Category Archives: Poirot’s Early Cases (1975)

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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!

Leave a comment

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)

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.

Leave a comment

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’.

Leave a comment

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

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’
Agatha Christie’s Poirot (Series 3, Episode 10)

Screenplay by Andrew Marshall
Directed by Renny Rye

50 mins

As with most of the short story adaptations screened by ITV in the 1990s this is a vast improvement on the original text. Being only half the length of their longer adaptations of the Poirot novels, there’s ample scope to flesh out the outlines of Christie’s plots.

As with The Murder on the Links this adaptation restructures the story to avoid unnecessary infodumps, in this case by having Poirot and Hastings in attendance at the ball, conveniently situated for a more hands-on approach to the gathering of evidence. This also helps to rescue Inspector Japp from his thankless role as the Lestrade figure of the original text – here, he and Poirot work together to gather the evidence and solve the case. At the same time, an opening voiceover from Poirot handily explains the concept of the Commedia dell’Arte, a duty that felt rather clumsy in the original story when devolved to Japp.

Elsewhere, the more rounded characterisation takes its cue from notes in the story. Thus the Uncle is almost bankrupt, having spent his money on his massive collection of exotic china (I love this detail – it immediately conjures the ridiculous image of someone murdering their rich nephew in order to fund an unfortunate ebay habit). The BBC setting is a nice addition, indicating the kind of context in which a famous actress like Coco Courtenay would have worked. Mrs Davidson and Chris Davidson’s relationship is also nicely dramatised, with a real sense (missing in the book) of the kind of woman who would cover for Chris. The original story simply assumes that a wife would cover for her husband, but here we are given a more nuanced view of a timid creature whose need to submit to an unpleasant man earns our pity. The fact that Chris isn’t physically abusive or obviously domineering adds to the subtlety of the portrayal. Wisely, they also get rid of his ‘Curse you! How did you know!’ confession. As might be expected of Andrew Marshall (of 2 Point 4 Children fame) there are also some nice one-liners: ‘No doorman?’ ‘But we’re so backward in England Mrs Mallaby. We still have door handles’. As a researcher of late-Victorian literature and culture the name of the writer of the convoluted potboiler in which Coco Courtenay stars also raised a smile: Desmond Havelock Ellis. Presumably, in this parallel version of the 1930s BBC, the following week would have seen the premiere of the latest thriller from the pen of Malcolm Sigmund Freud.

The characters of Poirot and Hastings are also fleshed out somewhat. Poirot himself is a charming socialite who attends fashionable dances and gossips and chats with Hastings and his friend. This sense of Poirot as a celebrity doesn’t really see its fullest expression in Christie’s writing until Lord Edgeware Dies. It’s indicated by the celebrity of Poirot’s clients and the notoriety of the crimes in which he becomes embroiled, yet Poirot himself remains an outsider: a go-to ‘other’ not often portrayed as a public figure in his own right. At the same time, the idea that Poirot is at once a public celebrity and an isolated introvert is charmingly conveyed by the fact that Hastings has to persuade him to leave his stamp collection and go out dancing. Christie conveys the affectionate working relationship between the two men, but it is undeniably welcome to spend some time with them beyond the confines of the investigation. Conan Doyle gives us quite a few glimpses into Holmes and Watson’s attempts to while away the evenings together when the game isn’t afoot, but it’s largely left to the TV version to do that with Christie – at least in terms of these early stories.

The radio context is also a clever addition to the story. Providing an instantly recognisable 1930s setting, there is a sense in which it is merely the ‘period fixture of the week’. Yet, it is also a nice embellishment on the theatricality of the masked ball so central to the murder plot. As the script points out, the ‘visual appearance’ of radio performers is unimportant, which makes the medium an appropriate counterpoint to the Harlequinade, where the right mask is enough to convince everyone (erroneously, as it turns out) of the identity of the person beneath. Having said that, Poirot’s decision to broadcast the denouement live on the radio is really unethical!

Another nice dramatic touch is the way in which the murder is detected at midnight, amidst a flurry of patriotic union flag balloons and strains of Rule Britannia. This is a postcolonial touch, highlighting the evil and corruption at the heart of the empire’s ruling class. Similarly, the Uncle’s ‘success in bringing them [i.e. the porcelain figurines on which the harlequinade costumes are based] to this country’ points to a disregard for the traditions of the country from which they originate. The fiery passion of the Italians, which the porcelain figures personify in their exotic otherness, is imported in more ways than one – undercutting the idea of its intrinsic otherness, as well as the empire’s ability to maintain this foreign violence as ‘other’ by policing its borders effectually. The violence is pretty shocking too, with the camera lingering horribly on the very blunt butter knife with which Lord Cronshaw is eventually stabbed. Ugh.

While the dramatisation comments on elements of its inter-war setting, however, it is also itself historically locatable as a product of the early 1990s. Specifically, it recalled to me the paranoia that surrounded the escalating war on drugs in the period. I’m not criticising this ‘war’, of course – it merely struck me that the crackdown on drug use, which was such a feature of media reaction to 1990s rave culture, is very much in evidence here. Christie’s tale doesn’t really comment on the drug-taking and drug-dealing that ultimately underlies the plot – it’s simply an anonymous mcguffin there to serve the needs of the murder plot’s mechanics. Here though, Poirot is given a vehement and livid reaction to the discovery that these young revellers have been using cocaine and Coco’s murder is definitely the result of her dealer giving her a fatal dose of the substance – a detail which (rather more convincingly, it must be said) is left ambiguous in Christie’s text. And while the mechanism of the story’s plot means that it nominally demonises the figure of the drug dealer, the TV adaptation has Poirot liken that figure to the devil himself. Indeed, in this version it is Chris himself who cuts off the second pompon, which he uses not only to replace the one missing on his own costume, but also to implicate his wife – a horrible action, very different from the story, in which Davidson’s wife cuts it off in order to safeguard her husband (here, Mrs Davidson’s defence of her husband merely involves her lying to protect him).

Believe me, it is not my intention to defend the innocence of drug traffickers, nor to uphold Christie’s apparent belief in the appropriateness of an unquestioning devotion to one’s husband. Rather, I’m attempting to illustrate that most useful of maxims: always historicise. Whatever else it represents, the replacement of Mrs Davidson’s ‘natural’ and unquestioned devotion to her husband with a device that serves instead to demonise the figure of the drug dealer is a fascinating example of the way in which the socio-political priorities of texts change over time, yet never totally escape the immediate concerns of the period of which they are the product.

5 Comments

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

‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ (1923)

This story first appeared in issue 1571 of The Sketch in March 1923. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story and, for the rest of that year, there was barely an issue of The Sketch not featuring a tale of hers. Sadly, The Sketch is an appropriate name for the paper containing these early Poirot stories since this is, essentially, all we get – a ‘sketch’ of a plot, fleshed out with only the most basic character and dialogue notes and the occasional novel device (such as this story’s theatrical dénouement) to lend a little interest. That said, these plots are often very ingenious, providing the basis for longer stories, plays and novels later in Christie’s career. In this form, however, they are usually nothing more than plot summaries that have got a bit above themselves. I can’t comment on the story’s distinguishing characters, events and settings because that would be like focusing on the colour of an iPod skin or the particular shade of grey on an engine bolt. To all practical purposes they are no distinctions at all.

This particular story opens with an acknowledgment that Poirot is now the star of his own ongoing series. Hastings begins tells us of the ‘notoriety’ that Poirot has gained in connection with ‘the Styles case’. He himself has been invalided out of the army after the Somme and, taking up residence with his old friend, has decided to lay the true facts behind some of Poirot’s cases before the public. As in Styles, Hastings’s idea of what constitutes Poirot’s most ‘interesting’ cases is connected with ‘the tremendous publicity given [the case] by the press’. This explains perhaps why Poirot appears to be at once a celebrity and a socialite, constantly mixing with the rich, famous and otherwise influential – this is what interests the press, so this is what informs the kind of ‘public interest’ that Hastings’s stories avowedly serve. In short, it is on Poirot the celebrity and public that Hastings’s narratives often focus. Here, for example, the victims are a young viscount (stabbed to death at a costume party) and his lover (a noted actress who has apparently killed herself by overdosing on cocaine). Hastings’s narratives have this in common both with the newspapers – both provide a discursive arena in which Poirot is drawn into the realm of celebrity and the fashionable zeitgeist. In the TV versions, this is exploited to the full as an opportunity to present a different contextual ‘theme’ every week (the country house, the race track, the golden age of the liners or the early days of radio and film).

Also symptomatic of the tale’s establishment of Poirot as a recurring protagonist is the character’s vanity, which is more overtly signalled here than in Styles. At the outset we find him

delicately applying a new pomade to his moustache. A certain harmless vanity was a characteristic of Poirot’s and fell into line with his general love of order and method.

An idea of what Poirot means by ‘method’ is also indicated when he and Hastings interview Lord Cronshaw’s uncle, who has inherited the dead man’s estate:

‘You think he is the “wicked uncle” of the story-books, eh?’
‘Don’t you?’
‘Me, I think he was most amiable towards us,’ said Poirot noncommittally.
‘Because he had his reasons!’
Poirot looked at me, shook his head sadly, and murmured something that sounded like: ‘No method.’

In these condensed narratives, Poirot less a character and more a caricature – a kind of cipher for explaining the mystery plot; a vessel in which to gather the clues. In the novels, we get a fuller, more organic picture of who he is, what people think of him, what he believes in and what motivates him, but here any unique characteristic is as superficial and cosmetic as a pomade applied to a moustache.

The characterisation, like the narrative prose, is hurried, slapdash and clumsy. Japp, in particular, is now nothing more than a cipher. With little sense of an individual identity, he is there to serve the plot and nothing more. This leads to some careless inconsistencies. At one point, for example, he says that he doesn’t know what ‘the old Italian Comedy’ is – only to then proceed to give a very informed description of its main protagonists. Japp is also a more stereotypical mystery story policeman. He is the ancestor of the parasitic Lestrade, coming to Poirot for help with problems that are beyond him (even when, in reality, they wouldn’t be beyond most twelve-year-olds). I find it totally unbelievable for example, that, when dealing with a crime at a masked ball, Japp doesn’t ‘know the exact details of the costumes’ of those involved, nor can he ‘quite see what that has got to do with it’. The point is that the narrative prose subsumes any characterisation – and both are subsumed totally to the demands of a plot that has to be unfolded with an extreme economy. Economy of style is usually Christie’s strongpoint, but the stylistic budget here is stretched to breaking point in order to cover the cost of the (admittedly clever) plot. As a result, Christie’s usual economy (a disciplined deployment of clear, no-frills prose which is its own skill and hence a perfectible style) devolves into a poverty not only of style and consequently of anything beyond the mere facts of the story related.

An example. Poirot’s eye for theatricality and Christie’s eye for the detective plot as essentially a way of analysing the narratives that control our lives are both well-served by this story, making it a fitting start to Poirot’s adventures as an ongoing series. Hence the literal theatricals of the dénouement, in which the suspects are all gathered in Poirot’s flat to view a tableau of the characters they each played at the Victory Ball – a masquerade that is instrumental in revealing the masquerade within a masquerade that lies at the heart of the murder:

‘And yet – you are all wrong! Your eyes have lied to you – as they lied to you on the night of the Victory Ball. To “see” things with your eyes, as they say, is not always to see the truth.’

The problem, however, is that the melodrama here isn’t a commentary on the melodrama of the murder plot or on the relationship between crime and performance – it’s simply part and parcel of the sensationalism of the story itself. This is made comically apparent when the actual culprit, instead of denying his involvement, leaps up and yells ‘Curse you! How did you guess?’ even before Poirot has accused him. Given that he has just condemned himself to summary execution the action is a little difficult to swallow.

But then I’m almost certainly being too hard on this story, which was never intended to do any more than sketch an interesting puzzle. It isn’t (as Christie’s best stories and novels are) an enjoyably sensational comment about crime and justice and the intricacies of their operation within a given socio-political context. It’s just a puzzle to be enjoyed formally on the level of a puzzle. Hence the way in which Japp’s arrest is presented as nothing more than a narrative formality, the dashes in the dialogue indicating the hurry with which he reads the prisoner his rights: ‘I arrest you Christopher Davidson – charge of murdering Viscount Cronshaw – anything you say will be used in evidence against you’. He might has well have said ‘I arrest you for murder – blah, blah, blah, you know the drill’ and ended it there. Indeed, given that the murder plot is the only basis for the tale existing at all and since this has been played out, it would not have been overly inappropriate of Christie herself to have ended the story right there and in those very words.

4 Comments

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