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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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.

The painted miniature books (8)

I’m calling this set “Poirot Chatting With Suspicious Ladies.”

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A great quote from one of Agatha’s best books, but not one of my best covers. I was tweaking this for days, utterly unsatisfied with the likeness of Jacqueline. Some people actually like this cover the best (!) but I think that’s just because it’s such an AMAZING episode. The best bit of the painting was Poirot’s little silver fob.

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This was another one where the likeness took a long time, but I was more satisfied with the final result. I had a deuce of a time finding a still from the episode to use! Since Five Little Pigs is told in flashback, Poirot is not in the story’s main action; since I wanted him on the cover, I was obliged to use a scene from the denouement. And since another of my personal rules for painting these covers is “If it wasn’t something that could have happened in the book, it can’t go on the cover,” I couldn’t use the best and most dramatic shot, which was Lucy Crale with a gun, with Poirot behind her. So this is the shot I found; I like it because it’s different.

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Another “different” shot– I did want to vary up the covers so that it wasn’t just a series of Poirot head shots, but rather told a bit of the story– at the train station. The episode of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is full of all sorts of interestingly atmospheric filters, which gives the whole thing a sort of dreamy effect.

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I rather wish this quote had made its way into the “Truth and Lies” section of the new book of Poirot quotes, Little Grey Cells. Words of wisdom.

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Another cover that is probably a favorite, for two reasons: the character of Norma Restarick came out quite recognizable even at such a tiny scale, and it was a delightful treat to paint some of those gardens in the background. As soon as I saw this scene in the episode, I knew it would be the one to go on this cover.

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It was tricky to get a good photo of this book (alas, I didn’t), but it’s also a different sort of cover because the image I used was a lovely, extremely back-lit one– the figures are actually darker than they appear in this picture, and the painting in the background (my favorite bit) is a little less sharp and more hazy. The Labours of Hercules was my one chance, really, to get the Countess Rossakoff onto a book cover.