Ambigram: Dead Man’s Folly

Once again, a vertical-axis “mirror” ambigram of a Christie title. Acrylic on square canvas board. I’m attempting to carry on my habit of using the letters themselves (frequently the center letters) to convey some important pictorial plot reference. In this case, we have the folly itself.  🙂

A quote from Dead Man’s Folly

‘[Absorption in one’s personal life] is, you know,’ Poirot persisted, ‘a form of humility. And humility is valuable. There was a slogan that was written up in your underground railways here, I remember, during the war. “It all depends on you.” It was composed, I think, by some eminent divine– but in my opinion it was a dangerous and undesirable doctrine. For it is not true. Everything does not depend on, say, Mrs Blank of Little-Blank-in-the-Marsh. And if she is led to think it does, it will not be good for her character. While she thinks of the part she can play in world affairs, the baby pulls over the kettle.’

‘You are rather old-fashioned in your views, I think. Let’s hear what your slogan would be.’

‘I do not need to formulate one of my own. There is an older one in this country which contents me very well.’

‘What is that?’

‘ “Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry.” ‘

-Dead Man’s Folly

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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The best endings to Poirot stories: My top 12

Here I shall opine on a list of the best endings of Christie’s Poirot stories, both novels and short stories. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will count The Labours of Hercules and The Big Four as collections of short stories, which they essentially are.) By best endings, I don’t necessarily mean best ultimate plot twists or best solutions. I mean that, after all is said and done, the actual last few words of text themselves strike amazement into the heart and leave me, the reader, in just the right place. For the purposes of this post, the funniest endings are not included– that’s another category altogether. If you haven’t read some of these, you should be warned of SPOILERS, because I will spoil BLATANTLY, and quote, and explain. My comments will be in italics. Here goes, in no particular order!

1.    Dead Man’s Folly

Then Mrs. Folliat of Nasse House, daughter of a long line of brave men, drew herself erect. She looked straight at Poirot and her voice was formal and remote.

‘Thank you, M. Poirot,’ she said, ‘for coming to tell me yourself of this. Will you leave me now? There are some things that one has to face quite alone…’

Certainly one of the most enigmatic and fascinating of Christie’s endings, we are left not knowing what action Mrs. Folliat is going to take when Poirot reveals to her that he knows the truth about her son. The reader may assume that she has something like suicide, or a double suicide, in mind. This is the interpretation used by the writers of the 2013 television episode. Christie frequently enjoys using elipses or a dash to leave the very last words hanging.

2.    “The Lemesurier Inheritance”

‘You have disposed very successfully of the curse of the Lemesuriers.’

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot very thoughtfully. ‘I wonder very much indeed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mon ami, I will answer you with one significant word– red!’

‘Blood?’ I queried, dropping my voice to an awe-stricken whisper.

‘Always you have the imagination melodramatic, Hastings! I refer to something much more prosaic– the colour of little Ronald Lemesurier’s hair.’

What Poirot is getting at– though it is not explicitly spelled out for Hastings or the reader– is that although Ronald, the elder of the two boys, has inherited the estate and therefore the “curse of the firstborn” appears to be broken, it may be that the curse continues after all. Ronald’s auburn hair suggests that he might actually be the son of the secretary, and not of Hugo Lemesurier at all! So Gerald is actually the true firstborn; as the firstborn, he did not inherit, in keeping with the curse; and Hugo had been trying to kill the wrong son! Despite Poirot’s words about his observation being “prosaic,” his ending sends a chill to my heart every time I read it. It puts an entirely different complexion on the events that have passed.

3.    “Problem at Sea”

‘It was a trick– a cruel trick,’ cried out Ellie.

‘I do not approve of murder,’ said Hercule Poirot.

The ending of this short story is so shocking that it was altered for the sake of the television series, although this text remains essentially the same. In the book, Poirot knows the murderer has a weak heart, and deliberately seeks to shock him to death by means of a particularly stunning denouement. In other words, Poirot basically murders the guy. He does so thinking that it is the best and most merciful way for all involved, but he still deliberately causes his death. This makes that last sentence, an oft-repeated phrase of Poirot’s, so chillingly ironic. Listen to the story via this audiobook to hear the full, ruthless shock of the moment come through.

4.    The Murder on the Links

‘It’s the Prince’s turn to interrupt,’ I interpolated. ‘Do you know what he said?’

‘No?’

‘”Hell!” said the Prince– and kissed her!’

And I suited the action to the word.

Hastings puts in a brilliant comment (it has to happen sometimes, right?) and ties up the romantic ending to this fabulous tale with a neat reference to Chapter 1 and his first meeting with Cinderella. What a pleasure this story is to read…

5.    “The Mouse Walks In” (Chapter 13 of The Big Four)

I turned my head aside. Poirot put his hand on my shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had never heard there before.

‘You like not that I should embrace you or display the emotion, I know well. I will be very British. I will say nothing– but nothing at all. Only this– that in this last adventure of ours, the honours are all with you, and happy is the man who has such a friend as I have!’

Speaking of Hastings doing something amazing, he has here just put his own life and (so he thinks) the life of his wife in deadly peril to save his friend. What follows, at the end of the chapter, is one of the most moving exchanges between Poirot and Hastings to be found anywhere.

6.    Cards on the Table

Despard said cheerfully:

‘Let’s stab him, Rhoda, and see if his ghost can come back and find out who did it.’

For the sheer impudence and audacity of the comment. Cent tonnerres!

7.    Three Act Tragedy

‘My goodness,’ he cried, ‘I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoned cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.’

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,’ said Poirot.

‘Eh?’

‘It might have been ME,’ said Hercule Poirot.

This is a particularly brilliant ending because it comes across as comic OR poignant. The first instinct, perhaps, is to laugh at Poirot’s incorrigible vanity– that his death would be so much more tragic than that of an ordinary person. But then immediately one is reminded that, strictly speaking, he’s right, insofar as it’s true that if he’d been killed, the murders would not have been solved and the evil bigamist would have succeeded in his plan. The serious reality of that fact is compounded by Poirot’s own realization that his friend Cartwright was willing to let him die in such a pointless way just for the sake of testing out a future murder. All of the complexity and poignancy this entails is captured in full by Suchet’s great performance of that moment. Martin Shaw does a superb job as Cartwright, as well– everyone has tears in their eyes by the end. Go watch it!

8.    Five Little Pigs 

‘I died…’

In the hall she passed two young people whose life together was just beginning.

The chauffeur held open the door of the car. Lady Dittisham got in and the chauffeur wrapped the fur rug round her knees.

When the murderer is revealed, she gives a little monologue that is a wonder of crime fiction character psychology. It underscores an observation that Poirot makes near the very end of Curtain: the worst part of murder is the effect it has on the murderer. The ending is subtle and stark, and seems to reinforce the futility of a life of luxury when obtained at the expense of a murderer’s own sanity and happiness. Zowie. I admit I prefer it to the melodramatic conclusion that the television adaptation attempts.

9.    The Mystery of the Blue Train

‘Yes– yes, it is true. You are young, younger than you yourself know. Trust the train, Mademoiselle, for it is le bon Dieu who drives it.’

The whistle of the engine came again.

‘Trust the train, Mademoiselle,’ murmured Poirot again. ‘And trust Hercule Poirot– He knows.’

Just a lovely, elegant conclusion. Eminently quotable; as Christie might have said, a “typical exit line.”

10.    “The Wasp’s Nest”

‘Listen, mon ami, you are a dying man; you have lost the girl you loved, but there is one thing that you are not; you are not a murderer. Tell me now: are you glad or sorry that I came?’

There was a moment’s pause and Harrison drew himself up. There was a new dignity in his face– the look of a man who has conquered his own baser self. He stretched out his hand across the table.

‘Thank goodness you came,’ he cried. ‘Oh, thank goodness you came.’

Poirot has just saved his dying friend from becoming a murderer. A wonderfully satisfying conclusion to one of Christie’s cleverest little tales.

11.    “The Apples of the Hesperides”

Hercule Poirot said gently:

‘He needs your prayers.’

‘Is he then an unhappy man?’

Poirot said:

‘So unhappy that he has forgotten what happiness means. So unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy.’

The nun said softly:

‘Ah, a rich man…’

Hercule Poirot said nothing– for he knew that there was nothing to say…

From the stories comprising The Labours of Hercules comes this deep conversation with a nun about Poirot’s most recent client. More splendid character psychology from Christie.

12.    Murder on the Orient Express

‘Then,’ said Poirot, ‘having placed my solution before you, I have the honour to retire from the case…’

After a slick and streamlined investigation, the book builds to a crescendo with Poirot’s two solutions to the mystery, followed by Linda Arden’s impassioned plea, and draws to a close with Poirot’s calm and matter-of-fact pronouncement. The only hint we have of a kind of lack of closure is in those trailing elipses. Are the passengers surprised by Poirot’s reaction? What is passing through Poirot’s mind? I admit candidly that I have never seen an adaptation that completely satisfies me as far as the script’s relation to the text is concerned. The book comes across as an extremely difficult story to adapt in general, but I would really love, somehow, to see a performance in which the last few pages of the book are read pretty much exactly as written.

In which I kindly pester that cornet player from Dead Man’s Folly!

I found out just a couple weeks ago, and completely by accident, that a colleague of my husband’s was that cornet player in the garden fête scene of Dead Man’s Folly, the last Poirot episode ever filmed. My reaction: “What the actual freaking what??!!”

But indeed, David Jackson went to the same little seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario as my husband (an LCC pastor), subsequently serving in a sister church body of ours in England. Here he briefly recounts to me his experiences (as an ELCE pastor way back in 2013) waxing musical in the final days of Poirot filming.

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David’s the gentleman in clear profile in this shot.

“My performance as an extra in Dead Man’s Folly took place before I joined the military. At the time I was a pastor of St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Borehamwood, England and I also played cornet with the Borehamwood Brass. The Borehamwood Brass were invited to perform in the film, so that is how I ended up in a Poirot film. It was good fun! I even got to meet David Suchet and had a lovely conversation with him regarding his St. Paul documentary. He remained in character accent during our chat. I could not stop looking at his waxed mustache. He is a charming and very intelligent man.”

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The painted miniature books (5)

Zoë Wanamaker cuts a dashing figure as Ariadne Oliver in the Poirot series. Everything from the voice to the love of apples to the delightful, eccentric absent-mindedness is portrayed to perfection. I put Mrs. Oliver on half of the six Poirot novels in which she features, and I consider them some of my best covers. She seems to actually make Poirot look more like himself; perhaps that’s true of the acted roles as well.  🙂

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So accurate is the episode’s detail to the character of Mrs. Oliver that even the particular hairstyle that she’s experimenting with in the book– the “fringe”– is portrayed. I say nothing about the accuracy of the script in general, but that’s a post for another day.  😉

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I’ll say it again– the costumes for this character were AMAZING. And for the Dead Man’s Folly cover, it seems to have affected the Poirot painting, too– that is probably the best overcoat I have ever painted (even if it is an inch long).

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The Elephants Can Remember cover is one of my absolute favorites. The clothes and the faces came together so well. I was really delighted with Poirot’s left sleeve and the glints of bling, and the lady’s clothes and accessories.

Mrs. Oliver is magic, that’s all there is to it.