Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Poirot Project: The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor (review)

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

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the third series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 3rd February 1991. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in April 1923.

‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ opens with Hastings entering Poirot’s rooms to discover his friend packing a ‘small valise’ in preparation of a trip – the great detective has been called away on a case. Because I’m rereading the short stories in the order of ITV’s adaptation, it’s easy to forget what immediately preceded this trip, so a little recap might be in order…

Just one week before ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was published, The Sketch published ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’. In this story, Poirot has a bit of fun at his old friend’s expense, letting Hastings believe in a completely misguided theory before pulling the rug from under his feet with a flourish. ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ ends with a tetchy confrontation between the two men:
‘“It’s all very well,” I said, my anger rising, “but you’ve made a perfect fool of me! From beginning to end! No, it’s all very well to try and explain it away afterwards. There really is a limit.”
“But you were so enjoying yourself, my friend, I had not the heart to shatter your illusions.”
“It’s no good. You’ve gone a bit too far this time.”
Mon Dieu! but how you enrage yourself for nothing, mon ami!”
“I’m fed up!” I went out, banging the door. Poirot had made an absolute laughing-stock of me. I decided that he needed a sharp lesson. I would let some time elapse before I forgave him. He had encouraged me to make a perfect fool of myself.’
Seven days later, readers were presented with ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’, which begins:
‘I had been called away from town for a few days, and on my return found Poirot in act of strapping up his small valise.’
When Hastings enquires as to whether Poirot has been employed on a case, the detective explains the situation (more on that shortly), before commanding his associate to join him:
‘Five minutes to pack your bag, Hastings, and we will take a taxi to Liverpool Street.’
He gets no argument from Hastings, who simply wants to know:
‘What is our plan of campaign?’
I love this opening, because it’s a lovely portrait of Poirot and Hastings as a dynamic duo. Even though the story is far from a ‘thriller’ – it’s much more ‘country house murder’ than the stories collected as The Big Four, for example – there’s a sense of urgency to the opening that differs from the more common Perusal of the Morning News intros found in a lot of the other Sketch stories. This is a bread-and-butter case for Poirot (he’s been employed by an insurance company to investigate a suspicious death), and Hastings is acting as his professional associate. The military flavour of Hastings’s response reminds us of his background, casting him squarely as Watson to Poirot’s Holmes; his acquiescence to the detective’s plan of action suggests he’s going to play sidekick here, unlike in other stories where he reveals more desire to be a detective.


When you read the story in the context of what came immediately before (and what would come shortly afterwards), it leaves a few questions. How does this opening relate to the ending of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’? How much time elapsed between the two cases?

Personally, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from imagining the Sketch stories in a linear chronology. For one thing, there are a few cases that – as Hastings makes clear in his narration – take place earlier than the others (‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, ‘The Chocolate Box’, ‘The Lost Mine’ and ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’). Although some of the other stories give a hint of the order in which they take place – e.g. ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ references ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and ‘The King of Clubs’ – there isn’t a definitive chronology to the cases. Again, this reminds us of Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes stories; this is a ‘casebook’, in which the detective’s associate cherry-picks the most interesting cases to write up, moving between periods in his friend’s career without too much concern. So, it’s quite possible that ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ took place before ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, or equally that it took place many months later.

But that falling out must have been fixed in readers’ minds, surely? And then just one week later, Hastings was breezing into Poirot’s rooms as though nothing had happened. We never see or hear anything about their reconciliation. We just pick up their story as though no disagreement had ever occurred. And that’s really quite sweet.

But there’s another question raised by the opening to ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Where has Hastings been?

Unlike in other stories, where the question is ‘Where does Hastings live?’ (sometimes it’s ‘our rooms’, sometimes it’s ‘Poirot’s rooms’ – make your mind up, Arthur), here we find ourselves wondering ‘Where does Hastings go when he’s not with Poirot?’ He says he was ‘called away from town’ – but why? and by whom? As I’ve said before, Hastings doesn’t actually seem to have any family or property of his own. He certainly doesn’t seem to have a job by this point in the duo’s career, and there’s no mention of him being in business of any sort, though Poirot makes occasional reference to some ‘doubtful speculations’. So why would Hastings suddenly be ‘called away from town’ as though he’s got fingers in all sorts of other pies?

I have a rather romantic theory about this – though it’s not really backed up by anything apart from my insistent belief that, no matter what she said in her autobiography, Christie’s stories repeatedly suggest that Poirot and Hastings belong together. Perhaps – just perhaps – Christie was subtly preparing readers for an imminent bombshell. ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was published a month before Murder on the Links. So that novel was already written and in print by the time the short story made its appearance. Until this point, readers had been given no opportunity to imagine Hastings having a life without Poirot, but Christie knew she was about to rip the men’s BFF-world apart. Is it too fanciful to believe that Hastings’s little ‘away from town’ trip is preparing the ground for the heartbreak (and trust me, when we get to ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ you’ll be in no doubt that it is heartbreak) to come?


But I still quite like my theory.

Anyway… now that I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time overanalysing the story’s opening, I should say something about the rest of it.

Poirot has been employed by the Northern Union Insurance Company to investigate a suspicious death. Mr Maltravers was a man of ‘quite sound health’ who passed away due to an ‘internal haemorrhage’. Although the death wasn’t initially considered to be suspicious, the insurance company later discovered that the man was on the verge of bankruptcy and had used his last ‘ready money’ to pay for premiums on a £50000 life insurance policy. They have asked Poirot to ascertain whether or not the man committed suicide in order to allow his wife to benefit from the policy. Poirot isn’t optimistic about his chances of success, as he believes the verdict of ‘internal haemorrhage’ seems ‘fairly definite’. Nevertheless, he agrees to undertake some enquiries.

Poirot and Hastings travel to Marsdon Leigh at once. They interview the local GP, Dr Bernard – who tells them that, although he hadn’t attended Mr Maltravers in life, he did examine the body and discovered the cause of death to be clear (blood on the lips, but no external wound) – Mrs Maltravers – who tells them about her husband’s movements prior to his death – and then Captain Black (a family friend). Black tells them a bit about the background to his visit, before Poirot decides to freestyle:
‘With your permission, I should like to try a little experiment. You have told us all that your conscious self knows, I want now to question your subconscious self.’
The detective then enters into a little word association game with Black and, seemingly satisfied with the results, thanks the man for his time. When Hastings admits to being confused by the shenanigans, Poirot (perhaps chastened by their argument at the end of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’) explains with uncharacteristic clarity.

What the word association reveals is that, during his dinner visit shortly before Mr Maltravers’s death, Black had told a story about a man in East Africa who had committed suicide by shooting himself through the roof of his mouth with a rook rifle. The bullet had lodged in his brain, and so the only external sign had been blood on the man’s lips. Of course, at this point we all remember that both Dr Bernard and Mrs Maltravers had mentioned a rook rifle being found next to Mr Maltravers’s body – it seems that Poirot might be able to prove it was suicide after all…

But we’re not at the denouement yet.

Our detective makes a lengthy phone call to London, and then takes himself off for a few hours to think. When he returns, he explains to Hastings that they must pay another visit to Mrs Maltravers. Hastings believes that they are going to break some ‘painful’ news to the young widow, but it turns out that Poirot has other ideas.

That’s right! It’s another bonkers finale!

Just as dinner is being served, Poirot asks Mrs Maltravers if she knows about the rumours in the village that Marsdon Manor is haunted. If this seems like an odd direction to take a tactful conversation about insurance fraud, we don’t have too much time to ponder. Poirot’s talk of ghosts is immediately interrupted by the sound of smashing crockery and a screaming parlour-maid. Poirot comforts the terrified servant, only to be told that the poor women was startled by a man standing in the hallway: ‘I thought – I thought it was the master – it looked like ’im.’

Things get even creepier – there’s tapping on the window, a moaning wind, a door latch that won’t stay shut. And then, when a sense of terror has truly invaded the room, the locked door to the morning room slowly, impossibly, begins to open…
‘Suddenly, without warning, the lights quivered and went out. Out of the darkness came three loud raps. I could hear Mrs Maltravers moaning.
And then – I saw!
The man I had seen on the bed upstairs stood there facing us, gleaming with a faint ghostly light. There was blood on his lips, and he held his right hand out, pointing. Suddenly a brilliant light seemed to proceed from it. It passed over Poirot and me, and fell on Mrs Maltravers. I saw her white terrified face, and something else!
“My God, Poirot!” I cried. “Look at her hand, her right hand. It’s all red!”’
With that, Mrs Maltravers screams hysterically and confesses to the murder of her husband. Poirot snaps on the light, reveals their old friend Inspector Japp outside in the garden, and explains the whole thing. Having worked out that Mrs Maltravers murdered her husband for the insurance money (inspired by Captain Black’s East Africa story), he realized that he ‘had not a shadow of proof in support of [his] theory’ and so organized ‘the elaborate little comedy you say played tonight’. The end.

I think this is the first time that Poirot has faked a séance/message from beyond the grave to force a confession, but it certainly won’t be the last. By the time we get to Peril at End House, Hastings is so familiar with this method that he enters into the role of medium without even being asked.

I know I spent quite a bit of time pondering over the story’s opening, but ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ is a fairly standard Poirot short story. There’s a neat little puzzle – gun found near the body, but no bullet wound – but it’s not one of my favourites. Personally, I find it too light on clues and too heavy on tricks to force confession (the word association, the ghost). But it’s a pretty standard workaday case for the detective, and one for which (I assume) he was handsomely paid.

Let’s have a look at how ITV handled it…

The adaptation of ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ was written by David Renwick and directed by Renny Rye. As you might expect from this creative team, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of Christie’s story. Where changes and expansions have been made, they’re pretty much in-keeping with either the spirit of Christie’s original story or the tone of the ITV series.

In this version of the story, Poirot and Hastings have been called to Marsdon Leigh by Samuel Naughton (played by Desmond Barrit), who wants them to investigate a murder. On their arrival, they discover that Naughton is actually a mystery writer (who goes by the penname Clarrisa Naughton), and that he’s written himself into a hole with his latest novel. He wanted the great detective to come and explain which of his suspects is the guilty party. Poirot, understandably, is not amused.

Intending to travel back to London as soon as possible, Poirot and Hastings are stopped in their plans by the discovery of Mr Jonathan Maltravers’s body. One of the policemen attending the scene (played by Geoffrey Swann) spots Poirot and asks him to come and help them, and he is soon joined by Inspector Japp, who is tasked with revealing the details of Jonathan Maltravers’s insurance policy.

Although the circumstances of Poirot’s involvement are different, the mystery is essentially the same. Maltravers died of indeterminate causes after setting up a large insurance policy to benefit his wife. In the opening scene, we saw the man shooting at rooks (though, in this version, the rook rifle is not found near his body).

Obviously, because of the nature of the series, viewers aren’t expected to buy the idea of death by natural causes – or even Susan Maltravers’s (Geraldine Alexander) suggestion that her husband died of severe shock after being frightened by one of Marsdon Manor’s ghosts. Thus, the TV adaptation has to add a few more suspects, clues and red herrings to the original story (in which, it has to be admitted, there is really only one suspect if you discount the possibility of suicide).

Captain Black is now one of the suspects. Here, instead of being a distant acquaintance whose ‘people’ knew Maltravers, he is a friend of Susan Maltravers and, as we discover, is in love with the woman. But he isn’t the only love rival in the episode – Mr Maltravers now has a secretary with whom he was once romantically involved, Miss Rawlinson (Anita Carey).

The character is Miss Rawlinson is quite cleverly drawn. Her dislike of Jonathan’s young wife comes off her in waves, and there’s a proprietorial air to the way in which she moves about Marsdon Manor. She seems suspiciously unwelcoming of the new mistress of the house, and you begin to suspect that she might be deliberately trying to undermine Susan’s mental health. There are shades of another, more famous character here – and I think this might be deliberate. The secretary is called Miss Rawlinson, but can it be a coincidence that the writers named the gardener ‘Danvers’?

Along with the living suspects, the TV episode gives us an additional spooky suspect by expanding the short story’s brief mention of Marsdon Manor being haunted. The ghost is now given a name (Rebecca Mary Marsdon) and a tragic backstory. Susan Maltravers has apparently been unsettled by a number of supernatural occurrences, and the opening sequence shows the woman seemingly being terrorized by a sinister spectral force. This gives a bit more basis for Poirot’s final stunt, which plays out in a very similar way to in the short story (with the added creepy detail of Maltravers’s ‘ghost’ being played by Samuel Naughton in a wax death-mask).

Given that this is a ‘murder mystery’ series, Renwick would no doubt have been aware that viewers would be convinced from the off that someone has murdered Jonathan Maltravers. The most important thing, therefore, is to make sure that as little suspicion as possible is thrown on Susan Maltravers – who is, of course, the natural suspect. I can’t help wondering if the casting was intended to help with this. For Agatha Christie fans in 1991, Geraldine Alexander would still be partly associated with her earlier role in the BBC Miss Marple adaptation Sleeping Murder. (Okay… for some of us, that’s still the role we associate with Geraldine Alexander.)

In Sleeping Murder, Alexander plays Gwenda Reed, a young woman who moves into a new house and is haunted by seemingly supernatural events. I adore Sleeping Murder (though it utterly terrified me as a kid), so I’m going to restrain myself from saying too much about it here. But I can’t help but think that there are some scenes in ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ that recall scenes from the earlier Christie adaptation – particularly the scene where Susan comes out of the bathroom and sits at her mirror.

I feel as though we’re being subtly lured into seeing Susan as another version of Gwenda – the woman is being driven mad by something that appears inexplicable, but is actually the memory/action of human malevolence.

Maybe that’s just me though. I do love Sleeping Murder.

Anyway, some final thoughts on ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’. Normally I’d say that I need to get to Curtain by Christmas, but I think we can all agree that that’s not going to happen now. But I should wrap this post up…

The light-hearted aspect of the episode comes, in part, from Samuel Naughton. As an aside, Poirot does eventually concede and suggest a conclusion for Naughton’s novel – he explains that the ‘bedridden explorer’ is the guilty party, having shot a poison dart into the fruit cake (Ariadne Oliver has nothing to fear from Clarrisa Naughton). We also have a silly little subplot involving a local waxwork museum, which houses a model that seems rather familiar…

The waxwork museum is really just a bit of silliness, but I do like the men’s second visit when Hastings and Japp cheekily rearrange the model’s tie and hat.

In a number of previous posts, I’ve mentioned some little details that have been used to set the ‘perma-1935’ scene for the early series. In some cases, this involves the use of contemporary songs, films and buildings, but here we’re back to the military backdrop of the late 1930s. As the investigation into Jonathan Maltravers’s death unfolds, Marsdon Leigh is preparing for the National Civil Defence Day, and we hear a news announcer explaining that this is a project proposed by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. As Baldwin was PM from 1935-37, and the Civil Defence Service was formed in 1935, we have a very clear indication of when this story is set.

The National Civil Defence Day allows for a dramatic ‘attempt’ to be made on Susan Maltravers’s life (via chloroform in her gas mask), but it also returns us to the feeling that pervades a lot of the early series – it’s always 1935; Poirot’s Europe is always teetering on the brink of war. It’s like the threat of a thunderstorm that we never see break.

And on that note, time to move on… the next episode is ‘The Double Clue’…

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Victorian Gothic Faust Penny Dreadful – OUT NOW

Issue 1 of the Digital Periodicals edition of George Reynolds's Faust is available now - and it only costs £1! The next issue will be out on Friday, but there's still plenty of time to catch up with Issue 1 before then... and it's pretty wild stuff too...

The year is 1493, and a penniless young student has made a momentous bargain to save himself from the noose. He says he did it for love... but will the lure of power and vengeance be too great?

Elsewhere, another young man is summoned by the Vehm - a secret tribunal that takes the law into its own hands and conducts clandestine trials and punishments. What do they want with Charles Hamel? And does this have anything to do with Count Manfred's dubious claim to Linsdorf Castle?

On top of all this, Manfred has attacked Rosenthal Castle! And Theresa has been abducted! Has she bought herself enough time? Or will the dastardly Manfred force her into marriage? And just why does that old portrait look so much like Theresa's handmaiden?

This is the first modern edition of the classic penny dreadful version of Faust, and it's fully illustrated and compatible with all e-readers. Issues will be released fortnightly and are available exclusively from the publisher's website. Check out the video trailer here:

Friday, 28 October 2016

PRESS RELEASE: Victorian Gothic Faust Penny Dreadful Launches at Halloween

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

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

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

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

A video trailer is available to watch here:


For further information, please contact Hannah Kate.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

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

The May 2016 issue of Gothic Studies is now out.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Coming Soon: Faust

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

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

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

Find out more on the Hic Dragones website.

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

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further information please contact:

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

Monday, 5 September 2016

Poirot Project: Wasps’ Nest (review)

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

Beware: Here be Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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