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 Veiled Lady’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The fourth episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 21st January 1990. It was directed by Edward Bennett and written by Michael Baker and David Renwick. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in 1923.
The short story is possibly the weakest of the original Sketch stories – it feels a lot like Agatha Christie was just phoning this one in. In attempt to assert the moral/intellectual high ground, Poirot criticizes Hastings for making speculative investments, and derides his friend’s advice to speculate in the ‘Porcupine oil-fields’ (foreshadowing the ‘doubtful oil fields’ mentioned in Peril at End House). Poirot explains that the only shares he owns are in the Burma Mines Ltd., and they were the reward for his services in a case of theft and murder:
‘You would like to hear the story? Yes?’The rest of the story is made up of Poirot narrating this past exploit to Hastings. And it’s not the most exciting past exploit.
Poirot was called upon by Mr Pearson, one of the directors of ‘an important company’, to solve the murder of a Chinese man named Wu Ling, who was killed shortly after arriving in England with papers relating to a valuable ‘lost’ mine in Burma. Pearson had intended to meet Wu Ling at Southampton, but found his visitor had already disembarked from his ship and travelled to London before he got there. The following day, Wu Ling’s body was found in the Thames, and the papers were nowhere to be found.
There’s a bit of back-and-forth as Poirot carries out his investigation, with a ‘broken-down European named Dyer’ and a ‘young bank clerk named Charles Lester’ falling under suspicion. Eventually, Poirot and Pearson travel to Limehouse, ‘right in the heart of Chinatown’, visit an opium den, and Poirot reveals Pearson was behind the murder all along. He whips the papers out of Pearson’s pocket, explains the truth of the mystery to the police, and is given shares by the company as a reward. The story ends with Poirot using this as a lesson to Hastings not to invest in companies, lest their directors turn out to be ‘so many Mr Pearsons’.
There aren’t many notable features to the short story, except an appearance by Inspector Miller (who crops up in a few other Christie texts). Miller is like the anti-Japp: Poirot thinks he’s ‘obstinate and imbecile’, and the policeman vehemently distrusts the little egg-shaped Belgian. When Poirot explains to Hastings that he had to work with Miller, he says the policeman is ‘a man altogether different from our friend Japp, conceited, ill-mannered and quite insufferable’. While this sets us up for a somewhat antagonistic associate in this story, it also reveals how much affection Poirot has for Japp, which is rather sweet.
The story also has Poirot going undercover in an opium den, which I feel might be another jokey nod to Sherlock Holmes and ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’. In Doyle’s story, Holmes has been gathering information in an opium den, disguised as an old man. In Christie’s story, Poirot also enters an opium den, but disdains Pearson’s suggestion that they adopt a disguise (which would involve Poirot shaving off his moustache):
‘I pointed out to him that that was an idea ridiculous and absurd. One destroys not a thing of beauty wantonly. Besides, shall not a Belgian gentleman with a moustache desire to see life and smoke opium just as readily as one without a moustache?’Aside from this, though, there isn’t much going on in the short story, and it’s not very memorable.
And now… the adaptation. Hmmm… I think I’ll split this into The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Like the short story, the episode begins with Poirot and Hastings just hanging out, talking about financial matters. However, in the TV version, the financial matters they are discussing are part of a mammoth game of Monopoly that is being played throughout the episode.
Obviously, this is enjoyable simply for the rapport between our two leading men. Hastings appears to be teaching Poirot how to play, and the Belgian detective disdains the game as one of mere chance – until he starts to win, that is. But there’s another reason why I like this detail – it’s another subtle little reference to the series’ setting. Monopoly was first licensed in the UK in 1935, so Hastings is actually introducing his friend to the ‘latest craze’.
The question of whether or not to speculate on the stock exchange is retained, but in the adaptation it is Miss Lemon, rather than Poirot, who is the recipient of Hastings’s advice. It seems Miss Lemon is quite a keen speculator, and is buying and selling shares with some success. It’s quite nice to see this side of Miss Lemon, and it’s good to know her quick brain is used for more than just maintaining Poirot’s files.
There’s also a nice Christie-esque clue added to the episode, which wasn’t present in the original story. As Poirot and Hastings are now on hand to investigate Wu Ling’s possessions (conducting a search that wasn’t included in the source), Poirot is able to discover an anomalous box of matches that makes for rather a nice puzzle.
Oh… and continuing my love affair with Poirot’s accessories, he shows off a natty smoking/playing Monopoly jacket in this episode.
Aside from these details – and the reappearance of Inspector Jameson (played by John Cording), who previously appeared in ‘Murder in the Mews’ (and is an even more minor recurring character than Dicker) – there isn’t much more ‘good’ to talk about. The writers had a rather dull story to contend with, and their reasonably faithful adaptation results in a rather dull episode, to be honest.
Added to this, the only good bits of the original story are removed! Inspector Miller is absent, so Poirot doesn’t get chance to make his comparison with Japp. Poirot’s incognito trip to the opium den is also altered, replaced by a co-ordinated police raid on a premises in Limehouse. In my opinion, this is no more engaging than the source material – in fact, it feels a lot like padding.
Christie’s short story – like Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ – is set in a very particular version of Limehouse. It’s the Chinatown of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, and WWI Sinophobia. It’s a world of opium dens, gambling and murder.
Of course, Christie subverts the expectation of the ‘evil’ lurking in Limehouse. While Wu Ling was indeed murdered by Chinese men, these killers were merely acting at the behest of the true villain – the respectable (and English) Mr Pearson. As I said in my review of ‘Peril at End House’ though, this subversion of expectations isn’t necessarily being used to interrogate racist stereotypes, but rather to reinforce them: Pearson is the last person you’d suspect because he’s so English, the Chinese characters are much more obvious suspects because… well… they’re Chinese.
Now, this racist stereotyping of the inhabitants of Chinatown as murderous villains was actually criticized in the ‘rules’ of Golden Age detective fiction, and Christie’s bait-and-switch of revealing Pearson to be the true villain reflects an edict by one of her contemporaries (and colleagues). When Ronald Knox, one of the founding members (along with Christie) of the Detection Club, wrote his Detective Story Decalogue in 1929, his fifth rule stated: ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story.’ The reason for this interdiction has often been misinterpreted, but Knox made his thinking very clear. The ‘sinister Chinaman’ belonged in the realm of the thriller (like Sax Rohmer’s work, for instance), not the whodunit – using this figure is a lazy way to resolve a well-crafted puzzle. As Knox goes on to say:
‘Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial [Chinese person] is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”, you had best put it down at once; it is bad.’While she does set her story in Chinatown, Christie sails just the right side of Knox’s prohibition: it is the Englishman who is ‘over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals’, and there are no ‘Chin Loo’-type characters stalking the pages…
… but that’s not true of the adaptation.
In padding out the story with a number of forays into Limehouse, the episode necessarily introduces more individuated Chinese characters than were present in Christie’s short story – and these are all handled badly. In particular, the only named character aside from Wu Ling – Chow Feng (played by Hi Ching) – is very much of the ‘Chin Loo’ school of characterization. The owner of the Red Dragon club is sinister, effete and criminal – he might not have been behind the murder, but he’s certainly guilty of something.
But at least this character gets a name! The only other Chinese characters listed in the credits – and, remember, the ‘Wu Ling’ we see on screen isn’t really Wu Ling, so doesn’t get listed – are ‘Chinaman’, ‘Restaurant Manager’, ‘Oriental Gentleman’ and ‘Chinese Tart’. To make matters worse, one of these characters – ‘Restaurant Manager’ (played by Ozzie Yue) – is given a name (Mr Ho) in the episode, but this doesn’t seem important enough to add to the credits.
|Ozzie Yue as Mr Ho, Hi Ching as Chow Feng, Susan Leong as ‘Chinese Tart’|
It does break my heart to heap such criticism on a show I love, but sadly this episode (from 1990) actually heightens the problematic ‘Yellow Peril’ undercurrent of the short story (published in 1923), and it doesn’t seem appropriate to gloss over this – no matter how much I love the show.
To end, I will just add that the Limehouse sequences do allow for one (more positive) addition to the story. We get to see a hint of what Japp does when he’s not helping Poirot solves genteel whodunits. As in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, Japp introduces Poirot and Hastings to an aspect of modern policing. In the first series, it was a forensics lab; in this episode, it’s a state-of-the-art radio control room, complete with a dynamic map to be used in co-ordinating surveillance and raids.
Cool as this room is, we’re returned to ‘Yellow Peril’ territory quite quickly, as it’s revealed that Japp is using this resource to co-ordinate his investigations into the activities of ‘the Tongs’, a Chinese crime organization. Indeed, Japp is barely interested in the lost mine; he is completely focused on bringing down the crime syndicate, and his interrogation of Mr Ho and Reggie Dyer (played by James Saxon) are to this end, rather than to assist in Poirot’s case. The two investigations come together at the Red Dragon Club, as Japp believes it’s a hub of organized crime and Poirot believes it’s the scene of Wu Ling’s murder. (It’s both.)
Ultimately, despite his state-of-the-art control room, and an investigation that’s lasted seven years, Japp fails to nab a single Tong. All that time and effort has been for nothing, and Japp almost looks dejected as all he gets to do is arrest another of Poirot’s English murderers. He walks away with the slumped shoulders of a man who’s just realized that, while he might be an admirable associate to a Golden Age detective, he’ll never be the hero who roots out the corruption at the heart of Limehouse.
Forget it, Japp. It’s Chinatown.
And now for something completely different… the next episode is ‘The Cornish Mystery’.