“The Chocolate Box” and Curtain: a compare/contrast

***SPOILERS for both stories!***

In Christie’s Poirot canon, one of the most obvious side-by-side story comparisons one can do is The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain. Christie herself, in Curtain, takes pains to point out the similarities between the first and the last of the Poirot novels. In this way, she brings Poirot “full circle.”

A less-obvious comparison might be “The Chocolate Box” and Curtain. But again, we have a matter of extremes: “The Chocolate Box” is the earliest chronological case that we ever hear about, when Poirot is a policeman in Belgium, while Curtain is the final case of Poirot’s life. You mightn’t think it at first– and I don’t suggest that this was all deliberate on Christie’s part– but there are some really unique points shared in these stories. Let’s do a little compare/contrast! 🙂

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-In each story, there is a “big reveal” murderer who is a sympathetic figure (Madame Déroulard, Poirot). This person has killed the “secondary” murderer (a villain) out of beneficence: to avenge untraceable murder and to protect future victims. We only discover how dirty the secondary murderer played when the big reveal comes.

-Each of these involve the rare cases of Poirot stories in which murderers get away with their crime without the general public ever knowing. And yet, in Christie (as Poirot often states), no murderer ever really gets away with it. The author is scrupulously fair and is careful when working in her contingencies. Both murderers are sick and elderly– they ARE going to die imminently regardless, long before a trial could ever be held for them. This also happens in “Dead Man’s Mirror,” and is a tactic Christie sometimes uses when the reader is especially sympathetic to the killer. The killer pays for their crime in a way and has a reckoning, but without being exposed to public disgrace. As a contrast, the sick, elderly killers in each story have this difference: as per Christie, Poirot allows nature to take its course with his death, not wishing to become the sort of egomanic, brilliant vigilante murderer that his own nature could have succumbed to. (Sorry, TV adaptation, but I don’t buy the idea that refraining from the amyl nitrite was itself “suicide remorse” and an attempt to avoid the hangman; I give my reasoning here.) Madame D. has not (as far as we know!) orchestrated her own impending death.

-Comparing and contrasting motive and struggle: Poirot and Madame D. are both devout Catholics. There is some measure of religious motivation in the murder of “TCB,” but none in Curtain. (Although I think an excellent paper could be written about Norton as satanic archetype, and how Poirot’s unusual line in the TV adaption about wanting to “damn him to hell” works well along those lines. That’s another blog post…) There is, however, faith-centered soul-searching going on with both characters, and given visual cred in the TV episodes. There is both a personal and a communal– even nation-wide– threat that the villains present to those who eventually murder them. The “last straw” for each of the beneficent killers is, you might say, when things get personal with new, would-be threats to loved ones that are both physical and existential. Paul D. not only killed a woman’s body (his wife), but aims to kill another’s soul (Virginie). Likewise, Norton goes after Hastings as a victim by not only attempting to pin murder and its fatal consequences on him, but by what Poirot sees as a real corruption and distortion of Hastings’ own essence, which is not that of a killer. Also, Poirot and Madame D. are each burdened with the contemplation that in refraining from action, they themselves had complicity with the villains’ murders. Only Madame D. had seen and knew of her son’s murder of his wife, but she was powerless to bring him to justice, as no one would believer her. Only Poirot had the deductive powers to perceive Norton’s game, but was likewise powerless to bring him to justice and (more importantly) to protect his many innocent victims.

-You could say, therefore, that both the beginning and the end of Poirot’s detective career as we know it are stories of failures. There is a sense in which Curtain is a “success,” insofar as Poirot’s plan is carefully weighed, flawlessly executed, and intellectually satisfying. But it is certainly not a happy triumph, but more of a sad inevitability, perceived as a lesser-of-two-evils necessity. This is ironic when one considers how the rest of Poirot’s career reads as unbroken success. What the failures in these two stories reveal is the character’s relation to humility. In “TCB,” Poirot has a humorously short-lived brush with modesty, asking Hastings to say “chocolate box” as a cure for any future conceit on his part. In my opinion, the issue of modesty and humility really finds its full circle for Poirot from “TCB” to Curtain. A contrast between the characters is that Madame D. confesses with her head held high, perfectly willing to answer for her murder before the good God. Poirot, faced with limited options for justice and the protection of the innocent in Curtain, gives in to murder, but does so without such certainly of rectitude and justification. His appeal is to God’s mercy.

-The medication used as a poison in “TCB” was trinitrin, a medicinal form of nitroglycerin that relieves angina pain and is used with various heart conditions. In Curtain, Poirot uses amyl nitrite, a similar substance, as treatment for his angina. The application of the heart med is what kills the victim in “TCB”; the withholding of the heart med seems instrumental to the acceleration of the hero’s death in Curtain. Paul D. was thought to have died of heart failure, which Virginie strongly disbelieves on account of his otherwise excellent health. Poirot actually does die of a heart attack, and no one but Hastings seems to suspect foul play, and that only because Poirot was after the killer, X.

-Let’s talk about the role of chocolate! John Wilson’s tiny trinitrin tablets, used by the murderer were made of chocolate, presumably to disguise the awful taste. Drugged chocolate kills the victim in “TCB.” Drugged chocolate saves Hastings from worse than death in Curtain; it also incapacitates Poirot’s victim!

-Virginie M. and Elizabeth Cole have special roles in their respective stories. Each have a personal intuition that something is not quite right with a past death. Virginie asks Poirot to investigate Paul D.’s death, suspecting murder; Elizabeth Cole confides in Hastings that somehow, she always felt that “it wasn’t Margaret,” her sister, who killed their father. In the TV adaptation TCB, Poirot introduces Virginie (unknowingly) to her future husband. In Curtain, Poirot deliberately introduces Elizabeth Cole to Hastings and later encourages a match.

-In the TV adaptation TCB, Virginie gives a very Judith-like spiel to Saint-Alarde (trying to entrap him) about how some murders are morally justifiable if it means saving others.

-Both stories, including their dramatizations, show Poirot sneaking around houses to burgle and whatnot. This is ALWAYS fun. 🙂

-This might sound trivial, but it is still significant in the adaptations: Poirot’s definite lack of extra padding in both stories, due to either youth or old age. And some significant scene contrasts: just watch Poirot booking it down the stairs of his apartment building in TCB, compared to being carried down the staircase by Curtiss in Curtain!

-Both stories in their televised adaptations are notable for their emphases on Poirot’s loneliness. Not only is he forced to act in a lone-wolf capacity as an investigator due to the unique nature of the cases, but his lack in the area of personal relationships is hard to miss as well.

-Finally, both stories share a factor that sets them apart from all other Poirot stories: a substantial, first-person narrative confession to Hastings. The story “The Lost Mine” also contains a long first-person narrative of Poirot’s, but it is not a confession of error or wrongdoing.

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One thought on ““The Chocolate Box” and Curtain: a compare/contrast

  1. I did not read the full post yet (I need a few more hours). I can only tell you that I read “Curtain” … more than 30 years ago, I was 21 years old, and it’s amazing how I change my point of view. On that occasion, I really enjoyed that book, I found it exciting (and nothing sad) Currently, I have a hard time reading it again … and I can not even think about seeing the chapter yet. Thank for sharing this analisis of chapters, are super!!!

    Like

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