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 King of Clubs’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
We’ve reached the end of the first series! I’m woefully behind schedule, so am seriously doubting that I’ll get to Curtain by Christmas – but it’s been so much fun revisiting Series 1 that I don’t mind that this project is probably going to take a lot longer than I envisaged. And I get to end this series with a great episode.
The tenth episode of the first series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th March 1989, and was based on the short story of the same name (first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1937, then in The Strand in February of the following year).
The story begins with Poirot arriving at Northway House, the residence of Benedict Farley. Farley is an eccentric millionaire, who lives in a house that is a ‘relic of an earlier age – an age of space and leisure, when green fields had surrounded its well-bred arrogance’. The description of Northway House continues:
‘Now it was an anachronism, submerged and forgotten in the hectic sea of modern London, and not one man in fifty could have told you where it stood.’This evocative description of the house prepares us for its reclusive inhabitant. Mr Farley is known for his odd habits and erratic behaviour, and his summons to Poirot is characteristically strange. When the detective is shown into Farley’s room (in fact, into his secretary’s room), he discovers that he has been called in to consult on a recurring nightmare – not the detective’s usual fare. Farley has been repeatedly dreaming about shooting himself – always at the same place and the same time. He has consulted three doctors, who have advised him (respectively) that the dream is caused by poor diet, childhood trauma and subconscious suicidal urges. Farley has dismissed all these explanations, and asks Poirot whether it is possible that a murder could be effected through such means. The detective is unable to do much more than rule out hypnotism, so Farley dismisses him.
Naturally, of course, Farley is soon found dead – apparently having committed suicide at the very place and time predicted in his dream. Poirot is called in by his old friend Dr Stillingfleet, as the police have discovered the letter Farley sent requesting a consultation with the detective. Stillingfleet explains that, without this letter, the death would have been recorded as a suicide, but Poirot’s involvement suggests the matter may be more complicated. Additionally, Mrs Farley is able to corroborate the story of the dream, and Farley’s secretary says that he wrote the letter to Poirot on his employer’s instruction.
Because Poirot (and Stillingfleet) are quick to rule out suicide, the reader does so too. This, then, is a murder, which took place in a locked room with no access via window, and which the victim apparently predicted in a series of recurring dreams. It’s a locked room mystery – and I do adore locked room mysteries. (Agatha Christie was no John Dickson Carr and used the ‘locked room’ conceit more sparingly in her stories – but I feel that her Poirot locked rooms do stand up against the acknowledged masters of the subgenre. ‘Problem at Sea’ has always been a favourite of mine, for instance.)
The clues to the trick (for locked room mysteries always rely on a ‘trick’) are to be found in Poirot’s odd meeting with Benedict Farley – the bright lighting of the room, the man’s inability to distinguish between his letter and a letter to Poirot’s laundress, his refusal to let Poirot see the room which is to be the scene of the crime. Some details of the crime scene also help – a pair of ‘lazy-tongs’, the blank wall that faces Farley’s window, the traffic noise from the street below. The detective puts these seemingly random details into a comprehensible order, and the solution is a satisfying one. It’s worth noting, by the way, that there is yet another reference to stage magic in the story: in response to Poirot denying any deception on his part, Benedict Farley chuckles, ‘That’s what the conjuror says before he takes the goldfish out of the hat! Saying that is part of the trick, you know!’
[Update: I wrote the above last night, but then I had a bit of a realization after I slept on it. I seem to remember that I worked out the solution of ‘The Dream’ when I first watched it. And I was only ten at the time. This possibly means that the ‘trick’ isn’t particularly sophisticated, or that it’s easy to spot its workings. However, ‘The Dream’ will always have a special place in my heart for this reason, as it’s the locked mystery I cut my teeth on.]
The TV adaptation was written by Clive Exton and directed by Edward Bennett. As is usual with Exton’s adaptations, it’s fairly faithful to Christie’s short story. Like many of the other earlier episodes, the ‘family’ are added to the story – Miss Lemon, Hastings and Japp aren’t in Christie’s story – but their inclusion is a little less clunky than in some other episodes. Miss Lemon has a little sub-storyline about a broken typewriter, and Japp neatly replaces Inspector Barnett, the ‘tame police inspector’ of the short story. The inclusion of Hastings necessarily downgrades Dr Stillingfleet (played by Paul Lacoux) from his role as the ‘Watson’ character, but I guess that’s a sacrifice that has to be made.
The TV version of Farley is fairly close to his literary counterpart. However, the eccentric is now the owner of a successful pie factory, rather than being something vaguely connected to transport. Unlike in Christie’s story, we get more of a sense of Farley at work – a Pathé Gazette newsreel introduces us to Farley’s Pies, and we see the owner addressing his workforce on the factory’s fiftieth anniversary. This Benedict Farley is a more straightforwardly obnoxious man. Christie’s short story mentions the millionaire’s ‘strange meanesses’, but also his ‘incredible generosities’; it is only the ‘meanesses’ (his attempts to block unionization, his dismissal of his daughter’s boyfriend) that are on show in the adaptation. But we still get no real sense of the man outside a few glimpses and reports from others, which is very much in-keeping with the original story.
Like ‘The Incredible Theft’ and ‘The King of Clubs’, the episode features some fantastic location shots. In this case, it’s the use of the Hoover Building in Perivale, which doubles as Farley’s factory. Like the other iconic buildings used in these early episodes, the art deco Hoover Building is both dramatically stylized and contemporary to the show’s setting (it was built in 1933). Unlike the other buildings, though, it’s now a branch of Tesco.
Weirdly, given that I really like both the episode and the short story, I find that I have a lot less to say about ‘The Dream’ than some other instalments. It’s just a neat little puzzle that was faithfully adapted for the screen. There are some nice interactions between Poirot and Miss Lemon (particularly the detective’s enthusiasm after Miss Lemon’s strange time-keeping leads him to his solution, and his final (misguided) thank you gift). And I like Poirot’s lamenting that his little grey cells have been ‘weakened by the old age and the fast living’ (which Hastings questions, but is informed that Poirot did indeed live fast in his youth). The episode sees the welcome (well, welcome to me) return of Dicker (played by George Little), the concierge of Whitehaven Mansions, who is the show’s most minor recurring character.
Since it’s the final episode of the series, it’s only fitting that we have one last chase scene as well. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the (silly) chase scenes are a regular feature of the early series, taking place on foot, by car and by boat. In ‘The Dream’, we round off the series with a motorbike-and-sidecar heading in hot pursuit of the murderer – complete with a dramatic leap from the driving seat to apprehend the fugitive.
And that brings me to the end of the first series – making me ten episodes closer to finally watching Curtain. It seems sort of fitting to end this review with a quote from Christie’s ‘The Dream’, I think:
‘“I wonder if you’ll ever commit a crime, Poirot?” said Stillingfleet. “I bet you could get away with it all right. As a matter of fact, it would be too easy for you – I mean the thing would be off as definitely too unsporting.” “That,” said Poirot, “is a typical English idea.”’Onwards, then, to Series 2…
As I said, I adore locked room mysteries. To hear more about some of my favourite examples of the genre (including a couple of Agatha Christie’s mysteries), have a listen to the radio show I did on this subject last year: