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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 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