Attempts on Poirot’s life: book, play, and film

Agatha Christie writes comparatively few forward-thinking criminals who connive to permanently remove the threat of Poirot. In fact, I deal with the issue in my own Poirot novel, attempting to answer the “Why?” Some of it is evident: Christie frequently makes Poirot more “famous in his own mind” but not taken seriously by criminals– until it’s too late. He uses his perceived ridiculousness at times as camouflage. At some points in the series, Poirot actually is virtually unknown in London (“Kidnapped Prime Minister”). But at other points (e.g. “The Veiled Lady,” “Hunter’s Lodge,” “Western Star,” etc) it is very evident that he is well-known as a blazing success by society and criminals alike. My story, The London Syndicate, takes the question on as a challenge: why don’t enterprising criminals make a little more effort to get him out of the way? For my own solution, consult the text!  😉

But for interest, Christie does throw in some examples of these people who, through cunning, panic, or even sheer ignorance, try to do in our favorite Belgian detective. Here’s a little compare/contrast on how it’s tackled in book, TV, and stage.

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1) The Big Four. I’m just going to count this as “one.” The book is full of anecdotes of Poirot and Hastings battling it out with this international menace, with not a few dramatic brushes with death. Most notable is the explosion which Poirot uses to fake his own death (because like Sherlock Holmes he’s a bit of a jerk to his friend in that respect). 🙂 Many Christie readers dislike The Big Four for a variety of reasons– Christie did as well– but I find it hard not to enjoy the more energetic and risk-filled anecdotes of this very bizarre, Bond-esque Poirot account. It’s great fun because it’s so unique and different.

2) Mrs McGinty’s Dead. In this story, Poirot’s investigations into the McGinty case results in Dr Rendall getting the wind up and trying to push him under a train. The irony is that although Poirot delightedly assumes that McGinty’s murderer attempted to murder him and that this proves that he is on the right track, it’s actually a completely different crime that Dr Rendall is attempting to cover up. (In the adaptation, it is Mrs Rendall who does this, and she actually succeeds in shoving him onto the line.)

3) “The Case of the Egyptian Tomb.” The serial murder decides to try to add a meddling Poirot to his list of victims who are popularly supposed to be cursed by proximity to the opened tomb of an ancient pharaoh. Somehow Poirot manages to anticipate the spiking of his evening tisane with cyanide. His murder attempt failing, the murderer commits suicide instead (in the book).

4) “The Erymantian Boar.” This wild and crazy incident from The Labours of Hercules formed a large part of the conglomerate television adaptation, in which the killer Marrascaud is lurking in the Swiss establishment of Rochers Neiges. In the book, members of Marrascaud’s gang attack Poirot in his room at night, threatening to cut him with razor blades. They are thwarted by American tourist Schwartz and his fortuitous revolver, earning profound gratitude (not inexplicable annoyance– really, TV script?) from Poirot.

5) Black Coffee. In this one and only Poirot play by Christie, the murderer attempts to poison Poirot in a whisky and soda. Luckily, Poirot is as usual a step ahead of the game, and has arranged a substitution with Hastings ahead of time as part of his dramatic denouement.

6) Three Act Tragedy. This is not a deliberate targeting of Poirot, but he is fully cognizant (as the final lines of the novel reveal) that he could have easily been the recipient of the first poisoned cocktail. Almost everyone in the room was a potential murder victim. This last scene is really beautifully dramatized and delivered by Suchet, who manages to simultaneously bring out both the humor of Poirot’s vanity and the pathos of being betrayed by his friend.

7) Evil Under the Sun. This is an example of pure rage from the murderer when his crime is revealed by Poirot. Usually Poirot is deft enough to simply skip out of the way, but this time the killer manages to get his hands on the other’s throat before he is held at bay. Accurately portrayed in the television adaptation as well.

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Honorable mentions (including television additions):

Death in the Clouds: The jury at the inquest nearly convicts Poirot of the murder on the plane! The verdict gets thrown out by the coroner.

He said, ‘I wonder what was on that paper that the coroner wouldn’t have at any price?’

‘I can tell you, I think,’ said a voice behind him.

The couple turned, to look into the twinkling eyes of M. Hercule Poirot.

‘It was a verdict,’ said the little man, ‘of wilful murder against me.

‘Oh, surely– ’ cried Jane.

Poirot nodded happily.

Mais oui. As I came out I heard one man say to the other, “That little foreigner– mark my words, he done it!” The jury thought the same.’

The A.B.C. Murders: At the beginning of the book, Poirot recounts to Hastings that not long ago he’d had a narrow escape, having been “nearly exterminated.” Hastings is impressed: “An enterprising murderer!” Poirot suggests that the better word would be “careless,” not enterprising. Some think that this incident is a direct reference to the jury in Death in the Clouds (above), but in my opinion, it seems much more likely to refer to Three Act Tragedy. Poirot does not claim that he was deliberately targeted for death, but does accept Hastings’ use of the word “murderer,” and “careless” is a good word to describe that particular murderer. But there is always the speculative possibility that Poirot could be describing an unknown incident that Hastings never learns about and records for us.

Sad Cypress: In the television adaptation, the murderer attempts to poison Poirot in the same manner that Mary Gerrard was poisoned. But Poirot has always hated tea! 😀 Interestingly, this delightful addition to the original story appears to have been lifted directly from the pages of Black Coffee! In both scenarios, Poirot is given a poisoned drink which he substitutes, and he also fakes symptoms of impending death. Then the murderer, off their guard, launches freely into a smug confession of nefarious deeds, only to be overheard by the nearby police. I’m very pleased that this device from Black Coffee made it into the TV canon. The only downside to the TV addition is: how can the murderer possibly think that she’ll get away with this?

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: In the adaptation, the murderer takes some gratuitous pot shots at Poirot and Japp after his cover is blown.

Curtain: The TV telling of Curtain includes Norton engaging in a dangerous cat-and-mouse power play with Poirot, seeming to threaten to withhold the latter’s medication.

‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’

-The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

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An audiobook listen-through of the Poirot canon

For the past several weeks, I’ve been doing a thorough “listen-through” of ALL the Poirot stories. I finished Curtain, again, a few days ago. And wow, what a great time it’s been.  🙂

The audiobooks have been sourced from cassettes, CDs, and Audible (with a heavy preference for CDs, mostly obtained from Book Depository at very good prices). I had listened to the majority of these audiobooks before, sometimes many times, but this time the task was undertaken in a concentrated way and in chronological order. My preference for audiobooks are the ones narrated by David Suchet and Hugh Fraser– not only for the television associations, but because they really are the best, IMHO. They are pleasantly conversational, less stiff than Moffatt, with wonderfully-done voices and a certain “committed insight” into various characters. For the book purist, such audiobooks are ideal for those stories where you encounter disappointment that a TV adaptation failed to include some of your favorite scenes or lines. In this way lies the best of both worlds– the drama, the familiarity of the character voice, and the textual accuracy!  🙂

One can, I believe, do such an audiobook listen-through via Suchet and Fraser for all the Poirot stories with the exception of Murder in Mesopotamia (a novel with a female narrator), Black Coffee (John Moffatt and others), and “Murder in the Mews” (Nigel Hawthorne). HIGHLY recommended, my dear blog readers, is this ridiculously-affordable set of the complete short stories. Because I’m a lunatic, I’ve tracked down short story obscurities (some dating back to 1988!) in order to find both Suchet and Fraser tellings of the same stories– including, for example, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” “The Third-Floor Flat,” “The Chocolate Box,” “The Incredible Theft,” “The Lost Mine,” and “The Underdog.”

You can, with some searching, find both Suchet and Fraser narrations of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Because the overwhelming number of Poirot audiobooks were undertaken by Fraser, who has done astonishingly with the entire Agatha Christie canon, I included the Suchet renditions in my listen-through where possible.

So, where do I begin? I don’t really want to try to “review” everything at once; it would be better to tackle various audiobooks individually in separate posts. But I can give an impression of the whole project and note some highlights…

The scope of a project like this involves tracing book characters over the course of nearly 60 years! To read, or listen through, the series is to begin with Poirot in World War I and to end in the Swinging ’70s. The cultural shifts that take place over the series of Poirot books are enormous. What stood out to me in this is the very consistency of the character of Poirot. He’s a character that remains so uniquely himself amidst the chances and changes of the world, including his approach to detecting crime and his understanding of human nature. By the time you get to Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember, the characters in the books are both lamenting the changes around them while observing that human nature itself has remained consistent. The consistency of the universe Christie created is lovely, too. Different books make reference to past cases; people in one book are friends or relations of those in another. Recurring characters who work with Poirot, such as Mr Goby or Superintendent Spence, were delightful to trace in this listen-through.

My favorite audiobook? It’s so hard to choose… For Suchet audiobooks, I think I will have to go with Death on the Nile. I *think* that this audiobook, like Murder on the Orient Express and others, was recorded and initially released fairly close to the time the television series was first beginning. (How on EARTH was there time???) Death on the Nile, like other Suchet readings, is notable for its seriously impressive range of character voices. Christie introduces very many characters, but has the gift of making them distinct in a few brief descriptions and in unique manners of speech. How so many voices can be kept track of for a read-through absolutely boggles the mind. This reading of Death on the Nile is also notable for bringing out a good deal of laugh-out-loud humor alongside the more serious, angsty notes. Joanna Southwood, Mrs Otterbourne, Mrs Van Schuyler, and Mr Ferguson are memorably hilarious.

My favorite Hugh Fraser audiobook is even harder to choose, as there are so many more. I will say that I found this reading of Curtain to be particularly memorable– especially the penultimate chapter. The entire novel is incredibly sad, and even more obviously so when listened to, and again more so when listened to at the end of the entire book series! The audiobook appears to have been recorded at least a full decade before the final episode of the series was filmed and released. It gives one a greater appreciation for the knowledge and experience that went into the culmination of that final production. But to the point of the audiobook– such was the sobering nature of the tale and its telling, that I found myself encountering several moments when I forgot completely that the narrator was telling a story, and really believed I was hearing a first-hand account of a personal experience. What higher praise can I give?

I tend towards the “completist,” so it’s easy for me to recommend read-throughs– or listen-throughs. Currently I’m doing a 2018 read-through of the complete Shakespeare. These sorts of projects give such a good sense of scope and perspective. Audiobooks makes projects of this kind easier than ever, as you can bike, commute, etc as you listen.

“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.

Random thoughts on the new Murder on the Orient Express film

***SPOILERS for Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain***

I came into the theatre this evening full of hearty pessimism. This was less to do with consternation at Branagh’s moustache and more to do with the fact that I have never yet seen a screen adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that didn’t, in some way or another, annoy me greatly. I think the novel is terrific, and the Suchet audiobook is my favorite dramatization of the story. But evidently it’s quite a difficult story to adapt for the screen, and no matter how beautifully shot or how great the actors are, the scripts always make me want to tear my hair out. So it was with the greatest of skepticism that I approached the new film.

My own commentary on the film will be, first and foremost, from my perspective as a Christie fan and reader. There was, I confess, a good deal of wincing and cringing on my part. But there were also a few pleasant surprises. My overall impression was a general and complacent “meh.” Here I will present a stream of random, muddled observations, great and small…

• The film opens in Jerusalem (rather than Syria) with a strangely comic tableau at the Wailing Wall, of all places. Poirot refuses mismatched eggs and then goes on to dramatically hold forth concerning a relic robbery involving, as suspects, a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. It sounded like the start of a bad joke, and it kind of came off as one, too. Here, also, we are introduced to Poirot’s “weaponized” cane, with which he would go on to stop baddies, break open doors, and do heaven knows what else with. *scratches head* The overall effect of this opening is to give the viewer the impression that they’ve signed onto a rather light-hearted romp, which seems to me a weird thing to do for Murder on the Orient Express. The film goes on to get rather muddled in the middle with Poirot’s interviews, finally slowing down to a snail’s pace from the final denouement onward.

• Branagh manages a pleasant sort of French-sounding Belgian accent. Christie is funny on this point; she never describes Poirot as actually sounding Belgian, nor does she mention any familiarity on his part with the Flemish language. The whole effect he presents to others is “French.” Too much Flemish would be a mistake, but I think Branagh manages the accent well.

• Monsieur Bouc, who despite his name does not sound very Belgian or even French, consorts with a prostitute. An elderly man appears in the room and Poirot asks him if he also is a prostitute. WHAT? Poirot is eccentric, but is supposed to be extremely polite. His curious rudeness continues when first meeting MacQueen in the compartment they will initially share.

• When Poirot meets Mary Debenham, who is decidedly more chit-chatty than her book counterpart, he shows off with a few more deductions a la Sherlock Holmes, divining where the girl came from as well as her profession. For me, this is a supreme no-no: you do not make Poirot into another sort of Holmes. Christie’s character is observant, but he doesn’t give his hand away by laying out an acquaintance’s life history at first meeting like Holmes does. They are very different detectives.

• Poirot giggles like a ninny while reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I was not impressed at Poirot giggling… and giggling at that particular book? However, I found myself vaguely pleased, as a Christie reader, that Poirot was reading Dickens, because he does. (He actually says so in the book Murder on the Orient Express, which is how he knows that “Mr. Harris” would not show up.) One also wonders if the book wasn’t chosen as foreshadowing in which Poirot is, in a later moment of willing and deception-laden self-sacrifice, supposed to be a sort of parallel of Sydney Carton.

• I actually liked how that famous line about Poirot not liking Ratchett’s face was set up in the script. The line did not appear at all in the 2010 adaptation. Branagh’s Poirot frames the comment in terms of knowing, from long experience, what he does and doesn’t like, and pointing out that he realizes Ratchett is a criminal and therefore does not wish to take his case. In a way, I felt that this made Christie’s original line seem a little less arbitrary.

• Bouc begs Poirot to take on the case, suggesting it will be easy for him to look around, get interviews, establish the passengers’ bona fides, and reach the solution. But in Christie’s novel, the interesting point to Poirot is that it is impossible to determine the passengers’ bona fides on the train, since they’re cut off from everyone in the snowdrift.

• The introduction of racial issues seemed a little too forced in this script. Now, if they had used that later on as commentary on the widely-varying personages and how such a variety could have come together only in America– thus shedding light on the mystery’s solution– that might have worked. But as my memory serves… they didn’t.

• Katherine? Katherine?? What the.

• Apart from anything actually murder-related, everyone’s kind of weirdly violent. The missionary is violent. Arbuthnot is violent. MacQueen is violent. Poirot is violent. Ratchett keeps pointing his gun at people for the fun of it, or something.

• Speaking of the missionary, why oh why is the name of Pilar Estravados lifted out of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and plopped into Murder on the Orient Express? Is a Spanish nurse thought to be more exotic than a Swedish nurse? Whatever the reason, I will admit to appreciating this role far more than the Greta Ohlsson of the 2010 episode. She came across as unsympathetically smug and was a terrible exegete to boot.

• Likewise, I liked this film’s Mary Debenham much better than the self-righteous, “You must call stabbing a man to death a positive good and right thing or else you’re a mean judgy-head because of my Feels” character of the TV adaptation. Overall, this film’s characters had a lot more humility and were less hell-bent on self-justification at all costs. Like the book, it makes it easier to sympathize with them when the reader (or viewer) is gently shown that people driven crazy by grief can sometimes carry out horrible vengeance. Recognizing this murder as one more terrible tragedy in a long line of terrible tragedies is more effective than the perpetrators screaming at Poirot, in true 21st-century fashion: “Accept what we did as right, you hater!”

• Similarly, let’s talk about Poirot’s “growth” or change as a character. Both the film and the TV adaptation present a Poirot with an extremely simple concept of right and wrong, and by the end he realizes that life is actually complicated. I know that screen versions must differ from books… but it’s just not what I get from the books. There is a reason that so many fans felt that Suchet’s Orient Express contained his least Poirot-like dialogue. Poirot does have a firm moral compass, but he has never been oblivious to human psychology, unsympathetic to suffering, or hitherto unfamiliar with complex situations and murky waters. Strong morality does not equal naivete and it facilitates, rather than impairs, sympathy. What’s more, Christie works in a plethora of special contingencies that do not allow the reader to make such bald, radical statements as: “Poirot just let twelve murderers go free” or “Private vengeance is obviously justified if you feel really strongly in your heart that it’s right.”

• There are a few times that Branagh’s Poirot quotes other Poirot novels. There are two quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train: “My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Also, there is a close approximation of: “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes– two people. One is le bon Dieu– and the other is Hercule Poirot.” But perhaps the most interesting quote was lifted from Curtain. Poirot, murmuring to his mysterious Katherine photograph, says: “I have always been so sure– too sure… but now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…’ It’s one of Christie’s most beautiful Poirot quotes, written to Hastings and read after Poirot’s death. My one quibble here is what Poirot means when he speaks to the photograph; I forget where exactly in the film this happens– does he know who the murderers are at this point and is contemplating what would be the right action to take? If so, then the meaning of this quote is ironically the exact opposite of its meaning in Curtain. In that story, Poirot shoots and kills a dangerous man who gets others to murder for him, and is contemplating whether his actions could be considered justified, since he has saved others by the desperate deed. BUT, he is not willing to let himself off the hook so easily. He will not say, with swaggering confidence, that he definitely did what was right. Rather, he has humility– considering the deed, at best, a lesser of two evils– and entrusts himself to God’s mercy. In other words, the book quote is about not being too sure of yourself when you’ve just murdered someone, even someone reprehensible. In the film, the quote is about Poirot not being sure whether or not to take a firm line with people who have just murdered a reprehensible someone. I think I was more upset at the misuse of this quotation than at almost anything else in the film.

• My husband Alex asked me: “Is there anything that Branagh revealed about Poirot’s character from Christie that Suchet hadn’t done?” There was one thing that I noticed and liked a lot– Poirot interviewing the princess’s maid in German. Poirot speaking German, I thought, was great to see. His knowledge of the language helps him solve a clue to a different character’s identity in the film, not unlike Suchet’s Poirot does with the German brother and sister in the episode The Clocks. I love examples of Poirot the linguist.

• Instead of the murder weapon being hidden in the sponge bag quietly and inconspicuously, as would be sensible, Mrs. Hubbard gets stabbed with it instead. In the film, this is solely to try to distract Poirot and throw the blame off the person he is currently interviewing. But is anyone seriously supposed to believe that the murderer would dispose of his weapon by stabbing someone with it…? The moment came across as weird.

• Speaking of Mrs. Hubbard, why does she always seem to get re-written as a vamp instead of as the ridiculous, over-fond mother? In that capacity, she alone could suffice for comedic effect when it’s needed, but recent adaptations (including the 1974 film) don’t use Christie’s own humor here, and I wonder why. Instead, Mrs. Hubbard just comes across as a little cheap. “There was a man in my compartment!” “Are you sure it was a man?” “I know what it feels like to have a man in my room.” Similar lines are used both in 1974 film and in the TV adaptation, and were added into Branagh’s film as well.

• The silly moustache guard… a tribute, I suppose, to Albert Finney’s Poirot. Hmm.

• In general, I was not pleased with Poirot’s deductions. There is not a lot of “fair play” with the audience. Again, it’s more like watching Holmes.

• Okay, time for something else I thought was well done. There is something I was hoping to see in this film version that I thought would be a simple and effective way to pump up the emotional drama, and they did it– Daisy Armstrong flashbacks. Christie does this in her books as well. I can’t be the only person who tears up when reading of how much the members of the Armstrong household loved Daisy and the other Armstrongs. The idea that John (sic) Armstrong had initially written to Poirot for help with the case before he committed suicide in despair was also an interesting addition to the film’s storyline.

• “M. Bouc can lie. I cannot.” Um, sure you can. You’re Poirot, not George Washington. You love lying, in fact. It is an art form with you. I’ve heard it from Hastings himself.

Overall… the film was a pretty strange experience for me. I am not such a Christie purist that I refuse to accept, in dramatizations, any departures from the books at all. Switching between mediums is a tricky business, and I’m sure that much thought and discussion went into the ideas used. All the same, it didn’t click with me. If Christie didn’t write it, it might be okay to use in an adaptation; but if I can’t imagine her having written anything like it, I’m probably not going to approve of this or that choice.

The ghost that took over his life: Poirot’s handwriting in Curtain

“I am writing a letter to Hastings to explain all that has happened, and what makes it extraordinary is that the art department have discovered a way to create my handwriting so that I do not have to write every word myself time after time. It is as though a ghost has taken over my life.”

-David Suchet, Poirot and Me

This little detail about the final scenes of Curtain, mentioned in passing in Suchet’s book, intrigued me when I first read it. Art departments and handwriting are always of special interest! But it was only when I took a close look at what is shown on screen in this episode that his meaning became clear. (In advance: please understand that in this post, I’m not attempting any sort of “gotcha!” to said fine art department– I may have never noticed, had it not been obliquely pointed out by Suchet himself. I merely note this as something that interests me.)

It began simply by noticing that the letter that Poirot was writing to Hastings looked an awful lot, but not quite, like Suchet’s own handwriting. Curious, because the letters all looked like he wrote them, but something seemed a bit off about it. Then I remembered the quote from his book. Do you notice?

Font-lovers may notice what is so curious about the FIRST sentence of Poirot’s writing here: what we’re looking at is essentially a “David Suchet’s Poirot” font. Zoom in (click on the picture) and look at any single letter– try the lower-case “h,” “y,” “m,” for easy examples. Every one of those letters looks exactly the same as every other in that sentence! That’s what looks unusual– the first part of the page is uncommonly smooth and regularized. Now starting at “But really, my friend,” look at the rest of the words. Those are hand-written by Suchet himself, and contain variations on the letters rather than uniformity, appearing much looser that the words that came before. The camera had to show him actually writing with his own hand for these shots, but a font was made of his handwriting for the first part of a paragraph so he wouldn’t have to write it all out each time. Presumably print-outs were made to which he added. This is what his quote at the top of the post meant. If you look carefully, you may even notice that the color of the ink appears slightly different between the “font” and the true handwriting.

Once you see this pattern, you can’t un-see it in the other paragraphs of writing shown. I’ve highlighted the real handwriting in blue brackets; the rest is a printed font.

There are at least two possible reasons I can think of as to why the art department would go to the bother of creating this font in the first place. Either it really was merely to convenience their actor; or it might be that doing too much handwriting in those arthritis-heavy prosthetics does not-nice things to them. There may have been other reasons.

The font works perfectly well for the few moments it appears on screen. If, however, you really wish to forge someone’s writing successfully (or even to create a slightly more believable handwriting font for closer scrutiny, though it is far more expensive to do so), always remember to use multiple variants of letters.  Poirot himself knows enough about forgery to let you in on that.  😉

Missing out on domestic love: 15 moments of loss

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!***

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‘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 
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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.’

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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!

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…’

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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!”

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Cocoa and lemonade at Styles St. Mary

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?

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If not, well, what on earth is it supposed to be?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hypochondria, and patronizing Poirot to your peril (a.k.a. “Hastings gets told”)

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the paternalistic tendency of Poirot to organize other people’s lives for them, and the condescending way this sometimes played out in his interactions with Hastings in the series.

What happens when a character dares to do the same with Poirot? Much entertainment!  In short, whenever there is fuss, Hastings invariably gets told off.

In the books, Poirot sometimes allows himself to be condescended to by behaving more naively “foreign” than he really is, to deceive others in the course of an investigation. For all his vanity, he is willing to buy success by (temporarily) enduring scorn, or being thought a mountebank.

‘It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say– a foreigner– he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people– instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard.’

-Three Act Tragedy

Not much of this particular quality makes itself blatant in the course of the series, but other forms of condescension present themselves– sometimes welcome, and sometimes not.

Hypochondria is just one of Poirot’s irritating-but-much-loved traits, and one particular expression of his vanity. Generally, he is only too delighted to be fussed over. But there are various scenarios in which he dislikes the attentions, such as when his personal dignity is affronted, or when being fussed over prevents him from doing what he would rather be doing (such as investigating), or when blatant opportunists want to take advantage of him. In those situations, coddlers, fussers, and patronizers beware. Unless you’re Miss Lemon, who can get away with anything.

Classic examples in The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge…

Hastings: “You get back into bed now. You can leave this to me.”
Poirot: “Comment?”
Hastings: “This investigation. You can leave it to me. I’ll report back to you, of course. I know these people, Poirot. I’ve got one or two ideas already.”
Poirot: “What are these ideas, Hastings?”
Hastings (holding up a finger): “You just relax.”
Poirot: “Hastings, will you please stop tapping your nose in that theatrical manner and tell me all that you know!”

Hastings gets told.

Likewise, he later snaps at Japp who asks him if shouldn’t be in bed: “Possibly, but please, do not fuss!” But he happily accepts blackberry tea from a paternal railway operator as he wheedles information out of him for the sake of the case.

Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan is comprehensive in showing how Poirot deals with “fusses” of both the patronizing and non-patronizing variety. The first time he encounters someone playing the newspaper game of hunting for “Lucky Len,” he is pleased at being recognized as someone whose face has often been in the papers (later to be disillusioned). But when Mr. Opalsen uses Poirot’s presence at his play for the sake of newspaper publicity, he is outraged and takes his revenge by later getting the otherwise innocent Mr. Opalsen arrested. Comparatively, in The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot receives somewhat unflattering newspaper coverage to Hastings’ concern, but does not himself seem to mind, as he hopes it will help the murderer relax his guard.

Jewel Robbery suggests something else of Hastings’ very occasional patronizing air. Extremely laid-back compared to his ever-interfering and micro-organizing friend, Hastings only seems to present this attitude in the case of serious illness or, notably, faced with the terrifying prospect of Miss Lemon coming down on him like a ton of bricks for dereliction of duty.

Hastings: “This was meant to be a rest, you know. Heaven knows what Miss Lemon’s going to say when she arrives.”

Miss Lemon (arriving later and meeting Hastings with a snarl): “I thought this was meant to be a holiday, Captain Hastings. I’ll talk to you later.”

Hastings gets told... again. Chap just can't win.

Hastings gets told… again. Chap just can’t win.

Then there’s Evil Under the Sun, in which the script writers decided to invent the pretext of a health concern for sending Poirot and Hastings off to the Sandy Cove Hotel. While Poirot sits in leisure, conversely moaning pitifully and then complaining that everyone knows he’s ill, Miss Lemon is at her most sternly efficient. Call it maternal rather than paternal– she’s in league with the doctor and brooks no denial as she arranges for the pair to head to the island without a word of consent from either of them. Undoubtably, Hastings’ subsequent hovering at the hotel is due largely to the fear of the wrath of Miss Lemon.

Hastings: “How are you feeling, Poirot? Not too tired after the journey?”
Poirot: “Hastings, I am recovered, I am not the invalid. There’s no need to act like a mother chicken.”

No longer under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot tells off Hastings. Again.

No longer directly under the spectre of Miss Lemon, Poirot– surprise– tells off Hastings.

Later, we have further evidence of what lies behind Hastings’ concern…

Hastings: “So, how are you feeling, Poirot?”
Poirot: “Do you refer to my health, Hastings, or to my feelings concerning the events on this island to which I am confined?”
Hastings: “Well, both, really. I’m going to have to phone Miss Lemon today. She wanted a daily report.”
Poirot: “You may tell to her that I am not sure.”

Miss Lemon eventually shows up, grumbling: “He was meant to be having a rest.” But as Christie readers (and viewers) know, Poirot does not actually need coddling to get better– just opportunities to exercise the little grey cells, a tisane or two, and a good boost to the ego. The opening scenes of The Third Floor Flat feature more of Miss Lemon making a fuss.

Miss Lemon: “Ah– Mr. Poirot. You’ve only done seven minutes. You’ll never cure your cold if you don’t obey the instructions.”
Poirot: “I can’t imagine a method so undignified can cure anything, Miss Lemon. And now also I have the backache, eh!”

Hastings doesn't get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his "present malady." #BlameHastings

Hastings doesn’t get told here, but he gets told later when Poirot blames riding in the Lagonda for his “present malady.” #BlameHastings

Sure enough, the stimulation of the case soon has him on his feet again: “Poirot does not have colds, Miss Lemon. It is well-known that Poirot scorns all but the gravest afflictions.”

Then, again, there’s Curtain. So many of these themes that wind through the Poirot canon come full circle in that book and episode. In the final story, Poirot is faced with the ultimate in coddling, and expresses his disgust openly at being treated like a child– although some of it is a ruse. And of course, he’s forever howling at Hastings, alternately for his stubbornness, his denseness, or even his inability to coddle properly.

One thing is not a ruse: Poirot’s arthritis. In the critical scene of Hastings’ confession to Poirot of his nearly-attempted murder, something is happening throughout the course of the conversation. It is not commented on, but in many ways, it is just as meaningful and gut-wrenching as the dialog. Poirot is sitting in front of an ancient mirror, attempting to tie his perfect bow tie. He can’t quite manage it. Finally, wordlessly, he appeals to Hastings for help– the one whose tie he had been straightening for so many years.

Full circle.

Full circle.