Poirot vs. the Canucks

*Spoilers, as always.*

Happy Canada Day! Agatha Christie was rather fond of Canada, speaking warmly of the scenery as she tripped out this way on her many travels. In the Poirot series, two of the more prominent mentions that I can recall of the Great White North are from The Adventure of the Cheap Flat and Elephants Can Remember. Both involve a confusion of the nationalities of American and Canadian.

Miss Elsa Hart, the chief villain, is actually a pseudo-Canuck in the TV adaptation of Cheap Flat. On the run from the Mafia in the States, she assumes a different nationality as well as a different name. The shady manager of the Black Cat nightclub, Bernie Cole, offers some amusing dialog on the prospects of Canada’s future influence…

Poirot: “What I want to know is, is it Elsa Hart, the American?”
Cole: “No.”
Poirot. “Ah. I heard her in New York once, you understand.”
Cole: “Oh yes? She’s Canadian. Like those Dionne quintuplets. It’s gonna be all the rage soon. Canadian this, Canadian that. Bernie Cole can always spot a trend! Known for it!”

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“This is my skeptical face, monsieur.”

(For those interested in a bit of trivia this Canada Day: the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934 near Callander, Ontario, were famous as the first known surviving quintuplets. I remember driving down from Timmins once with the family, and passing a road sign noting that we were near their hometown. The identical sisters became a sort of gimmicky tourist phenomenon and must have had a pretty bizarre childhood in consequence.)

Although it doesn’t occur in the Christie’s original story, I rather enjoy the use of confused nationality. As an American living in Canada who is frequently confused for being Canadian, it always delights me when people confuse Poirot for a Frenchman, and he corrects them right away. It’s funny– but it’s also exactly how it is!  🙂

The other prominent mention of Canada occurs, of course, in Elephants Can Remember, notable for the most blatantly obvious clues ever inserted into a Poirot script. Anyone watching the episode in North America would think, “No way is she from Boston if she says ‘zed.’ No way would she not know what she was doing on St. Patrick’s Day if she were of the Boston Irish.”

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Oh well. What I really want to know is this: in the denouement, Poirot says that her accent gave her away, which we already knew. He gave the example of her use of “zed,” but he also says that he heard the Canadian aspect “immediately.” I wonder if he could actually tell even sooner. When he first speaks with her, it’s in a stream of rapid French, ending with:

Poirot: “Vous ne l’avez vu à l’avance?”
Mary: “Huh? No, I’ve never been down here before.”

Setting aside the fact that “huh” is more of an Americanism (she should have gone for “eh,” eh?) it is perhaps just a little curious that she can process his question at all, and maybe Poirot files that fact away for later. Of course, if she spent more than half her life in Montreal– with French-speaking relatives of Zelie Rouxelle’s, no less– she was bound to be pretty conversant in the language.

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By the way, this is the second instance in the series where a young girl is hurried away from her home in England and sent to Montreal after it is feared (incorrectly) that one of the parents killed the other! The other instance is in Five Little Pigs, where the daughter of Caroline Crale comes back for the truth about her mother. We know it’s Montreal from the book, and the daughter had been given the name of Lemarchant in Canada. The daughters in both episodes also, incidentally, come back to wreak revenge… and neither quite manages it. Insert Quebec joke here.  🙂

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In Elephants Can Remember, there is, perhaps, one other sense in which Mary’s accent gives her away. She says that she’s just a simple clerk. She pronounces the word “clark,” which is a British pronunciation, used neither in the United States nor in Canada! So, can we say that this “gives away” the fact that she’s a British actress pretending to be from across the pond?

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  🙂

Happy Canada Day, all!

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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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Of twin sisters and seeing double

Two Poirot novels prominently feature twin sisters as a central point of the mystery: The Murder on the Links and Elephants Can Remember. In other words, Christie’s second published Poirot novel, and her-second-to-last-published Poirot novel. (2, 2, 2…) The twin sisters of The Murder on the Links, as Poirot readers know, feature largely in the life and the future of Hastings. He marries “Cinderella” a.k.a. Dulcie Duveen, whose sister Bella marries Jack Renauld. Because of the South American interests of the Renauld family, the latter couple inevitably relocates there, and Hastings and Dulcie decide to join them as well to start a ranch.

There’s a strange little passage in Peril at End House when, as Poirot is getting on Hastings’ nerves, the following dialog ensues.

‘Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I was the kind of credulous fool you make out?’

‘Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it– you and your wife.’

‘Bella,’ I said, ‘always goes by judgment.’

‘She is as wise as she is charming,’ said Poirot.

Um, have Hastings and Poirot forgotten to which twin sister Hastings is married?

I don’t know if this has been written about or explained by Agatha Christie or anyone else, but it seems most likely that it is a mere mistake. If one is determined to resolve the problem “within the canon,” it’s just possible, I suppose, that Hastings’ sister-in-law is known to be the business brain behind all the entrepreneurial affairs of the family in South America, and he’s changing the subject to impress upon Poirot that even she trusts his judgment implicitly. But that is not really the context of the conversation. It’s a very bizarre moment.

It’s additionally funny– and weird– because in the television series, of course, one of the sisters is cut out altogether and Hastings and Bella Duveen do end up together!

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Weirdness. Weirdness everywhere.

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.