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.

However…

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?

Probably.

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’

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