‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ (1923)

First published in The Sketch, Issue 1600 (26 September 1923) this is the first Agatha Christie story with an archaeological connection, foreshadowing later full-length novels (notably my own personal favourite of all her novels, Murder in Mesopotamia) and testifying to an interest in the subject even before her marriage to celebrated archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. The story takes place “[h]ard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon” – an expedition famous for being plagued by a series of tragic coincidences which led many to posit that those involved had been the victim of an ancient Egyptian curse. The period was one at which the late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century fascination with the occult aspects of Egyptian culture and its archaeological (and spiritual) afterlife was at fever pitch. (As an aside here, I heartily recommend Roger Luckhurst’s book, The Mummy’s Curse, which takes a learned but wry look at this cultural phenomenon). This is thus another example of the tendency, in Christie’s first set of Poirot stories, to have reference to popular topics of the day – things which were culturally “in the air” and which would be of interest to readers of the Sketch. We are presented here with a case involving a “strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra”, and a similar set-up of a peer of the realm who dabbles in archaeology funded by an interested member of the aristocracy – as in the Tutankhamen case. That this is a trope—an exportable pop-cultural topic with its own generic rules and expectations—is, perhaps, emphasised by the capitalised T in Tomb.

At the same time though the story uses Poirot as a mouthpiece to emphasise the point that the belief in curses upon disturbers of tombs is “contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.” In that sense it pays lip service to the curse narrative, which forms the thematic backbone of the story, whilst also debunking it, not only with rational deduction, but with solid archaeological knowledge – the latter is offered, we might say, as the archaeological equivalent of Poirot’s own capacity to use razor-sharp inductive and deductive reasoning to counter the sensationalism which is brought to bear on more mundane crimes by the newspapers, novels and cinema films which are so eagerly consumed by Hastings and which colour his imaginative approach to these affairs.

Thus, after Sir John Willard dies of heart failure, Mr Bleibner of “acute blood poisoning”, and his nephew of suicide, Poirot is called in by Lady Willard because he is “a man of original views […] you have imagination, experience of the world”. Yet, she immediately asks him: “what are your views on the supernatural?” In narrative terms, this is entirely in keeping not only with a genre of “antiquarian” ghost story associated mainly with M.R. James – and the more specific iteration of that genre which bases itself in Egyptian archaeology (think Bram Stoker, Richard Marsh and Kipling) – but also with that kind of crime story where the solution to the mystery involves the debunking of a supernatural legend as well. Poirot’s response may surprise us by being more Van Helsing than Sherlock Holmes – more Dracula than Hound of the Baskervilles: “I, too, believe in the force of superstition, one of the greatest forces the world has ever known.” Two observations suggest themselves to me at this point though. Firstly, this is Christie once more playing with generic expectation – the fictional tropes that govern the expectations of the thriller, and which Poirot (like the murderer) is able to see through and cleverly manipulate – unlike the more gullible public, represented by the sensation-hungry Hastings. After all, Poirot’s statement is literally true, but he doesn’t mean what the “occult fiction” genre would lead us to expect – this is not a profession of belief in the supernatural, but rather of his understanding that superstitious belief can be so powerful as to have the same effect in the end regardless of whether any supernatural agency actually exists. Yet (and this is my second point) this is in itself often the point of the more effective ghost stories of the period – a case in point is W.H. Hodgson’s Carnacki stories, whose readers are never made aware until the stories’ end whether the solution to the “hauntings” investigated by the protagonist are supernatural or not, thus emphasising the need to respect fear and superstition as forces with an agency quite independent of the supernatural. For me, then, this tale is at once a debunking of the more enduring supernatural stories and popular myths to which it pays lip service, and a celebration of (and homage to) precisely that power to endure.

All of this means that, when Hastings recalls late-Victorian Gothic literature with his comment that the cause of these deaths “may be some potent curse from the past that operates in ways undreamed of by modern science”, we can’t simply put this down to his gullibility. In the days of the Society for Psychical Research, the notion that what appears “supernatural” to us moderns is actually a survival of natural phenomena of which past civilizations had an understanding that might be described as “scientific,” but which was lost to us moderns, wasn’t exactly a controversial idea. For once, this is not a question of Hastings’s naivety versus Poirot’s objective deductive prowess – rather, Poirot’s attitude is simply a more modern spin on a similar idea, replacing Hastings’s late-Victorian turn to the psychical with a modernist turn to the psychological. Once more, we see how Hastings automatically separates the supernatural from the psychological – Poirot, on the other hand, sees the one as the product of, and the agent of, the other since, for him, superstition is always-already the product of psychology in practice. Indeed, Hastings is on intellectual form in this story; his theory that Bleibner’s nephew meant to kill his uncle, but killed Sir John instead (and then took his own life when he realised his mistake) comes across as thoroughly plausible.

Rupert Bleibner (the nephew of the Bleibner who funds the expedition) complains that his uncle cares more for the dead relics of long ago than for the flesh and blood of the living. This, of course, is at the root of the whole sleight of hand distraction here – the perpetrator relies on everyone else seeing the deaths as somehow an effect of the long dead upon the living, rather than something entirely and materially grounded in the present. But all the same, death is everywhere – in Rupert Bleibner’s self-destructive lifestyle, his eventual suicide after a supposed diagnosis of leprosy, and the apparent “curse”. Bleibner’s suicide note, Hastings tells us, claims that “such as he were better dead”. This isn’t the exact wording (something that will become apparent later on) but it does tie together the theme of a preference of the living for the dead, rather than for those who are still alive – a perennial target of critique in the antiquarian ghost story tradition and, of course, a darkly ironic insinuation that uncle Bleibner might somehow be able “better” to relate to those around him if they were “dead”. All of which goes once more to demonstrate the way in which the tale’s macabre trappings have a resonance even after their allegedly supernatural significance is debunked.

Although the conclusion is entirely and cleverly rational, this enmeshment in the trappings of supernatural fiction is probably the most fully-developed in a Christie story so far – so much so that the tale wouldn’t look out of place in her later, largely supernatural collection, The Hound of Death. In other ways, however, this is a very typical Poirot story, especially as regards its depiction of Poirot travelling. His sea-sickness is, once again, his Achilles heel (his Hercules heal?). Poirot’s obsession with order and method is also in evidence. When, arriving in Egypt, Hastings gives an economical but impressive sketch of its wondrous appearance and atmosphere, Poirot is unimpressed. The Sphinx is too irregular for his tastes, his shoes are full of sand and his moustaches go limp in the heat. Poirot’s inability to travel (something he appears to have got over by the time of the foreign-set cases of the 1930s) is thus central to the flavour of the story – and the least said about his prowess on a camel the better.

Yet this is more than a charming character note. It’s actually an important reflection of why Poirot is able to solve the case – he is grounded in the present and its material discomforts and is totally unwilling to be impressed by the oppressive atmosphere of the ancients to which Hastings succumbs (“All around me I seemed to feel an atmosphere of evil, subtle and menacing. A horrible thought flashed across me. Supposing I were next?”). Perhaps this obsession with the orderliness of modernity against the clutter and dirt of a more romantic but chaotic past is part and parcel of what allows Poirot to distance himself from the distractions of the occult and see the crime for the cold-blooded scheme it really is? Interestingly, Poirot’s pretence of being taken in by the “curse” narrative plays to protestant prejudices about the “superstitious” nature of his Catholic religion – whether unconsciously when he calls to the Virgin Mary on the camel, or consciously when he pretends to harbour “some plan of exorcizing the evil spirits”. Either way, we once again see that Poirot’s pretence at being taken in by the villain also involves a pretence at succumbing either to the generic expectations of the kind of plot the villain has set up to hide his own guilt (in this case the allure of “evil”, which is explicitly called out here as the stuff of lurid popular fiction rather than the inevitable adjunct of the more prosaic question of murder for gain). As ever, Christie shows herself to be a writer attuned to the power of storytelling – and the way in which a murder investigation, like crime fiction itself, stands or falls by the competing powers of different narratives, all surrounding the cold hard fact of a dead body.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Chocolate Box

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 5, Episode 6

Written by Douglas Watkins

Directed by Ken Grieve

51 minutes

First broadcast: UK – 21st February 1993

Take a quick look at the dates on this post and the one before and you don’t need to be Poirot to notice that this blog has been sadly neglected for a while now. This has been due to many factors – other writing projects and a protracted house-move among them. But it’s also been due to procrastination, thanks in no small part to the fact that this is not an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot that I remember all that fondly, and thus not one I was exactly enthusiastic about revisiting. That isn’t to say that I remember it being actively bad (it’s certainly better than ‘The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’) Rather, I remember it as being very pedestrian. Just sort of… there. So when I finally popped the DVD into the player I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s an awful lot to recommend this one.

Firstly, the episode does an amazing job of bringing the story to life dramatically whilst remaining very faithful to the source text. Opening with the murder (although it’s not revealed to be a murder until later) is a good move and whets the appetite well for what follows. Having been slightly baffled by the unfamiliar political and social context of the short story, I’m also pleased with the way in which Douglas Watkins has limited the political background to terms more readily familiar to a modern audience further removed in time from these events than Christie’s readership would have been. No detailed understanding of pre-war Belgian politics and religious conflict is required. Paul is, at worst a German sympathiser or, at best, intent on appeasement which, with hindsight, we know will fail – that’s all we know and all we need to know (later, in an added subplot, Paul is indeed revealed to be a full-on collaborator).

The frame narrative is also altered. This time Poirot tells the story to Japp who is in Brussels to receive an award – he is to be made a ‘Companion de la Branche D’or’ for his help in aiding the Belgian police force (the Abercrombie forgery case, alluded to in Styles, gets a mention). Japp, as so often in the early short stories, begins the tale in expository mode – ‘Well Poirot, how does it feel to be back in Brussels again after so many years?’ – but he also provides a tangible link to the Belgian police force and Poirot’s past life, meaning that the frame narrative is not completely separated from the central mystery, as in Christie’s story, and can thus be used to foreshadow events in the episode’s ‘present’, demonstrating the ways in which Poirot’s mistake haunts his relationship with the characters in the here and now. This is far less clunky than the flashback sequences in the adaptation of ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ from the 1980s Partners in Crime series, for example, where Tommy and Tuppence spend ages wandering around a golf links discussing events which we’re then show. Here, events in the present tantalisingly reveal clues to events in the past and vice versa – each temporal setting helps to up the dramatic tension in the other.

Strangely, as in the film of Murder on the Links later, Poirot is the only character who speaks with a Belgian accent. In every other department, however, no expense or effort has been spared to provide a luscious evocation of Belgium before and between the wars. The amount of money that’s been spent would make a modern British TV director, in these cash-strapped times, green with envy. The costumes and scenery are truly incredible and a feast for the eye. Even the maid and the cook, who appear briefly in a flashback-within-a-flashback, get to wear the most glorious period garments. Budget aside, however, the whole thing is also beautifully photographed, the mannerisms and pace of pre-war Belgium given a stately feel, appropriate to an ‘old world’ now lost.

The acting all round is very satisfying and the impressive cast includes veteran screen actor Mark Eden (as Boucher) and Anna Chancellor as a very radiant Virginie. Suchet himself gets to play a younger Poirot. Though not massively different in appearance –he looks like the older one but thinner and with a slightly different moustache – it is in demeanour, mannerisms, and an added buoyancy and enthusiasm that Suchet signals the difference between the older and younger versions. Younger Poirot is fastidious, but not prematurely avuncular as in the short story – hence the incipient romance seems a natural addition. Indeed, not only is the episode generally very faithful to the short story, but the embellishments are intriguing, done with a light touch and feel very much in keeping with the source material. In fact, it’s less dry as a result, and springs off the screen in a way that the story doesn’t really leap off the page. There is a greater attention to character and, dare I say it, more thought seems to have been put into what all these things mean to Poirot – how these events still matter to him, how they make up the rich tapestry of who he is. That this is a world on the brink of being thus lost is foreshadowed by the mention of Paul being the kind of man who’d appease the Kaiser – but the nostalgia also plays out on a personal level, with Poirot at the beginning of his career, about to prove the worth of his little grey cells, but at the expense of an incipient romantic relationship. This reflects a longstanding tendency in his later life, where he usually ends up fixing other people’s romances, rather than finding happiness of that kind for himself – a recurring thread in the TV show (though not in the novels). Poignantly, we learn that the buttonhole Poirot is frequently seen wearing in other episodes is one Virginie gave him, and I wonder if it is her he thinks of during his more melancholic moments during the TV versions of The Hollow and Death on the Nile?

Poirot is also shown to be a talented housebreaker – for at least the third time in the TV series. In all honesty, Poirot colluding with Virginie to spy on the Count, whilst still managing to keep his job stretches credulity. Yet, on the other hand, it’s another example of the story’s theme – how even Poirot has been prone to mistakes during his long career. Moreover it’s exactly the kind of off-the-wall, outside-the-rulebook stuff he is still getting up to in his retirement. This is, after all, a man who tricks murderers into confession by faking the return of their victims’ ghosts. He isn’t exactly your average policeman.

The moment when he misinterprets the overheard scrap of conversation, ‘As if I had fired a pistol into his heart’, is another learning curve (the Count is actually referring to conversation at dinner which he thinks caused Paul’s heart failure). Misinterpreted overheard scraps of conversation are important clues in later cases – think of the clue of the Dictaphone in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for instance. In these instances Poirot is able to see through the apparent meaning of these overheard ‘clues’ by insisting that they not be taken at face value. Could this be where he learns that caution?

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‘The Chocolate Box’ (1923)

This story was first published in The Sketch on 23 May 1923 (Issue 1582) as ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’. Its first book publication was in the U.S.A., where it was included in the American version of Poirot Investigates (1925) – in Britain, it was not republished until its appearance in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). In fact, it’s not just an early, but a very early case for our moustachioed hero, set as it is during his stint with the Belgian police force. Poirot tells us that the story takes place during ‘the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state’. Note the potential slip-up here – either Christie has said ‘France’, when she meant ‘Belgium’ (!) or this is a reference to the fact that the murder victim, though living in Brussels, is actually a French politician.

This is hardly a well-known period of history to twenty-first century readers (certainly outside of France) and I wonder whether readers in the 1920s would have got the reference? Was this just something readers of The Sketch would have known about? Or is the fact that Poirot refers in this offhand way to the country’s recent political history a way of signifying his European otherness? I suspect the latter. A bit of internet searching seems to imply that this ‘time’ refers to a struggle (political as well as religious) between Catholic and Liberal factions in the Belgian government, with the liberals advocating increasing secularism and the Catholics opposing them. But this appears to have been a general trend in Belgian history from the late nineteenth century up until the end of the First World War – or, if Christie did indeed mean to refer to French (rather than Belgian) history, this struggle was a continual one throughout the Third Republic. So I’m guessing that this is an attempt on Christie’s part to keep murky the exact question of Poirot’s age by obscuring the exact year (or even the exact decade) in which the story is set. However, my knowledge of French history is lax and my knowledge of Belgian history non-existent, so if anyone cares to enlighten me on this point I’d be more than happy to be corrected. Either way, it does seem that Christie takes her customary light touch here – at the end of the day, all that’s important for readers to understand is that this is a period when the relationship between the church and state, between Catholicism and secular liberalism, was more than a little fraught.

Poirot himself seems to have been firmly of the conservative Catholic faction. He remarks at one point: ‘The death of Monsieur Paul Déroulard was not particularly interesting to me. I am, as you know, bon catholique, and his demise seemed to me fortunate.’ Clearly Poirot wasn’t the moralistic opposer of murder in any form which he would later become – the older Poirot with whom we are familiar would not have let the character of the victim play any part in his opinion as to whether or not the killer should or should not be sought out and brought to justice (that one instance you’re all thinking about is the exception that proves the rule!). In other ways, however, this younger Poirot is not so different. The TV version of this story introduces a love interest for the young Hercule, but here Poirot is the confirmed bachelor – his attitude towards young, attractive women in distress is that of his avuncular older self.

Of course, one of the most interesting things about the story is that it is the only one in the entire canon to be narrated by Poirot himself. Being an avid fan of the BBC Radio adaptations of the Poirot novels (most of which are narrated in the first person by John Moffatt, in character as Poirot – an approach which is more successful than it sounds like it would be) I confess that this aspect didn’t strike me personally as particularly novel. Indeed, I suppose it wouldn’t have been that new a device for the tale’s original readers, since this was only the fourteenth Poirot story to have been published. One imagines Christie, faced with the prospect of coming up with a new weekly story, desperately trying to find some way of keeping things fresh and gaining inspiration from Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’ and ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, in which Sherlock Holmes narrates his early adventures to Watson – as Poirot narrates this early case to Hastings. Christie being Christie, however, this is no pale imitation nor an indication of a writer desperately in need of inspiration. Not only are we given the (relatively) unusual prospect of a tale narrated by Poirot himself – but also a story of one of Poirot’s failures. And to cap it all off we still have a fully-rounded murder mystery with a very unexpected twist in the tale.

Another intriguing feature, and one for which Christie is noted of course, is the details of the poisons involved. Or at least, not the poison itself (atropine, in case you were wondering) but the way in which it is administered. I never knew that one could be prescribed medicine in the form of chocolate pills. Add to this the fact that these pills are piled inside a larger, hollowed-out chocolate and (to borrow a phrase from a later Christie novel) you have a very ‘delicious death’ indeed!

The point of having Poirot narrate the story is that he can explain how he failed, how he felt about it and how it affected his future practices (a kind of reflective exercise in detective story form, if you will). Worryingly, Poirot doesn’t seem to have learnt very much from his failure: ‘Never mind. I knew – that was the great thing. You remember our difficulty in the Styles case, Hastings? There again, I knew – but it took me a long time to find the last link which made my chain of evidence against the murderer complete.’ Unlike in the Styles case, though, Poirot turns out to have been entirely wrong in his instinctive knowledge here – so whatever it is he’s learned it clearly isn’t to be wary of hubris. Perhaps, rather, it is to be more careful in establishing a chain of evidence? Who knows. I suppose we should be thankful that his instincts seem to have been honed with age! Similarly, Poirot only claims to have learned humility from his failure – despite telling Hastings to whisper the words ‘chocolate box’ to him whenever he becomes too full of himself, the Belgian is soon back to his old vain self and the tale ends (as with so many others in the Sketch series) with Hastings contemplating Poirot’s (false) modesty. I suppose the fact that it doesn’t also end in a blazing row between the two of them indicates that Hastings, at least, has developed as a character from irritation at Poirot’s manner to wry acceptance.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 11

Written by T.R. Bowen (Script Consultant: Clive Exton)

Directed by Renny Rye

For me, this episode of Poirot epitomises the cosiness I always associate with the early series of the show. Indeed, the snowy north-of-England scenery, and the sumptuous interiors are literally ‘cosy’, replete with an air of winter chilliness warded off with good eating and a large open fire. Not only superlative comfort viewing then, but also viewing that gives the Sunday-night audience a chance to revel in the onscreen comfort.

As it turns out, this emphasis on comfort and luxury during a harsh winter is actually very germane to the episode’s politics. In this adaptation, not only is Harrington Pace a very unlikable character compared to the short story, but his unsavouriness is linked to his unscrupulous capitalism. We are told that he cheated his partner and then made a fortune from profiteering ‘during the war’. ‘And people liked him!!’ snaps one of his relatives. Our attraction, as viewers, to the comfort of the house (our literal ‘comfort viewing’) implicates us in this dubious luxury as well when we learn that Pace opens Hunter’s Lodge for only 12 weeks of the year – we are passively sharing in the pleasures of such luxury, whilst simultaneously being told how immoral it is. While this is in keeping with the show’s staunchly moralistic attitude, it is unusual to have such an unequivocally left-wing bent to that morality – after all, we meet a great many capitalists in Christie adaptations and while few are as objectionably unscrupulous as Pace, this episode’s critique of the system in which their wealth is made possible still applies. Usually, the show contents itself with criticising the actions of individual characters. Here though, it draws attention to their implication in an unequal and (it is argued) immoral system – a systemic approach conveniently ignored in most other episodes.

Even so, as a piece of television in its own right, I find this instalment of Poirot really enjoyable. The night-time location shooting makes evocative use of the eerie shadows, frosty exteriors and firelight, especially in the events leading up to the murder (the only downside is the distinctly 1990s-looking settlement visible on the hill during the daytime scenes at the station). The guest cast is uniformly excellent and the gusto with which the bit-part actors approach their roles is endearing – they’re clearly relishing their parts. Mrs Middleton gives her short scene absolutely everything she has. Anstruther, the station attendant, speaks his line “Hey! That’s my bike!” as if it’s the high-point of his career (I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Jeeves and Wooster episode where Bertie’s friend has one line in a touring play: “You’ll pardon me for mentioning it ladies, but the house is on fire!”) Even the dog excels.

As an adaptation, however, I’m not sure it succeeds. Poirot’s illness does sort of happen and Hastings is left to investigate for him for a time (although Poirot has far less confidence in his friend here than in the short story). But Poirot questions people in his hotel room and gives his usual lecture at the end. So, the whole point of his illness in the original story – that he can solve a crime without having any direct contact with anyone involved, because he’s that good – is lost here.

The other problem (and it’s hard to see how the scriptwriters could have overcome this to be fair) is that events have to be dramatized for us. As a puzzle it’s actually much more satisfying as an abstract riddle – which of course is fine in a book since books often involve characters telling us what happened with no expectation that we will be shown the events in real time. It’s therefore much easier to have unreliable narration in a book than on screen. In TV you have to show things – a problem the production team run into in ‘The King of Clubs’ and completely fail to overcome in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Because we don’t see the crime or the stuff around it, the audience knows full well there’s patently a major fabrication going on.

Admittedly, seeing the mysterious stranger getting off the train does help – as we see someone suspicious making their way to the house. Even this is weird though. The extra disguises involved compared to the short story mean that we have a faintly ludicrous situation in which the murderer is disguised as Mrs Middleton disguised as a bearded man, pretending to be someone else disguised as a bearded man. We’re straying into the realms of parody here.

Plus, in the short story, Poirot’s reconstruction of the crime is purely hypothetical – no accusation is formerly made because there’s no proof. Here though, this becomes problematic, since Poirot reconstructs the crime in front of the entire cast and explicitly accuses, to their faces, the two people responsible. It’s true that this concluding lecture gives us Poirot’s wonderfully sinister boast that he will make Mrs Middleton appear as if by magic. Even so, it’s lucky Zoe sort of confesses or they’d be in a right pickle. Especially given the seriously far-fetched nature of the set-up.

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‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923)

This story was first published in The Sketch Issue1581 (16 May 1923). It was later collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) – although Poirot spends this story in bed with a cold, making it more a case of Hastings Investigates.

By now, Poirot’s character has become well-defined. His obsessive neatness is on display in the ‘neatly graduated row of medicine bottles’ which adorn the sickroom; his effeminate taste for the finer (and, to Hastings, disturbingly foreign) things can be read in his consumption of ‘a particularly noxious tisane’; while his celebrity status is delightfully evident in the ‘little paragraph to myself in Society Gossip’. The same paragraph sums up the blend of heroism and absurdity that characterises our Belgian protagonist, by emphasising fondly the mock-heroic quality of Poirot’s nomenclature: ‘believe me, girls, he’s some Hercules’. In short, Poirot is becoming ‘quite a public character’ – another example of Christie’s stories suiting themselves to the society paper The Sketch, which proves to be the ideal vehicle for Poirot as he is characterised here. Possibly, of course, there is also a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in this suiting of story to publication method. That is, although one might assume, after nearly a century of familiarity with the character, that Christie always conceived Poirot in this way, could it be that the conditions of publication actually influenced how she presented him? That is did Christie always conceive of Poirot as a popular celebrity – a notable figure on the fashionable social scene? Or did she emphasise his status as a ‘public character’ because his adventures appeared in a gossip magazine? I suspect it may be a bit of both, but either way, Poirot has come a long way – from jobbing policeman, to alien refugee, to popular and increasingly wealthy celebrity.

Anyway, back to this particular story, which is as ingenious as ever – so ingenious that I initially mistook the supporting characters’ melodramatic speech and actions for a lazy deployment of stock types and phrases on Christie’s part. Indeed, prior to the revelation that the characters are deliberately overdoing the ridiculous melodrama of the conventional cause célèbre, one could be forgiven for laughing derisively at the sheer effrontery of the melodramatic touches. ‘My uncle, the best friend I have in the world, was foully murdered last night’ says Havering to Hastings (as opposed to ‘delightfully murdered’, one supposes). Similarly, the telegram he receives, allegedly after the murder, is far too flippant to be believably connected with a real tragedy: ‘Come at once uncle Harrington murdered last night bring good detective if you can but do come – Zoe.’ If my beloved uncle had been murdered and my wife sent me this telegram I’d have a few words to say to her on the subject of tact! What we presume to be Christie phoning it in continues with the fact that the bogus housekeeper, whom is initially believed to have done the deed, doesn’t appear on the agency’s books – a fact which went undetected because Mrs Havering failed to inform the agency of the name of the housekeeper she’d selected. This seems like a preposterously convenient plot device until we find out the quite brilliant real solution. Once again, we find Christie deftly playing with readers’ expectations of what they imagine a popular crime narrative will look like.

Poirot’s incapacity means that Hastings is dispatched to investigate the murder instead, rather like Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (‘You know my methods by now. All I ask is that you should report to my fully every day’). Indeed, Hunter’s Lodge, though in the north of England rather than Dartmoor, is nevertheless situated in ‘the midst of the rugged moors’. Unfortunately, Hastings’s obsession with forensic detail (footprints, bloodstains etc) does rather imply that he hasn’t quite grasped Poirot’s methods yet, and he singularly fails to do what Poirot would do, namely, to ‘examine the facts methodically and in order’. It is this approach, which enables Poirot to intervene and discover the clever solution to the crime without even leaving his sickbed. Indeed, what’s particularly interesting about this story is the way that the conclusion to the mystery rests on Poirot’s deductions rather than on any empirical proof. It demonstrates neatly the way in which Poirot’s method treats the solving of the crime as an abstract intellectual exercise separate from the bringing to justice of the criminal – a project which is only undertaken after Poirot has determined who the guilty party/parties are. Because of the way Poirot treats the crime (as a kind of logic puzzle) this determination of the guilty party is often complete before any physical evidence of guilt has been produced. In the absence of such evidence, the reader really has to trust Poirot’s assurance that this is the way that the murder was done – it makes logical sense, but there’s no actual proof. This explains why so many of Poirot’s adventures involve the tricking or entrapment of a person whose guilt Poirot has established previously to his own satisfaction by purely logical means – a contrast to the policeman’s project of building up a ‘case’ based on empirical evidence. That is, it’s never a matter of ‘this evidence points to this person, so that’s that’. It’s more, ‘thinking about it logically, this person is the only one who could possibly have committed the crime, so we must trick them into providing us with evidence’. I’m generalising, obviously, but the point is that Poirot’s frequent emphasis on the cerebral nature of detection is an idea that’s also borne out in practice – so that the ‘little grey cells’ motif is more than simply an ill-conceived catchphrase.

The only weakness, to my mind, is the ending of the story, where Christie’s (or Hastings’ if we’re being fair) determination to not let the culprits escape justice comes across as a bit contrived – not unlike the ending to the stage and film versions of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’: ‘Nemesis did overtake them, and when I read in the paper that the Hon. Roger and Mrs Havering were amongst those killed in the crashing of the Air Mail to Paris I knew that Justice was satisfied.’ Maybe so, but this is a tad harsh – what about everyone else involved in the crash? It’s an odd note on which to end an otherwise effective story.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Adventure of the Cheap Flat

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 7

Written by Russell Murray

Directed by Richard Spence

Here’s a bit of trivia. The film that Japp, Hastings and Poirot are watching and discussing at the start of this episode is The G-Men (1935), starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak and Margaret Lindsay and directed by William Keighley, who went on to co-direct the celebrated Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I’m not sure why I was surprised to find that this was a genuine 1930s feature film – perhaps because the Poirot production team did such a good job of faking one in “The King of Clubs” it seems entirely plausible that they also did so here. Anyway, there you go.

James Cagney gunning down gangsters is an apt opening for this adaptation, which takes the original story’s concern with the differences (and surprising similarities) between ‘reality’ and popular cinema and really runs with it. In fact, it deals with the idea in a much more sensibly-structured way than Christie’s story. For example, the introduction of a comedy FBI agent allows viewers to come to terms with the Luigi Valdarno strand of the plot much earlier than in the short story. Moreover the episode succesfully treads the fine line between satirising the sensational gangster plots of the cinema and self-mockery of the sensational elements of the plot of the episode itself. Agent Burt’s hysterical insistence that there’s “No such thing as the mafia!” is a case in point. The British (and Belgian) characters’ response to this is to point out that there is, but also to mock the idea that the mafia looks like someone that James Cagey might be called upon to foil with a handy machine gun. Instead, they present them as a prosaic menace dressed up in sensational accoutrements – a menace against whom a more subtle approach is required than Cagney’s (and the FBI’s).

The most obvious example of this is the way in which the logic puzzle of the Robinson’s flat proves key to solving the mystery, rather than the use of guns or fancy surveillance operations. This is signalled at the beginning with Hastings and Japp drinking in The G-Men, while Poirot shuts his eyes in horror and berates the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude displayed in the film – this is not how good detectives work. Later on, Japp seems to come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by one of my favourite moments in the whole series, when Japp, appalled at Agent Burt’s desire to storm the Black Cat nightclub, literally with all guns blazing, adopts a horrified face before extending his hand in the manner of a teacher who’s caught a primary school pupil stealing chocolate and exclaims: ‘You can’t go waving guns about! Give that to me!’ The American way is to ‘wave guns about’. The British way is to sit down, think it through, then have a quiet word. Arguably, you’ve also got the difference between a lot of British and American crime fiction of the period encapsulated there as well.

At the same time, the episode is itself primarily a light-hearted crime pastiche, so it also has a lot of fun embracing those sensational aspects of a Hollywood presentation – although in a delightfully camp and knowing way. To this end, the episode adopts a really interesting stance on how performance can throw light on the relationship between lived experience and cinematic representations of it. Tellingly, for example, although Poirot relates the background to the Valdarno affair in a style ‘that will remind you of your favourite cinema’, what we actually see on screen is a representation (all heightened performance and obviously artificial sets) that could never be mistaken for anything other than our ‘favourite cinema’. This isn’t what really happened, but a representation of events seen through the generic filter of a Hollywood crime thriller. Everything about it deliberately signals its own inauthenticity. These events definitely happened, but not necessarily like this – yet, for those of us who weren’t present, the only framework we have of comprehending them is the popular cinema.

Usually, Poirot works by stripping away these trappings in order to expose the fundamentals of the puzzle plot – in this case the fact that, when all’s said and done, what’s actually happened is that a woman, wishing to send someone else to their death in her place, has contrived a way of installing at an address known to be hers a woman who resembles her sufficiently to fool any would-be assassin. The gangsters, the seedy clubs, the waving about of guns – all this is so much window dressing. No wonder Poirot sees the gangster film, which places these elements first, as vulgar and alarming.

In this episode, however, Poirot’s response to the situation is to solve it by embracing these trappings – presumably for the amusement of Japp, Hastings and the viewers at home. He even goes to the length of stage-managing a fake stand-off with guns and gangsters because, generically, this is the most appropriate ending to the fictional genre his friends seem to have found themselves caught up in. Leading, incidentally, to Agent Burt’s wonderfully cheesy line: ‘This is good. Everyone’s got a heater except the good guys!’

The point, of course, is that Poirot knows it’s all fakery, all besides the point of the true nub of the matter – which is that one human being has cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of another. But he arranges the show for our benefit because, let’s face it, much of the appeal of these early episodes of Poirot lies in the window dressing: the costumes, the period detail and so forth. The gangster plot here serves a similar function to these extraneous but pleasurable elements and, at the end, Poirot has exposed it for what it is: enjoyably camp silliness replete with questionable accents, sumptuous costumes and appropriately ostentatious props – distractions from the puzzle they embellish, but no less enjoyable for that.

Another most enjoyable example of this conscious, camp performance (calculated at once to expose and revel in the empty triviality of the thing performed) is Miss Lemon’s masquerading as a journalist for The Lady’s Companion sent to interview the Black Cat club’s new singer-in-residence. Even the name of the periodical is exquisitely chosen, providing a delightful contrast between an implied middle-class stuffiness and the sensational dinginess of Life Upon the Wicked Stage. Pauline Moran is a delight in these scenes and I for one feel that ‘Felicity Lemon: Private Investigator’ is a spin-off series that needs to happen!

The one change from the source material that I didn’t like was having Poirot present at the party the where we first meet the Robinsons. I prefer the short story’s use of Hastings solo, demonstrating that he does have a life beyond his friendship with Poirot. All in all though, this is an excellent episode, whose minimal deviations from Christie’s story are generally for the better.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

Agatha Christie Conference at Exeter

I promise I’ll finally get back to updating this blog soon. Definitely.

In the meantime, I thought I’d draw your attention to a splendid-looking upcoming conference devoted to Christie’s work! I was at last year’s event and had an amazing time. This year’s looks set to be bigger and even better…

Here’s the conference website

And here’s more information on the event from one of the key organisers, Jamie Bernthal

 

 

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