Monthly Archives: July 2013

‘The Adventure of “The Western Star”’ (1923)

This short story was first published in The Sketch on 11 April 1923 (Issue 1576) and is part of Christie’s lengthy run of weekly Poirot stories for that periodical. It was later collected in book form as the first story in Poirot Investigates (1924).

The story concerns an apparent plot by some nefarious Chinamen to steal both the ‘Western Star’, belonging to film actress Mary Marvell, and the ‘Eastern Star’ belonging to Lady Yardley. As is usual in these stories, however, nothing is quite as it seems.

The thing that immediately struck me about this story is the way in which it is suffused with an air of glamour and celebrity. Poirot himself is now ‘a fashionable detective’, who has ‘become the mode, the dernier cri!’ Poirot himself recalls the case of the dancer Valerie Saintclair (‘The King of Clubs’), while his two lady clients in the story come to him on the strength of recommendations received from the protagonists of his first two recorded English cases: ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. His fame is spreading fast. Indeed, by the 1930s he will be a celebrity in his own right. More than ever, however, the story also creates a sense of Poirot as a classy figure, who will take on any problem interesting enough, but is particularly at the service of the ‘cream’ of society. He denies this of course, but there is a hint that he secretly relishes this taste of the high life – after all not only Hastings, but also Poirot himself, guiltily owns up to reading the Society Gossip.

Yet Poirot’s approach to celebrity is, at bottom, the same as his approach to the matter of sensation fiction elsewhere in the story. As Mary Marvell is ushered into Poirot’s flat by the landlady Mrs Murchison, Hastings (who, rather unbelievably, does not immediately recognise her) takes a paragraph to explain to his readers the gossip surrounding Mary Marvell, her recently-acquired diamond and her marriage to fellow screen idol Gregory Rolf. This is partly a reappearance of the Christie infodump – but it also illustrates how Hastings thinks of celebrities, not as people, but as the composite result of gossip and reportage about them. For Poirot, it is different. Not succumbing to the glamour of these personages, he sees only facts and refuses to be dazzled by the circumstantial details, however exciting a story they may make.

Mary Marvell has been receiving warning letters, apparently left by a Chinaman, urging her to return her diamond, the ‘Western Star’, which is the ‘left eye of the God’. Ignoring these warnings, she receives a final note, informing her that the diamond will be stolen at the ‘full of the moon’. This is surely a deliberate attempt to evoke Wilkie Collins’s detective thriller The Moonstone (1868). Indeed, Poirot actually performs a postcolonial reading of Collins’s novel:

Épatant!’ murmured Poirot. ‘Without doubt a romance of the first water.’ He turned to Mary Marvell. ‘And you are not afraid, madame? You have no superstitious terrors? You do not fear to introduce these two Siamese twins to each other les a Chinaman should appear and, hey presto! whisk them both back to China?’

Poirot is speaking sarcastically here, of course – for him, the story is obviously false, not least because it is patently the product of improbable orientalist fantasies. A further self-referential sign of the story’s debunking of colonial ‘othering’ is the fact that stories mystifying the diamond’s origin are revealed as utterly irrelevant; a fact reflected in the plot’s maintaining the ambiguity of the diamond’s national origin. A Chinese origin (and thus a ‘yellow peril’) having been dismissed as fantasy, the notion that it may have come from India is also only vaguely offered – one gets the sense that the plot (and Poirot) is at pains to avoid the kind of sensational colonialist mystification which its characters cling to. Indeed, the kind of story peddled by Collins, in which the diamond is stolen by colonial ‘others’ and is indeed the ‘eye of a God’ simply turns out to be obfuscation here.

To be fair to Collins, his stereotypical presentation of a colonised culture is somewhat alleviated by the character of Godfrey Ablewhite, the alleged ideal of Western Christianity and masculinity who turns out to be anything but – in short, while Collins restores the order of the colonial nation by problematically othering the native cultures of those countries it has invaded, he also reveals some of the colonising nation’s own ideals to be nothing more than empty shams. I think ‘The Western Star’ takes a leaf from Collins’s book by exposing Gregory Rolf as a scoundrel – even though he has been described by Hastings as ‘a hero fit for romance’ (several of the The Moonstone’s narrators describe Godfrey Ablewhite in similar terms).

As ever, Hastings is again swayed by the rules of the sensation thriller, which leads him inevitably to all the wrong conclusions:

‘if she, as the holder of one of the twin diamonds, has received a mysterious series of warnings, you, as the holder of the other stone, must necessarily have done the same. You see how simple it is?’

Just as typically, Poirot sees through the glitz of the sensational plot cooked up by Gregory Rolf, seeing only a series of unadorned material facts. In this story, however, Poirot’s methods are lent an admirable postcolonial edge – they not only allow him to see through the workings of the overblown sensationalism of the apparent plot, but also expose the way in which these very plots depend on some really ‘simple’ stereotypes. We do, indeed, ‘see how simple it is’ – but not necessarily in the way Hastings intends.

In this story, more than ever, Hastings is an unreliable narrator, retrospectively (and selflessly, given the unflattering picture of his mental abilities that emerges) recounting the development of the investigation as it appeared to him at the time, rather than with the benefit of hindsight:

It had become rather a pose with [Poirot] to consistently belittle my abilities, and I think he was chagrined at finding no loophole for criticism. I was secretly rather pleased with myself, though I tried to conceal the fact for fear of irritating him. In spite of his idiosyncrasies, I was deeply attached to my quaint little friends.

Obviously, the Hastings who writes this memoir after the event must surely have known that this would turn out to be a hubristic underestimation of Poirot’s abilities. And, incidentally, here is another instance of an Englishman adopting a patronising attitude to a foreign national – for ‘quaint little friend’ read ‘brave little Belgium’. But this is complicated by the fact that Hastings is constructing a linear account retrospectively. This isn’t The Good Soldier (1915), in which the protagonist’s imperfect account is recorded in real time as his thoughts occur to him – rather, Hastings’s is a narrative artfully constructed in retrospect. It is purposely unreliable so as to surprise the reader. In short, there is a benefit to his hindsight, albeit one that resides in his ability better to select his material. As a result, what we have is an account of how Hastings discovered his preconceptions to be entirely mistaken. This development, from sensational orientalist fantasy to (ostensibly) prosaic debunking, leads to a situation in which, as readers, we can enjoy the nefarious pleasures of sensationalist crime fiction only then to savour the logical, well-fashioned puzzle that underlies that plot’s superficiality. Significantly, it remains a superficiality that is debunked only after its pleasures have been presented (and potentially enjoyed) on their own terms. Poirot arranges the facts, Hastings arranges the sensational story of their discovery and Christie (and her readers) get to have it both ways.

In many ways this story a turning point for Hastings’s relationship with Poirot. The latter is now a famous detective with a growing reputation, while Hastings is coming to realise, more and more, almost against his will, that he is simply the chronicler, rather than the active participant, in these tales. As he says at the end of the story:

‘There really is a limit! […] I’m fed up!’ I went out, banging the door. Poirot had made an absolute laughing-stock of me. I decided that he needed a sharp lesson. I would let some time elapse before I forgave him. He had encouraged me to make a perfect fool of myself.

This is an odd note on which to leave the story – unless we consider that Christie intended to emphasise the ‘limit’ to which Hastings has been pushed; his inescapable recognition, finally, that he is merely Poirot’s assistant. Even so, it makes it an odd choice for story with which to begin the ‘best of’ collection of tales from this magazine series (i.e. Poirot Investigates). In terms of quality, though, the selection should come as no surprise as this is certainly among the cleverest and most entertaining of the Poirot short stories.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Plymouth Express’

 Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 4

 Screenplay by Rob Beacham

Directed by Andrew Piddington

 

This is a faithful adaptation of the Christie story in terms of plot, with only a few minor changes: Halliday and his daughter are Australian rather than American; the red herring of the newspaper is slightly different and is changed from a mere alibi to a premeditated attempt to lay suspicion at the door of both the Count and Rupert Carrington equally. The Count’s role in proceedings is also expanded into a full-blown subplot in which he is fraudulently dealing in shares pertaining to Halliday’s mining company – a conspiracy that means he is in England at the time of Flossy’s death. The plot is expanded to fit the fifty minute running time as well, so that Poirot is called in by Halliday not to investigate Flossy’s murder (at least not initially) but to ‘vet’ the Count’s suitability as a husband. Otherwise, the plot stays extremely close to the original short story – the murder is even discovered by a young naval officer, a detail that could easily have been changed without anyone noticing.

 It’s in the tone of the piece that the adaptation really differs from the original story. While Christie is rather crassly unsympathetic in dealing with the brutal murder of a young woman, the TV version goes to great lengths to bring out the horror and grief of the affair. It does so by deftly drawing our attention away from the sensational aspects that the short story revels in, presenting it instead as a piteous domestic tragedy with which we can easily empathise.

 In particular, Halliday’s position as a single father doing his best to raise a daughter on his own is dealt with in much greater detail than is his status as a ‘self-made’ millionaire (we get no real indication of how he made his millions, only that he is now in the mining business). True, the adaptation retains the original story’s idea of rich folks’ distance from ‘real’ problems – the maid is deservedly contemptuous of the Count’s silly message to her mistress, which she is forced to read aloud. But the single father/only child thing helps to override this and to make one more sympathetic both to the millionaire and his spoilt daughter on the level of common (and therefore relatable) human experiences, rather than as ‘othered’ socialised abstractions. To put it another way, where the short story is ‘us and them’, the adaptation challenges the viewer to expand its definition of ‘us’. The way the press flock around Flossy’s body (contrasted with Hastings, Japp and Poirot’s solemn and respectful examination of the corpse) helps to demonise further those who would play up these people’s difference from the rest of us. I love the scene when Halliday tells Poirot: ‘You find the murderer Poirot; I’ll make you richer than you ever dreamed’. The delivery conveys such helplessness at the very same time as it demonstrates how powerful Halliday’s money makes him. The idea of death as a great leveller is very movingly conveyed – money is all well and good, but it doesn’t make grief any easier to bear.

 More fun is to be had with the Count, who might as well be called Dracula so stereotypical is his aristocratic villainy. Come to think of it, maybe we’re meant to make a very middle class distinction between the self-made millionaire and the hereditary peer? Be that as it may, the Count’s villainy is deliciously camp. He plots cryptically in a darkened room with a taciturn old banker, refuses to drop his cigarette even whilst running away from the police and nonchalantly declares himself to be ‘devastated’ by the tragedy of Flossy’s death in a deadpan manner that suggests nothing of the sort! Frankly, if he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it. The episode even acknowledges this metafictionally – at one point Hastings awkwardly tells Poirot that the Count is very much of what you’d expect from his ‘type… of Frenchman’. Poirot agrees, confirming what we can all see plainly: ‘He is typical of his type’.

 The regular cast are very well served in this episode. Miss Lemon isn’t in it much, but she not only gets a wonderful line (‘Difficulties were made to be overcome, Mr Poirot’) but also gets to make quite an entrance in her marvellous period dress, complete with fashionable haircut and glasses. On a more serious note, Japp is very much Poirot’s respected colleague in this episode – unlike the bizarre rivalry mentioned in the short story, they willingly collaborate here on what both agree is a serious case with little time for frivolity. Hastings also gets a nice scene in a bar where he befriends Flossy’s husband in order to discover any motive he might have for his wife’s death – he isn’t quite the bumbling fool he sometimes comes across as and that’s welcome, however endearingly he plays that role.

 Japp and Hastings’s mutual relationship to Poirot is also brought out by a nifty piece of direction. Hastings and Japp are framed either side of Poirot, arguing about which of their two favoured suspects is the most likely culprit, only to shut up immediately as soon as Poirot intercedes. As Poirot gives his speech, the three pass through a set of double doors, which Japp and Hastings open together in order to let Poirot through – a nice metaphor that illustrates not only their mutual respect for the Belgian, but also their mutual status as his practical helpmates in crime-solving.

 Another scene illustrates the way in which Japp acts as a mediator between the active, physical duties of the jobbing policeman and the intellectual endeavours of Poirot’s little grey cells. As a senior police officer, Japp is a mixture of the two – he has to take practical considerations into account (the need to gather tangible evidence, to be seen to be making progress and to do the actual dirty work of pursuing and arresting criminals), but also represents the ‘brains’ of the whole operation – an aspect with which Poirot often helps out. This is summed up visually on screen in Poirot’s skilful undercover chat with the suspected jeweller. The intellectual duties over, Poirot is able to confirm to Japp that this is the man they’re looking for – which is Japp’s cue to gather a troupe of constables, force entry to the jeweller’s establishment and make the arrest. Hastings and Poirot look on with a pained expression at this, before turning away. It’s a good way of showing how, for all his keen moral sensibilities, the game of detection is, for Poirot, very much an abstract one – his hands never get dirty.

 That isn’t to say that Poirot’s notorious sense of evil is not very much in evidence here. It may have deserted him in the short story, but here he is keen to point out just how callous and horrible this particular murder actually is. The murder itself is reconstructed in gruesome, bloody, fashion – gratuitously so really. But this serves to make the point viscerally – unlike in the short story, where the murder remains an abstract logic problem, here we’re not allowed to forget the sheer cold-blooded brutality it represents. To cap it all, Poirot then describes the action of knifing a woman to death in great detail, just to drive the point home (if you will). Seriously – it should come with a trigger warning.

 Tonally different to the short story, then, this adaptation is very much in the spirit of Christie’s moral framework – albeit at the more acceptable end of her rather uncomplicated belief in inherent evil as a dangerous reality. It is according to their inherent capacities for empathy (the mark of the ‘good’ person here) that the characters are eventually set up to be judged. The murderers are at one end of this spectrum, with Halliday and Carrington at the other – both have their flaws, but their disgusted spurning of Flossy’s diamonds demonstrates that their moral compass is pointing the right way. The Count, however, with his dispassionate attitude to even this most self-evidently evil of actions is somewhere in between – not as bad as the murderers, it nevertheless makes Japp determined to punish him for remaining resolutely unapologetic in the face of such manifest grief. Ostensibly, he is arrested for fraud, but one really gets the impression that his true crime is not to acknowledge the grieving father by saying sorry…

 Then there’s the final scene, in which Halliday’s letter is read out in voiceover, as Poirot hands Miss Lemon the cheque he has received in payment. Poirot is embarrassed at having been paid so much – and Miss Lemon’s reaction is very telling. Looking at the generous cheque, she is moved to comment of Halliday: ‘the poor man’. It’s as if the fact that Halliday is so grateful that he feels compelled to pay an enormous amount to Poirot is indicative not of how much money he has to give away, but rather of how little it actually matters to him any more. It’s a much more realistic ending than the flippancy we get at the short story’s conclusion.

 I’ll be honest though. While I admire this episode a lot as an adaptation (the direction is particularly good) it isn’t one that I particularly enjoy. Until now, I had thought this was because it was simply dull, like the short story – but I’ve changed my mind on this matter. The episode is dreary, but it’s a dreariness that’s depressingly appropriate to the tragedy of the story. This is admirably in keeping with the way in which the adaptation determinedly downplays its potentially sensational aspects to hit you with the sheer misery of the situation. It’s almost as if it’s defying you to enjoy it. Although I think it succeeds in this defiance, I’m in the paradoxical position of not being sorry that it does.

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

‘The Plymouth Express’ (1923)

First published in Issue 1575 of The Sketch (4 April 1923), this short story was later expanded into The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), which retained the same central conundrum – an heiress is murdered during a train journey and her jewels are stolen; is the culprit her estranged husband, or the villainous French Count with whom she is apparently in love?

The first UK book publication of the story was in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). As with many of the stories from the Sketch series, my familiarity with the book edition makes it difficult to imagine the tale as part of the run that originally included the stories from Poirot Investigates (1924). Indeed, the opening is immediately very different to the Poirot stories we’ve seen so far, beginning with a third person account of the discovery of the body before shifting to Hastings’s first-person narration and the homely setting of Poirot’s flat – the scene with which Christie usually opens proceedings. Interestingly, the newspaper report of the discovery of the body, which Hastings reads to Poirot, is a lot less excitable than the dramatic account that opens Hastings’s own narrative. Assuming that the opening scene in the train is also meant to be read as Hastings’s work (rather than that of an unnamed omniscient narrator), it provides further proof of Hastings’s love of sensationalism and supports the conclusion to which I’m rapidly arriving – that Hastings really missed a calling as a journalist. Still, since these stories presumably take place in an alternative England where Hastings has made a successful career for himself in his retirement as a writer of thrilling detective stories based on his friendship with the renowned friend, Hercule Poirot, it would appear everyone’s a winner!

After this unusual opening, though, it’s business as usual, as Poirot is called in to investigate the heiress’s death by Rupert Carrington, the dead girl’s father. Carrington has come to Poirot as a result of the Belgian’s having successfully sorted out an affair involving stolen bonds for the millionaire on a previous occasion. Amusingly, my edition contains a typo that results in Carrington telling Poirot that he appreciated the ‘good work you did over those bombs’, inadvertently conjuring (for me at least) an absurd picture of Poirot, dapperly attired in full dinner suit, heroically disposing of an unexploded device.

I must confess, I remember finding this story (and the TV adaptation of it) very forgettable – and I’ve always thought Christie justified in disliking her work on The Mystery of the Blue Train. I haven’t really revised my opinion, but I will say that the solution to the crime (and the clue of the blue dress) does strike me as a clever idea. One other thing that strikes me is how callous Poirot, Hastings and the murdered girl’s father all seem in their matter-of-fact attitude to Flossy’s death. Hastings is particularly thoughtless. Upon hearing of Poirot’s commission to investigate the case, he actually comments ‘And he sent for you? Splendid!’ Carrington himself is a caricature of a rich American – described, bafflingly, as having ‘piercing eyes and an aggressive chin’ – with whom I suspect we aren’t really meant to empathise. Moreover, the tale actually ends with a joke about the rivalry between Japp and Poirot – the whole tone is almost camp in its insistence on the enjoyment of the murder as a logic puzzle rather than as a thing that actually affects anyone’s life. This sort of sums up the story for me as a very by-numbers outing – not nearly as uninspiring as ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and certainly a diverting read, but with a more than usually formulaic sense about it; it is devoid of the warmth and charm of some of the other tales. In further support of this view, I offer the strange characterisation of Japp here. He’s suddenly turned into Inspector Lestrade, treating Poirot with a grudging respect, but seeming to think there might be some sort of genuine ill-feeling between them. It’s very unlike his behaviour in previous stories. In addition, he seems to have gone hard-boiled: ‘He was the one who planned the job, right enough. But Narky won’t squeal on a pal.’

The double-edged sword of Poirot’s ‘psychology’ also rears its head here. I do stick by the argument I made in my Crimeculture article on the subject – there’s plenty of evidence  elsewhere to show that Christie’s understanding of psychology actually comes from a firm grasp of at least the basic principles of Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Indeed, I’ve no doubt you’ll hear me rave about it when I reach ‘The Tragedy at Marsden Manor’. Having said that, her belief in absolute evil, together with a simplistic affirmation of the fixed characteristics of the male and female mindset, often get in the way of the more nuanced approach she displays elsewhere. For example:

‘[T]he question to my mind is: why kill her? Why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence. And the Count, who is an extremely good psychologist where women are concerned – hence his success – would know that perfectly well!’

 ‘Because she is a woman’? I’m really not so sure – and that’s putting it mildly!

 Poirot often gives an eloquent defence of ‘psychology’ against ‘action’ in the process of detection and this tale is no exception:

 ‘The good inspector believes in matter in motion […] He travels; he measures footprints; he collects mud and cigarette-ash! He is extremely busy! He is zealous beyond words! And if I mention psychology to him, do you know what he would do, my friend? […] He would say to himself: “Poor old Poirot! He ages! He grows senile!” Japp is the “younger generation knocking on the door.” And ma foi! They are so busy knocking that they do not notice that the door is open!’

 While there is evidence to show that the Freudian unconscious is acknowledged in Poirot’s definition of what he means by ‘psychology’ (Hickory Dickory Dock, The ABC Murders and ‘The Tragedy at Marsden Manor’ all provide indications of this) what Poirot usually means by the term might be summed up, somewhat differently, as: a pre-emption of people’s motives and actions based on a detailed consideration of what someone would be likely to do in a given set of circumstances, according to other evidence pointing towards a particular kind of personality. Now this can be very convincing indeed – as it is in this tale’s clue of the blue dress, whereby the murderer is able to set up a fake picture of the dead woman (and thus an alibi for herself) by subtly drawing attention to particular elements in her own appearance. The whole crime nearly succeeds because of the murderer’s understanding of the way people recognise and remember other people – and the murderer only fails because of Poirot’s attention to the same kinds of general detail about people, which allows him to detect, as Japp does not, the false pattern the murderer is trying to establish. This is clever stuff – indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s the essence of the kind of cleverness that Christie brings to the detective plot and which makes her such a master of misdirection, playing with the reader’s expectations, just as the murderer toys with the police’s. It’s also a convincing affirmation of the underlying ‘human nature’ to which Christie subscribes – here, the murderer is simply a clever woman. True, only a woman could have done it, but that’s not a comment on female psychology, more a comment on the fact that people in the twenties would have noticed a man in a dress for all the wrong reasons. It’s just a shame that the previous instance of Poirot’s ‘psychology’ (‘Because she is a woman’) betrays the sad fact that, for Christie, this otherwise astute delineation of pervasive trends in human cognition and behaviour sometimes tips over into a presumed ability to pronounce on the behaviour of all women ever!

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories, Short Story, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)