Category Archives: Short Stories

‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ (1923)

First published in The Sketch, Issue 1600 (26 September 1923) this is the first Agatha Christie story with an archaeological connection, foreshadowing later full-length novels (notably my own personal favourite of all her novels, Murder in Mesopotamia) and testifying to an interest in the subject even before her marriage to celebrated archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. The story takes place “[h]ard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon” – an expedition famous for being plagued by a series of tragic coincidences which led many to posit that those involved had been the victim of an ancient Egyptian curse. The period was one at which the late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century fascination with the occult aspects of Egyptian culture and its archaeological (and spiritual) afterlife was at fever pitch. (As an aside here, I heartily recommend Roger Luckhurst’s book, The Mummy’s Curse, which takes a learned but wry look at this cultural phenomenon). This is thus another example of the tendency, in Christie’s first set of Poirot stories, to have reference to popular topics of the day – things which were culturally “in the air” and which would be of interest to readers of the Sketch. We are presented here with a case involving a “strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra”, and a similar set-up of a peer of the realm who dabbles in archaeology funded by an interested member of the aristocracy – as in the Tutankhamen case. That this is a trope—an exportable pop-cultural topic with its own generic rules and expectations—is, perhaps, emphasised by the capitalised T in Tomb.

At the same time though the story uses Poirot as a mouthpiece to emphasise the point that the belief in curses upon disturbers of tombs is “contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.” In that sense it pays lip service to the curse narrative, which forms the thematic backbone of the story, whilst also debunking it, not only with rational deduction, but with solid archaeological knowledge – the latter is offered, we might say, as the archaeological equivalent of Poirot’s own capacity to use razor-sharp inductive and deductive reasoning to counter the sensationalism which is brought to bear on more mundane crimes by the newspapers, novels and cinema films which are so eagerly consumed by Hastings and which colour his imaginative approach to these affairs.

Thus, after Sir John Willard dies of heart failure, Mr Bleibner of “acute blood poisoning”, and his nephew of suicide, Poirot is called in by Lady Willard because he is “a man of original views […] you have imagination, experience of the world”. Yet, she immediately asks him: “what are your views on the supernatural?” In narrative terms, this is entirely in keeping not only with a genre of “antiquarian” ghost story associated mainly with M.R. James – and the more specific iteration of that genre which bases itself in Egyptian archaeology (think Bram Stoker, Richard Marsh and Kipling) – but also with that kind of crime story where the solution to the mystery involves the debunking of a supernatural legend as well. Poirot’s response may surprise us by being more Van Helsing than Sherlock Holmes – more Dracula than Hound of the Baskervilles: “I, too, believe in the force of superstition, one of the greatest forces the world has ever known.” Two observations suggest themselves to me at this point though. Firstly, this is Christie once more playing with generic expectation – the fictional tropes that govern the expectations of the thriller, and which Poirot (like the murderer) is able to see through and cleverly manipulate – unlike the more gullible public, represented by the sensation-hungry Hastings. After all, Poirot’s statement is literally true, but he doesn’t mean what the “occult fiction” genre would lead us to expect – this is not a profession of belief in the supernatural, but rather of his understanding that superstitious belief can be so powerful as to have the same effect in the end regardless of whether any supernatural agency actually exists. Yet (and this is my second point) this is in itself often the point of the more effective ghost stories of the period – a case in point is W.H. Hodgson’s Carnacki stories, whose readers are never made aware until the stories’ end whether the solution to the “hauntings” investigated by the protagonist are supernatural or not, thus emphasising the need to respect fear and superstition as forces with an agency quite independent of the supernatural. For me, then, this tale is at once a debunking of the more enduring supernatural stories and popular myths to which it pays lip service, and a celebration of (and homage to) precisely that power to endure.

All of this means that, when Hastings recalls late-Victorian Gothic literature with his comment that the cause of these deaths “may be some potent curse from the past that operates in ways undreamed of by modern science”, we can’t simply put this down to his gullibility. In the days of the Society for Psychical Research, the notion that what appears “supernatural” to us moderns is actually a survival of natural phenomena of which past civilizations had an understanding that might be described as “scientific,” but which was lost to us moderns, wasn’t exactly a controversial idea. For once, this is not a question of Hastings’s naivety versus Poirot’s objective deductive prowess – rather, Poirot’s attitude is simply a more modern spin on a similar idea, replacing Hastings’s late-Victorian turn to the psychical with a modernist turn to the psychological. Once more, we see how Hastings automatically separates the supernatural from the psychological – Poirot, on the other hand, sees the one as the product of, and the agent of, the other since, for him, superstition is always-already the product of psychology in practice. Indeed, Hastings is on intellectual form in this story; his theory that Bleibner’s nephew meant to kill his uncle, but killed Sir John instead (and then took his own life when he realised his mistake) comes across as thoroughly plausible.

Rupert Bleibner (the nephew of the Bleibner who funds the expedition) complains that his uncle cares more for the dead relics of long ago than for the flesh and blood of the living. This, of course, is at the root of the whole sleight of hand distraction here – the perpetrator relies on everyone else seeing the deaths as somehow an effect of the long dead upon the living, rather than something entirely and materially grounded in the present. But all the same, death is everywhere – in Rupert Bleibner’s self-destructive lifestyle, his eventual suicide after a supposed diagnosis of leprosy, and the apparent “curse”. Bleibner’s suicide note, Hastings tells us, claims that “such as he were better dead”. This isn’t the exact wording (something that will become apparent later on) but it does tie together the theme of a preference of the living for the dead, rather than for those who are still alive – a perennial target of critique in the antiquarian ghost story tradition and, of course, a darkly ironic insinuation that uncle Bleibner might somehow be able “better” to relate to those around him if they were “dead”. All of which goes once more to demonstrate the way in which the tale’s macabre trappings have a resonance even after their allegedly supernatural significance is debunked.

Although the conclusion is entirely and cleverly rational, this enmeshment in the trappings of supernatural fiction is probably the most fully-developed in a Christie story so far – so much so that the tale wouldn’t look out of place in her later, largely supernatural collection, The Hound of Death. In other ways, however, this is a very typical Poirot story, especially as regards its depiction of Poirot travelling. His sea-sickness is, once again, his Achilles heel (his Hercules heal?). Poirot’s obsession with order and method is also in evidence. When, arriving in Egypt, Hastings gives an economical but impressive sketch of its wondrous appearance and atmosphere, Poirot is unimpressed. The Sphinx is too irregular for his tastes, his shoes are full of sand and his moustaches go limp in the heat. Poirot’s inability to travel (something he appears to have got over by the time of the foreign-set cases of the 1930s) is thus central to the flavour of the story – and the least said about his prowess on a camel the better.

Yet this is more than a charming character note. It’s actually an important reflection of why Poirot is able to solve the case – he is grounded in the present and its material discomforts and is totally unwilling to be impressed by the oppressive atmosphere of the ancients to which Hastings succumbs (“All around me I seemed to feel an atmosphere of evil, subtle and menacing. A horrible thought flashed across me. Supposing I were next?”). Perhaps this obsession with the orderliness of modernity against the clutter and dirt of a more romantic but chaotic past is part and parcel of what allows Poirot to distance himself from the distractions of the occult and see the crime for the cold-blooded scheme it really is? Interestingly, Poirot’s pretence of being taken in by the “curse” narrative plays to protestant prejudices about the “superstitious” nature of his Catholic religion – whether unconsciously when he calls to the Virgin Mary on the camel, or consciously when he pretends to harbour “some plan of exorcizing the evil spirits”. Either way, we once again see that Poirot’s pretence at being taken in by the villain also involves a pretence at succumbing either to the generic expectations of the kind of plot the villain has set up to hide his own guilt (in this case the allure of “evil”, which is explicitly called out here as the stuff of lurid popular fiction rather than the inevitable adjunct of the more prosaic question of murder for gain). As ever, Christie shows herself to be a writer attuned to the power of storytelling – and the way in which a murder investigation, like crime fiction itself, stands or falls by the competing powers of different narratives, all surrounding the cold hard fact of a dead body.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 11

Written by T.R. Bowen (Script Consultant: Clive Exton)

Directed by Renny Rye

For me, this episode of Poirot epitomises the cosiness I always associate with the early series of the show. Indeed, the snowy north-of-England scenery, and the sumptuous interiors are literally ‘cosy’, replete with an air of winter chilliness warded off with good eating and a large open fire. Not only superlative comfort viewing then, but also viewing that gives the Sunday-night audience a chance to revel in the onscreen comfort.

As it turns out, this emphasis on comfort and luxury during a harsh winter is actually very germane to the episode’s politics. In this adaptation, not only is Harrington Pace a very unlikable character compared to the short story, but his unsavouriness is linked to his unscrupulous capitalism. We are told that he cheated his partner and then made a fortune from profiteering ‘during the war’. ‘And people liked him!!’ snaps one of his relatives. Our attraction, as viewers, to the comfort of the house (our literal ‘comfort viewing’) implicates us in this dubious luxury as well when we learn that Pace opens Hunter’s Lodge for only 12 weeks of the year – we are passively sharing in the pleasures of such luxury, whilst simultaneously being told how immoral it is. While this is in keeping with the show’s staunchly moralistic attitude, it is unusual to have such an unequivocally left-wing bent to that morality – after all, we meet a great many capitalists in Christie adaptations and while few are as objectionably unscrupulous as Pace, this episode’s critique of the system in which their wealth is made possible still applies. Usually, the show contents itself with criticising the actions of individual characters. Here though, it draws attention to their implication in an unequal and (it is argued) immoral system – a systemic approach conveniently ignored in most other episodes.

Even so, as a piece of television in its own right, I find this instalment of Poirot really enjoyable. The night-time location shooting makes evocative use of the eerie shadows, frosty exteriors and firelight, especially in the events leading up to the murder (the only downside is the distinctly 1990s-looking settlement visible on the hill during the daytime scenes at the station). The guest cast is uniformly excellent and the gusto with which the bit-part actors approach their roles is endearing – they’re clearly relishing their parts. Mrs Middleton gives her short scene absolutely everything she has. Anstruther, the station attendant, speaks his line “Hey! That’s my bike!” as if it’s the high-point of his career (I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Jeeves and Wooster episode where Bertie’s friend has one line in a touring play: “You’ll pardon me for mentioning it ladies, but the house is on fire!”) Even the dog excels.

As an adaptation, however, I’m not sure it succeeds. Poirot’s illness does sort of happen and Hastings is left to investigate for him for a time (although Poirot has far less confidence in his friend here than in the short story). But Poirot questions people in his hotel room and gives his usual lecture at the end. So, the whole point of his illness in the original story – that he can solve a crime without having any direct contact with anyone involved, because he’s that good – is lost here.

The other problem (and it’s hard to see how the scriptwriters could have overcome this to be fair) is that events have to be dramatized for us. As a puzzle it’s actually much more satisfying as an abstract riddle – which of course is fine in a book since books often involve characters telling us what happened with no expectation that we will be shown the events in real time. It’s therefore much easier to have unreliable narration in a book than on screen. In TV you have to show things – a problem the production team run into in ‘The King of Clubs’ and completely fail to overcome in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Because we don’t see the crime or the stuff around it, the audience knows full well there’s patently a major fabrication going on.

Admittedly, seeing the mysterious stranger getting off the train does help – as we see someone suspicious making their way to the house. Even this is weird though. The extra disguises involved compared to the short story mean that we have a faintly ludicrous situation in which the murderer is disguised as Mrs Middleton disguised as a bearded man, pretending to be someone else disguised as a bearded man. We’re straying into the realms of parody here.

Plus, in the short story, Poirot’s reconstruction of the crime is purely hypothetical – no accusation is formerly made because there’s no proof. Here though, this becomes problematic, since Poirot reconstructs the crime in front of the entire cast and explicitly accuses, to their faces, the two people responsible. It’s true that this concluding lecture gives us Poirot’s wonderfully sinister boast that he will make Mrs Middleton appear as if by magic. Even so, it’s lucky Zoe sort of confesses or they’d be in a right pickle. Especially given the seriously far-fetched nature of the set-up.

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‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923)

This story was first published in The Sketch Issue1581 (16 May 1923). It was later collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) – although Poirot spends this story in bed with a cold, making it more a case of Hastings Investigates.

By now, Poirot’s character has become well-defined. His obsessive neatness is on display in the ‘neatly graduated row of medicine bottles’ which adorn the sickroom; his effeminate taste for the finer (and, to Hastings, disturbingly foreign) things can be read in his consumption of ‘a particularly noxious tisane’; while his celebrity status is delightfully evident in the ‘little paragraph to myself in Society Gossip’. The same paragraph sums up the blend of heroism and absurdity that characterises our Belgian protagonist, by emphasising fondly the mock-heroic quality of Poirot’s nomenclature: ‘believe me, girls, he’s some Hercules’. In short, Poirot is becoming ‘quite a public character’ – another example of Christie’s stories suiting themselves to the society paper The Sketch, which proves to be the ideal vehicle for Poirot as he is characterised here. Possibly, of course, there is also a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in this suiting of story to publication method. That is, although one might assume, after nearly a century of familiarity with the character, that Christie always conceived Poirot in this way, could it be that the conditions of publication actually influenced how she presented him? That is did Christie always conceive of Poirot as a popular celebrity – a notable figure on the fashionable social scene? Or did she emphasise his status as a ‘public character’ because his adventures appeared in a gossip magazine? I suspect it may be a bit of both, but either way, Poirot has come a long way – from jobbing policeman, to alien refugee, to popular and increasingly wealthy celebrity.

Anyway, back to this particular story, which is as ingenious as ever – so ingenious that I initially mistook the supporting characters’ melodramatic speech and actions for a lazy deployment of stock types and phrases on Christie’s part. Indeed, prior to the revelation that the characters are deliberately overdoing the ridiculous melodrama of the conventional cause célèbre, one could be forgiven for laughing derisively at the sheer effrontery of the melodramatic touches. ‘My uncle, the best friend I have in the world, was foully murdered last night’ says Havering to Hastings (as opposed to ‘delightfully murdered’, one supposes). Similarly, the telegram he receives, allegedly after the murder, is far too flippant to be believably connected with a real tragedy: ‘Come at once uncle Harrington murdered last night bring good detective if you can but do come – Zoe.’ If my beloved uncle had been murdered and my wife sent me this telegram I’d have a few words to say to her on the subject of tact! What we presume to be Christie phoning it in continues with the fact that the bogus housekeeper, whom is initially believed to have done the deed, doesn’t appear on the agency’s books – a fact which went undetected because Mrs Havering failed to inform the agency of the name of the housekeeper she’d selected. This seems like a preposterously convenient plot device until we find out the quite brilliant real solution. Once again, we find Christie deftly playing with readers’ expectations of what they imagine a popular crime narrative will look like.

Poirot’s incapacity means that Hastings is dispatched to investigate the murder instead, rather like Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (‘You know my methods by now. All I ask is that you should report to my fully every day’). Indeed, Hunter’s Lodge, though in the north of England rather than Dartmoor, is nevertheless situated in ‘the midst of the rugged moors’. Unfortunately, Hastings’s obsession with forensic detail (footprints, bloodstains etc) does rather imply that he hasn’t quite grasped Poirot’s methods yet, and he singularly fails to do what Poirot would do, namely, to ‘examine the facts methodically and in order’. It is this approach, which enables Poirot to intervene and discover the clever solution to the crime without even leaving his sickbed. Indeed, what’s particularly interesting about this story is the way that the conclusion to the mystery rests on Poirot’s deductions rather than on any empirical proof. It demonstrates neatly the way in which Poirot’s method treats the solving of the crime as an abstract intellectual exercise separate from the bringing to justice of the criminal – a project which is only undertaken after Poirot has determined who the guilty party/parties are. Because of the way Poirot treats the crime (as a kind of logic puzzle) this determination of the guilty party is often complete before any physical evidence of guilt has been produced. In the absence of such evidence, the reader really has to trust Poirot’s assurance that this is the way that the murder was done – it makes logical sense, but there’s no actual proof. This explains why so many of Poirot’s adventures involve the tricking or entrapment of a person whose guilt Poirot has established previously to his own satisfaction by purely logical means – a contrast to the policeman’s project of building up a ‘case’ based on empirical evidence. That is, it’s never a matter of ‘this evidence points to this person, so that’s that’. It’s more, ‘thinking about it logically, this person is the only one who could possibly have committed the crime, so we must trick them into providing us with evidence’. I’m generalising, obviously, but the point is that Poirot’s frequent emphasis on the cerebral nature of detection is an idea that’s also borne out in practice – so that the ‘little grey cells’ motif is more than simply an ill-conceived catchphrase.

The only weakness, to my mind, is the ending of the story, where Christie’s (or Hastings’ if we’re being fair) determination to not let the culprits escape justice comes across as a bit contrived – not unlike the ending to the stage and film versions of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’: ‘Nemesis did overtake them, and when I read in the paper that the Hon. Roger and Mrs Havering were amongst those killed in the crashing of the Air Mail to Paris I knew that Justice was satisfied.’ Maybe so, but this is a tad harsh – what about everyone else involved in the crash? It’s an odd note on which to end an otherwise effective story.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Adventure of the Cheap Flat

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 7

Written by Russell Murray

Directed by Richard Spence

Here’s a bit of trivia. The film that Japp, Hastings and Poirot are watching and discussing at the start of this episode is The G-Men (1935), starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak and Margaret Lindsay and directed by William Keighley, who went on to co-direct the celebrated Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I’m not sure why I was surprised to find that this was a genuine 1930s feature film – perhaps because the Poirot production team did such a good job of faking one in “The King of Clubs” it seems entirely plausible that they also did so here. Anyway, there you go.

James Cagney gunning down gangsters is an apt opening for this adaptation, which takes the original story’s concern with the differences (and surprising similarities) between ‘reality’ and popular cinema and really runs with it. In fact, it deals with the idea in a much more sensibly-structured way than Christie’s story. For example, the introduction of a comedy FBI agent allows viewers to come to terms with the Luigi Valdarno strand of the plot much earlier than in the short story. Moreover the episode succesfully treads the fine line between satirising the sensational gangster plots of the cinema and self-mockery of the sensational elements of the plot of the episode itself. Agent Burt’s hysterical insistence that there’s “No such thing as the mafia!” is a case in point. The British (and Belgian) characters’ response to this is to point out that there is, but also to mock the idea that the mafia looks like someone that James Cagey might be called upon to foil with a handy machine gun. Instead, they present them as a prosaic menace dressed up in sensational accoutrements – a menace against whom a more subtle approach is required than Cagney’s (and the FBI’s).

The most obvious example of this is the way in which the logic puzzle of the Robinson’s flat proves key to solving the mystery, rather than the use of guns or fancy surveillance operations. This is signalled at the beginning with Hastings and Japp drinking in The G-Men, while Poirot shuts his eyes in horror and berates the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude displayed in the film – this is not how good detectives work. Later on, Japp seems to come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by one of my favourite moments in the whole series, when Japp, appalled at Agent Burt’s desire to storm the Black Cat nightclub, literally with all guns blazing, adopts a horrified face before extending his hand in the manner of a teacher who’s caught a primary school pupil stealing chocolate and exclaims: ‘You can’t go waving guns about! Give that to me!’ The American way is to ‘wave guns about’. The British way is to sit down, think it through, then have a quiet word. Arguably, you’ve also got the difference between a lot of British and American crime fiction of the period encapsulated there as well.

At the same time, the episode is itself primarily a light-hearted crime pastiche, so it also has a lot of fun embracing those sensational aspects of a Hollywood presentation – although in a delightfully camp and knowing way. To this end, the episode adopts a really interesting stance on how performance can throw light on the relationship between lived experience and cinematic representations of it. Tellingly, for example, although Poirot relates the background to the Valdarno affair in a style ‘that will remind you of your favourite cinema’, what we actually see on screen is a representation (all heightened performance and obviously artificial sets) that could never be mistaken for anything other than our ‘favourite cinema’. This isn’t what really happened, but a representation of events seen through the generic filter of a Hollywood crime thriller. Everything about it deliberately signals its own inauthenticity. These events definitely happened, but not necessarily like this – yet, for those of us who weren’t present, the only framework we have of comprehending them is the popular cinema.

Usually, Poirot works by stripping away these trappings in order to expose the fundamentals of the puzzle plot – in this case the fact that, when all’s said and done, what’s actually happened is that a woman, wishing to send someone else to their death in her place, has contrived a way of installing at an address known to be hers a woman who resembles her sufficiently to fool any would-be assassin. The gangsters, the seedy clubs, the waving about of guns – all this is so much window dressing. No wonder Poirot sees the gangster film, which places these elements first, as vulgar and alarming.

In this episode, however, Poirot’s response to the situation is to solve it by embracing these trappings – presumably for the amusement of Japp, Hastings and the viewers at home. He even goes to the length of stage-managing a fake stand-off with guns and gangsters because, generically, this is the most appropriate ending to the fictional genre his friends seem to have found themselves caught up in. Leading, incidentally, to Agent Burt’s wonderfully cheesy line: ‘This is good. Everyone’s got a heater except the good guys!’

The point, of course, is that Poirot knows it’s all fakery, all besides the point of the true nub of the matter – which is that one human being has cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of another. But he arranges the show for our benefit because, let’s face it, much of the appeal of these early episodes of Poirot lies in the window dressing: the costumes, the period detail and so forth. The gangster plot here serves a similar function to these extraneous but pleasurable elements and, at the end, Poirot has exposed it for what it is: enjoyably camp silliness replete with questionable accents, sumptuous costumes and appropriately ostentatious props – distractions from the puzzle they embellish, but no less enjoyable for that.

Another most enjoyable example of this conscious, camp performance (calculated at once to expose and revel in the empty triviality of the thing performed) is Miss Lemon’s masquerading as a journalist for The Lady’s Companion sent to interview the Black Cat club’s new singer-in-residence. Even the name of the periodical is exquisitely chosen, providing a delightful contrast between an implied middle-class stuffiness and the sensational dinginess of Life Upon the Wicked Stage. Pauline Moran is a delight in these scenes and I for one feel that ‘Felicity Lemon: Private Investigator’ is a spin-off series that needs to happen!

The one change from the source material that I didn’t like was having Poirot present at the party the where we first meet the Robinsons. I prefer the short story’s use of Hastings solo, demonstrating that he does have a life beyond his friendship with Poirot. All in all though, this is an excellent episode, whose minimal deviations from Christie’s story are generally for the better.

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‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ (1923)

This story was first published in Issue 1580 of The Sketch (9 May 1923) and was reprinted the following year in the collection Poirot Investigates. In it, Poirot and Hastings try to uncover the answer to the apparently trivial question of how exactly the Robinsons managed to bag a furnished flat in London’s Knightsbridge for such a low rent. The answer is far-fetched, but makes for a Poirot story that’s different from anything published in the Sketch series to this point.

 One of the main differences is in the tale’s structure. As Hastings explains:

 So far, in the cases which I have recorded, Poirot’s investigations have started from the central fact, whether murder or robbery, and have proceeded from thence by a process of logical deduction to the final triumphant unveiling. In the events I am now about to chronicle a remarkable chain of circumstances led from the apparently trivial incidents which first attracted Poirot’s attention to the sinister happenings which completed a most unusual case.

Actually, this isn’t as unusual as Hastings seems to think – the ‘apparently trivial’ is always at the heart of Poirot’s cases. But we get the point. Coincidentally, The Murder on the Links, which was published in the same month as this story, also begins not with a crime but with Poirot’s being furnished with a reason to suspect that a crime is imminent (albeit a much more tangible reason than he is given here). I also love Hastings’s choice of words here. ‘The final triumphant unveiling’ makes it sound amusingly like Poirot is performing a sort of striptease – an alarming image perhaps, but an apt one for a detective whose methods often work by stripping away the sensational aspects of a case to reveal the essentials of what ‘really’ happened.

 Another major difference from Poirot’s cases hitherto (and a very welcome one at that) is the way in which the story opens with a proper conversation that real people might conceivably have. The opening dialogue, in which Hastings attends a friend’s party, is much more realistic than the usual ‘I say, what a lot of bond robberies there have been lately!’ style of opening, much more realist than the crudely functional dialogue that usually constitutes the infodump which usually characterises the opening of a Christie short story. While such openings stretch to the limit our credulity as to how people might actually speak, simply in order to get across the facts of the puzzle as quickly as possible, we are here provided with a timely reminder that Poirot and his ‘associates’ are real people actually engaged in conversation with some other people (as opposed to cyphers for relaying information that will be important later). This courtesy is extended to secondary characters as well. After one particularly lengthy sentence, Mrs Robinson ‘paused for some much needed breath’ before continuing – a neat disguise for what is, formally speaking, merely a device for relaying the central puzzle. Moreover, Mrs Robinson’s story is itself triggered by the presence of another of Hastings’s friends, the habitual house-hunter, Parker – a character who doesn’t appear again, and who is introduced solely to add richness to the idea that this is a real group of friends with real lives beyond the purely functional purpose of their role in the mystery plot. It also provides a welcome opportunity to see what sort of a life Hastings leads when he isn’t hanging out with his Belgian friend. Apparently, he’s affable, popular and has a reputation in his circle as a ‘criminal expert’ and ‘a great unraveller of mysteries’. Again, it helps us to imagine Hastings as a rounded character – a real person rather than a disembodied voice chronicling Poirot’s activities. It also means that when Hastings rejoins Poirot after the party scene the contrast allows us to see that his role as a cypher is thrust upon him by his friend’s brilliance. It’s as if his own personality only comes to the fore away from Poirot – only then does he have a personality (defined by the social relations of the realist text), rather than simply a role (defined by the constraints of genre fiction).

This characterises the almost metafictional relationship in which this story appears to stand to the rest of the Poirot stories so far. It’s as if Christie is commenting, not only on Hastings as a character and a narrator, but also, by extension, on her own habitual techniques as a storyteller. For example, Hastings’s predilection for women with auburn hair is mentioned and will become important in Murder on the Links, which Christie was probably writing or had completed around the same time as this story. Yet, Poirot’s comment on his friend’s powers of description is surely a sly self-deprecating comment on Christie’s own tendency to provide the briefest of character sketches: ‘Yes, there are hundreds of these average men – and anyway, you bring more sympathy to your description of women.’ Hastings has also developed a Tommy-and-Tuppence-esque tendency to comment on his own dialogue:

‘That’s them,’ I declared in an ungrammatical whisper.

Later, when the narrative takes a turn for the sensational, Poirot seems to signal his awareness of the fact that he is engaged in events ripe for the detective genre (‘Hastings, shall I recount to you a little history? A story after my own heart and which will remind you of your favourite cinema?’) which seems like Christie wraning her readers of what to expect as the apparently mundane mystery of the Robinsons suddenly takes a turn for the wildly improbable: ‘There are reasons for believing that she was in reality an accomplished international spy who has done much nefarious work under various aliases.’ To cap it all off, when a comedy Italian gangster appears on the scene, Hastings unintentionally voices what must surely be in all of our heads when he exclaims: ‘My God, Poirot, this is awful.’

Yet Christie’s talent as a crime writer (what raises her above the broad strokes of an Edgar Wallace) is that the sensational story she’s just unfolded is not the point of the tale. The most important detail, it turns out, isn’t the spies or the aliases or whatever, but the fact that ‘The official description of Elsa Hardt is: Height 5 ft 7, eyes blue, hair auburn, fair complexion, nose straight, no special distinguishing marks.’ The fact that this is also the description of Hastings’s friend is, of course, a crucial red herring – but the wider red herring here is the whole cannon of crime fiction, of the kind Poirot likens to Hastings’s ‘favourite cinema’. It encourages us to dwell on the ‘awful’ accoutrements of the spy genre in order to draw our attention away from what’s really going on.

There’s also a really nice moment where Christie uses a French idiom to comment on Poirot as a foreigner – someone whose ‘otherness’ to the quotidian routine echoes the otherness of that routine from the detective genre itself. When he decides to break into the Robinson’s flat in order to ascertain what might be amiss, Poirot points out:

‘No one will observe us. The Sunday concert, the Sunday “afternoon out”, and finally the Sunday nap after the Sunday dinner of England – le rosbif – all these will distract from the doings of Hercule Poirot.’

Le rosbif is (obviously) not the French translation of ‘roast beef’. It is, in fact, a mocking piece of French (sorry, Belgian) slang which refers to the English character in general. But I like to see this story as expanding the reach of the idiom. Le rosbif might also be understood here as referring to the quotidian round, the realist mode; and Poirot, being placed outside of both, is able to take advantage of the complacency of those within it. No-one expects the Belgian inquisition!

Despite these metafictional shenanigans, the solution itself strikes me as clever but very, very far-fetched. Ultimately, this mix of the quotidian and the improbable doesn’t quite gel and the transition from one to the other isn’t a smooth one. Yes, Robinson is a common surname, yes a fair-haired Mrs Robinson was bound to appear sooner or later – but it does seem like an unbelievably risky plan. Also, the weird ending is disconcertingly abrupt. Presumably the intention was a sort of ‘all’s well that ends well’ – we’ve caught the culprits, the Robinsons are safe and now we can all breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy a good laugh. Instead, it reads like Christie suddenly reached the end of her word count and quickly inserted some seriously bizarre comedy business with a cat. But then, perhaps this is fitting, given how singular this story seems compared to those that precede it.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Million Dollar Bond Robbery

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 3

Writer: Anthony Horrowitz

Director: Andrew Grieve

51 mins

 

It’s been a while since I updated this blog and, consequently, a while since I’ve watched an episode of Poirot. Coming to this adaptation after a break from the series I’m reminded again of just how sumptuous the production design was – particularly on these earlier episodes. In the opening sequence here, for example, we get a beautiful recreation of the London Underground replete with vintage wood-panelled escalators. This must have cost a pretty penny and I wonder whether the later episodes would have been able to afford such a fantastic reproduction of a 1930s tube station?

While it’s an impressive recreation, ‘beautiful’ is perhaps the wrong word – it is, in fact, expensively and impressively drab. The rain falls drearily, the station is occupied by a string of sombre commuters who venture into the elements sporting identical black umbrellas which render them anonymous in the throng. The small-talk is deliberately low-key (“terrible weather, Mr Shaw”) and it really is reminiscent of the streams of desolate office-workers who populate T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land. This will come back to haunt the episode’s conclusion, when the guilty Mr Shaw tells Poirot that, although he will surely go to prison, it couldn’t be worse than ten years working in a London bank.

Even so, this is not to say that there isn’t camp fun of a superficial kind to be had here. I particularly like the flower seller who confronts Shaw after he has just narrowly avoided being hit by a passing car: “’e done that on purpose!” he cries; then, after failing to elicit a reaction, his arms akimbo he continues: “’e was tryin’ ta kill ya!”

This attempt on Shaw’s life is one of the more successful ways in which the episode embellishes the plot of Christie’s original story. It’s an interesting idea and actually a rather good red herring, the idea being that Shaw is attempting to frame Ridgeway for the theft of the bonds by faking his own attempted murder, as well as to have the apparently less trustworthy younger man replace him on the voyage with the bonds. This makes even more sense as, in the TV version, Ridgeway is heavily in debt from gambling – a subplot that is also cleverly developed into another red herring when Poirot arranges for Ridgeway to be arrested in order to keep him safe from debt collectors. Ridgeway, incidentally, is played by Oliver Parker, now a film director whose dubious credits include the two most recent St Trinian’s movies and the 2009 adaptation of Dorian Gray (which, perhaps to my shame, I actually quite like).

Less clear is the reason why, in the TV version, Poirot is engaged before the bonds are stolen. It’s never really explained, although I suppose it’s probably to check over the security arrangements. After all, the head of security at the bank is the incompetent McNeil, whose hubris is a treat: ‘Not so much as a paperclip’ has gone missing on his watch, he proudly boasts; to which Poirot replies icily, damning with faint praise: ‘If such a thing were to happen, Monsieur McNeil, you would be just the man for the job.’ He’s not wrong. When Shaw’s poisoned, McNeil ascertains that Ridgeway was the last person in Shaw’s office before the coffee was drunk. But since the coffee was served by a maid, and drunk immediately, how could this possibly matter? And how exactly was this ‘faked’ as Poirot later explains? I’m not saying this is a plot hole exactly – but it’s certainly a narrative gap. Which, I guess, if I’m being kind, is at least in keeping with the modernism of the era in which the story is set.

McNeil’s hastiness is important as it helps to explain why Poirot goes with the bonds and not McNeil. This is another embellishment on the book, in which the word-count prevents Poirot from taking to the waves. It gives us the rather sweet scene in which Miss Lemon helps Poirot pack, as well as the equally pleasing glee with which Hastings learns he’s to travel on the Queen Mary. Inevitably, Poirot is not seasick (despite his reservations) while Hastings is. Or maybe it’s the bad oyster he claims to have consumed. Or maybe it’s that narrative gap again. Either way, the ‘calf’s brains’ scene is amusingly acted by Suchet and Fraser. Moreover, the way in which Poirot sees the trip on the liner as merely a pragmatic means to the end of fulfilling the task with which he has been commissioned is very much in keeping with his no-nonsense attitude to crime. While the liner is swathed in media attention and glamour, Poirot is unfazed and unimpressed, seeing only a set of facts requiring the application of order and method.

Said ‘media attention’ is effectively portrayed through fake newsreel footage covering the maiden voyage, and featuring Poirot himself, accentuating his status as a popular celebrity. This celebrity status helps to explain why the police on the quayside arrest Ridgeway simply because Poirot tells them to (‘If you say so, sir!’)

The switch from black and white newsreel footage, which fades into the colour of the ‘present’ aboard the ship, is a particularly neat trick, reminiscent of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998), which similarly uses the gradual application of colour to denote the move from media representation to the more complex reality of lived experience.Here, while the black and white newsreel is the media façade that’s meant to add ‘colour’ to proceedings, the real story is far more colourful than the bland pleasantries of the newsreader. At the same time, of course, it offers, not so much the transition from representation to ‘reality’, but rather a transition from one media representation to another – from the chipper news footage of the 1930s cinema newsreel to the (relatively) greater sophistication of the 1990s TV crime drama.

Yet, while having Poirot and Hastings accompany the bonds is a natural development for a writer seeking to dramatise the story as a fifty-minute film, it is nevertheless here that the episode loses something in comparison to its source material – at least for me. The stuff about asking ‘Miss Brooks’ the time is a clever clue and plays fair with the viewer, allowing them to come to the same conclusion about her real identity as Poirot does. Her performance is also gloriously over the top – indeed, given the Dolly Parton impression, Miss Brooks’s comment about the orchestra ‘going overboard’ is a bit rich. It also allows a lightly done comment on the performativity of beauty, which so unsettles Hastings and which reminded me of an intriguing paper on Evil Under the Sun given by Jamie Bernthal at the recent Agatha Christie conference at Exeter University.

But, I miss the red herring about the ship getting in earlier, which is rendered redundant in this version by Poirot’s presence on board and by the Miss Brooks subplot. In fact, what these embellishments really throw into relief is that no one constructs a convincing mystery puzzle like Christie – and one tampers with her plots at one’s own risk. As I noted earlier, the Shaw subplot is superficially clever, but brings its own problems (how exactly do you ‘fake’ strychnine poisoning?) Also, the ending suffers from the lightness of touch that all-too-often intervenes to magically render the ‘good’ characters happy at the end of the episode (although Christie is not above doing this herself on occasion of course). This may leave Sunday-night audiences with a warm glow at bedtime, but it’s often a bit too convenient and never more so than here. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if the question on everyone’s lips at 9pm on Sunday 13 January 1991 was: ‘Who in their right minds would make Ridgeway joint general manager?!’

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‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (1923)

This short story was first published in The Sketch Issue 1579 (2 May 1923) as part of the lengthy series of Poirot stories that appeared in that paper weekly from 1923-24. In 1924 it was one of eleven stories in the series collected as Poirot Investigates.

The story begins with the fiancée of Philip Ridgeway, an employee of the London and Scottish Bank, entreating Poirot to clear her lover’s name after the eponymous bonds in Ridgeway’s protection are stolen en route to New York. The solution is an ingenious one – blindingly obvious once revealed, it is kept a surprise by some of Christie’s trademark sleight of hand.

As ever, Hastings sets the tone with a fatuous comment on a story in the newspaper: ‘What a number of bond robberies there have been lately!’ The proceeding infodump is rather embarrassing. No one talks like this and the opening paragraphs are presumably a necessity foisted on Christie by the constrained space of the short story form. Unusually, Poirot then joins in himself, although his enthusiastic portrait of the great ships from which the bonds have been stolen do at least add a bit of period glamour, reminding modern readers that this is the age of the great liners. This reminded me of the tale’s publishing context – I expect this would have sat well with the society news and features about recent scandal and the latest technological luxuries, which were the staple ingredients in a typical issue of The Sketch. This, as much as anything else, is responsible for Poirot’s growing celebrity status as detective to the rich and famous – precisely the kind of detective who would feature in a society paper like The Sketch, which was essentially the Hello! magazine of its day.

As well as the increasing consolidation of Poirot’s celebrity status (Ridgeway has heard of Poirot), further character development is also evident. After Hastings’s recent disgruntled realisation (in ‘The Adventure of the “Western Star”’) that he is merely the foil for his vastly more intelligent friend, Poirot has become increasingly aware of Hastings’s exasperation – and although he is hardly contrite, his arrogance captures perfectly the mix of endearing eccentricity and shocking vanity that characterise Poirot’s personality: ‘I observe that there are times when you almost detest me! Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!’ Part of the reason we as readers are able to accept this insufferable arrogance is the playful way in which the narration presents it. An example is the amusing moment when Miss Esmèe Farquhar (Ridgeway’s fiancée) is unexpectedly announced – Poirot reacts by ‘diving under a table to retrieve a stray crumb’, which he places ‘carefully in the waste paper basket’. The droll contrast between Poirot’s panicked ‘dive’ and his careful depositing of a single crumb in the waste paper basket – between ostentatious elegance and sudden ungainly lunges – endearingly punctures Poirot’s dandyish demeanour. I wonder if deflating his friend’s vanity through such descriptions is a coping mechanism for Hastings? Incidentally, the coincidence of Miss Farquhar coming to see Poirot about precisely the thing they’ve just been reading about is a bit of a stretch, but by this point the story has manufactured enough plaisir (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the pleasure inherent in a text’s ability to immerse the reader in a text by assuring him/her that it’s playing completely to the expected generic rules) that we’re happy to go with it!

The deft economy of Christie’s style is also again in evidence, most notably the detail that Ridgeway’s hair has become prematurely gray from the stress of his situation. Later, the general managers of the bank are described as having ‘grown grey in the service of the Bank’. Unlike the clumsy introduction to the plot that characterise the story’s opening infodump, this is a very telling detail, economically and subtly conveying the idea that Ridgeway’s loss of the bonds acts as a sort of rite of passage – from now on he will be more cautious, less reckless. Now older in his demeanour and outlook than befits a man of his years, his appearance nevertheless reflects the demeanour and outlook of a man totally committed to his profession. Grey hair is the badge of such a man and the irony is that Ridgeway’s apparent irresponsibility has actually physically transformed him into a consummate banker.

I also enjoyed the lovely overturning of Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum about eliminating the impossible: ‘You may know, Hastings, I do not. I take the view that, since it seemed incredible, it was incredible.’ And incredible it certainly is – yet somehow Christie succeeds in duping everyone as to exactly how incredible the apparent ‘facts’ of the case actually are. As such, the solution (and the sleight of hand with which it is concealed) is seriously clever: The bonds ‘reappear in New York half an hour after the Olympia gets in, and according to one man, whom nobody listens to, actually before she gets in.’ (‘nobody’ includes the reader here – certainly I’d assumed this to be an obvious red herring, and I’d read the story before!)

Basically then, here’s another clever puzzle, which could easily have made a satisfying full-length novel. My only gripe is that you really do have to wonder how the real culprit (I won’t give it away) ever thought they were going to get away with it…

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