Friday, 25 March 2016

Poirot Project: Peril at End House (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 Dream’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

Now we reach Series 2 – and a couple of changes. Firstly, this has now become ‘our’ project, rather than just ‘my’ project. My husband Rob was a bit reluctant to watch along with me at the start, because he said he didn’t like the series. As it turns out, this was because of a lingering negative association from his teens: the early episodes were always broadcast on a Sunday night, and so became associated with the end of the weekend and the start of another week at school. Once I persuaded him that he wouldn’t have to go back to school after each episode, he decided to give it a go. After a couple of episodes of Series 1, he was hooked and is now even planning to read some of Christie’s novels in preparation for later episodes.

Which brings me to the next change: Series 2 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot included the first adaptation of a Poirot novel, as well as more of the short stories. The series began on 7th January 1990 with a double-episode adaptation of Peril at End House. (The four series of short story adaptations were all broadcast in January-March, each beginning shortly after Christmas – perhaps another reason why Rob associated the first series with going back to school. I’m a little younger, so had not long started secondary school when ‘Peril at End House’ aired – I hadn’t yet come to loathe going to school. But that would come.) Future adaptations of novels would be feature-length standalone episodes, but ‘Peril at End House’ is very much part of the second series – the story ran across two one-hour slots, each one bookended by the opening and closing credits. There were eight other episodes in the series, making this run of stories the same size as Series 1.

Now, I am aware that my posts for this pet project have been getting longer and longer. Given that I’m now going to be delving back into Christie’s novels as well as her short stories, this is probably not going to change. Peril at End House is one of my favourite Poirot novels (one of my many favourites), and I’ve read it numerous times – the last time was last August, when I was recovering from a serious infection (comfort reading), but I still reread it before watching the episode(s) again – so there’s a lot I want to say about this one!

The academic side of me needs to note which edition I’m referring to. I’m using The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 2003), which was a Christmas present from my little brother (along with The Complete Short Stories that I’ve been referring to in other posts).


Peril at End House was first published in 1932. It was Christie’s sixth Poirot novel, following The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), The Murder on the Links (1923), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), The Big Four (1927) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) as well as numerous short stories and the play Black Coffee (1930). I don’t know for sure why Peril at End House was chosen as the first novel to adapt, but I can make a guess. Given the style of the early series, it makes sense that the programme-makers decided to go with one of the early Poirot novels, as these are perhaps closer in overall ‘feel’ to the short stories. The Big Four is a bit anomalous and was widely held to be unadaptable (until 2013, but more on that much later); The Mystery of the Blue Train has a bit more of a ‘thriller’ feel (again, more on that in a bit). The Mysterious Affair at Styles would have to be told in flashback, so I can understand the decision to save it until the characters are more well-established. And I don’t think I need to say anything on why it took a while longer for anyone to work out how on earth to adapt The Murder of Roger Ackroyd! I’ll say a bit more about The Murder on the Links in a moment…

As I’ve said, Peril at End House feels closer to the short stories of the 1920s than many of the later novels, not least because it is narrated by the good Captain Hastings. The story begins with Hastings and his illustrious associate on holiday in St Loo, Cornwall (a fictional seaside town – which I’ll return to when I get to Evil Under the Sun). They’re on holiday, and Poirot is absolutely insistent that he has retired. They meet a young woman, Nick Buckley, and Poirot quickly becomes convinced that someone is trying to kill their new friend – and, naturally, he is compelled to investigate. When an attempt on Nick’s life appears to go wrong, and her cousin Maggie dies, Poirot (assisted by Hastings and Japp) steps up his game and solves the case.

What do I love about Peril at End House? Firstly, it’s narrated by Hastings, and I have a real soft spot for his narration. Like the early short stories, Hastings’s narration is differentiated from Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes stories by a (mostly) light-hearted to-and-fro between detective and sidekick. Hastings is far less reverential than Watson, and his critique of his friend’s methods and demeanour is always enjoyable. In the novels, however, there seems to be more space for Poirot to get his own back (though he does do this in the short stories, especially ‘Problem at Sea’). This is evident from the first page: Poirot reminisces about his last case (more on this shortly) and tells Hastings that his friend’s involvement would have been ‘invaluable’. Hastings reflects on this: ‘As a result of long habit, I distrust his compliments, but he appeared perfectly serious.’ Poirot then explains that George, his valet (who accompanied him on that last case) has ‘no imagination whatever’, and he would have been glad of Hastings for ‘a certain amount of light relief’. This line is particularly amusing in light of the first series of the TV show, where ‘light relief’ was exactly the role in which Hastings was cast.

Elsewhere, we have Poirot claiming that, for a married man, Hastings has ‘very little appreciation of feminine psychology’, and mocking his friend’s ‘out of date’ shock at the details of a divorce case. Hastings comments a couple of times on Poirot’s arrogance, and in return Poirot teases his friend about his staid ‘Victorian’ ways.

Unlike in the short stories, though, this snarkiness occasionally tips over into bickering. At one point, Poirot’s highhanded criticism of his friend threatens to become almost hurtful:
‘You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.’
To which Hastings makes an impassioned defence:
‘Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I were the kind of credulous fool you make out?’
As this little example shows, there’s a big difference in the men’s relationship here to that in the original run of short stories – Hastings is now a married man, living overseas, and this distance has slightly altered the dynamic of their friendship. Nevertheless, this is redeemed in the novel’s denouement, which subtly relies on the close working relationship the two men have built over the years. Poirot doesn’t inform Hastings of his plans, but assembles the suspects and announces to the room that his friend Hastings has ‘pronounced mediumistic powers’. ‘Why fix on me,’ Hastings thinks to himself, but then seamlessly (and convincingly) enters into the role. I really like this bit, as it shows how well Hastings knows and trusts the methods of his strange little companion.

The other thing I love about Peril at End House is the mystery itself. As with all the classic Christie novels, the clues are presented from the very start – you just don’t always know what you’re looking at. In the second chapter, Freddie Rice actually says the solution outright and unequivocally – but, like Poirot and Hastings, the reader glosses over this and goes back to trying to solve what they think is the puzzle. I do like it when Christie sticks the solution right under your nose, and Freddie’s statement is a brilliant example of just how audacious this can be.

I need to get on to the TV episode, so just a couple of other highlights briefly… although his role is not as significant as in the adaptation, the novel features a welcome appearance from Japp. Poirot involves his ‘good friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard’ after the murder has occurred. Poirot and Hastings travel to London and meet Japp for dinner at the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ (presumably Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street). There are some nice Japp moments here, including his awkward explanation of ‘nerve doctors’ (‘talk to you about your libido, whatever that is’) and his casual description of Poirot’s moustache as ‘face fungus’. I like the social scenes with Japp, Hastings and Poirot, though there are fewer of them in the source stories than in the TV show (‘The Market Basing Mystery’ is a good example).

There are also a few other nice bits of characterization that will crop up in the TV show – though not necessarily in the ‘Peril at End House’ episode(s). I’ve mentioned the earlier series’ ‘car porn’ in previous posts, but Peril at End House has a nice example too. On spotting Jim Lazarus’s car, Hastings notes:
‘It seemed longer and redder than any car could be. It had a long gleaming bonnet of polished metal. A super car!’
(This car will appear – as a Chevrolet Phantom – in the adaptation, with Hastings’s narration represented in Hugh Fraser’s lingering appreciative gaze.)

Later on, Hastings will comment on Poirot’s loathing of the full English breakfast, his habit of building card houses to soothe his nerves, and his insistence on square toast – details which all feed into the presentation of the character on screen (although… Suchet’s Poirot does eat a full English in ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’). Some details will also be incorporated quite neatly into the episode – rather than pointing out Poirot’s ‘objection to golf’, the episode simply shows him dismissing Hastings’s desire to play ‘a quick nine holes’ with ‘Stiffy Bentham’ (it’s not clear whether this dismissal is because they are in the middle of a case, or if it’s because of the game itself – after all, Suchet’s Poirot has already showed himself to be quite proficient at golf). Similarly, rather than have his friend point out Poirot’s insistence on eggs that are the same size, the TV episode takes a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach and adds a little breakfast scene (complete with gorgeous egg cups) to illustrate.


Before moving on, I should really mention the lowlights of the book. Like many of Agatha Christie’s books, Peril at End House includes a couple of comments that reveal the less pleasant side of contemporary mores. In this case, it’s insidious anti-Semitism and classism. The character of Jim Lazarus is first described by Nick Buckley thus: ‘He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.’ And there are several other comments of this sort throughout the book, including Poirot’s casual mention of ‘the long-nosed M. Lazarus’. Poirot’s working notes on the mystery also contain a less-than-flattering characterization of the working class, as he notes the housekeeper Ellen’s apparent enjoyment of the murder: ‘But that might be due to natural pleasurable excitement of her class over deaths.’ However, as is also the case in many of Christie’s novels, these derogatory suspicions turn out to be misguided: Lazarus is revealed to be one of the only ‘decent’ characters in the book, and Ellen’s ‘satisfaction’ turns out to be relief at the vindication of her own suspicions about Nick. While it’s possible to interpret this as Christie attacking contemporary racist and classist views, I’m afraid I believe that it’s quite the opposite. Having Lazarus and Ellen turn out to be ‘goodies’ is meant to be a twist – suggesting that the Jewish man and the servant in Peril at End House are actually going against type (I’ll come back to this idea in my review of ‘The Lost Mine’).

Right, that said, I need to move on the TV adaptation!


The episode was written by Clive Exton and directed by Renny Rye. As I’ve said, it was first broadcast on 7th January 1990, and it’s a two-part story (the first half ends after Nick’s ‘engagement’ to Michael Seton is revealed and Poirot explains that there is now a more significant motive for her murder). The episode is, like all of Exton’s adaptations, fairly faithful to Christie’s novel, though there are some interesting alterations made.

The first of these is a fairly obvious choice. Christie’s novel makes a number of passing references to other stories – including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and ‘The Chocolate Box’ (though Christie avoids giving any spoilers… an etiquette she notoriously dispenses with in Cards on the Table) – which hadn’t yet been adapted for the series. All these references are, naturally, dropped – though they could’ve kept the cryptic mention of ‘the famous case which Poirot solved by his habit of straightening ornaments on the mantelpiece’, in my opinion). More significantly though, Peril at End House follows on from the earlier novels in terms of the development of Poirot’s career and of Hastings’s personal life. So, Poirot has already retired to King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and travelled on the Blue Train with his valet George (The Mystery of the Blue Train), before he arrives in St Loo. More importantly, the events of The Murder on the Links have already taken place and Hastings is now married (though he appears to have forgotten his wife’s real name and refers to her as ‘Bella’ in Peril at End House… oops) and running a ranch in Argentina. While we will get to this in the ITV series, we’re not there yet, and so ‘Peril at End House’ is altered to situate it more neatly into the early series. There is no sense of reunion with Hastings or Japp – Poirot is still working (and living) alongside his associates.

The episode begins, then, with Poirot and Hastings simply taking a holiday in Cornwall (St Looe, now, rather than St Loo). They arrive – inexplicably – by plane, and settle into the Majestic Hotel. This Poirot is more crochetty than his literary counterpart, unhappy with both the flight and the accommodation. One of the more light-hearted lines from the book’s first chapter – when Hastings reads a newspaper report on Michael Seton, Poirot mischievously asks, ‘The Solomon islanders are still cannibals, are they not?’ – turns into a grumpy bark of ‘Cannibals!’ to signal his lack of interest. The detective’s interest in Nick’s hat – the first indication of any wrongdoing – is also a lot more abrupt than in the novel.


Nevertheless, Poirot’s interest in Nick is the same as in the novel. Polly Walker’s portrayal of Nick is very close to the character from the book, and she charmingly leads Poirot up the garden path. The plot also remains the same, though the red herring subplot featuring Freddie’s husband is dropped, and many of the clues are also retained (though, as elsewhere some of the subtlety – particularly regarding the wristwatches – is diminished). The solution to the mystery – and to the side mystery of the missing will – is the same as in the novel.

As a little side note, there are a couple of things that are played down in the episode. For instance, while the Crofts appear as over-the-top Australians, just as they are in the novel, Mr Croft (Jeremy Young) doesn’t describe Poirot as a ‘bonza detective’ – perhaps Exton thought modern viewers would think this word was an anachronism more suited to Neighbours than the 1930s setting of the show? As in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, there’s also evidence of a certain coyness in the adaptation. In the novel, when Hastings objects to Poirot going through Nick’s underwear, the detective exclaims:
‘The camisole, the camiknicker, it is no longer a shameful secret. Every day, on the beach, all these garments will be discarded within a few feet of you. And why not?’
In the episode, Poirot calls Hastings ‘Victorian’ but doesn’t follow this up with more comment. I think this change is completely justified – it’s really weird to imagine Suchet’s Poirot talking about knickers.

Other changes… as with most of the early series, Miss Lemon has been added to the story. This is done quite neatly, as Miss Lemon takes on some of the background work that Japp carries out in the novel (investigating Dr MacAllister, for instance). The episode also rewrites Hastings’s casual comment on the number of nicknames for ‘Margaret’ into a comical conversation between Hastings and Miss Lemon, in which they not only drop the ‘Margaret’ clue, but also consider the nicknames ‘Herc’ and ‘Jimmy’ for Poirot and Japp. Finally, Miss Lemon switches roles with Hastings in the denouement – it is now Miss Lemon who must play the role of the medium (without warning), with Hastings jovially egging her on (just as the literary Poirot did to his counterpart). Reading the novel’s séance immediately before watching the TV version actually adds a really nice extra layer of humour to this scene.

As I’ve said, Japp does appear in the novel, but his role is expanded in the TV episode. He’s called in at the death of Maggie Buckley, and assists with the rest of the case. This means that we get to see Japp having a stick of rock at the seaside – which is an absolute pleasure – as well as the first of many ‘social’ scenes between the three men (joined here by Miss Lemon), which will recur throughout Series 2.


The episode does have a bigger deviation from the source material, which I’m a bit less enthusiastic about. I love the character of Freddie Rice in Christie’s novel, but I’m less enamoured with her TV counterpart.

In the novel, an uncharacteristically poetic Hastings describes Freddie as a ‘weary Madonna’: ‘She impressed me, I think, as the most tired person I had ever met.’ This doesn’t really fit with Alison Sterling’s portrayal of the character.


Sterling’s Freddie is quite vibrant – first seen dancing around Nick’s sitting-room, singing along to ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’. We do get to see a more run-down Freddie, after she believes Nick has died, but I still don’t think ‘weary Madonna’ quite captures it.


Christie’s Freddie is a misleading character, and Hastings’s initial assessment is revealed to be a hint of the sympathy the reader will eventually feel towards her. Freddie has been dragged into drug abuse by her no-good ex-husband. She’s desperate to be free of this negative influence, and has been growing apart from Nick (a girl who, it’s revealed, loves a good ‘dope party’) as a result. The ‘pukka sahib’ Commander Challenger is revealed to be Nick and Freddie’s dealer – thus, another negative influence in Freddie’s life – and the suspicious Jim Lazarus is actually a good guy, trying (and succeeding) to help his friend shake her addiction. At the end of the novel, Freddie admits to Poirot that she’s almost clean and ready to move on with her life.

Much of this is removed from the TV episode. Freddie’s husband is mentioned, but not in any detail, making it appear almost as though she is the guilty party, running around with Jim (Paul Geoffrey) after abandoning her husband. She isn’t attempting to kick her habit, but enjoys partying (and snorting coke) with her friends. The TV Freddie is revealed not to be a murderer, but she’s still an unrepentant drug user at the end. I much prefer the version in the novel, to be honest.

This review has turned into an essay, I’m afraid. Not surprising, really, as this is the first of the novel adaptations and it’s based on one of my favourite books. I should try and wrap things up… even though there are so many more things I could say (I haven’t even mentioned all the references to conjuring and stage performance in the book, or the fact that Hastings has a fever dream in which Poirot appears as ‘a kind of fantastic clown, making a periodic appearance in a circus’.)

Instead, here are two final thoughts on the TV episode(s)…

This story sees the first appearance of Carol MacReady in the series (she’ll be back in Cat Among the Pigeons), playing Mrs Croft. While the character is pretty much the same as in the novel, the bit where Japp recognizes her as the forger Milly Merton (‘Hello-ello-ello…’) has been dropped. Perhaps this is because overcomplicating the Crofts’ backstory would weigh down the episode’s denouement, but I’ve often wondered if it’s not because Japp will make a similar pronouncement in the next episode (‘The Veiled Lady’). Given that Japp’s recognition of Gertie is completely integral to the plot of that story, it makes sense that Exton decided to drop the similar (but less important) scene in ‘Peril at End House’.

And finally, a comment should be made on Elizabeth Downes’s portrayal of Maggie Buckley. The point of Maggie’s character is that the reader/viewer shouldn’t pay much attention to her – she has to be near enough invisible or the jig is up. In the novel, just before the fireworks, the characters have dinner and conversation turns to the fate of Michael Seton. As is necessary (and, at that point in the story, appropriate), everyone’s attention is focused on Nick, and Maggie’s only involvement is to politely ask Hastings if he’s ever done any flying. Now… rewatch that scene in the TV episode, ignoring all other characters and just watching Maggie’s face. It’s wonderfully done.

Time to bring this very long review to an end. Peril at End House remains one of my favourite Poirot novels, and the TV episode(s) is an excellent and (mostly) faithful adaptation. Exton’s small alterations allow the programme-makers to slot ‘Peril at End House’ neatly into the early series, drawing out its similarities to the early short stories but saving the big changes for later. For now, at least, the gang are still together.


Time to press on with the second series… the next episode is ‘The Veiled Lady’.

2 comments:

  1. I love Peril at End House. I think it's one of my favourite Poirot novels. This episode (or episodes) were a good adaptation. I agree with what you say about Freddie, but I think Polly Walker as Nick Buckley is really great. This post has definitely made me want to reread the book again. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should definitely read it again! It's an absolutely wonderful book. One of my favourites too... though I say that about a lot of the Poirot stories. ;-)

      Delete