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

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