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

‘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

‘The Actress’ (1923)

This story was first published in Issue 218 of Novel Magazine in May 1923, under the title ‘A Trap for the Unwary’. In 1998, it was republished in the collection While the Light Lasts and Other Stories as ‘The Actress’ – Christie’s original title. It’s the tale of Nancy Taylor, whose new identity as the actress Olga Stormer is threatened by a ruthless blackmailer, on whom she exerts a satisfying revenge. It is also Christie’s most unequivocally (and most unproblematically) feminist statement to this point.

That Christie preferred the title ‘The Actress’ is significant and highlights how unusual is the morality of this piece in relation to her other work. Nancy has killed a man back in the day – but unlike in several of her later novels, mitigating circumstances are taken into account and the implication is that Nancy is morally innocent of her ‘crime’. Indeed, her victim is ‘a beast of a man who deserved to be shot’. We do get the caveat that ‘the circumstances under which I killed him were such that no jury on earth would have convicted me’ – something she was too naïve to realise at the time. All the same, there is a subversive questioning of innocence and culpability at work in the story. Nancy has killed a man, but is morally innocent. Her blackmailer-antagonist is framed for killing her and thinks in alarm ‘My God, they hanged a man for murder! And he was innocent – innocent!’ Ironically, of course, while he is innocent of the murder he is not innocent, period – he deserves to hang more than the woman whose ‘crime’ he is exploiting. To transpose the punishment he imagines to be in store for her onto himself is a deliciously apt revenge. It is, indeed, the sheer cleverness of this plot that makes the story recognisably a Christie tale – a blackmailer ends up being threatened with the very thing with which he is threatening his victim, even though (for different reasons) neither of them actually legally deserves it.

On the other hand, of course, the thing that makes it very like Christie is the implication that, morally, it’s very clear who deserves it. Christie’s sympathies are entirely with Nancy – more than sympathy, in fact, since the text works hard to ensure that we are not just sympathetic to her plight but are never once permitted to believe her to be even vaguely deserving of condemnation. Christie’s decision to call Nancy ‘Olga’ throughout quietly signals the text’s support for the new life that Nancy (a survivor, it is implied, of some sort of abusive relationship) has chosen for herself.

What is surprising, for Christie, however, is the way a pervading metaphor of theatricality works to endorse a performative and fluid identity for the female protagonist. Olga’s act of revenge is appropriate to her current role in The Avenging Angel – while her understudy acts in the play, Olga is off doing some resourceful avenging of her own and in a manner that brings all of her theatrical talents into effect, framing her would-be blackmailer for murder by orchestrating a scene in which he is found by the maid with Olga’s ‘dead’ body. This blurs the line between performance and reality in a manner of which Oscar Wilde himself would have been proud. The implicit idea of personal identity this brings about is subversive and liberating. Olga can play any part she wants – Olga is not Nancy, nor was Nancy Olga. Indeed, Olga is ‘avenging’ Nancy – the woman she once was but no longer is. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to take from this that Olga’s fixed identity has become autonomous. It is no longer a question of who she definitely is, but of who she wants to be. Identity and performance are conflated via the central theme of acting and theatricality.

The theme of theatricality is taken even further in Olga’s ruminations about how she might best employ her talents to scupper the blackmailer’s plan:

‘Something between gloves and bare fists is needed. Let us say mittens! That means a woman! Yes, I rather fancy a woman might do the trick. A woman with a certain amount of finesse, but who knows the baser side of life from bitter experience. Olga Stormer, for instance!’

Remarkably, Olga isn’t even sure if the role she should play is that of a woman. Yes, this passage does back up the idea of ‘woman’ as a defined role characterised by finesse, elegance and the softness of mittens. But this is at least one role among many open to her. As a woman, she can choose or reject this particular kind of femininity as she desires. One wonders what she would have done had the situation called for gloves or bare fists.

I suppose it could be argued that performativity and female autonomy is endorsed because it represents a necessary intervention needed to correct the moral (rather than the social) order of things and thus actually works to back up the idea that there is an intrinsically correct moral order. In this it is entirely in keeping with the sometimes problematic catharsis of the detective plot. Yet, it is still the case that, in this story at least, the autonomous identity of a female protagonist is endorsed and celebrated. Indeed, the passage quoted above even sets up ‘Olga Stormer’ as a role she has fashioned for herself, rather than the person she definitely is – that is, having stopped being Nancy, her life is as a series of empowering performances, rather than just a series of masks hiding the weak ‘Nancy’ underneath.

In keeping with this empowering sentiment, the story ends on a note affirming the ascendency of performativity and autonomy over fixed identity: ‘I played my best part tonight, Danny. The mittens won! Jake Levitt is a coward all right, and I’m oh, Danny, Danny – I’m an actress!’ By the end of the story, then, ‘Nancy’, as an identity, is no more and even Olga Stormer has become simply the role this woman is currently playing. What she is, first and foremost, is an actress. What has changed between the beginning of the story and its end, however, is that she is now an actress to her very core – a woman whose identity depends on the script she chooses to write and the scenes she chooses to orchestrate. Moreover, unlike in Christie’s murder stories, such a stance is not condemned as dangerous or deceptive. Rather, it is presented as the road to female autonomy in a world of hubristic male privilege.

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Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2, Episode 8

Screenplay by Clive Exton

Directed by Andrew Grieve

52 mins

As the ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ is one of my favourite Poirot short stories it should come as no surprise that this adaptation is also one of my favourite episodes of the Poirot TV series. Not only is it stylishly directed by Andrew Grieve, but the slight tweaking undertaken to ensure that the plot fits into the political context of the mid-1930s (as opposed to the mid-1910s) helps to resolve some of the annoying jingoism of the original story – even if it does add a number of inconsistencies, which it’s best not to think too much about!

The episode opens at Charing Cross Station with Japp and a group of civil servants anxiously awaiting the arrival of the PM’s car, following the apparent attempt on his life. A newspaper stand displays the headline: ‘Disarmament: Prime Minister to Speak’, alerting us to the changed political context of the adaptation. No longer intent on prolonging a World War in the hope of securing a victory for Britain and its allies, the threat is now that the Prime Minister will not be around to avert a second war. ‘His is the one voice that can unify Europe and stop Germany re-arming’, we are informed at one point. Others might disagree, but I find this a more palatable motive than Christie herself offered. Even so, it might be argued that the very thing that makes this motive tense and dramatic (that we know the consequences of Germany re-arming better than most ordinary denizens of 1936) is undermined by the irony that this benefit of historical perspective is also, ironically, the very thing that makes the entire affair ultimately redundant – modern viewers, after all, also know that the Prime Minister will fail.

While the anti-pacifist context is altered, however, the theme of the obtuseness bedevilling the John Bullish nationalism of the English establishment is retained to amusing effect. I love the way the ‘attack’ on the PM is described in the papers, for example: ‘It just calls them “ruffians”. In the next paragraph is says “thugs”.’ The self-congratulation that accompanies the ‘rescue’ of the PM from his would-be attackers is also ironic given that this is actually a dupe, a fake display of daring-do designed to appeal to the English love of decisive action: “Well done Commander Daniels. Well done!” says the traitor’s superior, his stiff upper lip visibly wobbling into the ghost of a hubristic smile. The theme of Poirot’s quiet intellectualism versus the unthinking action is also humorously driven home throughout the episode. ‘I don’t want method, I want action!’ cries a disgruntled foreign office official at one point. Informed by Japp that Poirot is thinking, he exclaims: ‘Thinking? What’s he doing that for?’

As in the short story, therefore, Poirot is the antipathy of this appeal to outward decorum and bravely heroic action. The comic subplot (if it can be called that) involving Poirot’s visit to a working-class tailor of some genius, rather than to a posh purveyor on Saville Row emphasises the point – it is the genius, the little grey cells, that matter and not the outward show of tradition and convention.

Japp’s expanded role is also welcome, since it allows the episode to reiterate effectively the function he plays in these narratives – welcome because it shows how Japp is not an idiot plod (to which Lestrade is often reduced in the Sherlock Holmes stories), but rather a sort of mediator between Poirot and the establishment, harbouring an admiration and respect for his friend’s purely cerebral approach but unable to pursue such a line himself because of his beaurocratic training and an emphasis on procedure and visible results. Japp defending Poirot on the phone is thus not only a very sweet moment, especially given his own frustration, but also helps to signify his role as the man of ‘action’ that helps to translate Poirot’s thinking into practical application – a reciprocal relationship, a different way of doing things that renders the contrast more subtle than the ‘police bad’/‘detective good’ dichotomy of many tales in the genre. The old adage that the police ‘would only hamper my investigations’, the fodder of many a crime fiction spoof, does not apply here.

Indeed, all of the regular cast are given a nice moment to shine. Hastings gets one of the series’ most enjoyable car chases, whilst Miss Lemon gets a charming moment of comedy as she completely fails to remember the name of the house for which they are searching. The actors clearly relish the opportunity as well, with David Suchet’s accent unexpectedly wandering into Allo’ Allo’ territory as he follows Hastings’s progress from his flat: ‘You’ve lost ’er? [aside] ‘E’s lost ‘er!’

As mentioned above, another asset is the film-like quality afforded by the leisurely pace and the stylish directorial touches. Poirot takes more than a minute of screen time to enter the Foreign Office and arrive at the office of Sir Bernard Dodge, all the while accompanied by the strains of Big Ben and camera angles that linger over the grandeur of the Westminster architecture. It is a visual key to the episode – the little Belgian modestly waddling along the imposing corridors of power gives lie to what subsequent events will prove to be the case: that it is the physically unprepossessing intellectual who will ultimately triumph, rather than the outwardly impressive accoutrements of the establishment. This is important because although, as in the short story, we are told that the Destroyer is waiting to convey Poirot to France, we don’t get to see it (presumably for budgetary reasons) so it’s nice to get this point of futile show versus mental activity signalled visually in a different way. Another really impressive shot involves the camera panning down the outside of a building, tracking the protagonists’ conversation as they proceed down a flight of stairs inside. The wintry exteriors are also very atmospherically captured as are the cool shots of vintage cars racing through the night (an image I always associate with the Poirot stories and the TV series in particular, viz the picture at the top of this blog!) Although is that really the main road from Windsor to Datchet? If so then the M4 has a lot to answer for. Such is the price of progress!

One thing that did strike me is the way the TV adaptation has a different relationship, on a narrative level, to the presentation of space and time. In the short story, Poirot’s pointless trip across the channel and back again is a humorous device used to signal the futility of the frantic physical effort of his English employers. On paper, this can be accomplished easily enough in a couple of paragraphs – a journey that covers several hundred miles and taking a number of hours in practice can be conveyed quickly and easily in the telling, echoing the ostentatious might that can easily ‘convey’ Poirot across the sea in an instant. On film, this is not the case – the difficulty involved in visualising such scenes would inevitably end up making them look pretty spectacular and belie the point being made, so it makes sense to ditch the journey to France. On the other hand, Poirot’s search of the cottage hospitals (which takes a few lines in the short story) is laboured over in the adaptation precisely to dramatise the impatience it evokes in Poirot’s employers – something we are briefly told in the short story. It’s a consummate example of a change in the narrative from page to screen making complete sense dramatically as the story shifts between mediums.

It isn’t a total success though. The subplot regarding Daniels’s ‘divorce’ is a good addition and is much more satisfying than the short story’s logic of ‘he has a German aunt so that explains everything’. Yet, no really convincing replacement is found for the espionage motive of the original story, clunky though it is. Instead, the Irish Home Rule strand of the original plot is lifted from red herring to fully-fledged motive. This is convincing as far as it goes. The Home Rule plot highlights what is the traitors’ real grievances, namely British imperial hubris: ‘Anyway what’s it got to do with Britain if Germany re-arms?’ Moreover, a ‘strong element in Ireland that does not care if Germany re-arms so long as it hurts Britain’ is certainly a fair assumption of a particular kind of nationalist politics in several Celtic nations during the 1930s and 1940s and so it isn’t hard to believe the lengths to which Daniels’s wife will go. But when applied to Daniels himself it falls down somewhat and becomes horribly convoluted and hard to follow. So… his dad’s career was ruined by Asquith, who approved of home rule… so he was easily persuaded to turn traitor… even though a different PM and a different political party are now in power. Or something? As I said earlier, probably best not to think about it.

Another disappointment is that the Home Rule motive should afford a great opportunity to use the driver Egan as a red herring, as in the original tale – since he, and not Daniels, is the obvious candidate for an Irish traitor. Egan’s lodging is full of Catholic tat, he has an Irish landlady and disappears from the plot halfway through, so the opportunity for such a red herring is certainly there. Yet, he’s never mentioned again! Unless it’s him who appears to aid Mrs Daniels at the end? Again, it’s not clear – and I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who was studying it all very closely in order to write it up on this site. For the general viewer it must have been pretty incomprehensible.

Dramatically, however, it does manage to be exciting enough (and just about clear enough) to be enjoyable and the direction, pacing, characterisation and performances are all top notch. I could argue that the episode shows its hand too early regarding Daniels’s guilt and goes against its own dramatic grain by substituting action-packed car chases for properly thought out explanation – but this is really a minor quibble. Ultimately, like the short story on which it is based, this is brilliantly orchestrated entertainment.

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

‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’ (1923)

First published in The Sketch, on the 25 April 1923 (Issue 1578) and later collected in Poirot Investigates (1924). The story’s setting in the Poirot chronology is considerably earlier than most of the other stories in the Sketch series, apparently taking place shortly after the Styles case. Poirot has just taken up permanent residence in London and is not yet the famous, fashionable detective that he will soon become; Hastings, meanwhile, is still working for the army in an administrative capacity. In fact, the war is still very much ongoing and patriotism is the keynote of the tale – a keynote that is struck by Poirot himself. When visited by two government officials who hope to enlist Poirot’s help in finding the missing Prime Minister, the immigrant detective understandably enquires: ‘What made you come to me? I am unknown, obscure in this great London of yours.’ He has apparently been recommended by a Belgian notable:

 ‘One higher than the Préfet. One whose word was once law in Belgium – and shall be again! That England has sworn!’

Poirot’s hand flew swiftly to a dramatic salute. ‘Amen to that! Ah, but my Master does not forget…’

This ardent political affiliation seems unusual for our Belgian hero, but this somewhat sweetly outdated patriotism is understandable in the context of a man exiled from their homeland by conflict. There are many troubling aspects to the unthinking patriotism on display in this story – not least the fact that it all too often equates with outright jingoism. But moments like this serve to remind us how much a product of its moment this story is, composed when life during war time was still raw on the memory.

Twentieth century history is not my area of expertise, but I’ll venture to say that it’s pretty clear that the Prime Minister ‘David McAdam’ is a thinly-disguised pseudonym for David Lloyd George. I love the fact that Lloyd George was Welsh and that the defence of the Belgians (another ‘small nation’) was one of the deciding factors in his support for Britain’s entry into the war – no wonder Poirot was so supportive! This story was published a year after Lloyd George (who had become Prime Minister in 1916 and seen Britain through the war) lost his office to the Conservative Andrew Bonar Law, himself replaced a year later by Stanley Baldwin, who was in power when this story was published. I don’t know what Christie’s opinions on Lloyd George were, but this story seems to be very supportive of McAdam. Indeed, the fact that Hastings feels that sufficient time has now elapsed to tell this amazing story of how his friend helped save the Prime Minister may well be a topical comment on the fact that Lloyd George has left office – so a story about his time there might now be safe to tell. This helps to explain how a story set earlier chronologically appears mid-way through the Sketch series sequentially.

Another facet linking the story to Lloyd George is the suspicions that fall on O’Murphy, about whom the fact that he is ‘an Irishman from County Clare’ is apparently just as suspicious as his disappearing mysteriously from a Soho restaurant known to be a den of German spies. This seems less obviously racist when one considers that Lloyd George was the Prime Minister who instituted the north/south partition in Ireland, following the Easter Rising, thus making him an obvious target for nationalists – to immediately suspect everyone from one particular nation is still problematic, of course, then as now, but it does make more sense than Tommy Beresford’s ability to spot a Shin Feiner at fifty paces in The Secret Adversary. It also turns out to be a red herring, the real traitor lying closer to home.

Then again, ‘McAdam’ also seems to be a metonym not for any particular politician, but for England itself. He is a patriot who can be relied upon ‘unequivocally [to combat] the Pacifist influence… He was more that England’s Prime Minister – he was England’. If this muddies the waters as to where the story (or at least Hastings) stands on the question of Lloyd George, it does at least indicate clearly where it stands on the question of what is and isn’t English – and pacifisim, it appears, definitely isn’t. The Prime Minister’s rescue is important, all the protagonists agree, because he has to attend a peace conference where only he (i.e. England) will have the gumption to stop that conference achieving its ends. So, the Prime Minister has to be rescued not only from German (or possibly Irish) antagonists, but also from those damned conscies. One cannot help but detect something of the retrospective hubris of the victor in this passage. After all, it’s perhaps easier to deride ‘peace by negotiation’ as ‘the parrot-cry of England’s enemies’, when you’re writing at a time when the war is over and you know that you were on the winning side.

A more positive outcome of this rendering of McAdam into an avatar of England itself is the nice reversal in terms of national roles that results from it. Poirot (a symbol of brave little Belgium) helps to save England – literally and figuratively. In doing so, the story is able to atone somewhat for the bullishness of its anti-pacifist agenda by playing up the more intellectual qualities that, paradoxically, help to further it. As a detective, Poirot is resolutely on the side of brains rather than unthinking brawn – of thought over action. This is clearest in his oft-quoted critique of Hastings’s idea of a detective’s method:

‘He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road and seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end and the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not?’

His eyes challenged us. ‘But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here!’ He tapped his forehead. ‘See you, I need not have left London.’

This commitment to detail over action is also reflected in the tale’s structure. Not only is it unusually brimming with dialogue, but the only action that does take place (bar a short chase lasting one paragraph at the story’s end) is circular. The story crosses the channel twice but, as Poirot points out, needn’t actually have left London, the voyage back and forth across the English Channel being a massive red herring present only to emphasise what turns out to be its own irrelevance to the plot. This demonstration of the ease with which the ostentatious might of the English navy is brought into play actually serves only to undercut the impotence of that military might at this particular moment. It recalls the ridiculously mundane description, earlier, of how the Prime Minister was (apparently) ‘conveyed across the Channel by destroyer’ – a description that has the delightful effect of placing this expensive piece of macho kit on an equivalence with the 73 omnibus. No wonder the war politicians are fooled by the ridiculous story of the ‘masked men’ – as ever in Christie’s fiction, action and visible spectacle are mere external show, with the key to the mystery lying in altogether subtler intricacies of plot.

And yet, when all’s said and done, Poirot’s intellectual abilities are only employed in order to facilitate the continuance of a military struggle. While the story satirises the English characters’ determination to rush headlong into action, it does so only by contrasting that determination with Poirot’s intellectual role ascribed to a foreigner – an intellectuality that still remains ‘other’ to the very Englishness it is called upon to rescue. The maintenance of this ‘otherness’ is the other, unspoken, reason why it is Poirot who is called upon to investigate the disappearance. Because Poirot is here, more than ever, an avatar of brave little Belgium, whom England just as bravely defends, it actually maintains the dichotomy between the passive quality of intellectual endeavour, and the active quality of military prowess, which is upheld by presenting Poirot’s commitment to the work of the little grey cells as very much a temporary expedient – an expedient so outside the innate experience of Englishness that outside help is required. Ultimately, it seems to suggest, in times of war, the duty of the English is to fight without question – if that isn’t always adequate, then help can be sought from the ‘other’ nations with which it is allied.

Purely on the basis of entertainment value, this is one of my favourite Poirot short stories. As with ‘The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’, the style is satisfyingly economic, every detail of character, plot and setting occupying only as much space as it needs to and no more – so that, if it doesn’t make for a particularly insightful read, it doesn’t feel superficial or rushed either. This makes for a consummately entertaining (if dated) piece of genre fiction; a fast-paced adventure that also allows us a glimpse into a literary-historical moment in which the identity of the bad guys seemed never to be in question – and where the only socio-political grey area is the lingering doubt over how the blighters did it.

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

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

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 6

Screenplay by David Reniwck
Directed by Renny Rye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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