Tag Archives: red herring

‘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

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: ‘The Plymouth Express’

 Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 3, Episode 4

 Screenplay by Rob Beacham

Directed by Andrew Piddington

 

This is a faithful adaptation of the Christie story in terms of plot, with only a few minor changes: Halliday and his daughter are Australian rather than American; the red herring of the newspaper is slightly different and is changed from a mere alibi to a premeditated attempt to lay suspicion at the door of both the Count and Rupert Carrington equally. The Count’s role in proceedings is also expanded into a full-blown subplot in which he is fraudulently dealing in shares pertaining to Halliday’s mining company – a conspiracy that means he is in England at the time of Flossy’s death. The plot is expanded to fit the fifty minute running time as well, so that Poirot is called in by Halliday not to investigate Flossy’s murder (at least not initially) but to ‘vet’ the Count’s suitability as a husband. Otherwise, the plot stays extremely close to the original short story – the murder is even discovered by a young naval officer, a detail that could easily have been changed without anyone noticing.

 It’s in the tone of the piece that the adaptation really differs from the original story. While Christie is rather crassly unsympathetic in dealing with the brutal murder of a young woman, the TV version goes to great lengths to bring out the horror and grief of the affair. It does so by deftly drawing our attention away from the sensational aspects that the short story revels in, presenting it instead as a piteous domestic tragedy with which we can easily empathise.

 In particular, Halliday’s position as a single father doing his best to raise a daughter on his own is dealt with in much greater detail than is his status as a ‘self-made’ millionaire (we get no real indication of how he made his millions, only that he is now in the mining business). True, the adaptation retains the original story’s idea of rich folks’ distance from ‘real’ problems – the maid is deservedly contemptuous of the Count’s silly message to her mistress, which she is forced to read aloud. But the single father/only child thing helps to override this and to make one more sympathetic both to the millionaire and his spoilt daughter on the level of common (and therefore relatable) human experiences, rather than as ‘othered’ socialised abstractions. To put it another way, where the short story is ‘us and them’, the adaptation challenges the viewer to expand its definition of ‘us’. The way the press flock around Flossy’s body (contrasted with Hastings, Japp and Poirot’s solemn and respectful examination of the corpse) helps to demonise further those who would play up these people’s difference from the rest of us. I love the scene when Halliday tells Poirot: ‘You find the murderer Poirot; I’ll make you richer than you ever dreamed’. The delivery conveys such helplessness at the very same time as it demonstrates how powerful Halliday’s money makes him. The idea of death as a great leveller is very movingly conveyed – money is all well and good, but it doesn’t make grief any easier to bear.

 More fun is to be had with the Count, who might as well be called Dracula so stereotypical is his aristocratic villainy. Come to think of it, maybe we’re meant to make a very middle class distinction between the self-made millionaire and the hereditary peer? Be that as it may, the Count’s villainy is deliciously camp. He plots cryptically in a darkened room with a taciturn old banker, refuses to drop his cigarette even whilst running away from the police and nonchalantly declares himself to be ‘devastated’ by the tragedy of Flossy’s death in a deadpan manner that suggests nothing of the sort! Frankly, if he had a moustache, he’d be twirling it. The episode even acknowledges this metafictionally – at one point Hastings awkwardly tells Poirot that the Count is very much of what you’d expect from his ‘type… of Frenchman’. Poirot agrees, confirming what we can all see plainly: ‘He is typical of his type’.

 The regular cast are very well served in this episode. Miss Lemon isn’t in it much, but she not only gets a wonderful line (‘Difficulties were made to be overcome, Mr Poirot’) but also gets to make quite an entrance in her marvellous period dress, complete with fashionable haircut and glasses. On a more serious note, Japp is very much Poirot’s respected colleague in this episode – unlike the bizarre rivalry mentioned in the short story, they willingly collaborate here on what both agree is a serious case with little time for frivolity. Hastings also gets a nice scene in a bar where he befriends Flossy’s husband in order to discover any motive he might have for his wife’s death – he isn’t quite the bumbling fool he sometimes comes across as and that’s welcome, however endearingly he plays that role.

 Japp and Hastings’s mutual relationship to Poirot is also brought out by a nifty piece of direction. Hastings and Japp are framed either side of Poirot, arguing about which of their two favoured suspects is the most likely culprit, only to shut up immediately as soon as Poirot intercedes. As Poirot gives his speech, the three pass through a set of double doors, which Japp and Hastings open together in order to let Poirot through – a nice metaphor that illustrates not only their mutual respect for the Belgian, but also their mutual status as his practical helpmates in crime-solving.

 Another scene illustrates the way in which Japp acts as a mediator between the active, physical duties of the jobbing policeman and the intellectual endeavours of Poirot’s little grey cells. As a senior police officer, Japp is a mixture of the two – he has to take practical considerations into account (the need to gather tangible evidence, to be seen to be making progress and to do the actual dirty work of pursuing and arresting criminals), but also represents the ‘brains’ of the whole operation – an aspect with which Poirot often helps out. This is summed up visually on screen in Poirot’s skilful undercover chat with the suspected jeweller. The intellectual duties over, Poirot is able to confirm to Japp that this is the man they’re looking for – which is Japp’s cue to gather a troupe of constables, force entry to the jeweller’s establishment and make the arrest. Hastings and Poirot look on with a pained expression at this, before turning away. It’s a good way of showing how, for all his keen moral sensibilities, the game of detection is, for Poirot, very much an abstract one – his hands never get dirty.

 That isn’t to say that Poirot’s notorious sense of evil is not very much in evidence here. It may have deserted him in the short story, but here he is keen to point out just how callous and horrible this particular murder actually is. The murder itself is reconstructed in gruesome, bloody, fashion – gratuitously so really. But this serves to make the point viscerally – unlike in the short story, where the murder remains an abstract logic problem, here we’re not allowed to forget the sheer cold-blooded brutality it represents. To cap it all, Poirot then describes the action of knifing a woman to death in great detail, just to drive the point home (if you will). Seriously – it should come with a trigger warning.

 Tonally different to the short story, then, this adaptation is very much in the spirit of Christie’s moral framework – albeit at the more acceptable end of her rather uncomplicated belief in inherent evil as a dangerous reality. It is according to their inherent capacities for empathy (the mark of the ‘good’ person here) that the characters are eventually set up to be judged. The murderers are at one end of this spectrum, with Halliday and Carrington at the other – both have their flaws, but their disgusted spurning of Flossy’s diamonds demonstrates that their moral compass is pointing the right way. The Count, however, with his dispassionate attitude to even this most self-evidently evil of actions is somewhere in between – not as bad as the murderers, it nevertheless makes Japp determined to punish him for remaining resolutely unapologetic in the face of such manifest grief. Ostensibly, he is arrested for fraud, but one really gets the impression that his true crime is not to acknowledge the grieving father by saying sorry…

 Then there’s the final scene, in which Halliday’s letter is read out in voiceover, as Poirot hands Miss Lemon the cheque he has received in payment. Poirot is embarrassed at having been paid so much – and Miss Lemon’s reaction is very telling. Looking at the generous cheque, she is moved to comment of Halliday: ‘the poor man’. It’s as if the fact that Halliday is so grateful that he feels compelled to pay an enormous amount to Poirot is indicative not of how much money he has to give away, but rather of how little it actually matters to him any more. It’s a much more realistic ending than the flippancy we get at the short story’s conclusion.

 I’ll be honest though. While I admire this episode a lot as an adaptation (the direction is particularly good) it isn’t one that I particularly enjoy. Until now, I had thought this was because it was simply dull, like the short story – but I’ve changed my mind on this matter. The episode is dreary, but it’s a dreariness that’s depressingly appropriate to the tragedy of the story. This is admirably in keeping with the way in which the adaptation determinedly downplays its potentially sensational aspects to hit you with the sheer misery of the situation. It’s almost as if it’s defying you to enjoy it. Although I think it succeeds in this defiance, I’m in the paradoxical position of not being sorry that it does.

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