Monthly Archives: October 2013

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 6

Screenplay by David Reniwck
Directed by Renny Rye

Watching the adaptation of Christie’s The Big Four on ITV last week, with its reunion of Poirot, Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon, really brought home how vintage these early 50-minute episodes are. It’s over twenty years since they first aired and more than a decade has elapsed since Poirot’s companions last accompanied him onscreen. It can’t be denied that it was good to see them back – but it’s also the case that their relentless appearance as a regular cast in the early years of the show is also a sign of the producers’ desire to set up a cosy sense of familiarity to Poirot’s exploits. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand a huge part of the appeal of these early Poirot episodes is this very cosiness. And this is not always an unfair representation of Christie’s murder-plots, which are often reassuringly preposterous and just as reassuringly resolved, all the loose ends tied up as our band of light exorcise the evil in their midst and enable normal life to continue unaffected. It’s a cathartic experience. At the same time though, the relentlessly ‘cosy’ approach which becomes almost a house style in the early TV episodes can end up rendering the stories somewhat anodyne, introducing needlessly silly subplots which, although enjoyable in themselves, end up getting rid of any subtlety in Christie’s originals. This doesn’t happen often (and, to be fair, it could be said that similar problems of subtlety arise in later episodes which regularly introduce an often equally relentless sense of doom to proceedings) – but when it does happen, it can lead to a very frustrating experience. Watching David Renwick’s adaptation of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ is, for me, just such an experience. Not, it must be said, as frustrating as having to sit through the interminable anti-piracy add that Granada Ventures has seen fit to include on every single disc in the Poirot box set – but pretty frustrating, nonetheless.

Before explaining my problem with this episode, however, I’ll give credit where it’s due. The additions to the script are entertaining, not to mention very funny. The subplot involving the apparent haunting at the Manor is very reminiscent of E.F. Benson’s ‘spook stories’, revelling knowingly in the cliché of the ‘old dark house’, whilst also evoking some genuinely creepy imagery (a ghostly face in the branches of a tree, a mirror dripping with blood). It’s also a decent red herring to boot. The subplot involving Naughton, the innkeeper who writes mystery novels on the side, is also very amusing. In this version of the story, Poirot and Hastings are called to a small northern town by a letter apparently entreating the detective’s help in a local murder. When Poirot arrives, however, he finds that Naughton’s letter refers not to a series of real killings, but to the plot of his new novel, with which he has got a bit stuck and with which he hopes to enlist Poirot’s help. The look on Poirot’s face is priceless and Naughton’s hapless interruptions during the investigation are also well-handled. Particularly funny is the conversation at breakfast where a three-way exchange of information involving Grimsby, the ghost at Marsdon Manor and some fresh kippers leads to some predicable, but amusing mix-ups (‘You mean it is… crawling with the spirits of the living dead?’ ‘Grimsby?’ ‘Marsdon Manor!’)

Visually, too, the episode is a delight. The autumnal ‘haunted’ woods around the Manor are beautifully captured and the scenes of the ‘haunting’ itself are handled in quite a creepy way. Creepier still is the image of a roomful of people wearing gasmasks, suitably exploited during a second attempted murder (which doesn’t appear in Christie’s tale). Other visual touches are also highly effective. Maltravers’s distinctive look – scarf, long coat, hat, shambling gait – helps us to recognise him as he apparently stalks the lawn during the climactic ‘ghost’ scene. I also liked the way that, at dinner, Poirot and Hastings have wine, while the more down to earth Japp has a glass of beer next to his plate. It isn’t commented on, but it’s a nice touch that reinforces what we have come to expect from these familiar characters.

All this helps to make the film enjoyable enough in and of itself. And yet, as an adaptation of one of Christie’s most effective short stories, I can’t help but find it frustrating. Christie’s story has the wonderful central conceit of the murder suggested by a suicide, carried out as a mock-suicide and then made to look like natural causes. Add to that the psychoanalytic way in which the murder is suggested and reconstructed through a carefully deduced association of ideas and you have a whole host of interesting features – all of which are pointedly ignored in David Renwick’s adaptation!

Now, obviously, the plot needs to be expanded to fit the fifty minutes of screen time, but the fact that Renwick has ditched all of the novel’s subtleties in favour of a whole host of brash new images and clues (broken eggs, a full-blown haunting, a mysterious painting and a second murder) whilst only retaining the culminating ghost scene, the original motive and the central love triangle from the original plot, does rather imply that it is only the ghost scene that interested him. It’s as if the richness of the story, the chilling effectiveness of the human element in the murder, totally escapes him and he focuses instead on the cheap thrills of the ‘spook story’, choosing to make that the basis of the episode and not the psychological complexity of the way in which the murder was suggested. So, for example, the rook rifle is still the murder weapon, but for the purely technical reason that it leaves a small bullet wound. In the novel, the rook rifle is also significant because it leads directly to the utterly horrible way in which the murder is committed as Mrs Maltravers tricks her husband into showing her how one might use it to commit suicide. One would have thought this would have made for compelling and suspenseful drama – but no. In this version she just wanders up and shoots him. Although, in fairness to Renny Rye, the direction restores some of the original horror to the scene by focusing on the eyes of the victim and of the killer – emphasising horrified pleading in the former and ruthless determination in the latter.

And these new additions lead to some worrying internal inconsistencies. Why, having played her own game of fake haunting for so long, would Mrs Maltravers now break down at the sight of her dead husband walking towards her across the lawn? Surely this version of the character, utterly sceptical and obviously intuitive in her understanding of people’s susceptibility insofar as ghosts are concerned, would suspect immediately that a trick was being played? In the short story, the ghost scene comes out of the blue, so you can see why Mrs Maltravers, already wound up from having killed her husband, would be in such a state – plus it makes thematic sense as a figurative ‘talking cure’, which continues the psychoanalytic strand of the narrative. Here it’s just a shallow dramatic device that works only on the most superficial level, and which fails to live up to the psychological complexity of the original story – and when you’re chastising someone for failing to live up to the psychological complexity of an Agatha Christie short story you know they’re in trouble! And speaking of psychological realism, are we really supposed to believe that Poirot would have mistaken Naughton’s letter for an account of a real murder – especially when Naughton says in the letter that he’s talking about a book?

Another frustrating inconsistency is the way in which the murder weapon is suggested by a newspaper report about the suicide of a farmer, rather than by a story told by Black at dinner. This appears to be a direct adaptation of the suggestion idea in the original story. But it’s a bungled one. Again, Renwick clearly doesn’t understand the sheer finesse of the suggestion in Christie’s story, where the recounting of the suicide anecdote leads the killer to stage a suicide for, we must assume, purely arbitrary and sadistic reasons (since she then decides to pass off the ‘suicide’ as natural causes). That Renwick misunderstands the significance of this comes from his having Poirot state that Mrs Maltravers killed her husband in ‘exactly the same way’ as in the newspaper report. Well, she does in the original story, but in the absence of the restaged suicide this is not the case in his script. One can only assume, then, that Renwick saw the simple fact of the murder weapon as being the significant plot point here – and not the more subtle idea of the sadistically restaged suicide. All of which results in a superficially entertaining episode, but one which is nowhere near as unnerving or satisfying as the story it’s based on.

The final image of both versions sums up, for me, the disappointing contrast between the superficial, anodyne cosiness of the TV adpatation and the chillingly open-ended literary original. In the former, we end with Poirot at the local waxworks museum (apparently every small northern town should have one) trying to get his friends to admire the wax model of himself prominently on display – only to have them pull his leg and comment instead on the model of Charlie Chaplin nearby. It ends, in short, on a note of reassuring jocularity – the murder is explained, the motive detected, prosaically understood and the killer jailed; normal life is resumed, its demons exorcised and we can enjoy a good joke among friends. The original short story ends differently. Yes, the killer has been brought to justice, but the final image of a woman who feels compelled not just to kill her husband, but to do it in such a psychologically disturbing and arbitrary way (tricking him into putting the barrel of the gun into his own mouth, for goodness’ sake) is altogether more unnerving – it is the revelation of this final chilling detail that forms the story’s climax. Here, the bringing of the perpetrator to justice is no reassurance – it isn’t even, one feels, the point. In psychological, as in structural terms, this resolution is no resolution at all and therefore no catharsis. We are simply not allowed, as we are in the TV version, to pretend that the ‘normality’ to which life has now returned is somehow suddenly rid of such horrors. Instead, it emphasises that these still lurk in the dark unconscious beneath the surface of the everyday. Cosy it most certainly is not.

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

‘The Tragedy at Marsden Manor’ (1923)

This short story was first published in The Sketch on 18 April 1923 (Issue 1577) and was one of the ten stories from that series to be collected in Poirot Investigates the following year. The tale begins with Poirot being engaged by an insurance company whose client has died of internal hemorrhage. At first, he is happy to accept the verdict, but his suspicions are aroused when he discovers that the dead man was found with a rook rifle at his side. Was it suicide? Or murder?

A visit to the (frankly rather rubbish) local doctor suggests why such an investigation might prove necessary. Poirot reminds the defensive doctor that ‘in the case of a recent murder, the doctor first gave a verdict of heart failure – altering it when the local constable pointed out that there was a bullet wound through the head!’ But even with this in mind, the doctor is ‘apoplectic’ at the merest suggestion of an autopsy, citing a rather naïve determination to take the word of the dead man’s nearest relatives on trust: ‘in my profession we see no need to distress unduly the relatives of a dead patient’. A fine sentiment, but a rather worrying one coming from a doctor who has failed to notice that his ‘patient’ has been shot through the head! Needless to say, the doctor is absolutely and completely wrong on this occasion (as, rather alarmingly, one suspects he may have been on others).

I’ve always had a great fondness for this story. In fact, I think that, with the addition of a few additional subplots and red herrings, the central puzzle is clever and chilling enough to have stretched to a full-length novel. What most fascinates me about the tale is Christie’s unusually perceptive use of psychoanalysis in Poirot’s questioning of Colonel Black:

Poirot was silent for a moment, then he said gently: ‘with your permission, I should like to try a little experiment. You have told us all that your conscious self knows, I want now to question your subconscious self.’
‘Psycho-analysis, what?’ said Black, with visible alarm.

Poirot’s experiment involves asking Black to state the very first word that comes to mind in response to a given word uttered by Poirot (e.g. ‘day’ evokes the response ‘night’ and so forth). Poirot is able to piece together the entire solution to the case from the answers dredged up from Black’s unconscious mind, very much in the manner of a Freudian talking cure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his insistence on the psychology of crime, Poirot appears to be totally familiar with the techniques involved, explaining to Hastings like an old hand: ‘To begin with, Black answered well within the normal time limit, with no pauses, so we can take it that he himself has no guilty knowledge to conceal.’ Moreover, the entire solution turns out to hinge on a tragic flow of associated ideas stemming from an anecdote told by Black at dinner the night before Maltravers’s death. In fact, the tale almost single-handedly proves that Christie’s use of ‘psychology’ as the corner-stone of Poirot’s method doesn’t (as some critics have argued) constitute a dismissal of Freud’s ideas or the idea of the unconscious, with which she is obviously acquainted. I could go on and on about this theme, but I’ve already discussed it in an article I wrote for crimculture a few years ago, so I won’t repeat myself here.

One thing I’d add to my previous comments on the issue though is that I’m willing to concede that Christie does sometimes seem to confuse psychiatry or psychoanalysis with psychology more generally understood (i.e. the ‘psychology’ of human nature). Then again, it might be that this device (a detective who uses explicitly psychiatric techniques to solve crime) would get old very quickly, hence the relative lack of applied psychoanalysis in her stories.

Here though there is no such confusion and the novelty of the technique makes it seem clever and fresh. Beyond its efficacy as a tool for detection, however, Christie’s story also trades on the popular image of psychoanalysis as something to be viewed, if not with scepticism, then certainly with unease. Black’s initial ‘alarm’ at Poirot’s mention of the topic is an example of this – but at the same time, his easy (if horrified and, indeed, mistaken) acceptance of Poirot’s conclusions also illustrates the way that a popular knowledge of psychoanalysis was widespread in the collective early twentieth-century consciousness:

            ‘You mean my story suggested to him – oh, but that is awful!’

What really impresses me about this story, however, is the actual solution to the crime – that Black’s widow has tricked him into showing her how one might go about committing suicide with a rook rifle then, when he’s put the gun into position, calmly pulls the trigger herself. It’s a chilling image and a splendidly unsettling way to end the tale: ‘And then – and then, Hastings – she pulls it!’

Along with the much later Endless Night, it’s one of Christie’s nastiest and most unpleasant solutions and it still sends a shiver up my spine.

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