The theology of the Clapham Cook

There’s an interesting detail in the first episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, that (with ironic appropriateness) very nearly flies under the radar. But if you’re a theology buff, it may have leapt out at you.

It involves the scene in which Eliza Dunn is relaying to Poirot and Hastings her encounter with the disguised Simpson. We see a man preaching on a street corner; he is quoting Psalm 118:22-23. “The stone which the builders rejected, the same has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” He then goes on to give what seems to be a brief homily, which is largely inaudible beneath Miss Dunn’s voice-over. It is not a scene that Christie wrote, but was added by the creators of the episode.

It’s just possible that it was a highly unusual coincidence, but if so, it was a rather remarkable one. This very passage that is quoted does, in fact, sum up the theme of the episode. When Poirot reflects on what he’s learned at the end, having humorously framed his one guinea from Mr. Todd, he says: “It is to me, Hastings, the little reminder: never to despise the trivial, or the undignified.”

Poirot had been inclined to reject Mrs. Todd and her seemingly insignificant case out of hand; it did not have the glamor of a case of “national importance.” But as he discovers, that lowly, minor affair was the key to solving a much larger and critical matter. Christie writes this attitude in Poirot elsewhere; in The Labours of Hercules, Poirot is presented with a case involving a stolen Pekingese, which fills him with loathing. He had been dreaming of solving a case that would bring earthly glory, and instead, it seems to be a minor affair of a lady’s lost pet. But when he takes a second look and digs deeper into the case, he learns of a clever and elaborate criminal scheme.

Indeed, Christie is a master at taking small, insignificant (often domestic) matters, and weaving them into a fantastic tapestry in which their importance is magnified immensely. In several stories, Poirot checks his personal pride, picks up on clues that are rejected by others as dreadfully common or insignificant– or regards persons of low bearing whom others might not have listened to– and in so doing gleans valuable and even game-changing information.

Psalm 118 is the final text of the Jewish Hallel, a series of psalms historically sung during Passover in celebration of Israel’s surprising and dramatic triumph over the Egyptian slavers, as well as on other joyful occasions. Jesus himself quotes the verses from this psalm about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone in his parable of the tenants (Matthew 21 and Luke 20), likening it to his own rejection as the Son of God. From the earliest days, beginning with St. Peter’s address to the council in Acts 4, the psalm was regarded by the Christian church as a prophecy of the unexpected lowliness, but ultimate triumph, of the Messiah. 1 Peter 2 also quotes the psalm and deals with this theme. This upside-down reversal of the high and the low is, in fact, a dominant theme of the Christian faith, one that is particularly emphasized in seasons such as Christmas and Lent. A ubiquitous Lenten reading from Isaiah 53, understood of old by the church to be a prophecy of the Christ, lays the same motif out clearly:

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

 In short, the fact that the man on the street corner in The Adventure of the Clapham Cook is reading and reflecting on a text about rejecting the trivial and insignificant–  which will turn out to be the most critical link, the cornerstone– dovetails exactly with the theme of the story.

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8 thoughts on “The theology of the Clapham Cook

  1. My goodness! A fellow lover of religion and detectives! That’s an obscure interest that I thought no one shared. I’ve written some theological pieces (of a less academic sort) on Broadchurch, Morse, and Sherlock Holmes.

    As it happens, the connection had occurred to me too, when I recently rewatched The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, but I hadn’t gotten around to writing about it. I think this theme really runs throughout the entire Poirot series. He often succeeds because he is kind to the vulnerable. He is – as he puts it – “an avuncular.”

    And it’s fitting that the series should start off with a hat tip to religion when it becomes so important near and at the very end.

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    • Hi there! You know, a surprising number of writers in the “golden age” of detection fiction were Christians or had devout detectives. Poirot is just one of them; Dorothy Sayers is one; Chesterton and his Father Brown are other obvious ones. I think the connection is a very natural one: crime and confession is like the Law/Gospel dynamic, or confession and absolution (Poirot even styles himself as “Papa Poirot” at times; a father-confessor of sorts). Chesterton has a good little essay on detective fiction in this line that’s floating around somewhere…

      In the Poirot series, I think the first and last episodes are the most theologically fascinating, and I’ve got all manner of thoughts and ideas for future posts on the subject.

      My husband noticed the connection in Clapham Cook right away, too. And yet, I still find myself wondering if it was intentional or coincidental? It seems too perfect to be coincidental, but who knows. It works great either way! 🙂

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      • How could I forget Chesterton and Sayers? Of course. Chesterton is one of my all-time favorite authors.

        The detective story, in its classic form, was also a clear morality tale – Eden, loss of innocence, avenger arrives, justice is accomplished and peace restored. Murder, too, is the ultimate desecration of an image bearer – there’s really something unique about the way humans handle this. P.D. James used to talk a lot about that. She was another great Christian detective novelist – and I fear, the last of an era. Her prose displayed an incredible elegance.

        Even Holmes has his one religious moment, when he deduces that beauty leads us to God. Miss Marple (I was just watching Joan Hickson today) definitely brought a semi-religious view of good and evil to her investigations. I can’t remember if that was ever made overt.

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  2. Yes, Miss Marple and Poirot definitely both had firm ideas of good and evil that Christie traces to their religious beliefs. They are both savvy enough to realize that the devil does not tend to manifest as a comic, horned monster, but as the sympathetic, presumed-ineffectual, kindly angel of light. You often see shades of the “messiah-figure” in detective fiction in the same way it appears in the realm of the super-hero genre: a special sensitivity to shades of evil lingering in human nature that lesser mortals do not possess the skill (or perhaps virtue) to detect. But I get ahead of my future blog posts. 😉

    I do hope you stick around for future blog-chatting. This blog is sort of all over the map, and it covers anything Poirot-esque that strikes my fancy. 🙂

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  3. Pingback: The theology of The A.B.C. Murders | Seven Storeys High

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