the book, there’s a chapter by Australian artist and writer Jazmina Cininas entitled ‘Fur Girls and Wolf Women: Fur, Hair and Subversive Female Lycanthropy’, which discusses the cultural history of hairy women. Julia Pastrana is one of the historical women Cininas writes about, along with the sixteenth-century Gonsalus sisters and nineteenth-century Krao Farini. Having edited Cininas’s work, I’ve become familiar with Julia Pastrana’s story from an academic perspective – so the fact that the play was being performed at the same time as She-Wolf’s paperback was being launched was a wonderful twist of fate.

By way of background, Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican woman, born with hypertrichosis terminalis (abnormal hair growth) and other genetic conditions. Her nose, lips and gums were unusually large and thick, and her face and body were covered in hair. At some point in her early life, Pastrana was sold and taken to the United States to perform in a travelling show. She was billed as a ‘Bear Woman’ and ‘The Ugliest Woman on Earth’, and she was toured around North America. There she met Theodore Lent, who took over her management and exhibited her around Europe and America. In 1854, Lent and Pastrana married. Her fame began to increase, and she was the subject of scientific studies as well as freakshow entertainment. One nineteenth-century commentator, George O’Dell, concluded that Pastrana was ‘semi-human’, a cross between a woman and an orangutan.

In 1860, Pastrana gave birth to a son, who inherited some of her genetic conditions. The child died within three days, and Pastrana herself died shortly afterwards from post-partum complications. Lent had the bodies of his wife and child embalmed, and continued to exhibit them until his own death in 1884. He also remarried, wedding a hirsute German woman who was exhibited under the name Zenora Pastrana (and who, he falsely claimed, was Julia’s sister).


The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana was written by Shaun Prendergast, and was first performed in 1998. It’s an hour-long one-act play performed in complete darkness by a cast of five or six. It’s an unusual and immersive experience, with Pastrana’s story unfolding through short vignettes (it’s hard to call them ‘scenes’, given the way the play is staged) that chart her sale, performances, marriage, childbirth, death and post-mortem ‘career’. We begin with carnival grinders announcing their attractions: ‘limbless wonder’, ‘fish boy’, etc. Despite the small cast, the hustle and bustle surrounds the audience, with voices seeming to come from all sides.

With words based on historical descriptions of her act, Julia Pastrana cuts through the noise to introduce herself. In a sweet and lyrical voice, she describes the deformity of her facial features, before explaining that, despite this, her figure is ‘neat’ and her mind sharp. And then, at the instigation of a baying audience, she begins to sing – and at that moment it becomes impossible to imagine her as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.

And that’s part of the reason for the show’s ‘gimmick’. The True History is a play that must be performed in complete darkness. The lack of a visual experience is not simply a trick or an experiment (and it’s not just that reconstructing Pastrana’s features would be too complicated): it’s vital to our understanding of the characters that we don't descend into gawping at ‘ugliness’. This is the story of a woman who lived her life as an exhibit – her whole career revolved around her being a spectacle, a thing to be looked at. By the time we reach the end of the story, the darkness takes on a further layer of heart-breaking significance (but you’ll need to see the show to fully understand that aspect).

The story that unfolds is cruel in places, unsettling in others, and yet imbued with a sweetness and sympathy (for Pastrana but also, in places, for Lent). It pulls no punches, and there were some moments when I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and ironically voyeuristic. This is not a story with a happy ending, and at the show’s powerful climax I was very pleased that it was performed in darkness, as that meant no one could see me crying.

Prendergast’s writing is excellent here. Although the play does deviate a little from the ‘true history’ – it is Lent who purchases Pastrana in Mexico, there’s no mention of any previous ‘owner’, and reference to Lent’s later marriage is omitted – this makes sense in terms of the limitations of a one-act play. The interactions between Lent and Pastrana beautifully capture the complex nature of their relationship, with Lent moving between money-hungry showman and loving husband, sometimes within the space of a few sentences. And Pastrana is sweetly naïve, beautifully melancholy, and knowingly complicit by turns.

Oddly, this performance didn’t have a programme or cast list available. I presume that, in the spirit of Theodore Lent, Watershed Productions didn’t want to run the risk of anyone spotting their ‘star turns’ out in the real world and ruining the illusion. But as the performances were so impressive, I took the liberty of checking out the show’s Twitter account to find out whose voices I’d been hearing.

Julia Pastrana was played wonderfully by Karina Jones, who captured the prettiness and fragility of ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ in both speech and song. Lent’s brash showmanship was brought to life by Matt Concannon – who did a great job of delivering Lent’s more unsettling (downright disturbing, by the end) lines in a way that made it just about possible to pity him. The rest of the cast – Ruby Ablett, Richard Innocent, Jonathan Blaydon and Colleen Prendergast (who also directed) – took the other roles, filling the auditorium with characters, crowds and sound effects (and… did I imagine it?... smells?) to the extent that it was easy to forget their small number. Although health and safety requirements meant that we had the mechanisms of performance revealed to us before the show started, having voices suddenly ringing out from all sides was still a surprise.

As well as the cast list, there was something else missing from this performance. The play was performed as written in 1998, and so Pastrana’s story ended – so painfully – at the point it had reached that year. But there is a postscript (easily found on Wikipedia, but I don’t want to spoil the play’s ending here), which wasn’t mentioned at any point during the performance. I don’t think this is a criticism, though, as inserting the final ‘ending’ of the story may well have weakened the punch of the climax. Pastrana’s story is one of cruelty and exploitation, and an attempt to tack on a redeeming feature (albeit one based in fact) would have detracted from this.

The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World is a fantastic piece of theatre. Stunning, disturbing and moving – I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: The Marriage of Kim K (Greater Manchester Fringe)

Monday 3 July 2017
53two, Albion Street



On Monday, I was at the Manchester launch night of The Marriage of Kim K, one of the (many) shows being staged this year for the Greater Manchester Fringe. I’d been promised that the show would be the ‘Kim Kardashian opera’ I’d been waiting for – or the ‘Mozart musical’ I’d been waiting for… at the same time. I didn’t know I’d been waiting for either of those things, so I was intrigued.

Written by Leo Mercer and Stephen Hyde (who write together as leoe&hyde), the show takes as its starting point Kim Kardashian’s ill-fated 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries in 2011. Sort of. Kim and Kris’s car crash of a marriage is played out (stage right) through numbers that run the standard musical gamut from comic to heartfelt to tragic. But it’s not too long before we’re introduced to another couple – the Count and Countess from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – who perform their marital dissatisfaction in a series of operatic excerpts (and interpretations) stage left.

The juxtaposition of Kim/Kris and the Count/Countess is the hook that sells the show, but in truth it’s the centre stage relationship that really holds the play together. There is a third marriage on stage, that of Amelia and Stephen, a couple drifting apart as life pulls them in different directions. Stephen is a playwright, determined to produce something of ‘beauty’ (like a Mozart opera), despite facing constant rejections. Amelia has just a new job, and combats the stress of work by watching reality TV. Amelia wants to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians; Stephen puts on a DVD of The Marriage of Figaro.

As Stephen and Amelia fight over the remote control, and bicker about their (seemingly) conflicting priorities, we cut between scenes of Kim and Kris (when Amelia chooses the channel) and the Count and Countess (when Stephen gets the upper hand). All the while, Amelia and Stephen keep up an impressive lyrical performance that is one part chorus, one part counterpoint to their televisual counterparts. As we move faster and faster between the Kardashian and Mozart songs, the tribulations of the three couples begin to merge, building up to finale that is both satisfying and heart-warming.

In lesser hands, this conceit could have been a gimmick. But for all its quirky premise, there’s something quite subtle and ‘real’ about The Marriage of Kim K. The writers cleverly avoid forcing comparisons between the marital discord of Kim/Kris, Amelia/Stephen and the Count/Countess. These are three different couples – existing in different times and media – and the problems they are dealing with have different causes and resolutions. Instead, the audience see parallels not analogies, being reminded (with some humour) that there are similarities even within a sea of differences.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sung-through musical (or an opera buffa, depending on which way you look at it), so it really puts its performers through their paces. Fortunately, the cast were more than up to the task, and all six of the performances were brilliant.

Photocredit: www.toriabrightside.com

Emily Burnett was vocally impressive as the Countess Rosina, capturing both the fragile sadness and the stubborn anger of the character. She was paired with Nathan Bellis, who was fantastic as the Count. I enjoyed the way that, while the Marriage of Figaro songs were initially performed in Italian, Burnett and Bellis seamlessly switched to singing in English when Amelia ‘turned the subtitles on’. This wasn’t just a language change either – the pair subtly altered their performance of the scenes to make the dynamics of their exchanges more accessible to audiences less familiar with operatic style (and to draw out some of those parallels with the other couples on stage).

James Edge played Kris Humphries, and his performance was a lot of fun to watch. Essentially playing the comic character of the piece, Edge brought a swaggering assurance and charm to the role. His on-stage spouse was played by Yasemin Mireille, who was tasked with portraying a surprisingly multi-faceted version of Kim Kardashian. The Marriage of Kim K isn’t afraid to shy away from the ‘vapidity’ of reality TV, so we had a charming little number in which Mireille sweetly sings an almost contentless make-up tutorial for her adoring fans, but it also brought out the humanity of a woman caught up in a situation that’s spiralling out of control.

The third couple were played by Amelia Gabriel and Stephen Hyde. In many ways, these were the tougher roles, as the couple sang out their bickering and commentary in tandem with both the musical and operatic scenes, switching between styles at the drop of a hat (or the push of a button). Gabriel, in particular, did a sterling job of harmonizing both Kim and the Countess, making an effective vocal ‘glue’ that held the two ‘fictional’ couples together. Hyde’s crochetty counterpoint, rattling off criticisms of reality TV and effusive (but naïve) tributes to opera, stayed just the right side of unsympathetic.

And perhaps that was what was so engaging about The Marriage of Kim K. On the surface, we have six characters who should be unlikable. Stephen is a rather pretentious artist, who has stopped paying attention to his wife; Amelia is becoming weirdly obsessed with Kim Kardashian. Kris is a dim jock who counts his biggest achievement as getting to have sex with a hot famous wife; Kim is a vapid celebrity who performs make-up tutorials and plans to cheat on her husband with a rapper (guess who). The Count is a staggering lothario who revels in humiliating his wife; the Countess spends almost all her time listing the many faults of her husband. And yet… I didn’t dislike any of them at the end. There was warmth, affection and sympathy in all of the characters, for all the pointed lyrics and biting humour.

If I have one criticism of the performance, it would be a technical one. This is a very ambitious piece (musically), as operatic and musical styles are quite different – both in terms of vocal and orchestral performance. Due to technical limitations, this didn’t quite gel as well as it could have done (the hi-hat cymbal overpowered the string quartet at times, and Burnett’s opera occasionally overwhelmed Mireille’s singing). This isn’t a criticism of the performers or the composition, but more that the play at times seemed to stretch the technical limitations of the (admittedly lovely) venue. This is one play that really could do with a sound desk.

But this is a minor criticism, and doesn’t detract from how much I enjoyed the play. The Marriage of Kim K might sound like a bit of a mad idea, but I came away thinking that it all made complete sense. It’s touring a number of fringe festivals this summer, including Birmingham, London and Edinburgh, and there are five more performances at the Greater Manchester fringe this month as well. And it’s a definite recommendation from me.

For more information about the production and upcoming performances, please see the show's website.

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’