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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Chocolate Box

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 5, Episode 6

Written by Douglas Watkins

Directed by Ken Grieve

51 minutes

First broadcast: UK – 21st February 1993

Take a quick look at the dates on this post and the one before and you don’t need to be Poirot to notice that this blog has been sadly neglected for a while now. This has been due to many factors – other writing projects and a protracted house-move among them. But it’s also been due to procrastination, thanks in no small part to the fact that this is not an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot that I remember all that fondly, and thus not one I was exactly enthusiastic about revisiting. That isn’t to say that I remember it being actively bad (it’s certainly better than ‘The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’) Rather, I remember it as being very pedestrian. Just sort of… there. So when I finally popped the DVD into the player I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s an awful lot to recommend this one.

Firstly, the episode does an amazing job of bringing the story to life dramatically whilst remaining very faithful to the source text. Opening with the murder (although it’s not revealed to be a murder until later) is a good move and whets the appetite well for what follows. Having been slightly baffled by the unfamiliar political and social context of the short story, I’m also pleased with the way in which Douglas Watkins has limited the political background to terms more readily familiar to a modern audience further removed in time from these events than Christie’s readership would have been. No detailed understanding of pre-war Belgian politics and religious conflict is required. Paul is, at worst a German sympathiser or, at best, intent on appeasement which, with hindsight, we know will fail – that’s all we know and all we need to know (later, in an added subplot, Paul is indeed revealed to be a full-on collaborator).

The frame narrative is also altered. This time Poirot tells the story to Japp who is in Brussels to receive an award – he is to be made a ‘Companion de la Branche D’or’ for his help in aiding the Belgian police force (the Abercrombie forgery case, alluded to in Styles, gets a mention). Japp, as so often in the early short stories, begins the tale in expository mode – ‘Well Poirot, how does it feel to be back in Brussels again after so many years?’ – but he also provides a tangible link to the Belgian police force and Poirot’s past life, meaning that the frame narrative is not completely separated from the central mystery, as in Christie’s story, and can thus be used to foreshadow events in the episode’s ‘present’, demonstrating the ways in which Poirot’s mistake haunts his relationship with the characters in the here and now. This is far less clunky than the flashback sequences in the adaptation of ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ from the 1980s Partners in Crime series, for example, where Tommy and Tuppence spend ages wandering around a golf links discussing events which we’re then show. Here, events in the present tantalisingly reveal clues to events in the past and vice versa – each temporal setting helps to up the dramatic tension in the other.

Strangely, as in the film of Murder on the Links later, Poirot is the only character who speaks with a Belgian accent. In every other department, however, no expense or effort has been spared to provide a luscious evocation of Belgium before and between the wars. The amount of money that’s been spent would make a modern British TV director, in these cash-strapped times, green with envy. The costumes and scenery are truly incredible and a feast for the eye. Even the maid and the cook, who appear briefly in a flashback-within-a-flashback, get to wear the most glorious period garments. Budget aside, however, the whole thing is also beautifully photographed, the mannerisms and pace of pre-war Belgium given a stately feel, appropriate to an ‘old world’ now lost.

The acting all round is very satisfying and the impressive cast includes veteran screen actor Mark Eden (as Boucher) and Anna Chancellor as a very radiant Virginie. Suchet himself gets to play a younger Poirot. Though not massively different in appearance –he looks like the older one but thinner and with a slightly different moustache – it is in demeanour, mannerisms, and an added buoyancy and enthusiasm that Suchet signals the difference between the older and younger versions. Younger Poirot is fastidious, but not prematurely avuncular as in the short story – hence the incipient romance seems a natural addition. Indeed, not only is the episode generally very faithful to the short story, but the embellishments are intriguing, done with a light touch and feel very much in keeping with the source material. In fact, it’s less dry as a result, and springs off the screen in a way that the story doesn’t really leap off the page. There is a greater attention to character and, dare I say it, more thought seems to have been put into what all these things mean to Poirot – how these events still matter to him, how they make up the rich tapestry of who he is. That this is a world on the brink of being thus lost is foreshadowed by the mention of Paul being the kind of man who’d appease the Kaiser – but the nostalgia also plays out on a personal level, with Poirot at the beginning of his career, about to prove the worth of his little grey cells, but at the expense of an incipient romantic relationship. This reflects a longstanding tendency in his later life, where he usually ends up fixing other people’s romances, rather than finding happiness of that kind for himself – a recurring thread in the TV show (though not in the novels). Poignantly, we learn that the buttonhole Poirot is frequently seen wearing in other episodes is one Virginie gave him, and I wonder if it is her he thinks of during his more melancholic moments during the TV versions of The Hollow and Death on the Nile?

Poirot is also shown to be a talented housebreaker – for at least the third time in the TV series. In all honesty, Poirot colluding with Virginie to spy on the Count, whilst still managing to keep his job stretches credulity. Yet, on the other hand, it’s another example of the story’s theme – how even Poirot has been prone to mistakes during his long career. Moreover it’s exactly the kind of off-the-wall, outside-the-rulebook stuff he is still getting up to in his retirement. This is, after all, a man who tricks murderers into confession by faking the return of their victims’ ghosts. He isn’t exactly your average policeman.

The moment when he misinterprets the overheard scrap of conversation, ‘As if I had fired a pistol into his heart’, is another learning curve (the Count is actually referring to conversation at dinner which he thinks caused Paul’s heart failure). Misinterpreted overheard scraps of conversation are important clues in later cases – think of the clue of the Dictaphone in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for instance. In these instances Poirot is able to see through the apparent meaning of these overheard ‘clues’ by insisting that they not be taken at face value. Could this be where he learns that caution?

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‘The Chocolate Box’ (1923)

This story was first published in The Sketch on 23 May 1923 (Issue 1582) as ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’. Its first book publication was in the U.S.A., where it was included in the American version of Poirot Investigates (1925) – in Britain, it was not republished until its appearance in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). In fact, it’s not just an early, but a very early case for our moustachioed hero, set as it is during his stint with the Belgian police force. Poirot tells us that the story takes place during ‘the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state’. Note the potential slip-up here – either Christie has said ‘France’, when she meant ‘Belgium’ (!) or this is a reference to the fact that the murder victim, though living in Brussels, is actually a French politician.

This is hardly a well-known period of history to twenty-first century readers (certainly outside of France) and I wonder whether readers in the 1920s would have got the reference? Was this just something readers of The Sketch would have known about? Or is the fact that Poirot refers in this offhand way to the country’s recent political history a way of signifying his European otherness? I suspect the latter. A bit of internet searching seems to imply that this ‘time’ refers to a struggle (political as well as religious) between Catholic and Liberal factions in the Belgian government, with the liberals advocating increasing secularism and the Catholics opposing them. But this appears to have been a general trend in Belgian history from the late nineteenth century up until the end of the First World War – or, if Christie did indeed mean to refer to French (rather than Belgian) history, this struggle was a continual one throughout the Third Republic. So I’m guessing that this is an attempt on Christie’s part to keep murky the exact question of Poirot’s age by obscuring the exact year (or even the exact decade) in which the story is set. However, my knowledge of French history is lax and my knowledge of Belgian history non-existent, so if anyone cares to enlighten me on this point I’d be more than happy to be corrected. Either way, it does seem that Christie takes her customary light touch here – at the end of the day, all that’s important for readers to understand is that this is a period when the relationship between the church and state, between Catholicism and secular liberalism, was more than a little fraught.

Poirot himself seems to have been firmly of the conservative Catholic faction. He remarks at one point: ‘The death of Monsieur Paul Déroulard was not particularly interesting to me. I am, as you know, bon catholique, and his demise seemed to me fortunate.’ Clearly Poirot wasn’t the moralistic opposer of murder in any form which he would later become – the older Poirot with whom we are familiar would not have let the character of the victim play any part in his opinion as to whether or not the killer should or should not be sought out and brought to justice (that one instance you’re all thinking about is the exception that proves the rule!). In other ways, however, this younger Poirot is not so different. The TV version of this story introduces a love interest for the young Hercule, but here Poirot is the confirmed bachelor – his attitude towards young, attractive women in distress is that of his avuncular older self.

Of course, one of the most interesting things about the story is that it is the only one in the entire canon to be narrated by Poirot himself. Being an avid fan of the BBC Radio adaptations of the Poirot novels (most of which are narrated in the first person by John Moffatt, in character as Poirot – an approach which is more successful than it sounds like it would be) I confess that this aspect didn’t strike me personally as particularly novel. Indeed, I suppose it wouldn’t have been that new a device for the tale’s original readers, since this was only the fourteenth Poirot story to have been published. One imagines Christie, faced with the prospect of coming up with a new weekly story, desperately trying to find some way of keeping things fresh and gaining inspiration from Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’ and ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, in which Sherlock Holmes narrates his early adventures to Watson – as Poirot narrates this early case to Hastings. Christie being Christie, however, this is no pale imitation nor an indication of a writer desperately in need of inspiration. Not only are we given the (relatively) unusual prospect of a tale narrated by Poirot himself – but also a story of one of Poirot’s failures. And to cap it all off we still have a fully-rounded murder mystery with a very unexpected twist in the tale.

Another intriguing feature, and one for which Christie is noted of course, is the details of the poisons involved. Or at least, not the poison itself (atropine, in case you were wondering) but the way in which it is administered. I never knew that one could be prescribed medicine in the form of chocolate pills. Add to this the fact that these pills are piled inside a larger, hollowed-out chocolate and (to borrow a phrase from a later Christie novel) you have a very ‘delicious death’ indeed!

The point of having Poirot narrate the story is that he can explain how he failed, how he felt about it and how it affected his future practices (a kind of reflective exercise in detective story form, if you will). Worryingly, Poirot doesn’t seem to have learnt very much from his failure: ‘Never mind. I knew – that was the great thing. You remember our difficulty in the Styles case, Hastings? There again, I knew – but it took me a long time to find the last link which made my chain of evidence against the murderer complete.’ Unlike in the Styles case, though, Poirot turns out to have been entirely wrong in his instinctive knowledge here – so whatever it is he’s learned it clearly isn’t to be wary of hubris. Perhaps, rather, it is to be more careful in establishing a chain of evidence? Who knows. I suppose we should be thankful that his instincts seem to have been honed with age! Similarly, Poirot only claims to have learned humility from his failure – despite telling Hastings to whisper the words ‘chocolate box’ to him whenever he becomes too full of himself, the Belgian is soon back to his old vain self and the tale ends (as with so many others in the Sketch series) with Hastings contemplating Poirot’s (false) modesty. I suppose the fact that it doesn’t also end in a blazing row between the two of them indicates that Hastings, at least, has developed as a character from irritation at Poirot’s manner to wry acceptance.

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Agatha Christie Conference at Exeter

I promise I’ll finally get back to updating this blog soon. Definitely.

In the meantime, I thought I’d draw your attention to a splendid-looking upcoming conference devoted to Christie’s work! I was at last year’s event and had an amazing time. This year’s looks set to be bigger and even better…

Here’s the conference website

And here’s more information on the event from one of the key organisers, Jamie Bernthal

 

 

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New Update Coming Soon!

I’ve been away on holiday for a fortnight, have loads of other projects on the go and have basically been really busy of late. I just thought I’d post a quick update to emphasise that the blog hasn’t died or been abandoned – hopefully, I’ll have another post up within the week!

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