Friday, 28 October 2016

PRESS RELEASE: Victorian Gothic Faust Penny Dreadful Launches at Halloween

On 28th October 2016, North Manchester-based micro-press Hic Dragones will launch a new edition of the 1847 penny dreadful FAUST. Written by best-selling Victorian author George Reynolds, this Gothic version of the Faust legend was serialized in the mid-nineteenth century in the penny papers. It tells the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, vengeance and wealth, against the backdrop of secret tribunals and power struggles in medieval Europe.

This is the first modern edition of Reynolds’s FAUST, and the meticulously transcribed collection also features all of the original illustrations. The eBook serial will be published in 12 fortnightly instalments by Hic Dragones’ Victorian Gothic imprint Digital Periodicals, joining their catalogue of classic penny dreadful titles such as VARNEY THE VAMPIRE, THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON and WAGNER THE WEHR-WOLF.

Editor Hannah Kate says: ‘Many people will be familiar with the Faust legend from the versions written by Marlowe, Goethe or Mann. But this is the quintessential Victorian Gothic take on the story – full of scheming nobles, masked identities and daring escapades. It’s surprising that Reynolds’s FAUST fell into obscurity, as the author was one of Victorian London’s pulp fiction stars. This new edition will bring his work to a whole new audience.’

FAUST will be available in Kindle and ePub format at £1 per issue from the publisher’s website.

A video trailer is available to watch here:


For further information, please contact Hannah Kate.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

OUT NOW: Gothic Studies 18:1 (May 2016)

The May 2016 issue of Gothic Studies is now out.


Playing the Man: Manliness and Mesmerism in Richard Marsh's The Beetle
Natasha Rebry

'Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine Already': Criminal Female Sexuality in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Beth Shane

'Mensonge': The Rejection of Enlightenment in the Unreliable 'Souvenirs' of Charles Nodier
Matthew Gibson

The Mirror and the Window: The Seduction of Innocence and Gothic Coming of Age in Låt Den Rätte Komma In/Let The Right One In
Amanda Howell

Labyrinths of Conjecture: The Gothic Elsewhere in Jane Austen's Emma
Andrew McInnes

Gothic Stagings: Surfaces and Subtexts in the Popular Modernism of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot Series
Taryn Norman


Roger Luckhurst, Zombies: A Cultural History (London, 2015)
Deborah G. Christie

Minna Vuohelainen, Richard Marsh (Cardiff, 2015); Stephan Karshay, Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle (Basingstoke, 2015)
Emma Liggins

Wickham Clayton (ed.), Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film (London, 2015)
Shellie McMurdo

Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville (eds), The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic (London, 2015)
Hannah Priest

Cristina Artenie, Dracula Invades England: the Text, the Context and the Readers (Montreal, 2015)
Jillian Wingfield

For more information, or to subscribe to the journal, please visit the Manchester University Press website. As part of their Halloween special offer, online access to this issue of Gothic Studies is free throughout October.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Coming Soon: Faust

On 28th October, Digital Periodicals (the Victorian Gothic department of Hic Dragones) will be launching the first issue of George Reynolds's 1847 penny dreadful Faust. The eBook serial will be published in 12 fortnightly instalments, each costing just £1. This freshly transcribed and fully illustrated serial is the only modern edition of Reynolds’ action-packed tale of deadly sin, imperilled virtue and political intrigue.

To have everything your heart desires – what price would you pay?

From the author of Mysteries of London and Wagner the Wehrwolf comes a unique take on the legendary story of Faust. In the 1490s, amidst the secretive tribunals and power games of Europe, an impoverished student enters into a pact that will twist his mind and shatter his spirit. The promise of power, wealth and vengeance comes at a terrifying cost – but can true love conquer the demon’s hold? and what fate awaits a man who would sell his very soul?

Find out more on the Hic Dragones website.

And check out the brand new Faust trailer (with music by the fantastic Digital Front)!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

3 Minute Scares – A Halloween Writing Competition for North Manchester FM

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants you to scare her this Halloween!

She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3 minute stories for a new creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s spookiest wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being played on air on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 29 October.

The Halloween flash fiction competition will be judged by Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of MMU’s Centre for Gothic Studies, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout, Manchester’s real life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is.

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘I want this competition to bring out some of the region’s scariest talent. It’s difficult to tell a good tale in just 3 minutes, but I know that there’s people out there who are up for the challenge.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition can also be found on the website.

Hannah’s Bookshelf is North Manchester FM’s weekly literature show, and it goes out live every Saturday 2-4pm. The show has been running since January 2015 and has featured guests including Rosie Garland, Ramsey Campbell, Tony Walsh and Gwyneth Jones. The show broadcasts on 106.6FM for North Manchester residents and through the ‘listen online’ feature for the rest of the world.

For further information please contact:

Email: David Kay or Hannah Kate
Website: North Manchester FM or Hannah Kate

Monday, 5 September 2016

Poirot Project: Wasps’ Nest (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Plymouth Express’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 27th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Daily Mail in November 1928 (thus representing one of the few things that the Daily Mail has ever published that I would actually want to read).

‘Wasps’ Nest’ is a very short, almost minimalist short story – but I’ve always been rather fond of it. Although the story was published a couple of months after ‘Double Sin’, Hastings is absent (he’s presumably back in Argentina by now) and there’s no mention of Japp either. Despite having made his first appearance a few months earlier in The Mystery of the Blue Train, George isn’t present here either. Interestingly, unlike in many of Christie’s other short stories, there are also no references to Poirot’s past cases or clients.

These absences give the story a sort of pared-down feel: we are simply given Poirot and a puzzle. Nothing more, and nothing less. But the nature of the puzzle is quite different to those found elsewhere in the Poirot stories, as we’re told early on that no crime has actually been committed. As Poirot explains to John Harrison (one of only two other characters who appear in the story): ‘I am investigating a crime that has not yet taken place.’

Now, the possibility of this pre-emptive approach is an issue in another of the Poirot short stories. In ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ (which was published after, but adapted before, ‘Wasps’ Nest’), Poirot is also confronted by the probability of a murder and must decide how to act to prevent it. In the ITV version of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, Poirot is fairly adamant that such a feat is impossible (and, indeed, he fails in the task), which makes ‘Wasps’ Nest’ seem almost like an attempt to try again. However, the short stories are a little different: ‘Wasps’ Nest’ came first, and in the later story Poirot is less insistent about the impossibility of intervention. In addition to this, the minimalist nature of Christie’s ‘Wasps’ Nest’ makes it seem even more distinct from ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, both in terms of its stripped-down cast of supporting characters and the role of the detective himself.

Christie’s story begins with a man named John Harrison surveying his garden. There is a very brief description of Harrison, followed by an equal-sized description of his garden. Within just a few lines, however, his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a familiar figure:
‘It was, indeed, the famous Hercule Poirot whose renown as a detective had spread over the whole world.’
It seems Harrison and Poirot have a previous acquaintance, as the little Belgian acknowledges on his friend’s open-ended invitation to visit if he was in the area. It’s when Harrison asks the reason for Poirot’s trip that we get the (rather cryptic) explanation:
‘If one can investigate a murder before it has happened, surely that is very much better than afterwards. One might even – a little idea – prevent it.’
It’s not long before we realize that it might well be Harrison himself who is at the centre of Poirot’s investigation.

That said, there’s actually surprisingly little investigation here. The story consists almost entirely of dialogue between Harrison and Poirot, and with a few additional facts provided by the detective’s exposition. In their first conversation, Poirot learns that Harrison has a problem with a wasps’ nest in his garden. His friend Claude Langton is coming over later that evening to dispatch the creatures with a syringe of petrol. At this point, Poirot reveals that he already knows that Langton has purchased some cyanide at the local chemist:
‘Harrison stared. “That’s odd,” he said. “Langton told me the other day that he’d never dream of using the stuff; in fact, he said it oughtn’t to be sold for the purpose.”’
Poirot is unperturbed by this revelation, and simply asks Harrison if he likes Langton. He then reveals that he knows that Harrison is engaged to a woman named Molly Deane, who was previously engaged to Langton. After this, he promises to return at nine o’clock, when Langton will be arriving to destroy the wasps.

The puzzle seems a simple one – Poirot repeatedly assures Harrison (and us) that he believes someone is going to die, and we assume that he thinks that Langton is going to use the cyanide to poison his love rival. Of course, there’s more to the story than meets the eye, as we soon discover.

If the puzzle is a bit different in this story, so too is the detective. Without Hastings or Japp (or Miss Lemon or Ariadne Oliver) as a companion, Poirot is curiously solitary here. While there are other stories and novels that don’t feature any of ‘the gang’, Christie usually supplies a temporary sidekick or ‘Watson’ (and they are often called just that – for example, Ellie Henderson in ‘Problem at Sea’ is given the name, as is Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). There is no Watson in ‘Wasps’ Nest’ – there is simply Poirot. And this, along with the lack of actual investigation, makes the detective take on a rather different role in the story.

‘Wasps’ Nest’ features Poirot at his most thoughtful – even philosophical. From the very beginning, his conversation with Harrison is circumspect to the point of being cryptic. Rather than identifying clues, the strange little Belgian offers profound pronouncements on the nature of life, death and human nature. For example, when Harrison laughs at the concept of ‘hate’, Poirot intones:
‘The English are very stupid […] They think that they can deceive anyone but that no one can deceive them. The sportsman – the good fellow – never will they believe evil of him. And because they are brave, but stupid, sometimes they die when they need not die.’
Perhaps the most dramatic – if rather odd – speech in the story comes shortly after this, when Poirot turns his attention to the titular nest in the garden:
‘There on the bank, close by that tree root. See you, the wasps returning home, placid at the end of the day? In a little hour, there will be destruction, and they know it not. There is no one to tell them. They have not, it seems, a Hercule Poirot. I tell you, Monsieur Harrison, I am down here on business. Murder is my business. And it is my business before it has happened as well as afterwards.’
Aside from the curious (and delightful) image of a Wasp-Poirot, this speech raises some interesting questions. What is the analogy that Poirot is drawing here? Are the wasps the counterparts of the stupid English he described above? Is Poirot equating (a portion of) the human race to insects? If so, what does that make him? And in what way – given that no one has hired him or requested that he investigate – is this potential murder his business?

Make no mistake: this is Poirot at his most metaphysical. Throughout the story, he appears almost deific in both his judgment and his knowledge of humanity. When we discover that Poirot has orchestrated the entire ‘chance’ visit to see Harrison – and that he did this as a result of randomly seeing Langton’s name in the chemist’s poison book – the whole thing seems almost supernatural. Poirot seems to have always known what would transpire. And Harrison’s final words – the final words of the story – cement this pseudo-divine intervention:
‘“Thank goodness you came,” he cried. “Oh, thank goodness you came.”’
This isn’t Poirot-the-conjuror or Poirot-the-physician – this is Poirot the deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, Christie apparently couldn’t resist adding a couple of slightly more humanizing elements to the story. Even without a sidekick providing commentary, we get a couple of little glimpses into the inner workings of our hero. And yet… unlike in the other short stories, these are also somewhat portentous. In both cases, these glimpses serve to situate Poirot on the side of justice – but distinctly outside the forces of ‘law and order’. (This is a position we’ve seen Poirot take up before – and we’ll certainly see it again.)

The first comes in an almost throwaway explanation for how he was able to substitute cyanide for washing soda without being spotted:
‘There was a pickpocket once – I interested myself in him because for once in a way he had not done what they say he has done – and so I get him off. And because he is grateful he pays me in the only way he can think of – which is to show me the tricks of his trade.’
Wow. There’s a lot going there! This isn’t simply a reminiscence of a past case, like the Abercrombie forgery case or the adventure of ‘Baron’ Altara (mentioned in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). In fact, this doesn’t appear to be a case at all. Poirot ‘interested himself’ in the pickpocket, but he wasn’t actually employed to investigate him. Also notice how Poirot sets himself on the opposing side to the forces of law (presumably the police) when he talks about ‘what they say he has done’. And the man isn’t even unequivocally innocent – Poirot’s defence is couched in the vagaries of ‘for once’ and ‘in a way’ – but there is no question that the little Belgian had the power to ‘get him off’, if he was ‘interested’ to do so. I’ll say it again: wow.

The second detail is one that is, perhaps, a little more familiar to Poirot fans: the detective reveals his disgust at hanging. I’ve mentioned before that Poirot is often amenable to allowing murderers to ‘escape the noose’, particularly when he has some fondness or respect for them. Here, however, he gives a far more direct condemnation of hanging: it is ‘the worst death any man can die’. Again, Poirot is situating himself against the law and offering a more independent sense of ‘justice’.*

Okay… so all very deep stuff here. Time to turn to the ITV adaptation – and to have a look at how the programme-makers handled the darkly philosophical tone of ‘Wasps’ Nest’.

The episode was written by David Renwick and directed by Brian Farnham. On the surface, the tone and atmosphere is quite different to that of the short story, and we’re moved back to the familiar ground of the early ITV series. The gang’s all here – Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon have been added to the episode – and the lush 1930s aesthetic is introduced early on. We begin at ‘Marble Hill’ tube station (filmed in the Grade II* listed Arnos Grove Underground Station, designed by Charles Holden in the early 1930s), where our little detective is in a grump again. In an attempt to cheer their friend up, Hastings and Japp have decided on an excursion to a garden fete, and the men are awaiting the arrival of Mrs Japp so they can set off.

Of course, Mrs Japp comes from the same police-spouse school as Mrs Columbo and so she never actually turns up. Japp himself is also quickly taken out of action when he is struck down by appendicitis – this is the first indication of the writer responding to the restrictions of Christie’s text, as there’s really no role for a policeman in a story where no crime actually takes place.

Hastings and Miss Lemon are also more ornamental than useful in the episode, and much of Hastings’s activity revolves around the fact that he’s got himself a new camera – ‘The new toy. I give it two, perhaps three weeks,’ Poirot says with a twinkle – and has turned Poirot’s bathroom into a darkroom.

So the adaptation manages to walk a rather wobbly line between including Poirot’s sidekicks (in deviation from Christie’s story) and not giving them any real role in the storyline (in deference to the original). In order to make their superfluity a little less obvious, a clue involving a photograph found in Langton’s house is added to tie in with Hastings’s new camera – but this is a tenuous connection at best.

Following the format of the TV series, the roles of the other characters are also expanded. It wouldn’t do to rely simply on Poirot’s conversations with Harrison – that would be very slow TV, even for early 90s (it was a simpler time) – and so the characters of John Harrison (Martin Turner), Molly Deane (Melanie Jessop) and Claude Langton (Peter Capaldi) have to be seen together on screen, rather than just simply described by an omniscient Belgian. As is quite common in the early episodes, this expansion is partly done by showing a scene that is merely described by the detective in the source material. In Christie’s story, Poirot explains that he has ‘seen Claude Langton and Molly Deane together when they thought no one saw them’. In the TV episode, this is played out in front of our eyes. For some reason, it is played out in a way that involves a young Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown – but who am I to judge the creative decisions?

The character of Molly is fleshed out in the episode, and she is reimagined as a fashion model. This allows for a few additional supporting characters to make brief – but pretty insignificant – appearances. The only other ‘new’ character who is seen on screen is an ominous old man (played by John Boswall) with a skull-headed cane, who stalks the edges of the story like some terrifying grim reaper until his identity is revealed towards the end of the episode.

I’m not too bothered about the theatricality of this character – who turns out to be called Dr Belvedere. For one thing, it’s in-keeping with the general tone of the early series. And for another, it’s not a huge deviation from the original story. Poirot’s portentous speeches in Christie’s work conjure up a sense of evil and death at large, waiting to be confronted by the detective, so it’s not a huge leap to see that personified on screen. Moreover, when the literary Poirot reveals that he knows that John Harrison has been visiting a doctor, he says that Harrison looked like ‘a man under sentence of death’ after his consultation – so why not have the TV characters followed by a man who looks very capable of issuing such a sentence?

There are a couple of other changes to the adaptation, though these were clearly done to expand the very short source text into a full episode. Poirot isn’t aware of the entry in the poison book prior to running into Harrison – which allows for a short comedic scene in which Poirot asks Hastings to cover for him with the chemist while he snoops through the book – and Molly Deane apparently suffers a car crash while driving to Harrison’s home. Unlike in the short story, it is Langton who suggests using cyanide on the wasps rather than Harrison, and the substitution of the cyanide for the washing soda is carried out at Langton’s house rather than on Harrison’s person. These changes all serve to throw more suspicion onto Langton, which is really only an expansion of the misdirection in the first part of Christie’s text.

For most of the episode, ‘Wasps’ Nest’ loses the oddly detached feel of the short story. Poirot doesn’t really come across as a deus ex machina – instead, as he reads Molly’s tealeaves and sneaks a look at a poison book, he seems like the more familiar conjuror-detective, playing up the theatrics of his investigation as he did in the fake séance in Peril at End House and the ventriloquism finale of ‘Problem at Sea’.

But just as we think the adaptation has dispensed with the more philosophical elements of its source, we move into a denouement that is much more faithful to the original story.

In resolving the puzzle, Poirot chooses to visit Harrison alone at his house. The rest of the gang are absent, and Langton and Molly have receded into the background. Poirot has already hinted that this resolution will be rather different to the others in the series, as shortly before his final encounter with Harrison, he offers an unusual summary of the case: ‘Everything has happened. And yet nothing has happened.’

Once Poirot is in Harrison’s garden, the wasps come back into focus. Poirot gives a (slightly truncated) version of his analogy – ‘For the wasps, there is no Hercule Poirot to warn them!’ – and Harrison resigns himself to his fate, and (in an added moment of poignancy) to an acceptance of the wasps’ presence in his garden. As Poirot leaves, Harrison acknowledges the detective’s role in words almost identical to his literary predecessor: ‘Thank God you came!’

Poirot doesn’t answer. He simply walks into the early evening light and disappears slowly from view before the credits roll. The deus returning to the machina.

Gosh. That was a bit deep, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s time for some ghostly hijinks, a comedy inn-keeper, some cheeky waxworks and an actual murder… next up: ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’

* It is my contention that Poirot is anti-hanging, though he is (very) occasionally happy to see particularly unpleasant murderers sent to the gallows. Not only does he allow a surprising number of killers to ‘escape the noose’ and openly comments on the cruelty of hanging, but he also at one points reinvestigates a case of wrongful execution (Five Little Pigs), which suggests some implied criticism of the death penalty. Significantly, one of Christie’s other detectives takes a different viewpoint. Miss Marple has ‘no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment’ (The Thirteen Problems) and is ‘really very, very sorry that they have abolished capital punishment’ (4.50 From Paddington). It’s usually said that it is Miss Marple who is ‘giving voice’ to Christie’s own views on capital punishment – which is sort of backed up by a digression in her autobiography in which she muses on the nature of evil and its possible punishment. (‘Why should they not execute [murderers]?’ she wonders, before praising transportation and suggesting ‘experimental research’ as a more humane alternative to life imprisonment.) But whether or not Christie herself was in favour of hanging (and whether this view remained consistent throughout her career, which straddled the abolition of the death penalty), the fact remains that her most prolific creation was distinctly ambivalent towards it.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Poirot Project: Agatha Christie Inspired Music by Digital Front

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Plymouth Express’, but this is a quick post with something a little bit different.

As you may recall, one of the unexpected side effects of doing this project is that I've started to get my other half interested in Agatha Christie's writing. He was a bit reluctant at first but he's been getting into the ITV series and, earlier this year, he read his first Poirot novel. As he said in his review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he was encouraged to give Agatha Christie a go after getting hooked on the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None and reading Christie's novel straight afterwards.

Now, as well as being the long-suffering husband of a woman who obsessively her thoughts about Poirot stories, my other half is also a very talented musician and composer. And he's just written his first track inspired by Agatha Christie's writing! So... please enjoy... 'Then There Were None' by Digital Front.

Poirot Project: The Plymouth Express (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 20th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘The Mystery of the Plymouth Express’), which was first published in The Sketch in April 1923.

In the grand scheme of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is a bit of an oddity. As with a number of her early Poirot stories, Christie revised, expanded and republished ‘The Plymouth Express’ into a novel (The Mystery of the Blue Train) a few years later. In the same way ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ became ‘Murder in the Mews’, ‘The Submarine Plans’ became ‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ became ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ became ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and ‘The Second Gong’ became ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. Two posthumously published short stories reveal the origins of two other Poirot novels: Dumb Witness began life as ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’, and Dead Man’s Folly started out as ‘Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly’. (And that’s not even to mention ‘The Regatta Mystery’ and ‘The Yellow Iris’, which were expanded and rewritten to replace Poirot with a different detective.) The TV series is relatively consistently with how it treats these doppelganger stories – on the whole, the series uses the later (longer) version of the story as its basis. The only exceptions to this are ‘The Yellow Iris’ (where the earlier version is adapted, because that’s the version with Poirot in it), ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (which isn’t included at all) and ‘The Plymouth Express’.

For some reason, the programme-makers decided to adapt both ‘The Plymouth Express’ and The Mystery of the Blue Train for the series. I imagine the idea was that the two stories are sufficiently different, and were adapted sufficiently far apart to feel like distinct stories (I’d disagree, perhaps, as I think the stories are no more different than ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ is from ‘Murder in the Mews’ – but at the point when ‘The Plymouth Express’ was made, I don’t think the showrunners were particularly concerned with adapting all of the novels in addition to the short stories.) So, while I would normally read both versions of a story before writing about the episode, I have restricted myself to ‘The Plymouth Express’ for this post – I’ll return to The Mystery of the Blue Train when I get to that episode.

‘The Plymouth Express’ is an oddity for another reason as well. Although this is one of the original Sketch stories – and it is narrated by Hastings – the story doesn’t begin in Poirot’s apartment, and there’s no Perusal of the Morning News. Instead, we start off in the company of a character we’ve never heard of (and who we’ll never hear from again):
‘Alec Simpson, RN, stepped from the platform at Newton Abbot into a first-class compartment of the Plymouth Express. A porter followed him with a heavy suitcase. He was about to swing it up to the rack, but the young sailor stopped him.’
We follow Simpson on his train journey for a few paragraphs, until he decides to stow his suitcase under the seat opposite:
‘“Why the devil won’t it go in?” he muttered, and hauling it out completely, he stooped down and peered under the seat…’
This opening is rather different to the other Sketch stories. It almost feels like we’ve stumbled into a thriller, and there’s something quite cinematic about it. The ellipsis serves to defer the revelation that we know is coming (he’s surely found a body under the seat), and instead we’re simply told that ‘a cry rang out into the night’ and the train drew to a halt.

Cut to:

Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and the detective tells his friend that he’s received a note from a Mr Ebenezer Halliday, the father of Mrs Rupert Carrington – née Flossie Halliday – who wants to engage the services of the great detective. As this is a short story (and the Sketch stories are really rather short), the connections are made quickly. Flossie Halliday was the woman found murdered on the Plymouth Express; she was apparently murdered for the valuable jewel case she was carrying on the train. Ebenezer Halliday is ‘the steel king of America’, and Rupert Carrington is ‘a good-looking, well-mannered, utterly unscrupulous young scoundrel’ (and not the first scoundrel to whom Flossie has been attracted, as her previous flirtation – with the Count de la Rochefour – is described as a ‘bad affair’ by Poirot).

Despite its somewhat cinematic opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ is, at its heart, a classic Sketch story… and a very enjoyable one at that. The puzzle is good, and the resolution relies on a subversion of the rules of Golden Age detective fiction – and the culprit is cut from a different cloth to the usual Christie baddie. It’s not Christie’s most audacious rule-breaking, but it’s a notable one. Along with the story’s somewhat unorthodox opening, ‘The Plymouth Express’ gives a little taste of Christie’s occasional forays into thriller writing, though it’s definitely wearing in a ‘whodunit’ wrapper.

Wealthy heiress Flossie Carrington – now estranged from her husband – had boarded the Plymouth Express with the intention of attending a party in Bristol. She was travelling with her maid Jane Mason. However, at Bristol, Flossie announced to Mason that she would not be alighting. She told her maid to get off the train and wait at Bristol – she would travel back on an up-train and meet her later. Mason explained later that she saw a man sitting in her mistress’s carriage (though she didn’t see his face). At Weston, Flossie stepped out of the train to buy a couple of magazines. By Newton Abbot, she was dead. Was her husband responsible? Or was it the shady Count de la Rochefour? Or could it have been someone we barely even noticed?

While the story might be a little different to the other Sketch stories, there’s still plenty of the usual stuff as well. The story is narrated by Hastings, though he is a little less conspicuous than in some other stories. The dynamic duo is joined by Inspector Japp, and there are some little interactions between the policeman and the detective that are rather charming. Japp greets Poirot ‘with a sort of affectionate contempt’, but seems more than happy to work with his ‘old friend’. Later on, when Poirot (with seemingly miraculous insight) deduces that the victim spoke to a paper-boy at Weston station, Japp is mystified:
‘Japp’s jaw fell. “How on earth did you know? Don’t tell me it was those almighty ‘little grey cells’ of yours!”
“I am glad you admit for once that they are all mighty!”’
Japp’s praise is a bit back-handed, though, as he makes a couple of rather barbed references to Poirot’s advancing years:
‘Wonderful how you manage to deliver the goods sometimes, at your age and all. Devil’s own luck, of course.’
It’s quite sweet the way that Poirot takes all of this with a sort of twinkling good humour, and the story concludes with the little Belgian allowing his Scotland Yard pal to take full credit for solving the mystery (with the cheeky caveat that, while Japp has ‘official credit’, Poirot ‘as the Americans say, ha[s] got his goat!’)

One final little detail about the short story… while some of the other Sketch stories (like ‘The Veiled Lady’ and ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ make light-hearted reference to the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Plymouth Express’ sees Poirot make a more pointed swipe at his illustrious predecessor. When talking to Halliday about Flossie’s relationship with the count, Poirot comments:
‘But to track footmarks and recognize cigarette-ash is not sufficient for a detective. He must also be a good psychologist!’
The mention of ‘cigarette-ash’ is surely a dig at Sherlock Holmes – who, in The Study in Scarlet, talks rather haughtily about his ability to ‘distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand’, adding that he once wrote a monograph on the very subject. Clearly, Poirot isn’t impressed.

So… on to the TV version of ‘The Plymouth Express’…

The episode was written by Rod Beacham and directed by Andrew Piddington. Like most of the third series, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation with embellishments, rather than more dramatic alterations, to Christie’s story.

One of the main changes is that we see Flossie before her death. The episode opens with Rupert Carrington (played by Julian Wadham) arriving at his (ex-)wife’s apartment. It’s clear from the start that he’s a bit of a wrong ’un, and he suffers a rather high-handed dismissal from Flossie (Shelagh McLeod). Next, we see the Comte de la Rochefour (Alfredo Michelson) arriving at a hotel – and, to be honest, it’s pretty clear that he’s a wrong ’un too. But Flossie seems to like him.

Shelagh McLeod’s portrayal of Flossie is interesting. The woman is confident – almost veering towards arrogant at times – and utterly self-assured. Unlike the character from Christie’s story, who is dead before we even know her name, the TV Flossie is very much alive, and we get to see her happy and enjoying her lavish social life. She revels in the attentions of the count, and we see her gleefully enumerating the flowers and gifts with which he has showered her. It’s not clear whether she has any real feelings for the man, or whether she is just toying with him because she likes his effusive way of flirting with her. Or, maybe, she’s just glad to be having some fun after separating from her hopeless (and financially dubious) husband.

There’s a scene in ‘The Plymouth Express’ that is a little bit reminiscent of one in ‘Problem at Sea’. Flossie sits in front of her mirror, gazing at her own reflection and smiling at the effect her appearance might have on the men in her life. There’s a similar moment in ‘Problem at Sea’, when Adeline Clapperton (who, interestingly, was also previously married to a man named Carrington) plucks her eyebrows and sings to herself. Adeline is also a rich woman married to unreliable (and impecunious) man, and she also seems (in my opinion anyway) justified in her occasional refusals to fund her spouse’s selfish and spoilt lifestyle. Like Flossie, Adeline also ends up dead.

However, Flossie is a bit of a different kettle of fish to Adeline Clapperton. In Christie’s short story, she is simply a victim (albeit one with slightly bad taste in men). In the TV adaptation, she lacks the stridency of Adeline and never publicly embarrasses her husband or her lover. She doesn’t talk about herself and her achievements with the same level of attention-seeking as the victim in ‘Problem at Sea’, and she’s also much younger, so her ‘mirror scene’ doesn’t have the same undertones of ‘inappropriateness’. Nevertheless, Flossie isn’t the typical sympathetic young woman of the Poirot stories either: she is bolder, more independent, more self-possessed. I like her.

Throughout the episode, Poirot is sympathetic to the victim. In the short story, the detective describes the dead woman as a ‘poor little lady’, but this description isn’t really appropriate for the TV character. Instead, we see Poirot’s determined quest to get justice for the woman – or, rather, to allow her grieving father to see justice done.

The TV version of Halliday (played by John Stone) is now an Australian millionaire (and is now called Gordon, rather than Ebenezer). He consults with the famous detective as soon as his daughter is missing, and Poirot seems to feel a particular desire to help the distraught man. I assume this is because the man isn’t British – and Poirot has declared his loyalty to ‘the visitors’ on a number of previous occasions. It is for Halliday that Poirot exerts his little grey cells, and it is the comprehension of the man’s grief that makes for a rather downbeat ending to the episode.

Characterization aside, the episode mainly follows the original short story. Quite a few minor little details from Christie’s text have been retained – e.g. Flossie’s distinctive ‘electric blue’ travelling outfit (though she loses her white fur toque in the adaptation) and the significance of the newspaper-boy (played by Steven Mackintosh). The newspaper misdirection is expanded upon in the TV episode, with the magazines substituted for a ‘late edition’ of a paper and a cryptic comment about the edition’s significance added. Unlike in the Sketch story, Poirot actually appears to be fooled (briefly) by this false lead, and spends a bit of time comparing early and late editions to work it out. This does allow for one of my favourite little details of the episode: we get a nice shot of Miss Lemon carrying a stack of newspapers into the office, and guess which one’s right on the top…

Okay... this isn't quite right, as Christie's story was published in the Sketch (an illustrated magazine), and this is the Daily Sketch (a tabloid newspaper), but it's still pretty close!

Poirot is joined in his investigation by Japp and Hastings – nice to see Japp back after his absence in the previous episode – and the pair of them seem to be embroiled in a bit of a scuffle to be ‘Watson’. There’s a great scene where Japp and Hastings quarrel over their respective theories (Japp thinks Carrington is the murderer, but Hastings is convinced it’s de la Rochefour); Poirot calmly arbitrates between the two, allowing them to explain their position and encouraging each to try and persuade the other – before stone cold proving that they’re both wrong.

Earlier in the episode, we’re also treated to another funny Hastings-the-detective moment. When discussing the theft of the jewel case by the murderer, Hastings postulates:
‘Well… perhaps he took it to distract us from his real motive.’
This is funny because, in almost every other Agatha Christie story, this would be a very astute suggestion. But, in typical fashion, Hastings manages to make this pronouncement in the one story where the theft of the jewel case is the real motive. Poor old Hastings.

Now… about that motive…

I like the ending of Christie’s short story, as it’s a bit of a twist. We’re not supposed to suspect servants in Golden Age detective fiction, so Jane Mason almost manages to sneak under the radar. And it’s quite nice that her associate (the wonderfully named Red Narky) is nabbed by Japp, who discovers him while conducting exactly the sort of mundane police work that Poirot isn’t able to do (Japp has been doing a check of pawn shops to see if any of the jewels are hocked).

In the adaptation, Poirot is similarly able to spot that Jane Mason (played by Marion Bailey – who does an impressive job of fading into the background until the final scenes) is guilty. In this version of the story, though, he is also able to identify her accomplice. He finds the (less wonderfully named) Mr McKenzie (Kenneth Haigh) in ‘the admirable files of Miss Lemon’, and sets up a sting operation of his own.

And this is where my only criticism of the episode lies. Poirot chooses not to wear a disguise when he visits McKenzie. Now, in ‘The Lost Mine’, Christie made it quite clear that Poirot disdains disguise; however, the TV series has featured a memorably ‘incognito’ Poirot in a previous episode. And yet, in this episode, he visits the jewel thief looking and acting more Poirot than he’s ever done before. That seems a little bit foolish, no?

Worse still… McKenzie doesn’t even recognize him!

In ‘The Veiled Lady’, we saw two jewel thieves (Gertie and Joey) who were so familiar with the great Hercule Poirot that they even hired himself themselves. Even more egregiously, in the episode just before ‘The Plymouth Express’, Poirot was caught on camera during the Movietone news reports of the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage, in which he was described as ‘Europe’s most famous detective’. Has McKenzie been living under a rock or something? How can he not recognize the great Hercule Poirot!

Ah well… naïve jewel thieves aside, this is a great episode based on a very enjoyable short story. It does end on a rather sad note, as Poirot is clearly affected by the grief of the man who hired him. More so than in previous episodes, Poirot seems a bit weighed down by the implications of his adventures. The adaptation ends, not with a cheeky jibe at Japp, but with Poirot reading a poignant note from Halliday, in which the man talks about returning to Australia and attempting to come to terms with the tragedy. Miss Lemon and Hastings respond with respectful silence, and the final shot of the episode is of Poirot standing alone in the adjoining room, his movements slowing winding down to a freeze-frame.

This sombre ending gives us a hint of the tonal shift that the series will undergo later in its run, but for now it’s a momentary image of the detective’s more empathetic side. Only momentary, though, as the next episode has a final shot that is almost the complete opposite (and it has Peter Capaldi dressed as a clown).

But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s start at the beginning and look at ‘Wasps’ Nest’ in more detail…