The image was taken from Murder in the Mews. 🙂 On gray paper.
One of the most touching aspects of Christie’s characterization of Poirot are those glimpses of loneliness inherent in a character who has missed out on the personal relationships that lead to marriage and family life. ***As always, spoilers for everything!***
‘I, Madame, am not a husband,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘Alas!’ he added.
‘I’m sure there’s no alas about it. I’m sure you’re quite delighted to be a carefree bachelor.’
‘No, no, Madame, it is terrible all that I have missed in life.’
-Dead Man’s Folly
Viewers of the television series will notice that the theme develops and increases over time, especially in the filming of the novels. And yet, glimpses can be seen very early on in the series as well. Some are subtle, and others are blatantly obvious. There are nuances and shades of meaning in these fleeting and poignant moments, but they all share the same characteristic of wistful loss. Here I present 15 gloriously-rendered examples.
1) Third Floor Flat– Perhaps the first clear example in the series. It is unique, and pleasing for Christie readers, in that we get a glimpse of the nostalgic admiration of a girl who resembles an old flame of Poirot’s before the matter is explained to the viewer. So, readers who know the story are gratified to have “inside knowledge” of what lies behind the faraway smile, which will be explained in later scenes. ‘If I were your age, monsieur, without doubt, I too would be in love with her.’
2) The Plymouth Express– Another early example, this is the first clear indication we have that Poirot would very much have liked to have been a father and a husband. The expression says it all, in response to Halliday’s: ‘You’re not a father, Poirot. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to bring up a daughter all on your own… no wife to talk it over with…’ Also, it is perhaps the first time the viewer becomes annoyed with the lack of tact of those who remind Poirot what he’s missed out on!
3) The Double Clue– This one’s pretty obvious, of course, and it has the added novelty of a presently-kindled flame, with some returned affection, yet the impossibility of the relationship going anywhere. There are several other meditations on personal loss throughout the episode, from the loss of wealth to the loss of one’s homeland. But all the poignancy is concentrated in loss of a chance at love.
4) The Chocolate Box– It’s fascinating that this particular story was, when scripted, turned into another sort of dead-end romance, this time from Poirot’s past. I suppose it gives Virginie a little more “connection” to the plot than she seems to have in the original story, and since the incident is buried long in the past, one can get away with adding romantic elements. An added nuance to the sadness-tinged reunion with her is that Poirot has a glimpse of what life could perhaps have looked like for him, had les Boches not driven him from his native Belgium as a refugee: sons in native uniform, and a wife of his own country. ‘…I was just saying to Jean-Louis that he was always the most fortunate of men.’
5) Lord Edgware Dies– A rarity in that Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon are all together at dinner when the conversation turns to Poirot’s lamented bachelorhood. It’s a subject that is clearly uncomfortable for Poirot, made weirder with the flattering attentions recently given him by Jane Wilkinson. Also, we have another indication (suggested as early as Third Floor Flat) that Poirot considers himself too old, and that the time of la tentation is lost in the past. ‘But now, alas, I think it is too late.’
6) The Mystery of the Blue Train– This is one of several examples of the awakening of loneliness and loss that comes, not from a romance of his own, but from some pretty young friend Poirot has met in the course of the case. In this instance, he has a travelling companion to whom he becomes an ‘avuncular.’ Like a daughter (in fact, she had lost her father and has a cry on his shoulder about it), Katherine Grey is a somewhat needy character who was taken under his wing. When she leaves him unexpectedly to go off on her own, he is struck again by the pain of solitude. The film ends when, after she leaves, he is left by the water’s edge, contemplating the happy, carefree family before him (consisting, incidentally, of an older woman, her much younger husband, and her grown daughter). This loss strikes me as resonating more with the parental sadness of the empty nest– although in Poirot’s case, his patronage came and went very quickly. I’m also reminded of one of Poirot’s iconic lines at the end of the book: ‘Life is like a train, Mademoiselle…’ And ultimately, he is fated to travel it alone. And we’re all sad.
7) Death on the Nile– A classic example, and one that works beautifully with the plot, which is seething with the desperation to which love might drive a person. ‘Love is not everything,’ Poirot says to Jacqueline. When she disagrees, he is forced to admit that he does not really understand this on a personal level, and is faced once again with the great loss of his life. At other times in his literary journey a la Christie, Poirot has expressed relief that he does not have an ‘ardent temperament’ because it has saved him from many embarrassments. But in this case the overwhelming devotion to a lover– an alien experience to Poirot– sparks pity in him, and he permits the couple to commit suicide rather than face the executioner. The precise reasons why– Poirot always has precise reasons– are spelled out a little more thoroughly in the book than in the adaptation.
8) After the Funeral– ‘The journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone, Mademoiselle.’ These are words, reminiscent of the theme in Blue Train, that Poirot states to the murderer– interestingly, very shortly after she has unknowingly incriminated herself with a fatal clue. In this context, the realization of loss and loneliness in life is displayed as a reality that transcends class, and the point of commonality Poirot finds here gives him an insight into the killer’s motive. To find another example of Poirot’s sympathy towards a woman who works as a lower-class companion and is driven to crime in a desperate bid for money, see “The Nemean Lion” from The Labours of Hercules.
9) Taken at the Flood– In this story, Poirot finds himself as a sort of godfather-type figure to Lynn Marchmont, whose father was a good friend. And, Lynn happens to fall in love with a mass murderer (!) This causes an awkwardness similar to Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy– “Er, I’ve kinda just sent the guy you love to the gallows… sorry/not sorry?” But I include this example here because Lynn, of whom Poirot is ‘most fond’ and who had been planning on staying in England permanently, decides to leave again. ‘Write me a letter, Monsieur. I like your letters.’ It is a familial sort of loss for Poirot, and one full of turmoil in light of the bizarre circumstances of her departure.
10) Cat Among the Pigeons– This is one of the most curious and enigmatic moments of “wist” in the series. It is very fleeting moment in which Poirot, in the course of observing the various teachers at Meadowbank School, is watching a ballet lesson. A row of girls are at the barre and are practicing positions in pointe shoes. Poirot watches them with the most startling expression of bittersweet nostalgia on his face. Of what exactly is he thinking? The touching innocence of youth, uncorrupted by matters of crime? The disappointing fact that he himself was not to be the father of a daughter? Someone please ask David Suchet… he’s the only one who can read Poirot’s mind…
11) Third Girl– Another case (and a particularly disturbing one) in which the young couple in love awakens in Poirot his own sense of loss. This is one of the most emotional reactions Poirot has in the series; even Mrs. Oliver comments on his tears. ‘…The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve… the nature of love…’
12) The Big Four– Almost everything in the final series touches on this theme. There’s a really interesting moment in this script when the housekeeper describes the fastidious and irritating habits of the deceased man (a bachelor), and Poirot appears to have a moment of sober enlightenment concerning his own bachelorhood. It’s very subtle and lends a moment of personal poignancy to the scene where the viewer wasn’t expecting one. Japp: “Did he ever marry?” Housekeeper: “Oh, no! Can you imagine it? What woman would have him? Woe betide you if you tried to move one of his precious books, or tidy up his bloomin’ letters!”
13) Elephants Can Remember– Poirot says to Zelie: ‘Mademoiselle, neither you nor I are married. We may never be married. But they should be.’ It’s the argument that finally persuades the chief witness to come forward with her story.
14) The Labours of Hercules– The scriptwriters were going really, really heavy on the “wist” here. The first example of the theme is Poirot’s visit to his doctor. ‘You’ve had a remarkable career– at the expense of having a family! Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what you’ve chosen…’ This is adding insult to the injury of having “failed” as a detective, and these two horrible realities dovetail to serve as the impetus to reunite Poirot’s chauffeur Ted with his lost love. This successful reunion contrasts with the totally tanked relationship with Vera Rossakoff, another grievous “what might have been” in the realm of personal relationships. There’s also an unprecedented use of fake wistfulness, when the Countess speculates what’s going through Poirot’s mind when he sees Alice, her daughter. ‘He looks at you… and he sees the life he might have had.’ We learn later that this isn’t actually what Poirot is thinking– he’s too busy having his suspicions alerted by the girl’s biting of her thumb!
15) Curtain– Was television ever as moving as this? Throughout his life, Poirot had never really brooded excessively on his regrets concerning love and family– rather, we see him repressing the pain and struggling past it. We don’t see this brooding in the final days of his life, either, as he focuses his attention on this most difficult of his cases. If anything, Hastings becomes the torch-bearer on the pain of loss in this episode– his wife, his daughter (to Franklin and Africa), and Poirot himself. In such a context, this line of Poirot’s, one of Christie’s own, is a most meaningful one: ‘My heart bleeds for you… my poor, lonely Hastings.’ Poirot knows, on every count, that Hastings is about to be left very much alone in the world. A lifetime of domestic loneliness endows him with sympathy for his friend’s losses, the blessings of which he had himself never enjoyed in the first place. Hastings finds himself choked up at this sentiment of Poirot’s, possibly because in spite of the fact that the man is near death and has struggled with loneliness for so many years– he will even die alone– it is Hastings’ loneliness, not his own, that most concerns him in those final moments.
The London Syndicate is an unofficial series (in progress) of new Poirot stories. They’re merging to create one unified work. Christie’s characters are her own and I don’t profit from them. I’ll keep making up my own little tales to share as long as the Christie people don’t mind. If you’d like to read some reviews of this series first to see what people are saying about it, they can be found here.
Chapter 8: Sergeant Landsdow
After that evening’s series of bombshells, it seemed a miracle that I was not assaulted by night terrors and insomnia. But aided by the combination of brandy and exhaustion, I did drop off almost immediately into a dreamless slumber.
Before long, I felt a hand shaking my shoulder. My eyes snapped open and I sat up, startled. Poirot stood beside my bed, bright-eyed and fully dressed. The light from the window marked the time as not long after dawn.
‘It is only I, cher ami,’ he reassured. ‘There is no cause for alarm. It is time for you to wake. We shall be leaving within half an hour.’
As I rose in haste and donned a robe, I noticed at once a small stack of valises set squarely on top of the chest of drawers. Poirot followed my gaze and said: ‘I have already taken the liberty of packing the essentials for us both. You may wish to take away with you any important papers or personal items as well.’
I read this last as a reminder that the flat itself would not be safe, and duly noted the warning.
‘What is the plan of campaign?’ I asked as I fumbled with shirt buttons.
‘Ce pauvre Japp is putting in extra hours, I fear, but we have discussed all, and this is considered a matter of some urgency. A few of his most trusted men are aiding us to depart in secrecy this morning. You and I shall be staying with Sgt. Landsdow at his house outside London for the foreseeable future.’
Landsdow! ‘But why?’ I demanded.
‘Parbleu, Hastings, is it not obvious to you?’
‘I daresay everything is obvious to the great Hercule Poirot,’ I grunted, in no mood for games. ‘But for us lesser beings–’
‘Pardon, my friend. Your remarks are just and sensible.’ (That had not been my intention!) ‘There are three reasons for Landsdow. The most immediate reason is that we know that we can trust him.’
For a moment I was silent as I finished dressing and began searching for other items to pack. We had thought we could trust our own porter, too. Poirot interpreted my silence correctly.
‘It is not like that, Hastings.’ He watched as I slipped my revolver into my pocket. ‘If Landsdow had anything whatsoever to do with the Syndicate, he would not have aided us in the Inspector Morett affair, and the subsequent events with Mademoiselle Whitcombe would not have commenced. No. He is a good friend and an honest man. And it is better, when in hiding from criminals, to stay with a friend than at a hotel with many strangers.’
With a sigh, I closed my valises again and brought them into the hallway before proceeding to the kitchen in search of tea.
My head was still spinning with unanswered questions. We couldn’t hide from Johnston forever. Did Poirot have any clear direction in mind at all? And what of Rose Whitcombe– had Johnston already found and questioned her?
A loud rap on the front door startled me as I was finishing my tea. Poirot, unperturbed, went to answer it.
It was Japp, flanked by two other officers. They looked stiff and solemn.
‘Poirot.’ Japp strode forward and caught a glimpse of me in the kitchen. He stopped to address my friend and I together. ‘You’ll be interested to know that we believe we’ve tracked Johnston as far as Richmond Park. But we lost him in the early hours. Now is a good time to leave, if you really think it necessary–’
‘Yes, it is necessary,’ interrupted Poirot. ‘I have laid out my reasons before you.’
Japp looked at me dubiously. Had the situation not been so serious, he would without doubt be needling me mercilessly about Poirot’s theories concerning Rose Whitcombe. But I had a fancy that at the moment, he was too preoccupied with his own past failure to identify the Whitehaven Mansions doorman as a wanted criminal.
‘As you say, Moosior. The Yard will be in touch with the address you’ve given me. All the same, it still seems to me that you’d be of more use joining us on the hunt, especially since your personal identification was what he was most afraid of. Hiding yourself away–’
Poirot gave a firm shake of his egg-shaped head. ‘Non. It is not my place to go running about all over the city. To be still and employ the little grey cells, to seek the clues from within–’
‘All right, all right. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. I just hope this plan of yours works. These criminal types aren’t to be trifled about with, you know.’
Japp and his men turned back to the door, accompanied by Poirot. Concealing my annoyance, I grabbed the valises and followed them, pausing to lock the door behind us.
* * * * *
We were taking ordinary cars out of the city. The driver, an officer who had not been introduced to us, maintained a stony silence throughout the journey.
‘Poirot,’ I said at last, turning to him with injured countenance, ‘what exactly is this plan of yours? And why Landsdow’s place when we could just as easily hide out alone somewhere? You’ve told Japp. Haven’t I the right to know?’
My friend turned his cat’s eyes on me.
‘Japp did not have all the facts, and so I informed him of everything on the telephone. You do have all the facts and should be able to draw the conclusions. But I will explain, mon ami,’ he said hastily, seeing the new expression gathering on my face. ‘It is quite simple. We need to make contact with Rose Whitcombe.’
I looked at him blankly. ‘Well, of course… now that we know about Johnston, the information she could give us would be valuable. But if we’re in hiding, she won’t be able to contact us. Do you plan to launch your own expeditions to find her?’
‘But of course not, Hastings! Just as before, I shall allow her to find me. Ah, but still you do not see. We had to escape Johnston, but we also need Mademoiselle Whitcombe. This is the second reason why we are going to stay with Landsdow. He is the one point of connection between the three of us that is certain to have remained unknown to the rest of the Syndicate. She knows his name, as I introduced the two of them. Therefore, if she suspects that your life is in danger and wishes to seek us out, she has only to look up Landsdow and pay a visit.’
Admittedly, that did make sense. But I was not yet convinced of the success of such a scheme.
‘That’s all very well,’ I argued, ‘if she’s even capable of paying a visit. If she knows we’re in hiding, she’ll also have discovered why. Chances are that Johnston will be to see her and read her the riot act, or worse. He wouldn’t just let her go wandering off to warn us again. Even supposing she is able to find us, she is likely to be followed.’
‘I have taken these possibilities into consideration, mon ami. I am not quite as reckless as you make out. There is danger, oui, of a high degree. You must brace yourself for it. But I have a good opinion of the brains of Miss Whitcombe and the discretion– and daring– of Sgt. Landsdow. And as always, you will be invaluable to me.’
He flashed a sudden smile. ‘You should be pleased, my friend. Have you not been biting at the bit to try to take down the London Syndicate from the top with some outrageous and dangerous scheme? The opportunity to do just that may be opening before us.’
* * * * *
Having admirably pulled through the slush and the snow, the cars pulled up at last to an attractive brick residence outside London. Japp had been riding with the other officer in the second car, and when everyone had alighted and we had satisfied ourselves that we had not been followed, we all trouped up the neat walking-path to the door.
‘You ought to like Sgt. Landsdow, mon ami,’ said Poirot cheerfully as Japp plied the door-knocker. ‘He is very much your type, I think.’ But his words did little to alleviate the inexplicable anxiety I was already feeling about Landsdow.
A small, reverential butler appeared at the door and ushered us in without further ado.
* * * * *
Sgt. Landsdow was younger than I expected– he could not have been much past forty, and his clean-shaven face and thick brown hair may have contributed to the impression of youthfulness. When the police had made the necessary arrangements with us and departed, our host led us into a handsome sitting room with comfortable high-back chairs and invited us to make ourselves at home. After a few minutes’ light conversation, Landsdow readjusted his tall, lanky frame in his chair and extracted a pipe from the recesses of his high-buttoned jacket. He lighted it and looked with dog-like avidity at Poirot.
‘I’ve heard of some of your exploits with the London Syndicate, of course– but you could have knocked me over with a feather when I got your call about this porter of yours! Johnston, you say? Never could abide porters– never know where you are with them! My fellow there, Creeney, is as sound a servant as you could find anywhere and discreet as a cold coffin. Trust him with my life. Anyway, happy to help in any way I can, of course. What a thrill to be called in suddenly on that Morett business, what? Old ass deserved that suspension. But tell me– where does it all go from here?’
Poirot had retrieved one of his own tiny Russian cigarettes and was now dabbing it thoughtfully into his own ashtray. He brought the cigarette to his lips and exhaled again before he spoke.
‘Eh bien, we three together– first we discuss our doings with the London Syndicate with order and method. There are connecting threads between our various adventures that I wish to bring to your attention. For your benefit, monsieur, I will commence with the entire narrative as I see it so far.
‘It began with the Battersea Scandal and the arrest of Harold Whitcombe. In that event, I was able to deduce the existence of a large-scale crime ring and to glean a few details about this organization from its founder. The other two major forces in the Syndicate still at large, I knew to be John St. Vincent and Heath Riggs. St. Vincent was a bank robber, a security-breaker par excellence, and most likely had committed or had been accessory to murder in the past. Heath Riggs did a ruthless trade in smuggling and kidnapping, as I mentioned to Hastings just last night.
‘When Brian Westhelm and Matthew Carrington came to me about their aunt’s jewels, Carrington thought that he would try his luck at– how do you say– “pulling one over” on the great detective who had put his boss in jail only days previous. That, of course, did not go too well for him!
‘The next incident we encountered, the drug-smuggling deal at the East End warehouse, was undoubtably organized and run by Riggs, although he himself chose to stay in the background. Disguises and false trails are tools he utilises often in his profession. He recognised Poirot’s interfering disposition concerning the recent doings of the London Syndicate, and determined to misdirect us by implicating the wrong crime ring. This, too, backfired.
‘The result was an almighty rage from our Heath Riggs. With the breakup of that smuggling operation, mes amis, he had lost substantial profits and a good many of his agents. It was the last straw. He determined that I must be gotten rid of once and for all, while making up his lost profits in another way. That is when he planned and carried out the Bexhill kidnapping last July.’
‘What?’ I cried. ‘Heath Riggs?’
‘But yes, Hastings– Heath Riggs, or as he is truly called, Robert Griffon! He and Scott Ramsey, his lieutenant, were the main players in that little affair, c’est vrai. Once again, the man relies on his scheme of costume and theatricals to fool the authorities. Criminals are nothing if not creatures of habit. And do you not recall Ramsey telling you that day in Westminster that although the kidnapping idea was not especially favoured by the rest of the Syndicate, the member who insisted upon the plan had a good deal of influence and pull?’
‘Well, yes,’ I said, bewildered, ‘but I never dreamt that the man I caught at Newhaven was one of the three major powers in the Syndicate!’
Poirot smiled at me affectionately. ‘It was a fine moment for you, my friend. But to carry on– once more, Griffon’s affairs were in disarray and Ramsey, as second-in-command, was also faced with heavy losses of profit. It was not an insubstantial sum that the French had offered to pay for my successful transport, and other business papers were confiscated as well. Ramsey’s plan to steal the Stradivarius was meant, assuredly, to cover many of those losses. Perhaps, with a bit of spying, he had heard of Lord Conway’s insistence that Dimitri call me in to the party that evening to observe, and he laid his plans to keep us out of the way and to exact his own private revenge. But again– he underestimated Poirot!’
As always, the little man was obviously enjoying his recapitulations and the sound of his own voice. Landsdow was leaning forward with a sort of eager, glassy awe that I found just a bit repellent. Once more, I had the sensation that there was something irksome about the man, something I could not quite pinpoint…
‘By Jove!’ said Landsdow, ‘that’s one common factor. The Syndicate often seeks to divert attention elsewhere, but by bringing you into it, they undermine their own plans.’
‘Bon! You put that very well. Now– Griffon and Ramsey, like Harold Whitcombe, had failed. John St. Vincent, the remaining power, decided to take matters into his own hands. Under his own name of Gregory Johnston, he took the position of doorman at Whitehaven Mansions the following month. His extensive knowledge and background in security had given him excellent credentials for the job. He is a patient man, willing to bide his time. Soon he heard of Japp’s upcoming trip and Morett’s position. Quelle bonne chance! He saw there an idea for a new plan of retribution, one of unique cruelty, to dispose of the meddling Belgian. He would send me back where I came from, disgraced as a criminal– perhaps, even, in real danger from encroaching political powers. And worst of all, he would use my good, my dear and unsuspecting Hastings, as a tool to do it. But Johnston never imagined just how the tables would turn on him!
‘Johnston enlisted his fiancée for the task– Whitcombe’s daughter, Rose. She would work on Hastings’ sympathy, getting him to do a very small favour for her. But when the time came, she hesitated! The full force of what she was doing fell upon her. She has inherited a strong sense of loyalty from her father. She was setting out to ruin Poirot by means of his most faithful friend, and it overwhelmed her with sudden sympathy and self-doubt. Nevertheless, she made her attempt. But Hastings told me of his meeting with her, and I– who had already suspected a plan of this very nature– acted at once.’
‘You got me in on it,’ said Landsdow with pride. ‘By Jove, what a thrill. And somehow you managed to get her to confess! I wonder how you did it. Plucky girl, that.’
Poirot shot a knowing glance my way, and I reddened slightly, relieved to no end that he had chosen to remain discreet about his theories concerning Rose Whitcombe’s motives.
‘Enfin, in a last attempt for a big coup, Johnston made a bid for theft on a large scale. In what he deemed a necessary corollary to the theft, he hatched a most devilish plot to crush my spirit and render me powerless. And very close he came to succeeding, too. But with a clue from Mademoiselle, the spell broke, and we were just in time to prevent his robbery. This is disastrous for him– a fortune had slipped through his fingers. His cover as doorman was no more, and his true identity was known. And to add to the shame, he realised that his fiancée must have aided Poirot! His anger is very great– he is on the run, and bears a particularly strong grudge against the good Hastings.’
‘And that,’ I interjected, before Landsdow could ask any curious questions, ‘is where we now stand.’
I had not previously considered that the events in which we had found ourselves had unfolded in such a meaningful pattern, and inwardly congratulated Poirot on fitting in the major players of the Syndicate in their proper places.
Landsdow knocked his pipe against the little table at his elbow.
‘Right,’ he said abruptly. ‘And now you’re here to lay low, puzzle out how to catch Johnston, and untangle some of the mess, correct?’
‘I think,’ said Poirot, his head a little to one side, ‘that Rose Whitcombe will come looking for us.’
* * * * *
Having put his property at our disposal in every way, Landsdow left late that morning to conduct some business in town. Creeney, that stolid manservant, made himself conveniently invisible except at judicious intervals where he suddenly appeared to offer sandwiches, tea, and the like.
Poirot severely forbade me to leave the house and spent most of the afternoon seated in the drawing room at a little table, where he solemnly built card houses. If Creeney found this peculiar, he (stolid manservant that he was) made no comment. Probably he had been warned of Poirot’s eccentricities by his master in advance of our arrival.
‘Do you really think,’ I said, as I strode to and fro on the handsome Turkish carpet and gazed about the mahogany-panelled room, ‘that Miss Whitcombe will simply turn up at any moment?’
‘Ah, no, mon ami, hardly that. I would give her a few days at least. Our enemy is patient, and we can afford to be patient as well.’ As if to illustrate, he balanced the edges of two cards together with exaggerated slowness.
‘And our host really doesn’t mind that we make an indefinite stay at his lodgings?’
Poirot kept his eyes fixed on his card masterpiece. It was nearly as tall as he was. ‘That ex-Army bachelor was only too delighted. He knows there is danger, and welcomes the chance to play some little role in our adventure. Besides, he is seldom at home during the day. That is another advantage to this location.’
My memory was stirred. ‘Hang on– you said there were three reasons for Landsdow. The first was that you were convinced he was trustworthy. The second is that Miss Whitcombe would be able to locate us through him. What was the third reason?’
Poirot smiled one of his damnably enigmatic smiles. ‘You must allow me to keep that to myself for the present, mon ami.’
Then, looking up sharply at the annoyed huff I could not keep from escaping, he added: ‘But I notice that you speak as though you yourself were not convinced of his trustworthiness? As I said this morning, you ought to like him.’
It was true– he was the kind of man I usually did like, with a candid, good-fellow attitude which had always suggested dependability and honesty to me. Yet there was something about Landsdow that did not quite commend itself to me. Poirot’s cryptic manner was annoying, so I attempted to change the subject.
‘I suppose I hardly trust anyone, really. In particular, I don’t have the confidence in Rose Whitcombe that you seem to have.’
‘Ah! Rose Whitcombe. But I did not say that I had the confidence in her, mon cher.’
I stared at him. ‘I thought you were hoping to get information out of her.’
‘Yes, yes, that is the case. That she will find us, I have no doubt. Whether she comes to us with the truth or whether she comes with lies, she will not be able to avoid giving me information.’
This rather surprised me. Poirot shook a finger in my direction.
‘Still you think that I am not careful, hein, that I am too trusting? No, my friend, it is you who are so very trusting. I am well aware that the situation with Mademoiselle Whitcombe is a delicate and precarious one. Like her father, she has some scruples, some aversion to cruelty, yes. But like her father, she also has the great loyalty. An infatuation with your good self– is that enough to move her to deliver Johnston to the authorities, or to unravel the organization that her father has built? It is much to ask from the lady.’
These somewhat discouraging remarks led to a new an idea. ‘Poirot– why not go straight to Harold Whitcombe himself for information? He’s already in jail, and you say you’re certain that Johnston betrayed him. In that case, mightn’t he tell us what we want to know? Especially now that his own daughter is in danger–’
Poirot headed me off with a preemptory wave of his hand.
‘You do not appreciate the psychology, Hastings. Whitcombe already knows nearly everything we know about Johnston’s involvement withe the Battersea Scandal, including the fact of the labelled key. Evidently, being a man of fidelity himself, he does not believe that Johnston gave him away deliberately, and it would be exceptionally difficult to prove it to him. Likewise, whatever we may suspect, we have no clear proof that his daughter is actually in danger from her fiancé. You cannot make a man like Whitcombe talk by throwing suspicions about like that. No, it is the daughter to whom we must speak.’
He rose from the table and studied his card house. ‘And when we do meet with her, Hastings, I must impress upon you to guard your tongue most carefully. Let bygones be bygones, as they say. That young lady is dangerous and we cannot afford to antagonise her. One false step, one thoughtless word, and–’
With the slightest touch of his finger, the impressive edifice melted and fluttered away before our eyes.
I stood by my friend, looking down at the ruins thoughtfully.
‘The labelled key,’ I said vaguely, putting my hands in my pockets. ‘I wonder what it was for.’
Poirot’s hand stole to his own pocket. To my amazement, he extracted a key with a large label. He held it up, smiling.
‘This key, do you mean, mon ami? Alors, that is just one of the things I would like to find out!’
* * * * *
The next morning, Sgt. Landsdow breakfasted with us in the spacious and elegantly-furnished dining room. He looked in excellent humour as he applied marmalade liberally to his toast and chattered away, punctuating his comments with the occasional ‘by Jove’ and appearing perfectly at ease. A feeling of irritability was weighing upon me. My desire for action had significantly ebbed.
Hercule Poirot was politely listening to this flow of words while trimming his toast into an orderly square grid. His neatly-pressed grey suit and waistcoat of sage-coloured silk faille made an almost comical contrast to the hardy tweeds of the tall man seated opposite.
When more coffee appeared, supplied by the small and discreet butler, the conversation turned to Landsdow’s home.
‘It’s a nice little place, yes,’ he admitted in response to the courteous praise of Poirot. ‘All the same, what I’d really like more than anything is to head back East. That was the life, if you like! They don’t know what sun is in this country.’
Poirot made to reply, but a ring of the telephone interrupted him. He paused alertly and opted for silence as he finished off a cup of some pungent herbal concoction brewed by the efficient Creeney. (I had vociferously negatived the offer when Poirot attempted to persuade me to take a cup of my own for ‘the health and improvement of the grey cells.’)
Creeny himself appeared at once in the doorway. ‘The telephone for M. Poirot– Scotland Yard,’ he said with promptitude, and withdrew.
My friend shot me a glance, pulled off the slip of white linen that was protecting his shirt front, and rose at once. I followed him to the front hall, where he took hold of the receiver.
‘Who is this, please?… Chief Inspector, is that you? This is Hercule Poirot speaking… Un moment, s’il vous plaît… I do not comprehend– what is a “gumtree” and why are you “up it”?… Oh, mon Dieu… mon Dieu.’
Poirot almost dropped the receiver. His face was the colour of chalk. I could hear Japp thinly barking through the line from where I stood beside my friend. Impulsively I grabbed the drooping phone away and held it to my own ear.
‘Japp? Hastings. What’s happened?’
‘Happened?’ Japp boomed, as I quickly moved the receiver a little further from my ear. ‘Robert Griffon has only just escaped from prison, that’s what’s bloody well happened!’
* * * * *
I believe I was more stunned than Poirot. He had recovered enough to snatch the receiver back from me and converse hurriedly with Japp. Meanwhile, Landsdow had entered the hall, and after I had repeated the news, the two of us lingered anxiously while Poirot spoke.
Finally he rang off and turned to us with a dejected sigh.
‘The security guards,’ he said sadly, ‘were found bludgeoned nearly to death. Death was probably the intention of the perpetrator. All indications are that it was not the work of Griffon, but of the one who broke in to free him.’
‘But,’ said Landsdow, ‘how could this happen?’
‘I am an imbecile,’ Poirot whispered. ‘An imbecile supreme, thirty-six times over! I should have seen it coming– should have warned Japp– ’
Interrupting, I said: ‘Now you’re taking the blame for this as well? In heaven’s name, why?’
‘Hastings, we knew that Johnston is an expert in matters pertaining to security and surveillance. Griffon has a bitter grudge against you, for ultimately foiling his kidnapping plot and sending him to prison, and against myself, whom he failed to send to France. What more valuable ally could Johnston have than Robert Griffon if he wishes to track us down and have his revenge? Johnston had arranged bank break-ins; he may have been planning Griffon’s escape for some months now. But when Johnston’s identity was discovered, he had to act at once, because Poirot, he might warn the police…’
My friend sank into a nearby chair and brought a clenched fist down with a bang on the arm rest. ‘Why, why did I not see it sooner? They are together now. They will both want to settle the score.’
If my interest in action had been ebbing since the previous day, it flowed back with a fresh tide of vigour now. The initial dismay I felt at the escape of the one criminal I had ever committed to prison was melting into a white-hot realisation of just what Robert Griffon’s freedom meant. I remembered Poirot’s assurance, those many months ago, that the man would be in prison for ‘a long time.’ Never could we have foreseen then where we now stood.
Poirot looked up at me. ‘It is your life for which I fear,’ he said quietly. ‘Johnston was always the primary threat– we now have a definite indication that his murderous instincts have reappeared. Griffon will no doubt seek only to carry out his original plan with me, but this time, there will be no room for leeway, and no mercy.’
‘And you had said that the Syndicate wouldn’t try–’
‘With Griffon in prison, no, they would not try that stunt again,’ he interjected impatiently. ‘It was his particular project. All has changed now. The man is a monomaniac.’
‘This can’t go on, Poirot,’ I said.
‘No– and it is not “going on.” Ne vous inquiétez pas à ce sujet. It is coming to a head, my friend, one way or the other.’
Landsdow had been watching and listening to the two of us with intense interest. We were all so preoccupied with our thoughts that we jumped when Creeney appeared as if by magic at Poirot’s elbow, impassive as ever, to offer him a second tisane. He accepted it gratefully and took a sip.
‘But we must not give into despair,’ he said suddenly. ‘We must marshal all the grey cells. We know much about these people. I, Poirot, cannot fail against them at last.’
‘What can I do?’ I asked helplessly.
Poirot rose again with his cup and neatly straightened the chair with his free hand. ‘You can keep a low profile, mon ami. I will not have your death at my door. More than ever do we depend upon making contact with Mademoiselle Whitcombe.’
* * * * *
The next few days were quiet and uneventful. Not willing to commit himself to newspaper accounts, Poirot contented himself with regular telephonic communication with the Yard. On the afternoon of our fourth day at Landsdow’s house, while our host was away as usual, Poirot emerged from a spell of deep contemplation to say:
‘Hastings, my friend– a little favour, if you please. Would you be so good as to make a telephone call? I believe that Constable Farrier is keeping a close look-out at Whitehaven Mansions. A key to our flat resides in his keeping. It would interest me greatly if he took a look inside it.’
I looked up from my book in surprise. ‘What do you expect to find?’
Poirot shrugged. ‘It may be that someone has been to call. Do not look so surprised at the idea, Hastings. A covert break-in is child’s play to a man like Gregory Johnston, il va de soi. I am particularly interested in the exact contents of my desk top.’
One feels an absolute fool running errands and relaying messages for Poirot at times, but I duly made the call. This task performed, I returned to my book, but my concentration had deserted me.
Just two hours later, Creeney materialised in the doorway to announce the arrival of Constable Farrier and Japp himself. Poirot and I had barely risen to our feet when Japp strode swiftly across the study to us, with Farrier hurrying to catch up.
‘I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me just how you knew about this, Poirot.’ He waved a sheet of paper under my friend’s moustache.
‘Ah, there has been a message, then. I did not know, mon cher.’
‘Tell that to the Marines! How you get onto these things completely beats me. Oh, I know, you’ll tap that funny-shaped head of yours and say it’s those bonny little grey–’
Poirot had extracted his pince-nez and was now coldly holding his hand out for the paper. Japp stopped and handed it to him. As he unfolded it, I read the single sentence scrawled in black:
P and H: This is how I will destroy you. -J
‘And if you’re wondering what that charming communication means,’ said Japp, unearthing something from his breast pocket, ‘this was sitting on top of the note.’
He held between his fingers a single bullet.
Poirot removed his pince-nez and took the bullet into his own hand.
‘So…’ he said, more to himself than to us, ‘it is like that. Yes… it fits in.’
Japp shot me an exasperated look that clearly said, Does he have to be such a blasted oyster and can’t you do anything about it?
‘M. Poirot,’ piped up Constable Farrier, ‘you said as you wanted a full account of what was on your desk, is that right?’
My friend snapped out of his reverie and delicately handed the bullet back to Japp. ‘Yes, if you please.’
From the little notebook he held, Farrier rattled off a list of items, including the note, the single bullet, and several desk accoutrements.
‘Ah!’ said Poirot with something almost like triumph in his voice. ‘You noticed, Hastings? There were no paper knives. Indeed, that was something I did expect. C’est enfantillage, but while he was there, Johnston could not resist the temptation of retrieving the little trophies that indicated a past victory over the London Syndicate. Well, we shall put it from our mind for the present.’
‘Listen, Poirot, are you still assuming that girl will be to see you here?’
‘I am, my good Japp, and I thank you again for placing the key of Harold Whitcombe in my keeping for this purpose.’
Japp snorted. ‘The Commissioner’s none too pleased at the moment, I can tell you. It’s been an infernal disaster, letting a man like that escape again– and then the assault and prison break on top of everything else. We’re lucky he didn’t just go the whole hog and break Harold Whitcombe out while he was at it, so we’d have all three big shots of the London Syndicate at large!’
‘Oui,’ said Poirot thoughtfully. ‘That is lucky for us. It is truer than you realise, Chief Inspector.’
* * * * *
We dined with Landsdow that evening on sole Normande and roasted asparagus. Poirot insisted on waiting until dinner was over and we could retire to the drawing room before explaining the details of Japp’s visit to Landsdow.
For my part, I had been full of foreboding all evening, and was now keeping my revolver in my pocket at all times. With every little noise, I expected to see Johnston, having silently and mysteriously entered right through the walls, training a gun on us. Creeney, that fount of perfect and conscientious hospitality, had offered me some sort of noisome herbal draught that was evidently for ‘the calming of the nerves.’ I politely declined and requested a whisky and soda instead.
Poirot was attempting to keep a brave face, but I noticed that he happily pounced upon my rejected tisane and downed it himself.
It was a cloudy, brooding sort of evening, and we were up late with Landsdow, smoking and passing the time in the darkness of the drawing room. A roaring fire illuminated our little circle.
I was just thinking of suggesting that we all get some sleep when a sharp clack was heard at the large window at the opposite end of the room. A dark shadow passed.
Landsdow and I leapt to our feet at the same instant, followed by Poirot, who cautiously stepped toward the window. A shadow moved again.
‘Looks like a tramp,’ muttered Landsdow, and grabbed a poker from the fireplace. But we all knew quite well that it wasn’t a tramp. I drew out my revolver and angled in front of Poirot as Landsdow came up to the window. With the swiftest gesture, he unlatched the window, threw it open, and hissed:
‘Don’t move! Not a muscle!’
With extraordinary strength, he lunged forward and dragged the intruder straight through the window and into a heap on the drawing room floor. I held my gun at the ready. Poirot, probably annoyed that he could not see what was happening, was endeavouring to push me to the side. Landsdow reached down and drew back the hood from the figure on the floor.
I took a deep, anxious breath. Poirot finally succeeded in shoving me out of the way and stepped forward.
‘Mademoiselle Whitcombe, I presume?’ he said with a little bow. ‘My apologies for this most awkward reception. Allow me to assist you to your feet.’
If the television adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is to be believed– and why not?– these are just two of the harder-to-get beverages in the midst of wartime rationing. Beer is mentioned as another. But the cocoa and the lemonade stand out because they are particular interests of Poirot and Hastings.
Let’s start with the lemonade. I mean… does this not look like lemonade to you?
It’s a little confusing, because in a way, we’re led to believe that it’s not really lemonade. Very shortly after this little tennis episode, Hastings is seen riding about with Mary Cavendish on horses, and the weather is remarked upon as being unusually hot (#plotpoint). What we need, he suggests, is a tall glass of lemonade. At which point Mary Cavendish says that she hasn’t seen a lemon since 1914. Even though she’s playing tennis here with her back to a little table that I could swear up and down must contain lemonade…
And despite the apparent rarity of such a beverage, John Cavendish and Hastings leave their beverage glasses sitting on the grass as they go inside together. Wasting such commodities during wartime? And is it lemonade or isn’t it?? GAH.
If John is keeping the existing lemonade a great secret from his wife, or if tennis partner Cynthia is secretly downing it all when her back is turned, well, no wonder there’s marital strife at Styles Court and Cynthia thinks Mary hates her. Sheesh, share the lemonade, people!
Anyway, while this most mysterious drama unfolds, Poirot is busy buying illicit cocoa from the local post office.
Although this doesn’t exactly happen in the book– we know only that Hastings cannons into Poirot on his way into the post office to buy stamps– give due credit to the scriptwriter for some great character development here and providing a very believable reason for Poirot to be in this establishment. Not that Poirot is ordinarily associated with cocoa as a preferred beverage, per se. In the book, when he is searching for clues in the room where Mrs. Inglethorp was murdered, he gingerly tastes one of the beverages in the room “with a grimace” and discovers that it is cocoa with rum. Poirot, throughout the canon, is a passionate drinker of hot chocolate, which is a good deal richer and more expensive. But what will you? Needs must in wartime. If cocoa was difficult to get, chocolate must have been impossible to find. No doubt he doctored that cocoa powder up with an exorbitant amount of illicitly-obtained sugar and cream, and made do. 🙂 The little grey cells need fuel, after all.
Another thing I like about bringing Poirot’s cocoa into it here is that, to my mind, it suggests a subtle nod to the crucially important chocolate-drinking experiments later in Curtain: first with Hastings, then with the murderer. Parallels of life and visuals in Styles, with the first and last story of Christie’s canon (intentional or not) are always interesting to come across. In terms of beverages, the fact that as significant plot points, chocolate was drunk by major characters on the hottest day of the summer and on the brink of a storm, for example.
Syon Park is a popular filming location and its distinctive settings appear in multiple Poirot episodes: most dramatically, perhaps, in The Labours of Hercules, where the classical imagery of the setting lends itself nicely to the plot…
…and also in The Big Four, where the Great Hall is used for the chess tournament.
Did you notice that Syon Park is also used for certain shots in Thirteen at Dinner, the 1985 Poirot film with Peter Ustinov? The dinner itself takes place in the Great Hall.
The property is supposed to be Sir Montagu Corner’s residence, so we also see a number of other shots of the area, like the Long Gallery…
…and various shots of the outside of the house.