Monthly Archives: May 2013

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The King of Clubs’

‘The King of Clubs’ (1989)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 1, Episode 9
47 mins.

Screenplay by Michael Baker
Directed by Renny Rye

Although following the plot of Christie’s story closely, this adaptation is notable for the way in which it updates that plot to a different temporal setting. In Michael Baker’s adaptation (and under the watchful eye of ‘script consultant’ Clive Exton) this early instalment of Agatha Christie’s Poirot moves the story from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s and from a milieu of theatres and dancers to the flourishing British film industry only a few years after the advent of ‘talkies’. Valerie Sinclair is a screen actress rather than a dancer here and Reedurn is a seedy studio executive, rather than a theatrical impresario. Two new characters are added, namely Hastings’s friend ‘Bunny’, a young director, and Ralph Walton, an established screen actor struggling to cope with the move to talking pictures. To update the plot to the 1930s in this way is par for the course with this TV series, but here it really is striking. This setting simply did not exist at the time Christie’s story was originally written and although the plot transfers easily to it, it feels as jarringly different in terms of temporal locality as does the 1980s-set film version of The Man in the Brown Suit. Not that I’m complaining. All of this helps to lend interest to the process of stretching an eight-page short story to fifty minutes of screen time and the specially-filmed black and white cinema footage is really a tour de force of direction, acting and design – you’d swear the clips of Sinclair and Walton in action were lifted directly from a real old movie. Even so, it’s still a testament to how richly plotted Christie’s original tale is that so little is added to this television version.

One thing that really struck me about the new setting is the way it bears out Poirot’s statement, uttered at the beginning of the film, that actors are more interesting than the productions they end up starring in. While I would hesitate to agree entirely with this view it’s still the case that, by placing a sumptuous recreation of a 1930s movie in sharp juxtaposition with a dramatisation of the offscreen tensions surrounding its production, this film serves to remind one that the version of the past left to us today (in books, films, audio recording and even journals and letters) were as performative and as artificial in their time as they are now as a record of that time. In short, the minutiae of the everyday lives of the people who appear on the screen or who have left a written record are lost to us forever – all that is left is a record itself. This is really driven home at the end of the episode, when a marvellously framed shot of Poirot and Hastings walking dramatically off the film set is self-consciously disrupted when they both go off in different directions, leaving Poirot to scurry across the screen to join his friend. By disrupting the mis en scene in this way, this directorial decision reminds us that our ability to visualise actions in reality is flawed – beyond the film set, actions are unpredictable, unplanned, lacking direction and therefore impossible to visualise. On the set and in front of the camera they are meticulously planned, staged and directed, but all the more false for that. The same goes for speech – off-screen it is less guarded, more spontaneous and perhaps less polished; in front of the camera it is mannered, eloquent and scripted. Yet it is this latter record that we have left to posterity – everyday behaviour and speech is largely lost to us. The problem is a familiar one to literary critics and media historians – while we are able to assess the ways in which a historical period chose to represent itself, it’s more difficult (perhaps even impossible) to assess the everyday reality of life for the people who produced and responded to these representations. How did people behave when there was no direction and no intended audience?

Anyway, to get back to the episode as an adaptation of Christie’s story. I found that this is an episode in which the visual medium is able, appropriately enough, to take advantage of its freedom from the constraints of first-person narration, allowing us to see things that Hastings couldn’t have. In this case, we get to see Reedburn being an all-round creep to Valerie, including some very unsavoury sexual harassment – the spectacle of his blackmailing her, extorting not money but sexual favours, is not pretty, but it adds weight to the vague insinuations of the short story and helps us to accept Poirot’s ethically dodgy ideas about what counts as murder and what does not. Of course, this ability to show things that a first-person written account cannot is also a disadvantage in that it is more difficult to misdirect the audience as to the circumstances of the crime. The inability to show something that didn’t happen is a bit of a problem for a visual adaptation – in particular, it’s patently obvious from the moment we see Mrs Oglander reporting the crime, not only that the Oglanders are in collusion with Valerie, but also that they weren’t playing bridge when she ‘stumbled’ into their house on the night of the murder. After all, if this were the case (the viewer is left thinking) why didn’t we see this dramatised along with the rest of that evening’s events?

As I implied above, however, the direction in this episode is particularly good in other respects. Although the story shies away from the theme of heredity, which is prominent in the original tale, it does emphasise family bonds, particularly the whole thing about Valerie being ‘dead’ to the family and the world in which she grew up – and it does so in a richly visual way. The bright colours and art deco chic of Reedburn’s house and the drab Victorian gothic of the Oglanders’ abode is used strikingly to emphasise the contrasting ‘worlds’ which, for Valerie, they represent – both threaten her in different ways, but the fact that it is ultimately the homely Victorian villa of her childhood that offers her escape is very much in keeping with Christie’s conservative (with a small ‘c’) mindset. The pervasive quiet of the Oglanders’ house is also striking. Basically, I felt the episode tried hard to show us visually and aurally the stifling world from which Valerie escapes, whilst also setting it in stark contrast to the one in which she is now embroiled. Horrible, misogynist Reedburn is the kind of character who cannot be tolerated in either world and it is a collusion between herself and her estranged brother that brings about his eventual demise. Fittingly, therefore, it is the exorcism of the fashionable, showbiz world’s bogeyman (whose sexual deviance and garish aesthetic tastes represent that world’s stereotypically degenerate, morally-bankrupt underside) that signals Valerie’s ability to bridge the gap between her new and old existence and establish a common ground between the two.

Speaking of family bonds, I’m not entirely sure the enforcement of a ‘family’ of regular characters for the TV version of Poirot altogether works on this occasion. Hastings really doesn’t have much to do, while Japp’s involvement stretches credulity – would a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard really be called out in the middle of the night to investigate a rumoured ‘disturbance’? That said, Hastings’s bemused take on modern art is a nice addition, while it’s interesting to see Japp and Poirot’s friendship not quite as fully developed here as it will later become. The Inspector is patronising and not totally pleased to see his Belgian acquaintance – and I suppose his perpetual confusion helps to sell the idea of a ‘murder’ that will, on this occasion, go unsolved.


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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie's Poirot (TV Series), Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975)

‘The King of Clubs’ (1923)

This was Christie’s third published short story and first appeared in The Sketch Issue 1573 (March 1923). In the UK, its first book appearance was in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). The story concerns the apparent murder of theatre impresario Henry Reedburn, who has been found bashed brutally across the head with an instrument that has, rather disgustingly, ‘penetrated some distance into the skull’. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious woman wanders into the nearby home of the Oglander family, disturbing their game of Bridge, telling them deliriously of the murderous attack before falling to the floor in a dead faint. The lady is Valerie Saintclair, a famous dancer apparently connected to the Russian aristocracy. When she is suspected of the crime, her fiancé, the Prince of Maurania, hires Poirot to clear her name.

Like a lot of Christie’s work, the story contains metafictional elements, which draw attention to the story as a story. Such elements invite the reader to pay attention to the relationship between this fictional narrative and other kinds of writing, as well as to the relationship (or disjunction) between the text and the ‘reality’ it apparently represents. An obvious example of this is the fact that, when first published in The Sketch, the story appeared under the title ‘The Adventure of the King of Clubs’ – the very title that Poirot himself chooses for the case at the end of the tale. Beyond this, however, it is also one of many Christie stories in which a metafictional emphasis on the tale as crime fiction (as a story which exists in relation to an established genre with its own ‘rules’) is used as a means by which to emphasise, in turn, the extent to which the perception of murder in a given society often depends on the dominant genres available in that society for writing about murder.

At the beginning of the story, Hastings introduces us to two such genres, the newspaper report and the fictional narrative. For him, these represent two distinct modes of writing that exist in diametric opposition to each other:

‘Truth,’ I observed, laying aside the Daily Newsmonger, ‘is stranger than fiction!’

The remark was not, perhaps, an original one. It appeared to incense my friend.

As Hastings says, this diametric opposition between the factual report of the newspaper account and the avowedly fictional tale is not ‘an original one’. This is Hastings all over, his function in the tale being largely to provide the obvious or commonplace view, which the text (and Poirot) can proceed to interrogate or overturn.

When he launches into a colourful description of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Henry Reedburn, Poirot is moved to comment: ‘Is that your eloquence, or that of the Daily Newsmonger?’ Hastings’s response again reinforces his earlier stance that the factual newspaper account is the antithesis of the thrilling crime story: ‘The Daily Newsmonger was in a hurry to go to press, and contented itself with bare facts. But the dramatic possibilities of the story struck me at once.’ As the tale goes on, however, it would appear that the dramatic possibilities and the factual account are similarly incapable of presenting us with the true facts of the matter. Hastings’s ‘dramatic possibilities’ dress up the ‘facts’ in a romantic sensationalism, without ever really questioning their validity as facts, or recognising the fact that ‘dramatic possibilities’ will always distort the real facts to a greater or lesser extent. The facts themselves, with which the newspaper purports to provide its readers, are not the pertinent; ones and the clues to the actual solution lie elsewhere. Its account may be true, but like the ‘dramatic’ narrative that Hastings mistakenly sets up as its antithesis, its account is selective. Governed by a too eager readiness to leap to conclusions to mutually supportive ideas about what murder looks like, so that both the fictional crime story and the apparently factual account of an actual crime turn out to be mutually supportive in their creation of a ‘narrative’ of murder that is blindingly deceptive in its conventionality. It is this unquestioning adherence to conventional thinking from which Poirot rescues us. By the end of the story, the damsel in distress, the evil businessman and even the game of Bridge are all revealed to be tropes in the social narrative of everyday interwar life whose unthinking acceptance go so entirely and unconsciously unquestioned as to form the perfect smokescreen for the actual circumstances of the murder. Ironically, these facts end up being far more shocking than anything Hastings could possibly imagine, which only goes to show how conventional his ‘dramatic possibilities’ really are.

On the formal level of the detective plot, this is an outlook that Christie manipulates brilliantly to create some of the most effective misdirections in the genre. Like the murderer, Christie herself relies on the reader taking some things for granted as conventional – whether it be the circumstances of a game of Bridge, or the expected mechanics of the mystery genre. Indeed, in this story, the fact that the whole solution here revolves cleverly around the mistaken assumption that a game of Bridge must necessarily involve four players is neatly paralleled by a more spectacular red herring – namely that the murder plot must necessarily involve a pre-determined murder at all.

In fact, the real mystery here is not the identity of Henry Reedburn’s murderer but the true identity of the mysterious Valerie Saintclair – especially her true placement in terms of social class. Poirot comments: ‘There are many romantic stories concerning her origin – not an uncommon thing with famous dancers. I have heard that she is the daughter of an Irish charwoman, also the story which makes her mother a Russian grand duchess.’ The Prince dismisses the first theory out of hand and Poirot, while neither confirming nor denying the Prince’s suggestions, agrees cryptically that he also believe in the influence of heredity. It turns out that Valerie herself is equally preoccupied with the relationship between class and heredity. When we meet her, convalescing in the home of the people into whose house she stumbled on the night of the murder, she says ungratefully of her rescuers: ‘These people, they are very kind – but they are not of my world. I shock them! And to me – well, I am not fond of the bourgeoisie!’

It is within this ‘sub-mystery’ of Valerie’s class origins that Christie’s metafictional ideas begin to become problematic for me as a modern reader who finds a belief in heredity as a catch-all explanation for human behaviour to be somewhat suspect. It turns out that the Oglanders are Valerie’s real family – and the cover-up of the fatal accident that leads to Henry Reedburn’s death is also designed to cover up the fact that Valerie had gone to them for help in extricating her from the nefarious impresario. Now, while it may be very clever to contrive a plot in which the conventional mechanics of the mystery genre are used by the author to wrong-foot the reader (just as they are used by her fictional murderers as a means to similarly wrong-foot the detective) it’s quite another thing to equate the ‘true facts’ of the crime’s circumstances with the hereditary ‘true’ nature of a young woman – and to parade both of these as, alike, things which lie ‘beneath’ the conventions of social and literary narratives as ‘truths’ awaiting discovery. Yet this is exactly what the narrative does, with Poirot’s final summary neatly combining the tale’s predominant themes of class, heredity and the distorting effects of ‘dramatic possibility’. As he points out, Valerie’s hereditary middle-class roots (which are as inescapable here as her genetic makeup) escape Hastings, precisely because he fails to notice the hereditary resemblance between Valerie and her sister – just as the ‘true facts’ of the murder case escape him because he is looking to prove a pre-formed idea of the crime.

‘That is because your mind is so open to external romantic impressions, my dear Hastings. The features are almost identical. So is the colouring. The interesting thing is that Valerie is ashamed of her family, and her family is ashamed of her. Nevertheless, in a moment of peril, she turned to her brother for help, and when things went wrong, they all hung together in a remarkable way. Family strength is a marvellous thing. They can all act, that family. That is where Valerie gets her histrionic talent from!’

By connecting the revelation of Valerie’s true identity with the negation of external romantic imagery, Poirot is actually making heredity the basis of revealed truth about character. Hence, in the same way that ‘romantic impressions’ blind Hastings to the true facts of the murder, they also blind him to the ‘truth’ about Valerie Singleton – that she is inescapably bourgeois.

This would be fine were it not for the fact that the passage presents class not as an ineffable collation of social and economic descriptors but rather as, quite literally, a matter of breeding. This is worrying, since it makes individual identity apparently as pathologically determinate as the true facts of a set of physical actions that can be recreated through diligent investigation and deduction: just as the work of the ‘little grey cells’ can reveal that a person did certain things in certain ways and for certain reasons, so too can they tell, apparently, everything about that person – right down to the orientation of their own ‘little grey cells’. Conversely, just as we can tell everything about that person (where she came from, who are her antecedents) so, the tale suggests, can we tell exactly what that person is likely to do in any given situation. With this in mind, it’s a little bit rich of Poirot to dismiss the idea of the fortune teller’s accurate divination of events in the story from the random as nothing more than a curious coincidence.

More damagingly, though, it has worrying implications in a criminal context, especially when identity politics (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class etc) play a part in pathologising criminals in advance. An example. Gay men were pathologised in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries as, essentially, inversions of ‘normal’ masculinity. That is, they had essential female attributes in their genetic make-up which led them to desire other men. As such, when Oscar Wilde became the first highly visible example of a man definitely categorisable as ‘homosexual’, he became the model for effeminate men. The convergence of Wilde as a visible icon of gayness with the belief that sodomites all shared fundamental pathological attributes led to the rather quaint idea that all gay men would turn out like Oscar Wilde (i.e. witty, elegantly dressed and extremely camp) – not because he offered an easily available example among a limited spectrum of visible role models, but rather because they all shared the same genes.

Another way of putting it is the well-known logical fallacy ‘Nelly is an elephant, Nelly is pink, therefore all elephants are pink’. By employing this logic, Poirot falls prey to a different and more pernicious example of the kind of slavish adherence to ‘dramatic possibilities’ which he had earlier accused Hastings. This is because the author, in her theory about ‘dramatic possibilities’, omits the important fact that the kinds of possibilities open to a creative writer at any particular time are inevitably governed by contemporary ideas (about class, gender and heredity) from which it is difficult to escape and which are often only really discernable with hindsight.

There is a saving grace here, of course. Valerie’s class, her ability to act and (more worryingly) her histrionic nature are seen as things engrained and inescapable. This indelible bourgeois affiliation is meant to suggest that this apparently glamorous celebrity has a redemptive impulse towards middle-class domesticity running through the core of her very being. Yet, because this hereditary connection is inescapably a two-way street, it is also the means by which a domesticated middle-class environment is shown not to constitute an infallible shield against the emergence of sensation and murder from within it. In fact, it’s the very thing that makes the kind of domestic detective story at which Christie excels at once a mainstay for upholding middle class values at the same time as it inescapably undercuts them. It is for this reason that I distrust readings of Christie that tend to come down to strongly on one side of this argument or the other, arguing that they are either subversive or supportive of the bourgeois status quo. I find that they ultimately contain too much of both to finally determine an allegiance either to one or the other impulse.

But we’re getting a long way from reviewing a mystery story – and to get back to that task I would say that none of this changes the fact that this is a really ingenious tale, which could (like many of Christie’s short puzzles) have formed the basis for a full-length novel. The central clue of the Bridge game that is one player short is a master-stroke and there are also developments in Christie’s narrative construction. The cryptic denouement is no doubt a product of a necessary economy brought about by the limited column inches offered by the magazine context, but it also means that the reader has to do more work than usual: rather than have Poirot tell us point by point exactly how the whole thing was done, Christie has the detective explain the solutions to the various questions that have arisen along the way, whilst leaving the reader to piece together these revelations into one master-narrative of the true facts of Reedburn’s death. It adds a bit of variety to the usual whodunit structure by literally mixing up the narrative a little.

Hastings’s character is also coming to the fore. He will never escape from being something of a cipher, but I like that Christie plays on the idea of Hastings as a frustrated sensation journalist. We tend to forget that Hastings, as narrator, is actually making fun of himself in these stories and that his tendency to leap to all the wrong conclusions within the plot is rather nicely mirrored by his role as the skilful retrospective assembler of these details into a readable story. All in all, Hastings’s grasp of dramatic possibility may hinder his ability to become a good private investigator, but it also accurately reflects his purported role as the chronicler of Poirot’s investigations. As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s all intriguingly ‘meta’.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories, Short Story