Monthly Archives: June 2013

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 5

51 mins.

Screenplay by David Renwick

Directed by Andrew Grieve

The episode opens on an art deco house, rendered eerie by a cloudy sky, a creepy musical score and a judicious use of dry ice (representing fog and the smoke from a gardener’s fire). We are then introduced to Mrs Davenheim and her husband, who pops out to the post office, disappearing into the mist. It’s a nice set-up that deftly echoes some of the major themes of the original story. The disappearance is framed as a gothic infringement on the modern, with the art deco house being presented in a manner that makes it appear oddly sinister and otherworldly. The moment is also a visual representation of the puzzle posed by Hastings – how on earth can someone just vanish (as Davenhaim does into the mist) in the hyper-civilised world of twentieth-century England?

The theme is carried further in this episode, however, with the introduction of conjuring and magic as a pervasive motif. Davenheim’s disappearance leads directly into a scene in which Japp, Poirot and Hastings are attending a theatrical magic show and we join them during another sort of disappearing act – this time, one that is avowedly staged. Japp and Hastings are astounded by the trickery involved, but Poirot quickly works out how it was done. Again, it’s a nicely dramatised echo of the short story’s iteration of Poirot’s mantra – that to disappear is not impossible, but is simply a matter of intellectual cleverness and practical trickery, calculated to manipulate a particular audience’s particular expectations. Crime, as so often in Christie, is essentially good stage-management. To Poirot, the paraphernalia involved (the gothic trappings of the sensational disappearance, the bangs and flashes of the stage act) are mere window dressing concealing the bare, logical essentials.

With these overtones of gothic mystery and hints of the magical, the episode is an ideal vehicle for writer David Renwick, famous as the creator of magician’s assistant-turned-detective, Jonathan Creek. Indeed, although Renwick remains extremely faithful to Christie’s plot, the structure of the episode and some the rhythms of the dialogue are classic Creek: the bald statement of the central mystery as an arrant impossibility (‘Mrs Davenheim, I’m afraid it’s impossible – I passed no-one in that lane!’), which is very much in the school of ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’; the inevitable disappointment that underlies the technicalities of the magician’s illusion, represented here by Poirot’s ennui at the theatre; and, finally, the voice-over, which goes through the events as they apparently happened, with a helpful dose of illustrative flashbacks – a device which, in this instance, also helps to put Christie’s habitual info-dump to good use.

Yet, the episode is also characteristic of Renwick’s other big hit, the sitcom One Foot in the Grave and the farcical use to which Hastings is put in the episode is similar to the misunderstandings and well-meaning clumsiness that beset Renwick’s most famous creation, Victor Meldrew. Don’t believe it? Just look at the scenes in which Hastings, gathering information at Poirot’s request, but never actually told what the information is for, finds himself discovered in an increasingly odd series of situations, each one deftly constructed to out-do the one before: sitting on a bench which, it turns out, has just been painted; being mistaken for a wealthy motor racing patron; having to explain to Davenheim’s wife why exactly he’s attempting to break into an already wrecked safe with a hammer and chisel. When we get to the point where Poirot tells him to ask Mrs Davenheim about the contents of her bathroom cupboard and whether or not she and her husband slept in separate rooms, the joke has been set up so well, that all we need to see is Hastings bursting into Mrs Davenheim’s lounge baring a notepad and asking, embarrassingly, ‘Er… I’m terribly sorry… but could I ask you a few questions…’. It’s the kind of mounting running gag that Renwick excels at and the happy choice of screenwriter means that a lot of comic potential is successfully milked from Poirot’s habitual tendency to revel in pointing out the apparently obvious relevance of what appear to be trivial details.

Another very welcome aspect of the episode is the way in which all four regular cast members are given plenty to do. Miss Lemon, so much more vivacious and eccentric in Pauline Moran’s portrayal than the machine-like being invented by Christie, is always a welcome addition to these films. The fact that Hastings is out gathering evidence while Poirot is flat-bound because of Japp’s wager means that she becomes Poirot’s foil for the duration. As such, we get a pleasantly cosy sense of the pair’s fondness for each other, as she becomes a willing audience to Poirot’s new-found hobby – amateur conjouring. As he produces a torn-up newspaper, magically intact, from his clenched fist, she applauds gleefully. As might the audience; for what is wonderful about these little magic tricks is the way David Suchet performs them unremarked whilst getting on with the real business of saying his lines – apart from this one instance of Miss Lemon’s applause, Poirot’s magic tricks are never commented upon, simply taking place as inconsequential embelleshments to his deductions and to his pronouncements on the processes of deduction. As with the earlier theatrical act, it might look impressive but it’s actually just window dressing. Even so, despite the efficacy of the metaphor, one cannot help but admire the showmanship involved – or wonder how many takes these scenes took to complete!

A less welcome addition is the parrot, which Miss Lemon is minding for a relative and which arrives at the flat midway through the episode. Admittedly, this is the occasion for a good joke:

Delivery man: I’ve got a parrot for a Mr Poy-rot

Poirot: It is pronounced Pwa-row

Delivery man: Oh, I’m so sorry! I’ve got a Pwa-row for a Mr Poy-rot

Joking aside, however, I’m not sure I liked the way the parrot quickly becomes a metaphor for Poirot’s superiority complex. When Hastings pokes his finger into the cage, Poirot quips ‘Do not fraternize with that creature, I am still training him’. When Hastings argues that it’s ‘only a parrot’, Poirot counters: ‘I was talking to the parrot’. Hastings also professes a liking for a concoction cooked up by Poirot in the kitchen – only to find that it was meant for the bird. Later, when Hastings and Japp profess to be baffled by the case, the parrot echoes their sentiments: ‘I give up! I give up!’ Frankly, no-one comes out of this well – Japp and Hastings are made to look like buffoons, while Poirot is made to seem unpleasantly aloof rather than roguishly or eccentrically vain. Nor do we get, as we sometimes do in the original short stories, any expression of annoyance from Hastings, which would at least have mediated the situation a little. Perhaps I’m being a little bit harsh here – but it strikes me as typical of Renwick’s sometimes bitterly-expressed inability to suffer fools gladly, which is sometimes hard to swallow in his work.  The final pay-off to the conjouring motif, in which Poirot tries, but fails, to make the parrot disappear, always left something of an odd taste in my mouth and maybe this is why – because of the earlier way in which the parrot is linked to the (quite literally) chattering masses who can’t come close to Poirot’s genius, his wish to get rid of it seems uncomfortably close to some modernists’ unpalatably virulent hatred for anything remotely unintellectual (as so frequently expressed in D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, for example) as theorised by John Carey in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses.

There are also a couple of really gaping plot holes, namely: why does no one notice until half way through the episode that the safe has been broken into? and why is Japp surprised to find Hastings trying to break open the safe with a  hammer and chisel when he was present when Poirot briefed his friend to do just that? Another plot hole is carried over from Christie’s own story. To be fair, Christie’s work is generally remarkably free from inconsistencies in its internal logic and it really irritates me when she’s stereotyped as being a martyr to holes in her plots – but you do have to wonder, here, why no-one ever noticed that Davenheim, a well-known banker, was not in Johannesburg when he said he was. This is especially embarrassing as it means that Davenheim’s disappearance is less of a mystery when you consider that he’s already managed to pull off a similar trick for three months the year before without anyone once wondering where he’d actually got to! Perhaps that’s the point, of course, since that disappearance was a rehearsal for this one – but it wasn’t a disappearance! No-one actually noticed! I suspect, therefore, that the real truth here is that, whereas Christie can present it as astonishing that a man could disappear in a country as civilized as England, she doesn’t find it so astonishing that a man could disappear with ease in a country as uncivilized (in her eyes) as South Africa. The latter simply isn’t a mystery: ‘Where’s Davenheim? Why can’t we contact him?’ ‘He’s in South Africa’ ‘Ah! That explains it!’ Just an idea, of course – but it would explain the existence of what is, for Christie, a plot hole of unusual magnitude. If I’ve misunderstood, of course, do let me know.

So, not a perfect episode, but these flaws are only minor ones – this is still great entertainment. I have fond memories of watching this on the (now defunct) satellite channel Granada Plus when I was still at school and, re-watching it, I still find it to be a strong episode and a good adaptation.

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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

‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ (1923)

First published on the 28th March 1923, this was the fourth of Christie’s lengthy series of Poirot stories for the British periodical, The Sketch. It was collected the following year in Poirot Investigates, a collection of eleven of these stories. I’m not sure what the criteria for this selection was, but so far it does strike me that the stories that appeared in the British edition of Poirot Investigates are definitely amongst the best of the tales that Christie wrote for The Sketch. In this story, Inspector Japp calls on Poirot with gossip about the exciting disappearance of the wealthy banker Mr Davenheim – much to the delight of Hastings, who has been reading about it avidly in the Daily Megaphone. In the course of the discussion, Poirot suggests that detection is a matter of exercising the grey cells and not of gathering clues. Japp decides to put his friend to the test, betting him that he won’t be able to solve the case without leaving the flat. Poirot accepts and, needless to say, succeeds.

One of the most welcome things about this story is the recognisable continuity with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. As in Styles Japp is an intelligent police officer hampered by the need to follow protocol and procedure (much as Hastings is hampered by a brain saturated with newspapers). Responding to Poirot’s suggestion that a tramp could be a key witness in defending a man he believes to have been wrongly arrested, Japp comments: ‘I don’t say you’re not right. But all the same, you won’t get a jury to take much note of a jailbird’s evidence.’ Japp is also back to being Poirot’s ‘old friend’ and apart from one slip-up, where his personal voice is sacrificed at the altar of information-dumping (‘On Monday morning a further sensational discovery came to light’) this is a return to the intelligent but job-conscious detective of Christie’s first novel – intelligent enough to take Poirot’s opinion into account as one equal to another, but inclined to go with the obvious solution because of professional pressure to make an arrest. At the same time, his convincing suggestion as to how Davenheim’s body could have been burnt in a lime kiln leaving only his ring behind as a clue is a clever one and reminds us that, at his best, he is no mere foil for Poirot’s superior intellect.

Japp’s reference to the effect of the war on Poirot’s mental health, though meant in jest, also reminds us that Japp and Hastings represent a younger generation that regards the elderly Poirot as a throwback whose powers are waning, inclined instead to go with the Modernist flow and obsessively ‘make it new’. As in Murder on the Links, however, we are presented with the idea of Poirot as the representative of the transcendent power of the intellect – the idea that a good brain is a good brain, regardless of the age in which it operates. The title sequence of the Poirot TV series presents our hero as enmeshed within the technological and art-historical trappings of Modernism, but this is misleading. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Poirot differs markedly from Sherlock Holmes in that he exists in complete contradistinction to the modern advancements of his day. Instead, he is able to demonstrate how they are essentially irrelevant both to the practice and to the detection of crime, both of which stem from the human mind itself; and Christie very much sees the human mind as something all but divorced from its historical/material context. Mind, in the Poirot novels, very much wins out over matter. This is why Hastings is such a good foil for Poirot, with his fascination for modern inventions, the sensational newspaper story of the moment and his faith in the trappings of civilization:

‘I should have thought,’ I remarked, ‘that it would be almost impossible for anyone to “disappear” nowadays.’

For Hastings, the modern world, with its technologies of communication and transportation is not conducive to disappearance; even if someone wanted to disappear voluntarily, they would soon be found: ‘He’s up against civilization’. But Poirot thinks it wouldn’t be so tricky for ‘a man of method’.

Poirot’s faith in ‘civilized’ values is no less strong than Hastings’s of course – that’s why his investigations always end up restoring the status quo. But he is more inclined to see civilization not as a material state but as an act (and an intellectual one at that) of asserting a particular kind of order not necessarily inherent in its material trappings. Davenheim’s ‘method’ is able to disprove Hastings’s faith that civilization will inevitably discover the criminal, but, crucially, Poirot’s ‘method’ also undermines this very same faith. This is because, by making both Davenheim’s ‘method’ and Poirot’s the means by which civilization can be either subverted or upheld, the story seems to celebrate individual genius as the means by which civilization can either be defended or defied.

This is not to say that Christie’s tale implies some sort of moral nihilism, in which the strongest intellect will win the day regardless of the inherent rightness of their moral view. Certainly, it sets up such a scenario as the terrible possibility from which Poirot safeguards us – but it does so only because Poirot’s moral outlook is always presented (usually not controversially) as inherently right, true and defensible – implies, moreover, that it stands for something that has always been right, true and defensible. Hence the underlying contradiction in Poirot’s final verdict: “Ah, this Monsieur Davenheim, there may be some malformation in his grey cells, but they are of the first quality!” Obviously, one might feel that Davenheim’s material, money-grabbing motives are, if not commendable, at least logical. But not here. I’ve said before in this blog that intellect, for Poirot, is the ability to penetrate the bare facts of an apparently inexplicable occurrence, distrusting even that which appears self-evident, until the facts can be ascertained in all their proportionate significance and the truth revealed. Hence this exchange between Poirot and Japp:

‘Come now, monsieur, you’re not going to run down the value of details as clues?’

‘By no means, these things are all good in their way. The danger is they may assume undue importance. Most details are insignificant; one or two are vital. It is the brain, the little grey cells […] on which one must rely. The senses mislead. One must seek the truth within – not without.’

In short, the material world of cigarette ash, footprints and details of who was doing what, where and at what time, is weighed up and then treated as a collection of elements in a purely intellectual exercise (this, incidentally, is also why detective fiction itself often resembles a streamlined intellectual exercise in problem-solving – after all, Poirot’s position as an ‘armchair detective’ solving the case from his living room is very much that of Christie’s own readers). As Poirot says:

I find it a good sign when a case is obscure. If a thing is clear as daylight – eh bien, mistrust it! Someone has made it so. […] I do not see […] I shut my eyes and think.

And there you have the Poirot stories’ definition of intellect in a nutshell – for the detective, the ability to mistrust and pull apart what appears to be ‘clear as daylight’; for the criminal, the ability to deceive by appearing to make something appear as ‘clear as daylight’. In both cases, however, the idea that something is (or is not) what it appears to be relies on the fact that what it appears to be exists, beforehand, as a concept on which everyone can agree – a happy marriage, an ideal community, a good husband. And that’s why, in these stories, an intellect that does not work to uphold conventional morality as the mainstay of civilization is evidence of a ‘malformation’ in the ‘grey cells’ and can be rejected on those grounds quite as much as on the grounds that theft is wrong – one idea becomes, in a circular process, symptomatic of the other.

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