Thursday, 18 August 2016
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.
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.
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!”Japp’s praise is a bit back-handed, though, as he makes a couple of rather barbed references to Poirot’s advancing years:
“I am glad you admit for once that they are all mighty!”’
‘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…
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…
Friday, 5 August 2016
Tuesday, 2 August 2016
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 ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The second episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 13th January 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in May 1923.
After moving around a bit for the last two episodes (The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published earlier, and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ later), we’re back on the familiar territory of the Sketch short stories, with our faithful chronicler Hastings describing another of the cases he worked on with his friend Poirot. And – even more familiar territory – the story begins with Hastings’s Perusal of the Morning News:
‘“What a number of bond robberies there have been lately!” I observed one morning, laying aside the newspaper. “Poirot, let us forsake the science of detection, and take to crime instead!”’Sadly, this isn’t the beginning of a new career for Poirot and Hastings, as the jokey conversation about bond robberies and ocean liners that follows is soon interrupted by their landlady, who ushers in a new client (landlady, dear, not housekeeper). Miss Esmée Farquhar has come to ask Poirot to help her fiancé, Philip Ridgeway, the man implicated in the very bond robbery they were just discussing. The men agree to take the case and hurry away to interview Ridgeway over lunch at the Cheshire Cheese.
The puzzle is a neat one. Ridgeway was entrusted with a million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds by the London and Scottish Bank. The bank wanted to extend their credit in America, and so had decided to ship the bonds over the Atlantic; Ridgeway travelled to New York with the valuable cargo on the Olympia (one of the ocean liners of which Poirot and Hastings seem so enamoured at the beginning of the story). The bonds were sealed in a package, then placed in a portmanteau with a special lock (a unique lock with three keys – one given to Ridgeway, the other two held by the bank’s managers, Mr Shaw and Mr Vavasour). Although every care appears to be taken, disaster strikes – shortly before the boat docks, Ridgeway discovers the portmanteau has been opened and the bonds taken. Within half an hour of the Olympia’s arrival in New York, brokers reported that the bonds were being offered for sale.
And yet… Ridgeway discovered the bonds were missing before the ship docked and, as a result, all passengers were searched on landing. The ship was also searched ‘with a toothcomb’. The bulky package of bonds had disappeared into thin air. Scratches on the case suggest that someone originally tried to force the lock, but it was eventually just opened with the key. But how is that possible? Ridgeway’s key remained on his person at all times, and the other two keys were in a safe at the London and Scottish Bank, accessible only to Mr Vavasour (Ridgeway’s uncle) and Mr Shaw (who has been away from the bank due to severe bronchitis). And even if the thief had somehow managed to get hold of one of the keys, why did they try to force the lock first?
These questions are the heart of the puzzle. Like many of the Sketch stories – which are all quite short – we aren’t presented with a large cast of suspects like in the novels. Instead, we have a little brainteaser that requires some lateral thinking. The brevity of the form means that every seemingly throwaway line (‘One broker swears he bought some of them even before the Olympia got in.’) is a clue to the solution.
Poirot knows what this all means. After interviewing all the relevant people, he has a little chat with Hastings (which feels a bit like he’s addressing the reader as well):
‘“No, I am disappointed in the case – it is too easy!”This is a pretty standard feature of detective fiction – bizarrely early in the narrative, the detective will announce that he/she has worked it all out (or almost all of it) but they can’t yet reveal the solution. It’s a narrative conceit intended to indicate to readers that they have now received all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle (and to remind them that they might need to go back and think about the implications of everything they’ve seen). Most detectives do this at some point (Sherlock Holmes does it, Miss Marple does it, even Jonathan Creek does it), and it’s usually explained away with a wave of the hand (‘I don’t know how to prove it yet.’ ‘I don’t want to alert the culprit until I have more evidence.’)
“Yes, do you not find it almost childishly simple?”’
But, on this occasion, the detective is just being a plain and simple show off. When Hastings asks his friend why he doesn’t just reveal the solution, Poirot (almost breaking the fourth wall here) says:
‘As to why I wait – eh bien, to the intelligence of Hercule Poirot the case is perfectly clear, but for the benefit of others, not so greatly gifted by the good God – the Inspector McNeil, for instance – it would be as well to make a few inquiries to establish the facts. One must have consideration for those less gifted than oneself.’Inspector McNeil is the Japp-substitute in this case, but one feels like Poirot might be referring to someone other than the hapless policeman. Is his hesitation for the benefit of Hastings? Or the reader? His friend is not impressed with this:
‘Good Lord, Poirot! Do you know, I’d give a considerable sum of money to see you make a thorough ass of yourself – just for once. You’re so confoundedly conceited!’To be fair, Hastings has got a point.
Once those of us who are ‘less gifted’ catch up, the solution is revealed, and it’s a satisfying one. I know some people might be a little concerned that Christie’s answer relies on a fact that hasn’t previously been revealed (which is a big no-no in Golden Age detective fiction). But I quite like it – it’s not that the fact wasn’t revealed, it’s that the possibility of its existence simply didn’t cross our minds. Poirot tells us the bonds can’t be sent by wireless, and transatlantic air travel is in its infancy – so what can possibly travel between Liverpool and New York quicker than a boat?*
‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ is a great short story, which does exactly what you’d expect from the form. Let’s see how the adaptation measures up…
The episode was directed by Andrew Grieve and written by Anthony Horowitz. This is the first of eleven episodes dramatized by Horowitz and, as you might expect from the man who created Foyle’s War (which is another favourite of mine), the adaptation is very good. It follows the short story closely, with a few expansions and additions that enhance, rather than change, Christie’s narrative.
We begin in Threadneedle Street (mentioned in Christie’s story), watching financiers scurry through the London rain to their respective establishments. Among the commuters are Mr Shaw (played by David Quilter) and Mr Vavasour (played by Ewan Hooper), the managers of the London and Scottish Bank. Their regular walk to work is disrupted, however, as a car swerves towards Shaw and almost runs him down.
This dramatic opening gives way to a familiar scene: Poirot and Hastings are in their apartment, and Hastings is perusing the morning news. As the robbery hasn’t yet taken place, the conversation about their potential life of crime is dropped; however, like his literary counterpart, Hastings is rather fascinated by the paper’s description of an ocean liner. Poirot (as in the story) announces that his seasickness would prevent him from taking a trip on such a vessel, but he seems far more disdainful of boats in general than in Christie’s text. In the 1923 story, Poirot imagines ‘dreamily’ what pleasure he could have if only he wasn’t afflicted with the mal de mer; Suchet’s Poirot translates this into a slightly grumpier assessment of the perils of the sea, explaining to Hastings that, since he crossed the channel ‘twenty years ago’, he has had a deep aversion to sea voyages of any kind. (It would be churlish to point out that – in the TV chronology – Poirot has already travelled to Rhodes and taken a cruise around Egypt, both for recreational purposes.)
The first big change to the story is the way in which Poirot is brought into the case. In this version, it is Vavasour and Shaw who contact the detective, rather than Esmée Farquhar (renamed, for some reason, Esmee Dalgleish in the episode). Poirot isn’t asked to investigate the theft, but rather asked to accompany the bonds to America to prevent a theft. As you can imagine, Hastings is over the moon about this.
Poirot’s employment by Vavasour and Shaw before the crime means that we get to see some of the background to the case with our own eyes (rather than it simply being described after the fact). We see Ridgeway (played by Oliver Parker) and Esmee (Natalie Ogle), and discover that he is a young man with some money problems (unlike the impeccable character in Christie’s story). Suspicion is immediately thrown on Ridgeway as it’s discovered that he owned a car of the same make as the one that was driven at Shaw in the opening sequence (a Singer). The young man insists that he sold the car because it wouldn’t start properly – a story that Hastings immediately reveals as a lie, since the Singer is known for its ‘brand new ignition system’. For once, Poirot is forced to bow to his associate’s superior knowledge.
We’re then shown the security measures to be taken to protect the bonds. Inspector McNeil is replaced by Mr McNeil (played by Paul Young), the head of security at the London and Scottish. Interestingly, the removal of the original policeman isn’t to make room for Japp, as this is one of the few early episodes that doesn’t feature the inspector at all. Instead, the role is altered because, at this point, no crime has taken place. McNeil simply reveals the precautions taken to secure the bonds for their transatlantic journey (which, as in the story, involve a unique lock and three closely-guarded keys).
Another important change to the story is that Ridgeway is no longer the first choice of courier. It is Shaw himself who is meant to be making the journey to the States. Not long before the voyage – disaster! Someone slips a dose of strychnine into Shaw’s coffee – he survives, but he’s too ill to travel with the bonds. Ridgeway is going to have to go in his place.
(A little aside… I love the scene in which Shaw gets the poisoned coffee. I’ve never seen a tea-lady push a trolley up a corridor with more sense of menace.)
It’s now time for the much-anticipated sea voyage. Poirot collects together the necessary equipment to survive the ordeal.
This is a little bit of a departure from Christie’s fiction. Poirot’s seasickness is something that is mentioned several times in the short stories, but he doesn’t resort to patent medicines to survive it. In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot copes with crossing the channel by employing ‘Laverguier’s system’ (‘You breathe in – and out – slowly, so – turning the head from left to right and counting six between each breath.’) In the 1923 version of ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’ (published the week after ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’), the detective explains that, while this might be fine for traversing la Manche, it won’t work for transatlantic sailings (because of ‘the difficulty of practising the so excellent method of Laverguier for a longer time than the few hours of crossing the Channel’). This will also be his remedy on the voyage to France in Murder on the Links. By ‘Problem at Sea’ (published thirteen years later), he seems to be able to survive longer journeys, but still has to spend some evenings in his cabin (‘I detest la mer.’). He doesn’t mention Laverguier’s system here, but he doesn’t mention medicine either.
Now, I can sort of see why the programme-makers added Poirot’s medicine chest to the episode. Christie had her detective build up from Channel sailings (in 1916, presumably, and then again before the end of WWI, before a couple of trips in 1923), to continental train journeys (in 1928 and 1934) that would necessarily begin with boat travel, to trying to avoid the sea by flying from France to England (in 1935), before (finally) having him attempt longer sea journeys (in 1935 and 1936). After that, there’s no stopping him, and he’s off to Egypt (again), Iraq and Jerusalem. The problem for the TV series is that, having altered the order of the stories, we’ve already seen Poirot on holiday at sea before the stories in which his seasickness is an issue (although, weirdly, he denies this here and in ‘The Veiled Lady’). Given that there seems to be a desire to retain Poirot’s seasickness as a recurring characteristic, the easiest way to explain his international travel is a quick shot of a monster medicine cabinet. Problem solved.
And, for added humour, the medicine seems to work just fine. Poirot has a great time on the ocean liner… it’s Hastings who ends up bedridden with the mal de mer (you do see that one coming though).
Now… about that ocean liner…
The story has the bonds travel on the Olympia, but the TV episode puts Poirot and Hastings on the Queen Mary. This is another example of the way in which the early series weave contemporary detail into the productions. But oh! wait a minute! the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary was in May 1936, meaning that this episode takes place almost exactly a year after the previous one (which was definitively set in May 1935). This fact is confirmed when Miss Lemon and Hastings make a reference to ‘The Lost Mine’ (in which Poirot’s bank manager was arrested for murder and fraud), saying that it occurred ‘last year’. It’s a good thing I’ve given up on a logical calendar of cases, as this is the sort of thing that might drive me mad.
Poirot and Hastings’s trip on the Queen Mary is introduced with a faux-Movietone newsreel, in which the two travellers feature (a technique that has previously been used in ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’). The announcer points out ‘Europe’s most famous detective’ among the passengers (remember that – it’s important for the next episode).
The final addition to the plot is a female traveller on the Queen Mary. Miranda Brooks (Lizzy McInnerny) catches Hastings’s eye, but his seasickness prevents him from furthering their acquaintance. Poirot also notices the woman, but (of course) this is for a quite different reason.
Later in the episode, we meet Nurse Long, the woman who has been helping Shaw recover from strychnine poisoning. Is there something a bit familiar about this woman? Hmmm…
Now, I’m in two minds about the Miranda Brooks/Nurse Long character. I understand why she’s been added to the story. In Christie’s text, Shaw himself travels in the cabin next door to Ridgeway, disguised as a nondescript ‘elderly gentleman, wearing glasses’ – his ‘bronchitis’ was simply a lie. Given that things are generally handled in more detail in the TV episode, a convenient case of bronchitis (which no one thought to check) would have been too suspicious. Instead, Shaw needed to be more definitely put out of action, and a substitute sent in his place. This substitute had to be a close accomplice of Shaw’s, so what better than a girlfriend.
So there’s nothing wrong with Miranda Brooks’s existence, but I just can’t decide what I think about her disguise. When Poirot meets her on the Queen Mary, her American accent is absolutely atrocious. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the character isn’t meant to be American – let’s be honest, there are some shocking accents on the show that aren’t meant to be suspicious (Mrs Vanderlyn, anyone?) No, my issue is more with her appearance as Nurse Long. Even if I hadn’t seen Miranda Brooks, I would’ve been suspicious of Nurse Long – she’s so obviously in disguise. No one in Poirot looks that frumpy and plain unless they’re deliberately trying to be anonymous (and there’s a particularly egregious example of this coming up later in the series).
Maybe I’m alone in this assessment though, as my husband didn’t spot that she was wearing a disguise, and I’ve seen some reviews of the episode that praised the success of Miranda’s transformation. And whatever the viewers think, the disguise certainly fooled Hastings, as he is blown away by the revelation. Discovering that Miranda and Nurse Long are the same person seems to push the man into some sort of existential crisis. When his concerned friend asks him the cause of his anxiety, the poor baffled man replies: ‘If a woman can do that one way, she can do it the other!’ Pauvre Hastings!
Overall, then, this a great episode. It stays close to the original story, and adds some little flourishes that enhance the TV characters we’ve come to know and love. The only thing missing is the good Chief Inspector Japp, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be back again soon.
On to the next episode: ‘The Plymouth Express’
* Answer: a faster boat
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 ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and the last review was of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The first episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 6th January 1991, following the pattern set by the first two series of beginning a new set of stories immediately after Christmas. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in the Ladies’ Home Journal (in the US) and The Strand (in the UK) in 1935.
As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ is a significant story in the Poirot canon, as it is the first to introduce the detective’s confidential secretary, Miss Lemon. This raises two interesting issues when rereading the stories in the adaptation (rather than publication) sequence: (1) there are significant differences between the character in Christie’s fiction and the TV character of the same name; and (2) Miss Lemon has already appeared in sixteen episodes of the TV show at this point, so ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ no longer represents her introduction. In my opinion, the adaptation offers an interesting (though subtle) solution to these issues, but more on that below.
First, I want to say a little something about Christie’s short story.
The story (written in third person, as Hastings is no longer our chronicler by this point) begins with Hercule Poirot in his flat, reading through his correspondence. Among his ‘neat pile’ of letters is a note from Amelia Barrowby requesting a ‘strictly private’ consultation about a ‘delicate family matter’. Poirot is clearly intrigued by the note, but he wants a second opinion. Fortunately, one of his employees is in the next room…
Here’s the first introduction to Poirot’s new ‘Watson’:
‘At ten o’clock precisely he entered the room where Miss Lemon, his confidential secretary, sat awaiting her instructions for the day. Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself, and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.’From the start, then, Poirot’s relationship with Miss Lemon is on very different terms to his relationship with Hastings. Technically, it’s an employer-employee relationship, with Miss Lemon waiting to receive ‘instructions’ from Poirot at the beginning of each day. And yet it’s also, in some ways, a more apt relationship, as Miss Lemon embodies the precision and ‘passion for order’ that Poirot often lamented was missing from Hastings. Like Poirot, Miss Lemon reveals an awareness of the need to treat each potential client according to their individual personalities – when Poirot asks her to write some refusals ‘couched in correct terms’, Miss Lemon annotates each with a coded acknowledgement of the ‘correct terms’ to use for each: ‘[s]oft soap’, ‘slap in the face’, ‘curt’, etc. (And it’s interesting that these are all approaches Poirot will take himself with unwanted clients – from his ‘perfect politeness’ in letting down the Home Secretary in Peril at End House, his brutal ‘I do not like your face, Mr Ratchett’ in Murder on the Orient Express, to his quickly regretted curtness to Mrs Todd in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ – suggesting that Miss Lemon knows almost instinctively how her boss likes to do business.)
And, although she never gets to be a narrator like Hastings, we do get to a little glimpse into the mind of Poirot’s new associate near the beginning of the story. When Poirot asks for Miss Lemon’s opinion on Amelia Barrowby’s letter, she isn’t particularly pleased to be asked:
‘Very occasionally her employer appealed to her human, as opposed to her official, capacities. It slightly annoyed Miss Lemon when he did so – she was very nearly the perfect machine, completely and gloriously uninterested in all human affairs. Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night. Nevertheless, Miss Lemon was perfectly capable of intelligence on purely human matters, as Hercule Poirot well knew.’This description of Poirot’s ‘perfect machine’ is ostensibly at odds with the earlier descriptions of his old friend Hastings. At first glance, it seems that Miss Lemon has been introduced as the polar opposite of her predecessor. However, there are little signs that she isn’t quite as different as she appears. In particular, we very quickly discover that Miss Lemon isn’t above criticizing her employer and his affectations (albeit with less humour than Hastings). Christie shows this by continuing to reveal little bits of Miss Lemon’s thoughts throughout ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ Just a few lines after the ‘perfect machine’ description, Poirot makes one of his characteristic comical-broken-English statements, and we are told: ‘Miss Lemon, who considered that Poirot had been long enough in Great Britain to understand its slang terms, did not reply.’ With that, Miss Lemon slips subtly into a role that Hastings had occasionally occupied: the voice of dissent against the little Belgian’s more exaggerated mannerisms (and, in this example, her consideration is surely shared by the reader who raises an eyebrow every time Poirot mangles an expression he must have heard a hundred times since arriving in England two decades ago).
Despite the fact that it’s only a short story, Christie really develops a sense of Poirot and Miss Lemon’s relationship in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ It’s done with a light touch, a sense of gentle humour (mostly directed at her detective), and an awareness of fans’ fondness for the Poirot-and-Hastings (for some later fans, Poirot/Hastings) relationship. In her autobiography, Christie was somewhat brusque about her decision to get rid of her original ‘Watson’ character, stating: ‘Truth to tell, I think I was getting a little tired of him. I might be stuck with Poirot, but no need to be stuck with Hastings too.’ Fans of Christie’s work are familiar with the perennial narrative (partly perpetuated by these throwaway authorial comments) that the author couldn’t stand her detective creation – and I’ll come back to this more when I start thinking about Ariadne Oliver – but there’s a bit of a disjunction between what Christie said about her characters and the affectionate way they come across in the books. Either Christie was prone to exaggerating her irritation with the little egg-shaped Belgian (and, again, Ariadne Oliver springs to mind here), or she took great pains to respect her fans’ fondness for the characters in her writing. I like to believe it’s the latter, and this seems to be the case in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’
In this story, Christie is, in fact, attempting to replace her popular ‘Watson’ with a new unknown character. A writer less in tune with her readers might have simply swept Hastings under the carpet, never to be mentioned again, and focused on Miss Lemon. However, what we have here is a playful piece of reflection on the different ‘Watsons’ in Poirot’s career, which results in some light teasing of the detective himself.
Miss Lemon is everything that Poirot wanted Hastings to be. She lives for ‘order and method’ – she even dreams about it at night – and she doesn’t bother herself with the frivolity of human life that so excited Hastings (to the exacerbation of Poirot). There’s a little detail offered near the beginning to show how perfect Miss Lemon is for Poirot. After Poirot responds to Miss Barrowby’s request but receives no answer, Miss Lemon spots the announcement of the woman’s death in the newspaper and brings it to her employer’s attention (a much more business-like use of the newspapers than his old friend’s Perusal of the Morning News). Miss Lemon tells him that she ‘saw it in the tube and tore it out’, but Poirot’s mind registers ‘approval of the fact that, though Miss Lemon used the word “tore”, she had neatly cut the entry with scissors’. Surely this is the sidekick Poirot has been dreaming of ever since he fell out with Hastings over a cup of cocoa.
But no… Poirot’s approval quickly dissipates as he discovers the limits of Miss Lemon’s ability (or willingness) to play Watson. As he muses on the case of Miss Amelia Barrowby, Poirot attempts to get his associate to hypothesize on the psychology of the participants. He asks her to imagine she is in the situation of the prime suspect, and Miss Lemon isn’t pleased:
‘Miss Lemon dropped her hands into her lap in a resigned manner. She enjoyed typing, paying bills, filing papers and entering up engagements. To be asked to imagine herself in hypothetical situations bored her very much, but she accepted it as a disagreeable part of a duty.’She offers Poirot monosyllabic responses to his questions, which annoys the detective. Eventually, he gives up:
‘Poirot sighed. “How I miss my friend Hastings. He had such imagination. Such a romantic mind! It is true that he always imagined wrong – but that in itself was a guide.”’Miss Lemon is unmoved by this nostalgia, and simply ‘looked longingly at the typewritten sheet in front of her’. This isn’t the first time Poirot has expressed his fondness for Hastings’s ‘romantic mind’, or the extent to which he misses it when it’s not there: he said something similar in Peril at End House after being forced to solve The Mystery of the Blue Train with his valet George because Hastings was in South America. Christie might have been happy to jettison Hastings, but her detective never really shared her enthusiasm for his friend’s departure.
Before I move on to the TV adaptation, I should say a little bit about the mystery in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ As I’ve said, Poirot receives a letter from an older woman named Amelia Barrowby. She is concerned about ‘a very delicate family matter’, and would like Poirot to investigate – with an assurance of confidentiality and privacy. Readers might note some similarity here with Mrs Pengelley’s tentative enquiries at the beginning of ‘The Cornish Mystery’, and so, when Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby died shortly after writing to Poirot, it’s not a massive leap (for the detective and the reader) to presume foul play.
Poirot travels to Charman’s Green in Buckinghamshire to investigate (cheekily ignoring a letter from Miss Barrowby’s niece declaring that ‘the matter […] is no longer of importance’). The significance of the story’s title is revealed when Poirot sees the house’s English country garden:
‘Rose trees that promised a good harvest later in the year, and at present daffodils, early tulips, blue hyacinths – the last bed was partly edged with shells.’The other members of the household are quickly revealed as Miss Barrowby’s niece Mary Delafontaine, Mary’s husband Henry, and Katrina, a ‘half-Russian’ girl who worked as a ‘kind of nurse-attendant’ to the old woman. When the local police (in the form of Inspector Sims, ‘a big, burly man with a hearty manner’) confirm death by strychnine poisoning, the three become suspects.
Katrina’s foreignness is stressed on a number of occasions, with Henry bluntly suggesting that his aunt-by-marriage had concerns about ‘Bolshies, Reds, all that sort of thing’. Mary is a sensible English housewife, whose main preoccupation is gardening – to the extent that she has almost started to physically resemble her garden, with her eyes that are the colour of forget-me-nots. If you’re familiar with your Christie, it’s pretty obvious whodunit here. Spoiler alert: it isn’t the foreign person.
A bigger mystery – as is often the case – is how the poison was administered, given that Miss Barrowby ate the same food as her family. There’s a Christie favourite in the form of potentially poisonous medicine (this time a ‘cachet’ administered by Katrina), and then a suspicious packet of strychnine found in the girl’s bedroom. But the real clue has, of course, been on display the entire time.
Aside from the introduction of Miss Lemon, the story has some nice touches. As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it is Poirot’s quirky obsession with symmetry and order that allows him to spot the giveaway clue. And the detective’s attitude towards the young Russian woman is also pleasantly characteristic. While all manner of suspicion is heaped upon her, Poirot repeatedly draws attention to the girl’s vulnerability and isolation: ‘I do not think she has any friends.’ He then modifies this: ‘I was wrong […] She has one.’ After (obviously) exonerating Katrina, Poirot announces the identity of this friend: ‘Me!’ This reminds us of Poirot’s regular alliance with immigrants and foreigners, including his bold statement of ‘Me, I am all for the visitors!’ at the end of ‘Double Sin’.
So… time to move on to the TV episode…
The adaptation was written by Andrew Marshall and directed by Brian Farnham. Adapting ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ poses an immediate challenge within the context of the ITV series. As I’ve already said, Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon has appeared in sixteen previous episodes at this point, and the character has been established along quite different lines to Christie’s creation (and her prototype). In addition to this, the series (at this point) is an ensemble piece, so we’re quite used to seeing Miss Lemon alongside Hastings and Japp. Obviously, Marshall couldn’t just ignore this context and translate Christie’s story directly to the screen; however, for readers familiar with the short story, it would’ve been a shame to see no acknowledgement of its significant place within the Poirot stories as a whole. I quite like the compromise position that Marshall’s adaptation strikes.
While the episode does feature Hastings and Japp, it’s notable for being a bit more Miss Lemon-heavy than previous episodes. Miss Lemon is the member of the gang most likely to be absent from the early series (Pauline Moran appeared in 32 episodes, compared to Philip Jackson’s 40 and Hugh Fraser’s 43). She did not appear in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (as it would’ve been impossible to write her into that story), but she was also missing from ‘The King of Clubs’ (in which Poirot investigates with Japp and Hastings) and, later in this series, she will be absent again from ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Nevertheless, we’ve seen some hint of Miss Lemon’s talents for investigation: she carries out background searches in Peril at End House (undertaken by Poirot himself in Christie’s story), she goes undercover in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, and her input was pivotal in resolving the case in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’. This episode is very much in this mould, but with some added extras in honour of the original short story.
Specifically, we get to see more of Poirot and Miss Lemon working as a team. They travel to Miss Barrowby’s house together (on Poirot’s particular request) and – crucially – both observe the all-important flowerbed on their arrival. As in the short story, Poirot relies on Miss Lemon’s knowledge of tradesmen to extract relevant information from the fishmonger. And, also like in the short story, Poirot runs his hypothetical scenarios about Katrina by his secretary. In the latter case, though, there are necessary changes made. Firstly, the exchange takes place in a more convivial setting (the pair are out for coffee in a stylish establishment, rather than in Poirot’s office); secondly, Miss Lemon offers a more imaginative response than her literary counterpart. Still, the ever-so-slightly sardonic expression on her face suggests that this Miss Lemon (as in the short story) doesn’t enter into the exercise with quite the ‘romantic mind’ of Arthur Hastings.
There is another nod to the short story (and one of the bits of characterization the TV Miss Lemon shares with her counterparts in Christie’s stories), as we see the return of Miss Lemon’s filing system. When Poirot and Miss Lemon travel to Miss Barrowby’s house, they leave Hastings in Whitehaven Mansions. A certain Mr Trumper gets in touch to request payment of a bill, and Hastings (in his wisdom) decides to hunt out the relevant invoice. Towards the end of the episode, Miss Lemon returns to find her precious filing system in disarray. Her fury reminds us that there is one thing all versions of Miss Lemon share: their ‘real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system’.
I did warn you what would happen if Poirot let Miss Lemon out into the field!
Before I move on to the rest of the story, there are a couple more details about Miss Lemon that are revealed in the course of this episode. We discover that she is a lot more aware of her employer’s affectations than Hastings is. At the beginning of the episode, Poirot (who has been exhibiting slightly odd behaviour – more on that shortly) locks himself in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time. Miss Lemon and Hastings ponder over this new eccentricity:
Miss Lemon (with a note of mischief): ‘Perhaps he’s dyeing his hair.’I don’t want to say for certain that Poirot dyes his hair – but it is a rather suspiciously perfect shade of black, which is (and will remain for some time) mysteriously devoid of grey. This little exchange makes it seem like Miss Lemon is a bit more worldly – and a bit more aware of Poirot’s vanities – than his hapless old friend.
Hastings: ‘But… he’s a man.’
The second little nugget comes when Poirot and Miss Lemon begin to investigate the death of Miss Barrowby. Rather thsn hearing the information from a local policeman (whose appearance is removed in order to leave a space for Japp), Poirot goes to the pathologist (played by John Rogan) with Japp in order to discover the cause of death. And he takes his secretary along with him. The men are politely concerned about the poor woman’s sensibilities, but she brushes aside their anxiety:
Miss Lemon: ‘I did help in the hospital morgue during the war.’It’s a nice piece of backstory to her character, which goes some way to explain her lack of discomfort when filing away details of her employer’s grislier cases. Poirot’s teasing reply reminds us that, in the Poirot and Parker Pyne short stories, Miss Lemon was a pretty formidable woman.
Poirot: ‘Not fighting, Miss Lemon?’
Miss Lemon: ‘Mr Poirot!’
Reluctantly, I should probably move on from Miss Lemon and talk about the rest of the episode. The adaptation begins with Poirot visiting the Mayfair establishment of Mr Trumper, hairdresser and perfumer, to purchase a new cologne. This is Poirot at his most dandyish – dare I say, foppish? – and there’s almost a touch of camp about his behaviour in the scene. When Mr Trumper enquires as to the reason for Poirot’s slightly giddy mood, the little Belgian cryptically replies ‘I am to become a pink rose!’, before rushing home to lock himself in the bathroom for a major preening session.
A quick aside… G.F. Trumper is a real barber and perfumer. A shop at 9 Curzon Street, Mayfair, was opened in the late nineteenth century by George Trumper, and it’s still open today (along with a second premises in Duke of York Street). The TV show used the Curzon Street shop for the scenes in which Poirot purchases his cologne, though the part of Mr Trumper was played by actor Trevor Danby. This feels like such a good find on the part of the locations team, I think they should be mentioned by name for once… well done, Scott Rowlatt and Paul Shersby!
Eventually, we discover the reason for this strange behaviour – a rose is to be named in Poirot’s honour at the RHS Flower Show. And so, the gang are all off to Chelsea! Except… poor old Hastings seems to have come down with a severe bout of hay fever (or is he allergic to some new scent in the apartment?), so he’s left home alone with Miss Lemon’s filing system. The trip to the flower show gives us two extra details. It seems we’re still in 1935, as the RHS banner informs us.
The thing is… the 1935 Chelsea Flower Show took place on the 22-24 May. Which means that the events of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ must take place before the events of ‘The Veiled Lady’ (set in July that year) and ‘The Cornish Mystery’ (set in July and August). It also means this story takes place before ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’, as that episode has Poirot, Hastings and Japp watching ‘G’ Men at the cinema, and the film wasn’t released in the UK until November 1935. Mind you, that would mean that… oh, forget it… the episodes don’t follow a logical calendar. At this point in the series, it’s just always 1935 and that’s all there is to it.
|Thank you to Carrie Lewis for providing this image|
Okay… two further asides about the naming of the rose. At the RHS show, we get to see the return of Japp-the-Botanist, as he casually remarks: ‘I would have expected you to be a polyantha rose, rather than a hybrid tea. The scent is much stronger, you know?’ While we’ll see Japp in his garden later in the series, for now this is a nice reminder of his interest in flora at the beginning of ‘The Market Basing Mystery’.
And, while there isn’t a Hercule Poirot rose, his creator did have a flower named after her in 1988 (also a ‘lightly fragrant’ pink hybrid tea). I don’t know whether the programme-makers were aware of this when writing this episode a couple of years later, but I quite like this detail.
|Agatha Christie rose - thanks to Darren Michaels for providing this picture|
The actual mystery part of the episode begins, not with an anxious letter, but with an encounter between Amelia Barrowby (Margery Mason) and the great detective. The old woman recognizes Poirot and makes it clear that she would like to talk to him. She presses a packet of seeds (‘Catherine the Great’ stocks) into his hand. (Another aside… I can’t seem to help myself today… the conversation with Amelia Barrowby leads Poirot to say: ‘One day I hope to retire to grow the vegetable marrows, but until then I have only the window box.’ Fans of Christie’s fiction will recognize this as a nod to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, making it a rare call-forward – there are very few direct references to yet-to-be-adapted stories in the series.)
By the time Poirot and Miss Lemon call on Miss Barrowby, she’s already died. From this point, the mystery unfolds in a similar way to in the short story, though there are some alterations and expansions.
Miss Barrowby was cared for by Katrina Reiger (played by Catherine Russell), who is a Russian immigrant. As in Christie’s story, this is a cause for suspicion, though it is significantly expanded from Henry’s casual talk of ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’. The other two suspects are, again, Mary Delafontaine (Anne Stallybrass) and her husband (Tim Wylton), but their motive is developed further with some shady financial dealings. This latter detail is disclosed indirectly to Poirot in an odd little sequence involving a solicitor judging a horse show and using this as a coded metaphor for the terms of Miss Barrowby’s will (which always reminds me of Arthur Wimborne’s blatantly obvious crossword ‘code’ in the BBC’s adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington). Additionally, we have the extra details of Henry Delafontaine’s secret drinking (which does lead to a funny little scene in the denouement) and the replacement of Inspector Sims with Inspector Japp (who is discovered staking out Miss Barrowby’s house). The nursery rhyme title is also underlined further with the discovery of a silver bell alongside the shells in the flowerbed.
Overall, though, these additions enhance Christie’s story, rather than change it, and several of them allow for the TV Poirot’s now-familiar traits to shine. For instance, the changes made to Katrina – no longer simply a bit ‘foreign’, she is now a refugee Russian aristocrat – means that Poirot isn’t simply protective of the girl because she is friendless, but that he is aware of the peril she may be in from the very ‘Bolshies’ and ‘Reds’ she is suspected of aiding, and he feels a kinship based on their shared refugee status. He is also able to dabble in a bit of matchmaking at the end of the episode, as he brings together Katrina and Nicholai (Peter Birch), a man who works at the Russian Embassy. And Poirot does love a bit of matchmaking.
Ultimately, though, this episode is all about Miss Lemon for me. The short story is her introduction to the Poirot canon, so it seems fitting that the TV episode lets her take centre stage. Significantly, the discovery of the all-important garden clue – that the shell border isn’t complete and so doesn’t fit with the ‘order’ of Mary’s garden – is passed from Poirot (who spots it in the short story) to Miss Lemon (who comments on it in the adaptation). This seems like a nice way of acknowledging the relationship introduced in Christie’s short story. As his literary counterpart does when he sees the neatly cut newspaper article, the TV Poirot registers his approval at Miss Lemon’s assessment of the shell border. It seems that this Miss Lemon, like Christie’s, really does have ‘a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself’.
Okay… that’s probably more than enough for this episode.
tl;dr I love Miss Lemon.
Moving on to the next episode… ‘The Million Dollar Bond Robbery’
Saturday, 11 June 2016
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 Mysterious Affair at Styles’.
I’ve said a few times that this project is going to be rather completist – I can’t watch ‘Curtain’ until I’ve rewatched all the other episodes and reread all the stories and novels. But as I approached ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, it occurred to me that, to be truly completist, I might have to dip into some of Agatha Christie’s other writing as well. You see, there are some characters in the Poirot stories who appear in non-Poirot stories as well. To do justice to the project, shouldn’t I be looking at the full careers of these characters?
As far as I remember, there are five significant characters who appear in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories: Miss Lemon, Ariadne Oliver, Mr Satterthwaite, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. (And there’s also Mr Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway from Cat Among the Pigeons – but I must confess I’d completely forgotten about these characters until I started writing this post, so I’ll have to decide what to do about them later.) My plan is to write about the ‘further adventures’ of each of these characters just before I reach the first Poirot story/novel in which they appear. In some cases (like Miss Lemon), that means writing about a character who has already appeared in the TV series; in other cases (like Superintendent Battle), it means writing about a character who doesn’t appear in the TV series at all. Interestingly, all five characters made their debuts in non-Poirot stories (either standalone novels or less well-known detective series) before entering the world of the famous Belgian sleuth, so their earlier appearances (possibly) act as backstory to their roles in the Poirot stories.
So… the first character with a backstory is Poirot’s efficient secretary Miss Lemon.
Miss Lemon (and it’s just ‘Miss’ Lemon for now – she won’t get a first name until 1955 and Hickory Dickory Dock) made her first appearance as Poirot’s secretary in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, which was first published in 1935. I’m going to talk more about that story in my next post, so for now I want to look at a couple of stories featuring Miss Lemon from 1932.
Parker Pyne Investigates was first published by William Collins in 1934. (For info, I’m using the 1968 Pan Books edition, which I apparently bought for 29p in an Oxfam shop. As I’m sure I’ll mention in some future posts, I worked full-time in an Oxfam shop after finishing my A-Levels, and I read a lot of Christie during this time. Most of the older paperback editions I own have Oxfam prices pencilled on the first page, so I assume most of them were bought at that time.)
Parker Pyne appears in fourteen short stories by Agatha Christie – the twelve that are collected in Parker Pyne Investigates, ‘Problem at Pollensa Bay’ (published in 1935) and ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (more on that one in a later post). As a detective, he is quite a different kettle of fish to Hercule Poirot. In fact, in the first six stories in which he appears, he is hardly a ‘detective’ at all.
Parker Pyne advertises his services with a cryptic – but enticing – announcement in newspapers:
‘Are you happy? If not, consult Mr Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.’The cases he takes on in the first six stories are, then, cases of (usually domestic) unhappiness, as is clear from the titles: ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Husband’, ‘The Case of the City Clerk’ and ‘The Case of the Rich Woman’ (all first published in 1932). In each of these stories, a client comes to Pyne with a tale of unhappiness, discontent or boredom, and the consultant agrees to rectify the situation in exchange for cash (which appears to be simply to cover expenses).
Pyne’s expertise derives from a background in the civil service:
‘You see, for thirty-five years of my life I have been engaged in the compiling of statistics in a government office. Now I have retired, and it has occurred to me to use the experience I have gained in a novel fashion. It is all so simple. Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads – no more, I assure you. Once you know the cause of the malady, the remedy should not be impossible.’Some people, including whoever wrote the ‘Parker Pyne’ entry on Wikipedia (this article has multiple issues), seem to think that Pyne’s government work might have been along the same lines as that of Mycroft Holmes. I don’t see it myself. I see Pyne more as a somewhat mundane statistician, who is logical enough to be convinced of the predictability of human nature but romantic enough to meddle in domestic affairs. The first six Parker Pyne cases are quite charming, in their own way, but could hardly be called ‘mysteries’. The main appeal of these tales is the quirky consultant and, possibly more importantly, his unusual staff, rather than the cases they work on.
As an aside, the second half of Parker Pyne Investigates collects six stories published in 1933. In these stories, Pyne is travelling (without his staff) and investigates a series of more traditional ‘mysteries’. I’ll be returning to some of these stories in a (much) later blog post.
Back to the 1932 stories, obviously the most important person for the purposes of the current post is Parker Pyne’s secretary. She is introduced to us in ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’:
‘When she had gone he pressed a buzzer on his desk. A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles answered it.And that’s all we get. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young but stern, and she wears glasses. From her brief exchange with Pyne, we can see she’s brisk and efficient – and, perhaps, we can also discern a little hint of the mutual unspoken understanding that develops between Poirot and his Miss Lemon later on.
“A file, please, Miss Lemon. And you might tell Claude that I am likely to want him shortly.”
“A new client?”
“A new client. At the moment she has jibbed, but she will come back. Probably this afternoon about four. Enter her.”
“Schedule A, of course.”’
There are only two other mentions of Pyne’s secretary in any of the short stories. In ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, she’s again mentioned by name. At the story’s opening, she buzzes Pyne to inform him that a young lady wishes to see him, but that the visitor hasn’t got an appointment (Pyne agrees to see her anyway). And at the beginning of ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, when the eponymous client enters the office ‘[a] plain young woman looked up from her typewriter and glanced at him inquiringly’. I assume that this is also Miss Lemon, though she isn’t mentioned by name.
I like these two mentions of the character because, although they are very brief, we get a sense of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who’ll become more familiar in Christie’s Poirot stories. But, in addition to this, there are some nice little echoes of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who appears in the ITV adaptations. Although Miss Lemon didn’t appear in either of the source stories, the TV Miss Lemon also expresses consternation about clients who don’t have appointments or give their full names (‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Veiled Lady’), and she is frequently seen behind her typewriter, even when it doesn’t work properly (‘The Dream’). There are just enough points of similarity between Pyne’s secretary, Poirot’s secretary and the TV character for us to imagine that these are all versions of the same character.
But are they the same character? I’ll talk about the relationship between Christie’s Miss Lemon and the TV character in the next post, but how sure can we be that Pyne’s ‘Miss Lemon’ and Poirot’s ‘Miss Lemon’ are meant to be the same person?
At the beginning of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, Poirot’s confidential secretary is described for the first time:
‘Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so. […] Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night.’There are definitely some similarities between this character and the one who appears in the Parker Pyne stories. Neither of them are particularly attractive – one is ‘plain’ and ‘forbidding-looking’, the other is ‘unprepossessing’ and like ‘a lot of bones flung together’. Both are efficient and, when we see them for the first time, immersed in filing. Poirot’s secretary is described as a ‘machine’; Pyne’s secretary is professional to the point of being brusque.
But I can’t ignore the discrepancy in their ages. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young, but Poirot’s secretary is 48. The stories were only published three years apart, so can this really be the same person? (And I’ll just add that there’s no suggestion the Parker Pyne stories are set much earlier than their publication dates. In addition to all the cars, office equipment and slang that allow us to roughly date them, there’s a cute little giveaway in ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’: at the end of the story, Pyne observes a ‘gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds’ on the street. Dismal Desmond, a bizarrely popular stuffed toy of (from what I can ascertain) a bereaved dog, was created in 1926 and continued in popularity throughout the 1930s.)
|Postcard of Dismal Desmond posing with Louise Brooks, c. 1928. Thanks to Carrie Lewis for this providing this image.|
This is something that some Christie fans have pondered over. The ‘Parker Pyne’ Wikipedia page (this article has multiple issues) insists that we are meant to understand that it’s the same person, but that her work with Parker Pyne happened a number of years prior to her employment with Poirot. Personally, I think that’s looking for more consistency than is actually present. It’s really tempting to see Christie’s work as a ‘fictional universe’, in which we can discern a chronology of events and a continuity of character, but it really doesn’t work like that (unless you’re happy with the idea that Poirot doesn’t age substantially between WWI and the 1960s, while Miss Lemon ages a couple of decades in the space of two or three years).
Instead of thinking of Pyne’s Miss Lemon as a younger version of the same character, I prefer to think of her as a prototype for the character that appears in the Poirot novels. Clearly something about the ‘forbidding-looking young woman’ stuck in Christie’s imagination and led her to give the character another outing (albeit in a somewhat different guise) – and one in which the character is more developed and fleshed out (even, twenty years later, acquiring a first name and a sister). Of course, this also suggests that Christie thought the character worked better as an older woman, as it’s as a middle-aged spinster that Miss Lemon really takes form. I find this very interesting, as it seems to imply that Christie saw more scope for developing an interesting older female character (and a spinster too... quelle surprise).
Significantly, this is not the only minor or incidental female character from a Parker Pyne novel who is revisited and developed further in the Poirot stories. Of course, there’s Ariadne Oliver (who actually got her own novel before entering the world of the great Belgian detective). However, there is another, less sympathetic woman (who I actually quite like) from a Poirot story who has her prototype in a Parker Pyne story… but that, mon ami, is a post for another day.
This post has been about Miss Lemon’s background. In the next post, I’m going to look at the first Poirot story in which she appears, but also write a bit more about the relationship between Christie’s character and the character portrayed by Pauline Moran in the ITV series.
On to ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ then. And would the real Felicity Lemon please stand up?
Monday, 6 June 2016
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 last review was of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and the previous post was a guest post about The Mysterious Affair at Styles by a newly converted fan.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel. It was first published as an eighteen-part serial in The Weekly Times (the colonial edition of The Times) between February and June 1920. The final instalment of the story included an advert for a full edition, to be published by John Lane in the US. The novel was published in the US in October 1920, and then by Bodley Head in the UK in early 1921. According to the dust jacket of the first edition, the book was the result of a bet. Agatha Christie had wagered that she could write a detective novel in which the reader would be unable to spot the murderer, despite being given exactly the same clues as the detective. The blurb also asserted that, not only had she won the bet, she had also introduced ‘a new type of detective’ in the form of Hercule Poirot.
The academic in me needs to note here that the edition of the novel I’m using is the one that appears The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 2003).
The novel takes place during WWI – Christie wrote it around the middle of 1916 – and is told through the narration of a man named Hastings (just Hastings, by the way, as we don’t find out his first name or rank until later) who has been ‘invalided home from the Front’ (we find out in ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ that he was wounded on the Somme but Styles isn’t so specific). From the off, Hastings sets himself up as the appointed chronicler of Poirot’s exploits (the Watson to his Holmes) – he says he has been asked ‘to write an account of the whole story’, though he doesn’t tell us where or when this account was due to be published. I think we have to assume that the conceit here is that the 1920 publication in The Times is the vehicle for Hastings’s narration, but it’s not made clear either here or in other stories where (or why) Hastings is publishing his accounts of the great Belgian detective.
I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts the relationship between Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson, and I think it’s worth reflecting on the way Christie uses the legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s earlier detective fiction in setting up The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
In A Study in Scarlet (1887) – the first part of which is subtitled Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department – Doyle introduces Dr John H. Watson in some detail. Not only do we learn his full name (or, at least, his Christian name and middle initial) and his profession title, the novel begins with several paragraphs outlining the background to Watson’s fateful meeting with Sherlock Holmes. He took his medical degree in 1878 at the University of London and then studied as an army surgeon. He was then attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and stationed in India during the second Afghan war. He served in Candahar, before being attached to the Berkshires at the battle of Maiwand. During this battle, he was shot in the shoulder, damaging his subclavian artery. He was saved by Murray, his orderly, who managed to (eventually) get him to a hospital at Peshawar. There, Watson contracted enteric fever, and he was sent back to England. He was granted nine months’ leave to recover, on an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day (£210 a year), and moved to London as he had ‘neither kith nor kin in England’. For a while, he stayed in a private hotel in the Strand, but this quickly drained his finances. Just as he has decided to leave London and find somewhere cheaper to live, Watson runs into a man named Stamford (who had been a dresser at St Bartholomew’s Hospital) at the Criterion Bar. He explains his situation to Stamford, who offers to introduce him to a ‘fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital’, who is looking for a flat-mate. That fellow, of course, is Sherlock Holmes.
In the first five paragraphs of A Study in Scarlet, we learn more about Watson’s background than we learn of Hastings’s in the entirety of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know his educational background, his military history, the exact nature of his injury, his subsequent income, his place of residence, and even the nature of the publication that will bring the exploits of his illustrious friend to the public eye. In Styles, we never even find out Hastings’s first name. Indeed, there are some details (his income, his place(s) of residence, the nature of his war injury) that we’ll never find out.
The more I think about the opening to Styles, though, the more I think we can see the beginning of the little game Christie was playing with Doyle’s work. On the surface, it seems that she omits the specifics of Hastings’s background because, in light of Doyle’s creation, it’s not needed. By this I mean, the reference to Hastings as an injured military man chronicling the cases of a detective is enough to make the reader go, ‘Ah. So he’s the Watson, then.’ We don’t need to know anything else, because we’ve seen this before. At the beginning of Styles, it’s tempting just to fill in the Hastings blanks with recourse to the more detailed CV of Watson.
However, there’s much more to it than that. If you consider the opening of A Study in Scarlet in light of the stories that follow (and in light of their legacy), you realize just how much of the information about Watson is… well… a bit superfluous. Sure, some of it turns out to be useful background in later adventures. But do we really need to know the name of the orderly who carried him to Peshawar? I guess it’s important to know Watson was shot in the shoulder, but do we need to know that it was specifically the subclavian artery that was damaged? Or how much his pay was before he met Holmes? (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, and these little details give us a great introduction to the way Watson looks at the world… but still…)
In introducing Hastings, it feels like Christie is almost actively rejecting the superfluity of Doyle’s introduction. Here’s a military man, he’s been invalided, he knows a great detective – you know the type. What was his rank? Doesn’t matter. How was he injured? Doesn’t matter. Where did he serve before he was injured? Doesn’t matter. What’s his name? Doesn’t matter. Bring on the great detective.
But then, just when you start to suspect that this ‘Hastings’ is a poor man’s Watson, Christie starts to scatter little details to differentiate her creation from his forebear. And these details, which will continue to accumulate throughout the Hastings-narrated stories, turn him into a beloved character with more depth than Watson ever had. Dispensing with the ‘facts’ of Hastings’s background (aside from the little details that he worked at Lloyds before the war, and he has ‘no near relations or friends’ in England), Christie focuses on a far more engaging concern: the way Hastings likes to imagine himself.
In the first chapter, we see our narrator besotted by his first sight of his host’s wife, and then embarking on a series of ‘humorous’ anecdotes that he flatters himself ‘greatly amused [his] hostess’. Sitting amongst his new friends, he then announces that he’s ‘always had a secret hankering to be a detective’. What follows is the first introduction to our illustrious Belgian detective:
‘I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. My system is based on his – though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.’The tone struck here tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between Hastings and Poirot – and it reveals more of Hastings’s character than any CV could.
Before I turn to the adaptation, I guess I should say a little bit about the plot of Christie’s first novel.
As I’ve said, Hastings has been invalided out of the army. After staying for a while at a convalescent home, he meets an old friend, John Cavendish, and is invited to stay at Styles Court while he recovers. Here, he is introduced to the residents of Styles Court: John’s wife Mary, his brother Lawrence, his stepmother Emily and her new husband Alfred Inglethorp, Evie Howard (Emily’s companion), and Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of Emily’s friend. Cynthia has been adopted into the family and works as a dispenser for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (just as Christie herself did during WWI). In addition to the family, Hastings learns of Dr Bauerstein, a London doctor who is a specialist in poisons and is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Mrs Raikes, the ‘pretty young wife’ of a local farmer.
Shortly after arriving at Styles, Hastings takes a trip into the village and runs into an old friend… it turns out Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective Hastings met before the war, is now living in Styles St Mary. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Poirot is a refugee from the German occupation of Belgium, and he is staying with a group of other Belgians at the invitation of Emily Inglethorp. The first description of Poirot is worth quoting in full, because this is a pretty momentous introduction (if you’re a fan):
‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, but he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’Not long after this, Emily Inglethorp is murdered in very mysterious circumstances, so it’s pretty handy that Poirot is in the village. Just before the investigation gets properly underway, there’s one last member of the team to introduce… ‘Detective-Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard – Jimmy Japp’ (though Poirot never calls him Jimmy again – clearly this wasn’t a welcome nickname). Poirot knows Japp of old, and the Scotland Yard man seems more than happy to be reacquainted with his old colleague:
‘Why, if it isn’t Mr Poirot! […] You’ve heard me speak of Mr Poirot? It was in 1904 he and I worked together – the Abercrombie forgery case – you remember, he was run down in Brussels. Ah, those were great days, Moosier. Then, do you remember “Baron” Altara? There was a pretty rogue for you! He eluded the clutches of half the police in Europe. But we nailed in Antwerp – thanks to Mr Poirot here.’We never learn any more about these cases – perhaps, like the giant rat of Sumatra, the world just isn’t ready to hear about them – but I love this little glimpse into Poirot and Japp’s early adventures and the idea of the pair hunting down a fake baron in the backstreets of Antwerp.
Now that the cast is complete, The Mysterious Affair at Styles concerns itself with the unfolding investigation. I know I’ve put a spoiler warning on this post, but I can’t really bring myself to give too much away about the details Poirot uncovers. I assume that anyone who’s read this far will already have either read the book or seen the TV adaptation, but I’m also assuming that it might have been a while ago. Spoilers now might ruin the enjoyment of a reread – and Styles definitely rewards rereading. Suffice to say, Christie plays a wonderful trick on her readers. Okay, it’s not Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but for a debut novelist who has wagered that no one will be able to spot her murderer, it’s a pretty bold move!
There are two main threads to Styles. The first is the investigation of Emily Inglethorp’s murder, and the reader is encouraged to use ‘order and method’ to work their way through the various clues that are placed before them. There’s a definite sense of a puzzle to be solved, as the book contains floorplans, descriptions and facsimiles of clues, and transcripts of testimony and conversation – we really are meant to have access to everything that the detective sees. In case we’ve missed anything, we have the voice of the detective nudging Hastings (but really the reader) along throughout: ‘So you think that the cocoa – mark well what I say, Hastings – the cocoa – contained strychnine?’
But it is easy to forget about following the clues, as Christie’s genius stroke in Styles (and, possibly, one of the reasons she thought no one would spot the murderer) is that the reader is frequently distracted from the puzzle because they’re watching the detectives bicker and banter their way through the investigation.
Up until the final revelation, our narrator remains absolutely convinced of his own ‘talent for deduction’, no matter how many times his companion points out his errors. They fall out about coffee cups and cocoa, Poirot makes fun of Hastings’s theories, and in return Hastings wonders whether Poirot has actually gone mad. The detective shows a seriously sarcastic streak, and many of his quips go whizzing right over his companion’s head (as though Hastings is more Bertie Wooster than John Watson). Here’s my favourite example of this, as it sets the tone for the men’s relationship in Christie’s later stories:
‘“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”(Going through the book again for this post, it’s interesting how many important clues are revealed just before or just after a bit of banter like this – like a seasoned conjuror, Christie seemed to know from the start that the more the audience watch the magicians, the more likely they’ll miss the trick.)
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.’
The investigation is wrapped up in a denouement that will set the tone for later Poirot stories, with the detective gathering the suspects and revealing the mechanics of the murder with theatrical flair. And, as one last intriguing treat, the book ends with the promise that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Christie’s dynamic duo:
‘Console yourself, my friend. We may hunt together again, who knows? And then –’
The ITV adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first broadcast on 16th September 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Ross Devenish. Although the episode is now sometimes listed as either the last episode of Series 2 or the first episode of Series 3, it was actually a standalone episode, broadcast to mark the centenary of Agatha Christie’s birth.
Although the rest of the early episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot are almost exclusively set in 1935, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is, like its source text, set during WWI. (Of course, that makes the chronology of the TV show a little wonky, as there’s nearly twenty years between ‘Styles’ and ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, which does make you wonder… what have they been doing for all that time?) But, as with all of Exton’s scripts, there’s a clear desire to stay faithful to Christie’s text and, given that Styles is perhaps the novel with the clearest connection to the time of its setting, that means staying faithful to that setting.
Christie’s novel is rather circumspect about the nature of Hastings’s war injury. Additionally, there’s never any real sense of Hastings being traumatized by his experiences. For modern readers, now used to talking openly about the horrors young men faced during WWI, Hastings’s casual attitude to his military experience can be a little unsettling. At one point in the novel, Hastings gazes out across the ‘green and peaceful’ Essex countryside and muses on how hard it is to remember ‘that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course’. As I’ve said in a previous post, in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Hastings reveals a reluctance to see ‘premature peace’ and a desire to see the war played out until military victory is achieved. There is very little indication that Hastings has been permanently affected by his wartime service (except for, possibly, recurring bouts of fever – but that’s assuming that the malaria he mentions in Peril at End House was contracted during the war).
Exton’s adaptation stays faithful to this depiction of Hastings as a man who (on the surface) is rather blasé about his experiences. However, it’s impossible to ignore the few details given in Christie’s text. Hastings wasn’t a military man before the war – he worked in insurance – but he fought at the Front, and he was so severely injured that he didn’t see active service again (at the end of the novel he’s offered a desk job at the War Office). So, although Hastings rarely evinces any sign of trauma, we know this is a man who has endured just as much pain and fear as John H. Watson before him (although he’s only given one month’s sick leave to Watson’s nine).
In the TV episode, Exton subtly plays with this material. Although Hastings is never anything other than cheerful when talking about himself – dismissing his injury as ‘just a scratch’ when offered sympathy – we occasionally get to see a hint of what might lie beneath that mask. The episode opens with Hastings in his convalescent home, watching a film about General Haig’s 1917 Flanders campaign. A close-up of Hugh Fraser’s face is enough to convey something of the trauma that lies beneath the fatuous surface.
As in Christie’s novel, Hastings is rescued from the hospital by the arrival of his old friend John. He travels to Styles St Mary (by a gorgeous steam train) and joins the family at Styles Court. Again, this is fairly faithful to the source. The house is presided over by the imperious but generous Emily Inglethorp (played by Gillian Barge), though she is now John and Lawrence’s mother, rather than stepmother. This small change, along with the removal of Dr Bauerstein from the plot, is simply the result of having to condense an entire novel into two hours of television – and it’s far from being the most dramatic change to a novel that we’ll see in the series.
Similarly, the adaptation keeps the basic shape of Christie’s plot and some of the more memorable bits of dialogue, with most of the ‘big’ clues retained, but streamlines and jettisons some of the flourishes in order to fit the puzzle into its new form. Obviously, as a big fan of the book, there are a couple of clues that I miss in the TV version (and I’m sure other fans will have their own examples), but the main ‘trick’ is kept – and, in my opinion, done very well indeed.
Just like with Christie’s book, though, a lot of the joy of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ lies in the characterization, particularly the relationship between Poirot and Hastings (and, to a lesser extent, Japp). We get to see the lovely reunion of the two central characters…
… and the adaptation retains Japp’s enthusiastic nostalgia for the ‘Abercrombie forgery case’, with the addition of a few throwaway lines for Japp that, while not found in the source, viewers will find familiar from Philip Jackson’s earlier performances (‘My word, Poirot, you’re the goods!’, ‘Haven’t had my tea yet, you know.’).
However, while I have nothing but love for the way in which Exton (and Suchet, Fraser and Jackson) translate Christie’s characters to the screen, I’ve got mixed feelings about some of the other characters.
It’s fair to say that the Cavendish brothers are not dramatically different in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While there is plenty of information about how their lives are different – and they definitely do behave differently in the aftermath of their stepmother’s death – they aren’t exactly chalk and cheese. In some of Christie’s later country house mysteries, she would create families with much more clearly differentiated siblings (4.50 From Paddington springs immediately to mind), but that’s just not the case here. The TV versions of John (David Rintoul) and Lawrence (Anthony Calf) reflect this, as they’re really not that dissimilar.
The brothers’ mother and stepfather – the stepmother and step-stepfather of the novel – also feel very close to their literary counterparts. In my opinion, Michael Cronin’s portrayal of Alfred Inglethorp is just perfect, and absolutely captures the ‘rather alien note’ struck by Christie’s character.
Sad as I am to make a criticism of the episode, the women just aren’t quite right. Evie Howard (Joanna McCallum) feels a little too young and (at least when she sneaks crumbs of seed cake) a little too wry for the sensible factotum with the manly voice. Weirdly, McCallum was actually exactly the right age to play Evie Howard, as she was forty when the episode aired. But Christie’s story was careful throughout to distract the reader from the fact that Evie is probably about the same age as Mary and five years younger than John – and I just don’t think the TV Evie is quite as successful in this.
Cynthia Murdoch and Mary Cavendish are also a bit further away from their literary counterparts. The former (played by Allie Byrne) is pretty and charming, and it’s very easy to see how she charms the men she meets. However, some of the character’s more sparkling dialogue is cut and there’s very little reference to her working in the dispensary. This is a bit of a disappointment, as Christie’s female dispensing chemists are always a bit feisty (like Tuppence Beresford and Julia Simmons, for instance) – and it’s always tempting to imagine that these characters are a tiny little bit based on the author herself. Even more egregious though: the TV version of Cynthia Murdoch doesn’t have red hair.
In Christie’s novel, Cynthia’s auburn hair is one of the features that Hastings admires early on. This particular predilection will become a running joke in the subsequent stories, with Poirot frequently teasing his friend about his fondness for redheads. For some reason, and I’ve never been sure why, the TV series mentions this aspect of Hastings’s characterization early on (in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’) but then drops it, replacing some of the literary redheads (e.g Mary Durrant in ‘Double Sin’) with brunettes. Between darkening her hair and playing down her chemistry, the TV adaptation waters down Cynthia a little too much for my liking.
Finally, then, there’s Mary Cavendish. Played by Beatie Edney (in her first of two appearances in the series), the TV character is also somewhat watered down from the source.
In the novel, Hastings’s descriptions of his friend’s wife are remarkably effusive:
‘I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body – all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.’While Edney’s performance occasionally captures a sense of wildness, I’m not sure there’s really an ‘intense power of stillness’ or ‘slumbering fire’. Part of the problem is that, in removing some of the subplots from the adaptation, the character of Mary has been substantially reduced. In the TV version, she is a nervous and jealous wife, driven to wildness by her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity (and, possibly, worse). This is a far cry from Christie’s ‘proud wild creature’, who is the daughter of a beautiful Russian woman and a world-travelling English father. In the novel, Mary Cavendish’s malaise derives more from her husband’s monotony than his adultery.
It’s time to finally wrap this post up now, I think. I’ll end with a high point… I really like the fact that the adaptation retains the scene in which Hastings watches Poirot build card houses. This is such an important part of the story – both in terms of the detective’s investigation, but also in setting up the character of Poirot – that it’s nice to see it played out on screen. And it is a very impressive house of cards…
Overall, Exton’s adaptation is a fitting tribute to Christie’s debut novel. Although it’s not actually our introduction to the characters – as it was made after two solid series of adventures – it works as an affectionate flashback to where it all began. The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced readers to a duo that (despite a pretence at similarity) were very very different to Holmes and Watson, and the 1990 adaptation captures the essence of this relationship beautifully. I think the programme-makers were aware of the significance of their centenary adaptation, and the result is something designed to delight Christie fans.
But it can’t be denied that this episode is all about the boys. The female characters in The Mysterious Affair at Styles don’t get much of a look-in here, which is a shame because (despite some claims to the contrary) Christie created an array of complex and fascinating female characters in the Poirot stories.
Speaking of which… it’s time I looked at one of those characters in more detail…