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 Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
The seventh episode of the second series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 11th February 1990. It was based on the short story of the same name (aka ‘By Road or Rail’), which was first published in the Sunday Dispatch in 1928.
In my last post, I talked a bit about Poirot and Hastings’s living arrangements in the early short stories. This domestic set-up changes after The Murder on the Links (1923), which signals the end of the cosy ‘shared rooms’ of the Sketch short stories; by The Big Four (1927) and Peril at End House (1932), Hastings is ensconced in his ranch in Argentina with his wife, only popping back occasionally to meet up with his old friend. In the scheme of Poirot and Hastings’s friendship, ‘Double Sin’ takes place during this time – Poirot is now living alone in ‘rooms’ (he’s not yet moved into his swanky serviced apartment), and Hastings is living elsewhere. The story begins with Hastings arriving at Poirot’s lodgings:
‘I had called in at my friend Poirot’s rooms to find him sadly overworked. So much had he become the rage that every rich woman who had mislaid a bracelet or lost a pet kitten rushed to secure the services of the great Hercule Poirot. My little friend was a strange mixture of Flemish thrift and artistic fervour. He accepted many cases in which he had little interest owing to the first instinct being predominant.’There are a couple of things that interest me about this introduction. Firstly, this story is set during the height of Poirot’s fame as a private detective, despite the fact it was published after The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and his first failed ‘retirement’ from detective work. The rich women with missing bracelets returns to an idea from one of the earlier short stories, ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’ (the adaptation of which will appear later in this series), that Poirot became quite fashionable for a time. Secondly, although Hastings clearly no longer shares rooms with Poirot, there’s no mention of his wife or his ranch anywhere in the story. In fact, there’s a little moment where Poirot behaves as though Hastings is still single (and Hastings responds as though he is still single):
‘“You were observing the pretty young lady who booked No. 5, the next seat to ours. Ah! Yes, my friend, I saw you. […]”I’m not sure if this little exchange means that the story is set earlier than it was published – though this wouldn’t really make sense as Hastings lived with Poirot right up until his bachelordom ended. Instead, I like to think of it as an indication that the two men find it easy to slip back into their old ways, even after Hastings has got married and moved away. If you remove the first sentence, ‘Double Sin’ could very easily be one of the 1923 Sketch stories.
“Really, Poirot,” I said, blushing.
“Auburn hair – always the auburn hair!”’
Hastings arrives at his ‘overworked’ friend’s rooms and is quickly told that Poirot has promised to undertake some work for ‘Joseph Aarons, the theatrical agent’. Aarons doesn’t actually appear in the short story, but he appeared in the novels The Murder on the Links, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Big Four. So, if you’re reading Christie’s stories in the order in which they were published, this character’s name will be familiar. Of course, I’m rereading them in the order ITV chose to adapt them, so have to keep referring to texts I’ve not got to yet in order to remind myself of who appears where. Had I not already read Links, Blue Train and Big Four, the name of Joseph Aarons would mean nothing. In this case – as with other minor recurring characters in Christie’s texts – it doesn’t really matter whether the reader is familiar with Joseph Aarons or not. Hastings makes this clear in his narration, when Poirot asks him if he calls the theatrical agent: ‘I assented after a moment’s thought. Poirot’s friends are so many and so varied, and range from dustmen to dukes.’ As is often the case, Hastings is acting as a stand-in for the reader; we don’t need to worry about the details, all that matters is that Aarons is one of the detective’s many random friends. His role within the story is clear without any knowledge of his backstory: all you need to know is that it is a letter from Aarons that has compelled Poirot to temporarily leave his cases in London and travel to Charlock Bay in Devon.
As travelling to Charlock Bay by train is somewhat difficult, Hastings books the two men on a Speedy Cars ‘motor coach’ – much to Poirot’s chagrin. On board the coach, they meet a young woman named Mary Durrant, who is carrying a collection of valuable miniatures that are to be sold to an American dealer (Mr J. Baker Wood). Also travelling with them is a man who is ‘trying to grow a moustache and as yet the result is poor’. Hastings is quite taken by the flame-haired Miss Durrant; Poirot is intrigued by the man with the ‘indeterminate moustache’.
At Ebermouth, the coach stops for lunch, and the man with the indeterminate moustache (Norton Kane) removes his suitcase from the coach and leaves the party. Later in the day, when they arrive at Charlock Bay, Miss Durrant discovers that her suitcase has been forced and the miniatures stolen. Poirot is fascinated, and promises to help the distraught young woman.
Just in case the reader is still labouring under the illusion that the ‘business’ with Joseph Aarons is going to play any part in the plot, Hastings summarily dismisses this:
‘We lunched with Joseph Aarons, and after lunch, Poirot announced to me that he had settled the theatrical agent’s problem satisfactorily, and that we could return to Ebermouth as soon as we liked.’Whatever the problem was, the detective managed to solve it over one lunch date, leaving us in no doubt that a) Poirot can work pretty fast when he needs to, and b) this was really all just an excuse for Poirot and Hastings to go on a coach trip. Sure enough, there’s no more mention of this problem, and Poirot devotes his attention for the rest of the story on the mystery of the missing miniatures.
Like the other earlier Poirot short stories, the puzzle is wrapped up quickly and neatly by the great detective. The solution is a satisfying one, but what really makes this story for me is Poirot’s explanation of how/why he was so interested in the case. At the end of the story, he offers several insights, which are so perfectly Poirot you can’t help but smile.
On ruling out Norton Kane as a serious suspect, Poirot says: ‘With that moustache? A criminal is either clean shaven or he has a proper moustache that can be removed at will.’ While this is partly a continuation of what seems to be a small obsession with Kane’s moustache on the part of our fastidious dandy, what Poirot says makes complete sense. We’ve been told several times that Kane’s ‘indeterminate moustache’ simply draws attention to the man – not very handy for a jewel thief. It’s interesting that the TV adaptation of ‘Double Sin’ followed ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, as dramatic and removable facial hair is central to the disappearing act in that story.
On explaining how Mary Durrant attempted to use the two men in her nefarious scheme, Poirot (with characteristic snark) explains:
‘Mademoiselle Mary has only to find a couple of mugs who will be sympathetic to her charm and champion beauty in distress. But one of the mugs was no mug – he was Hercule Poirot!’For once, the implications of this don’t go over Hastings’s head, who grumpily thinks to himself: ‘I hardly like the inference.’ But Poirot’s cheeky little comment does remind us that Mary Durrant isn’t the first pretty girl to think she can play Poirot for a mug (that would be Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan – aka Gertie – in ‘The Veiled Lady’), and she won’t be the last (Nick Buckley is just around the corner). Poirot will be approached and befriended by a number of young women in his career – and he’ll always be sympathetic to their charms and a champion in their distress – but because of the likes of Millicent and Mary, we never really know whether we should trust any of them.
Finally, in a hasty attempt to retract his implied insult, Poirot claims that the other ‘mug’ was actually J. Baker Wood, and that the detective felt a strong need to help the hapless American: ‘we visitors, Hastings, must stand together. Me, I am all for the visitors!’ This isn’t a sentiment that Poirot always expresses directly, but there are other stories in which he forms an unspoken bond as a result of shared ‘foreignness’ (e.g. with Mrs Vanderlyn’s French maid in ‘The Incredible Theft’). Significantly, though, it’s rare for Poirot to express this sense of solidarity with Americans; more usually, when confronted by someone from the US, the Belgian aligns himself with his fellow Europeans (the English) against the transatlantic ‘other’. Perhaps it’s the fact that J. Baker Wood has been duped by two (apparently) quintessential English women that provokes his statement.
The TV adaptation of ‘Double Sin’ was directed by Richard Spence and written by Clive Exton. With the exception of the double-length series opener, all the other episodes so far in this series have been adaptations of Sketch short stories (i.e. the 1923 series of stories in which Poirot and Hastings live together). As I’ve said ‘Double Sin’ is a later post-Links story, but because it’s so similar in style to the 1923 stories, Exton hasn’t had to do too much to make it follow on from ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and the rest of the series. Hastings doesn’t need to be added, as he was already there as narrator; the story is set when the two men are sharing a flat in London so Miss Lemon fits right in; Inspector Japp, as usual, can replace ‘the police inspector in charge of the case’… except actually that’s not what happens here (but more on that in a moment).
The episode begins with Poirot in a bad mood. The two friends are visiting a park, and Poirot is in a funk. He wants to retire and complains to Hastings that his career is over. This is a departure from the ‘overworked’ Poirot of the short story, but it continues a theme that runs throughout this series of the TV show.
It’s Poirot’s bad mood, rather than a communication from Aarons, that prompts the men to go on a little trip – though it’s up north, rather than down south, that they head here. They travel to Whitcombe (a fictional Lancashire town, actually filmed in Morecambe). Soon after they arrive, Hastings discovers that their old friend Japp is in town – the policeman is doing a ‘North Country’ lecture tour – what a coincidence!
As Poirot doesn’t seem interested in attending his friend’s lecture, Hastings suggests they take a ‘Speedy Tours’ coach to Windermere. Here, they meet Mary Durrant (played by Caroline Milmoe) and Norton Kane (the man with the indeterminate moustache) (played by Adam Kotz) and, as in the short story, Hastings is charmed by the young woman, while Poirot is curious about the young man. There is a small detail removed from the short story, which is a shame. In Christie’s text, Poirot orchestrates the seating arrangements with a delightful tact that goes straight over his companion’s head:
‘Poirot, rather maliciously, I thought, assigned me the outside place as “I had the mania for the fresh air” and himself occupied the seat next to our fair neighbour [Mary Durrant]. Presently, however, he made amends. The man in seat 6 was a noisy fellow, inclined to be facetious and boisterous, and Poirot asked the girl in a low voice if she would like to change seats with him.’Is it just me? or does it seem like this might have been Poirot’s plan all along? (Though, is it not also a little odd that Poirot appears to matchmaking his married friend, while Hastings’s poor wife waits patiently on the ranch?)
The TV episode omits this little detail – though it would have made more sense within their chronology! – and simply has Hastings sitting next to Mary from the start.
The disappearance of the miniatures is revealed in a similar way to in the short story, and Norton Kane is once again framed as the main suspect. The TV episode gives more attention to the poorly-moustachioed man, making him seem even more suspicious than in the source text, but adds an expanded backstory to explain his bizarre behaviour. I suppose it should also be noted that the miniatures themselves are also slightly elevated here: they’re now Napoleonic and have increased in value from £500 to £1500.
It’s the investigation that is most altered in the adaptation. As Poirot is insistent he is ‘retired’, he refuses to accept the case. It falls to Hastings to take on the mantle of detective, as he does in other episodes in the series (‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’). This leads to some comical moments, as Hastings puts his theories to the local policemen (played by David Hargreaves and Gerard Horan) and is shot down by the common-sensical northerners, and then is given a series of subtle hints by Poirot, despite the fact that the detective is ‘not investigating’. I particularly like Hasting’s attempts to look after his little grey cells through diet and sleep, and his joyous exclamations when he wakes up with (what he believes is) the solution: ‘It must have been the haddock! I feel wonderful!’
Poirot, though, remains in his funk. He takes no enjoyment in his friend’s investigations, and refuses to accompany Hastings on the case. We discover why in due course: when Hastings goes to bed early to let the haddock do its work, Poirot sneaks out of the hotel to attend Japp’s lecture.
This is a lovely moment. Up until this point, we’ve been led to believe that Poirot is simply jealous that Japp has been asked to do a lecture tour – and this is probably partly the case. But as Poirot listens to Japp discussing private detectives, it becomes clear that Poirot is actually worried that the policeman will either slight his abilities, or else leave them out entirely. I’ve always felt that this isn’t just about Poirot’s ego – throughout the series, the friendship between the men is emphasized, and I’ve always felt that part of Poirot’s worry comes from the fear that his friend might say something mean.
His fears are unfounded, of course. Japp sings Poirot’s praises to the rafters, speaking of his pleasure and gratitude at being able to work alongside the little Belgian detective. David Suchet plays Poirot’s response to this beautifully, allowing a series of emotions to play over his face that take us from his initial surprise, through his touching affection, and back to his characteristic pride. At one point, you can even see the tiny hint of a tear in his eye.
The three men come together to wrap the case up and confront the thief at the end of the episode. Japp and Poirot light-heartedly tease Hastings for barking up completely the wrong tree; however, the tables are then turned when Hastings discovers a newspaper clipping in Poirot’s wallet – it seems he knew about Japp’s lecture all along, and that was the reason for his sudden desire to see the Lake District. Now it’s Hastings’s turn to rib his friend – and Japp laughs along. It’s quite charming, really.
So… while the boys are on their jollies in the Lake District, what’s Miss Lemon up to?
Poirot’s secretary isn’t in the short story, and it seems there’s no place for her on the TV version of the Speedy Tours coach either. Instead, she gets her own (rather odd) little story. After being confronted by some kids doing penny-for-the-guy, Miss Lemon is flustered and loses her keys. This means she can’t leave the flat until she finds them – and she can’t find them until she employs the ‘order and method’ espoused by her employer.
While this little vignette is a bit superfluous, there are a couple of nice bits. George Little is back as Dicker – hooray! – in his last (physical) appearance in the series. It’s Dicker’s longest scene, as well, and we get a slight sense of him as a character as well.
When poor Miss Lemon is forced to sleep in her office, as she can’t leave Mr Poirot’s flat unlocked, she has a very weird dream. In an evocative mist, the faces of Poirot and Hastings float towards her, speaking snatches of characteristic dialogue – only Hastings’s voice comes out of Poirot’s mouth, and vice versa. It’s bit trippy, but I kind of like it.
To finish, some miscellaneous thoughts…
I’m afraid I don’t like the TV version of Miss Penn (played by Elspet Gray). In the short story, Mary’s aunt is a sweet little old lady with ‘pink-and-white skin’ and ‘a cape of priceless old lace’. This exterior ensures that Hastings (and, perhaps, the reader) never suspects that Miss Penn might be the ‘masculine woman’ who sold the ‘stolen’ miniatures to J. Baker Wood.
In the TV episode, Miss Penn uses a wheelchair, and this serves as the reason Hastings doesn’t suspect her. However, she does seem like she could disguise herself as a ‘masculine woman’. Even in the chair, her height is apparent, and she’s been divested of the frilly, lacy, pink-and-white innocence of her literary counterpart. (As soon as my husband Rob saw her – bearing in mind he’d never seen a single episode until I started this project – he pointed at the screen and shouted ‘It was her!’) Turns out a fake wheelchair is a much weaker disguise than simply ‘being a little old lady’.
The episode makes up for its far-too-obvious Miss Penn with some stunning settings. Maybe it’s because I’m Cumbrian, but I’m glad the programme-makers switched the location to the Lakes (Poirot goes to Devon far too much). The Midland Hotel in Whitcombe is actually the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, and J. Baker Wood’s hotel is being played by the gorgeous mock-Gothic Wray Castle in Ambleside.
Also nice is a little exchange between Hastings and Miss Lemon at the beginning of the episode. After Poirot and Hastings return from the park, the detective continues to grumble. Miss Lemon comments sotto voce that her employer is acting very middle-aged, to which Hastings replies: ‘Well, he’s always been middle-aged. Have you seen that picture of him at his christening?’
Finally, there’s another detail that shows Clive Exton knew his source material well. In Christie’s short story, Poirot explains to Mary Durrant that he will discover the whereabouts of her miniatures:
‘Ah! But it is an idea that! You think I take the rabbits out of the hat? No, mademoiselle. Me, I am the opposite of a conjurer. The conjurer, he makes things disappear. Me, I make things that have disappeared, reappear.’(That’s right… it’s another reference to conjuring!)
As the TV Poirot refuses the investigate, this little speech is cut from the adaptation. Instead, Poirot simply asks Mary if she knows who he is. She replies:
‘You’re not that conjuror, are you?’After Poirot’s little hobby in the previous episode, she can be forgiven for making this mistake.
Time to move on though, as these reviews seem to be getting longer and longer. God knows how much I’ll be writing by the time I get to Curtain.
The next episode is ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’