Tamara de Lempicka’s portraits in the Poirot series

Sometimes I think the art department for Agatha Christie’s Poirot must have been having so much fun… Did you know that multiple paintings in the series were basically tweaked renditions of Tamara de Lempicka’s works?

Lempicka was a celebrated Polish Art Deco artist. Her distinctive style shows influence of Cubism as well as Ingres-style portraiture. I had, some months ago, painted a tiny (reversed) copy of one of her works– a girl with gloves– for the cover of one of my miniature books.

In the Poirot episode One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, the board room of Alistair Blunt shows a portrait of himself and his wife Rebecca, done exactly in the style of Lempicka. This is historically fitting, since Lempicka painted a number of “celebrity” portraits for the wealthy and aristocratic in the ’20s and ’30s.

In fact, that painting above isn’t only in the style of Lempicka– it is basically a conglomeration of different Lempicka paintings: a portrait of Mrs Boucard and one Mr Tadeusz de Lempicki. You can see below how the face of the man has been changed to look like Alistair Blunt (Peter Blythe).   🙂



There is a similarly-styled portrait, a la Lempicka, in the episode The Underdog—  a painting which hides the safe of Sir Reuben Astwell, the murdered man.

Again, it is based almost completely off of a legit Lempicka painting, Dr. Boucard.

The “remake” includes the test tube of liquid, which in Lempicka’s original has (presumably) some medical aspect, but which seems to have been cleverly re-imagined as relating to “Astwell Chemicals.” Like the Alistair Blunt portrait, the face is reconfigured to look like Sir Reuben (Denis Lill).

Interesting, no? 🙂

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Two more Picassos in Poirot’s flat

Remember that anachronistic Picasso print from Poirot’s first flat, from 1957? Well, I’ve just noticed that a bit later in the series, it was replaced with a different print. Here’s a shot from The Plymouth Express where you can see it over Hastings’ shoulder. It’s a mother and child painting.

Also, I’ve identified the picture. It is, in fact, another Picasso (Mother and Infant), one from 1922, in the artist’s much earlier neoclassical phase. Kudos to the art department for this fitting remedy.  🙂  The picture is part of the Continental influence of Poirot’s decor as well as blending in nicely with his many Japanese prints, which are similarly heavy on the linear outlining (and also very influential in turn-of-the-last-century European art). Japanese prints can be seen in various places in both of Poirot’s flats.

And if you haven’t noticed already, Poirot has a more cubist-style Picasso print (mixed media) hanging over his mantle. Violin is from around 1912.

UPDATE:

Poirot seems so fond of Picasso that I thought I’d try tracking down that second print that’s behind Poirot’s shoulder in the Plymouth Express shot. Sure enough, that is a sketch called A Thousand Travelling Acrobats— a Picasso drawing from 1905.

Props for an Art Deco / Modernist flat

One of the great things about blogging is that you come into contact with others who share (sometimes unlikely-seeming) obsessions. Over the past two months, I’ve heard from a couple of fellow Poirot fans who are mad about Poirot’s flat and the various props and pieces used therein.

The first fellow, an avid prop collector by the name of David, pointed out something I hadn’t yet realized: there is a Picasso print in Poirot’s first flat called “The Piano (Velasquez)”… and the painting itself was from 1957! An anachronism!  😀

The second gentleman I was chatting with is furnishing an entire flat in Art Deco style, and he sent me some really awesome photos of pieces of furniture he’s found. Some are very like the pieces in the series! Amazing!!!!!!!

ITV’s Poirot and BBC’s Sherlock

It’s no great secret to Poirot fans that Agatha Christie’s most famous detective owes a lot in concept to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Both authors created bachelor gentlemen “consulting detectives”; each had a sometimes-flatmate as their admiring, not-quite-as-intelligent chronicler of tales; each were conceited to the nines due to a nearly flawless track record of deduction wizardry; each foiled Scotland Yard’s best men; etc. Rather than go into too much detail with the books alone, this blog post takes a look at the screen translations of those two universes as portrayed in the Poirot series and the BBC Sherlock series. The biggest difference in interpretation is the fact that Poirot is a period drama, while Sherlock is a modernization. Yet, fans of both series may find a good deal in one to remind them of the other. For example…

Mark Gatiss. The multi-talented Gatiss is well known as a writer and producer of several series, including (of course) Sherlock, in which he also stars as Mycroft Holmes. As for Poirot, Gatiss was a scriptwriter for Hallowe’en Party, The Big Four, and Cat Among the Pigeons. A few of the similarities between the series may possibly be traced to him as a result. He also acted in a certain episode of Poirot…

Appointment With Death. In this episode, Gatiss plays Leonard Boynton, the insecure stepson of the murdered woman. Seeing Gatiss flex his sarcastic chops against Poirot, it’s hard for me not to think of his banter with the other great fictional detective. There’s something else about Appointment With Death that is significant for this side-by-side: the story line of the man who fled across the desert to Samarra, attempting in vain to cheat Death. Originally used by Christie in her novel, exactly the same story is trotted out as an important framing narrative in Sherlock episode The Six Thatchers (Season 4, Ep. 1).

The “death” and resurrection of the detective. In true Holmsian fashion, Christie had her detective undergoing a fake death and dramatic return, much to the shock of his “Watson.” Gatiss did the screenplay for The Big Four as well as working on The Reichenbach Fall and The Empty Hearse, and the episodes of the two series were released very close to the same time. Yet Gatiss has claimed no deliberate influence between the two scripts– apparently they were conceived quite independently and at different times. Nonetheless, you can spot a few things in production if you look– including an iconic shadow on the pane of each of these detectives when their resurrected selves emerge from hiding once more. (Book-Poirot’s elusive brother, the highly-intelligent but constitutionally indolent Achille, was Christie’s nod to Mycroft. He was not included in the TV adaptation of The Big Four.)

Other cast members. Here, I’ll just note certain major characters from Sherlock who play other roles in Poirot. Along with Mark Gatiss as Mycroft…

Amanda Abbington (a.k.a. Mary Watson) is one of the teachers in Poirot episode Cat Among the Pigeons.

Tom Brooke is also noticeable as Wiggins in Sherlock and Tysoe in The Big Four (the journalist following up shady leads). The characters are even a bit similar, in that Wiggins and Tysoe attempt to work alongside Sherlock and Poirot professionally to a certain extent.

An actor who stands out as an arch-villain in both series: Toby Jones, who plays the notorious Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express, and the equally creepy, sinister, wealthy Culverton Smith in Sherlock’s The Lying Detective.

Lindsay Duncan, who has a recurring role as Lady Smallwood in Sherlock, is Lady Tamplin in Poirot’s The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Would you believe that Sherlock’s “Anderson” (Jonathan Aris) is a receptionist in Lord Edgware Dies?? That whole critical conversation about the pince-nez, Mrs Van Dusen, and the need to telephone to Donald Ross happens with him.

The judge in Sad Cypress who condemns Elinor to death is Benedict Cumberbatch’s dad (Timothy Carlton), who plays the elder Mr. Holmes in Sherlock!

Honorable mentions for being recognizable: Haydn Gwynn is a painting-forging museum curator in Sherlock, and Coco Courtney / Miss Battersby in Poirot. Russell Tovey is a young Lionel Marshall in Evil Under the Sun, and is later seen as the terrorized guy in The Hounds of Baskerville.

“The Yellow Face” (ala The Six Thatchers) and “The Chocolate Box.” I’m cheating on this one because I’m comparing an episode with a short story, but hey, it’s my blog. 😉 In the Holmes story “The Yellow Face,” the detective says to Watson: ‘If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ears.’ Christie spoofs this moment at the end of story “The Chocolate Box” with Poirot asking Hastings: ‘If you think at any time that I am growing conceited… you shall say to me “Chocolate box.” Is it agreed?’ These are both rare instances of recorded failures of Holmes and Poirot. In the TV series, Poirot ends up getting his solution correct at the end after all and his line to Hastings does not appear. In the Sherlock episode The Six Thatchers, the detective wearily issues his directive about Norbury to Mrs Hudson. I include this example because I still cannot watch the end of this Sherlock episode without thinking of Poirot.

The Lost Mine: Hastings attempts to set Poirot straight on the rules of Monopoly, but Poirot’s brain can’t handle the illogic inherent in some of the game details. So when Hastings protests: “But it’s not in the rules,” Poirot retorts, “Well then, Hastings, the rules are wrong!” Sherlock snaps almost the identical dialogue at John Watson in The Hounds of Baskerville. One can’t help but feel it was lifted wholesale from the Poirot script. 🙂

Holmes: It’s this or Cluedo.

Watson: Ah, no. We are never playing that again.

Holmes: Why not?

Watson: Because it’s not actually possible for the victim to have done it, Sherlock, that’s why!

Holmes: It’s the only possible solution.

Watson: It’s not in the rules.

Holmes: Well, then the rules are wrong!

Retirement references. Christie, as a nod to the concept of Holmes retiring to Sussex to look after beehives, mirrors that idea with Poirot retiring to the country to (unsuccessfully!) grow vegetable marrows. In the words of Christie’s Tuppence from the book Partners in Crime: “This is our last case. When they have laid the superspy by the heels, the great detectives intend to retire and take to beekeeping or vegetable marrow growing. It’s always done.” 🙂 We see Poirot’s futile attempts at retirement at the beginning of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. We don’t see Sherlock with beehives in the other series, but there is a passing reference to it in the episode His Last Vow.

Janine: So, we’re good, then?

Sherlock Holmes: Yeah, of course. Where’s the cottage?

Janine: Sussex Downs.

Sherlock Holmes: Mm, nice.

Janine: It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.

How the actors in the title roles portray a walking brain. Both Suchet and Cumberbatch made use of the classic “steeple hands” position throughout the series to indicate their detectives entering a spell of deep thought. Interestingly, they each employed other distinctive techniques to convey the cerebral aspect of their characters. Suchet manages this by setting his voice into a much higher register, the “head” voice suggesting that the brain dominates Poirot’s entire personality to the exclusion of everything below-neck. Cumberbatch also wanted to evoke a “mind over matter” aspect of Sherlock’s physicality, and he did this by losing a significant amount of weight for the role. Doyle, of course, does describe his detective as very thin.

Giraud. Sherlock Holmes gets several references in the Poirot stories, in book and on film. Some are by name; several are by allusion (written monographs, the parsley in the butter, etc). In The Murder on the Links, Christie invents the odious Giraud to provide a rival detective for Poirot. Giraud prides himself on his great observational skills, his collection of tiny clues, his attention to cigarette ash and tire marks, and– in the episode– his trademark pipe. He is clearly aspiring (and failing) to be a second Sherlock Holmes, a “human foxhound.” I include this in my catalogue of similarities because we do get to see some pipe-smoking in the flashback episode of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride. 🙂

Offhand, those are the most noticeable “overlaps” I see when watching one or the other series. One could possibly find some connections as to how Lestrade and Japp are played (perhaps in getting their respective sleuths out of jail?), or Countess Rossakoff and Irene Adler, or Miss Lemon and Miss Hudson. However, to my mind, those are more general similarities– they don’t make me think automatically of the other series.

Are there any others you’ve noticed?  🙂

18 actors who play more than one character in the Poirot series

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good with faces. There are many actors over the quarter-century run of the Poirot series who have played two different characters in the series– and most of them I didn’t recognize from their previous role. Sometimes, the discovery was quite a shock! Here are 18 that are worth taking note of… (Spoilers for everything, as usual)

1) David Yelland

Perhaps the most obvious place to start. The brilliant David Yelland played Charles Laverton West, a stuck-up and self-centered MP, in the second-ever episode of the series, Murder in the Mews. Of course, he is more readily recognized as Poirot’s valet George from Season 10 to the very last episode, Curtain. (George is still a snob, but much more likeable.) 🙂 Yelland has the distinction of being the “longest-running” of those with multiple roles in the series. Yet, he does not boast the biggest gap between appearances. That honor goes to…

2) Danny Webb

My jaw hit the floor when I discovered that the cheeky, sarcastic porter of The Adventure of the Clapham Cook ended up “promoted” to Superintendent Bill Garroway in Elephants Can Remember! He always did have good observation skills… 🙂  Webb is one of only three multiple-role cast members who appear in both the first and the last season of Poirot. He, Yelland, and one other…

3) Sean Pertwee

I received another mammoth shock at not having recognized Sean Pertwee from The King of Clubs. The inoffensive-looking Ronnie Oglander seemed such a far cry from Dead Man’s Folly‘s Sir George Stubbs. And yet, the hair has remained exactly the same! Another curious similarity between the characters: both are killers who are trying to hide a blood relationship with one of the Cusack sisters. Ha!!!

4) Frances Barber

Barber’s first role in the series was as (faux) Lady Millicent Castle-Vaughan in The Veiled Lady. Her second was in The Clocks as Merlina Rival, who falsely identifies the murdered man as her ex-husband. Both characters are scheming crooks relying on their own acting skills to try to deceive the authorities.

5) Carol MacReady

First, she’s an Australian forger in Peril at End House; finally, she’s a flask-toting matron at an English girl’s school in Cat Among the Pigeons. I’d call that a reforming of life. 😀  I jest about the characters, but really, this little blog exercise gives one a tremendous appreciation for character acting– how very different the roles, and how well the actors disappear into them. As if you didn’t already know that Poirot was a sterling exemplar of character acting.

6) Pip Torrens

I don’t remember whether or not I’d spotted the disgruntled “Major Rich” from Spanish Chest when he popped up as the disgruntled Jeremy Cloade in Taken at the Flood. But I really should have. I love these side-by-side photos… it makes Torrens look like he’s been to a really, really long party and is a little confused as to how he got home. LOL

7) Geoffrey Beevers

Did you recognize Mr Tolliver from Problem at Sea as the lawyer advising Elinor Carlisle after the death of her aunt in Sad Cypress? Nope.

8) Beatie Edney

OH MY GOSH MARY CAVENDISH RETIRED TO WILBRAHAM CRESCENT AND BECAME A CRAZY CAT LADY!!!!!!!!!!

It’s a long way from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to The Clocks!

9) Haydn Gwynn

From Coco Courtney in The Affair at the Victory Ball to Miss Battersby in Third Girl, Gwynn brings her own lovely ironical quality to the roles.

10) Barbara Barnes

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Mrs Charles Lester from The Lost Mine is one of my least favorite minor characters in the series. The voice and performance just grate on me. I think that Barnes pulled off Louise Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia much better. Both characters have extremely problematic husbands, to say the least.

11) Catherine Russell

One can hardly believe that the troubled Russian companion Katrina Reiger from How Does Your Garden Grow? is played by the same woman who became the smarmy editor of The Sunday Comet in Mrs McGinty’s Dead! Truly a transformation of Poirot-esque magnitude.

12) Simon Shepherd

Shepherd has a go as disillusioned playwright David Hall in Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan, and appears later as Dr. Rendell in Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

13) Richard Lintern

Because EVERYONE comes back for Mrs McGinty’s Dead! 😉  Lintern is John Lake in Dead Man’s Mirror and Guy Carpenter for McGinty. He is, I think, one of the most recognizable of the returning cast members to the series. These two shots, in fact, are remarkably similar.

14) Beth Goddard

Another unexpected jolt: seeing Violet from The Case of the Missing Will transform into the very strange Sister Agnieszka from Appointment With Death. Headstrong feminist turned human trafficker… okay then…

15) Nicholas Farrell

From The A.B.C. Murders to The Mystery of the Blue Train, Farrell is alternately Donald Fraser and Major Knighton. Got a bit of a temper in each of them as well as girl trouble, but he’s only a baddie in one of the episodes.

16) Patrick Ryecart

Ryecart plays Charles Arundell in Dumb Witness, and Sir Anthony Morgan in The Labours of Hercules. He’s got this terrific shifty expression that he brings fully to bear in each of these characters, who are none too scrupulous. Weird little detail that the characters share: they are both alerted to disaster by means of a painting that is no longer where it should be on the wall!

17) Fenella Woolgar

Woolgar is Ellis in Lord Edgware Dies and Miss Whittaker in Hallowe’en Party. I think she is one of the easiest to recognize between roles.

18) Lucy Liemann

Last but not least (although latest in the series!) is Lucy Liemann, who takes the roles of two useful assistants: Miss Burgess in Cards on the Table, and Sonia in Third Girl. Miss Burgess is guileless, a bit naive, easy to pump for information. Sonia is the opposite!

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

“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.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds: episode overview

I haven’t done an episode review for awhile now, so here’s one I’ve been mulling over in the last few days.  🙂

Things I Loved:

Making Poirot’s friend Bonnington his dentist also. Doing this scores a couple of script writing points. First, it provides some insight to Poirot’s character which is reiterated elsewhere in the series (he hates going to the dentist). Second, Poirot’s aching bicuspid makes a convenient excuse for him to meet with Bonnington a second time, so he can hear the news of Henry Gascoigne’s death; in Christie’s original, they meet again randomly on the Tube. Finally and most importantly, it makes the references to the dead man’s teeth seem natural and consistent with the rest of the story, and serves to slightly conceal the vital clue.

The contrast of the opening scene. Brighton’s frivolous outdoor revelry is sharply contrasted by the interior shot of the dying Anthony Gascoigne.

A tiny detail in the closing scene, but I thought it was great anyway– when the lads are gathered again at the restaurant at the end, you see Molly come through the shot from the back left, bearing two plates of a dessert that might conceivably be the blackberry crumble and depositing them before customers. This is an exact parallel of one of the last lines of Christie’s story, and I appreciated the touch.

Mrs Mullen, the neighbor of Henry Gascoigne, treating Poirot like he’s deaf or unable to speak English– SO funny.

-Bringing food into the rest of the story. Many of the early scripts, especially those based on the “slighter” short stories, take elements from Christie’s original and incorporate the themes into the other characters’ storylines. (For example, in The Cornish Mystery, Mrs Pengelley’s digestive troubles and diagnosed “gastritis” parallel Hastings’ stomach issues and diet.) The crux of Four and Twenty Blackbirds is one man’s eating habits which give away a crime. The script writer for this episode adds the delightful scene of Poirot cooking for Hastings, which is also a good excuse to throw in some Belgian references. The line, “Please– do not be stinting with your praise” is one of my all-time favorite moments of Poirot vanity.  🙂

Miss Lemon’s wireless program. She is listening to a radio drama featuring A.J. Raffles, “London’s Man of Mystery.” He and his sidekick Bunny were modeled from Holmes and Watson; she describes Raffles as “such a dashing figure.” You could read this as an early indication that Miss Lemon finds the whole renowned-London-detective-character attractive, and it elicits a very interesting look on Poirot’s face when he hears it. Of course, in the books, Miss Lemon wouldn’t touch detective fiction with a ten-foot pole (see: Dead Man’s Folly), but the discrepancy doesn’t trouble me. Oh, and the fictional Raffles is also a CRICKETER! Considering Hastings’ cricket mania in this episode, is this a coincidence?

-The forensics team at Scotland Yard, which would go on to send Poirot a get-well message after his bout of food poisoning in Evil Under the Sun.  😀  And Japp absolutely cracks me up in the scene at the Yard in which Poirot is trying to wheedle some information out of him. His “scrap heap of scrap” and his “I didn’t”… ha! And in the midst of the humor, and despite his skepticism of Poirot’s interest, you nonetheless get a good sense of Japp’s own intelligence here.

-Speaking of which, I need to hold forth about the denouement of this episode. This is the very first of Poirot’s many dramatic, public reveals. He (rather outrageously) brings the whole Scotland Yard forensic department onto Lorrimer’s stage. When Lorrimer tries to make a dash for it, he is blinded by stage lighting and cops appear to cover all exits. It is done in truly over-the-top theatrical style– practically music-hall, indeed– and foreshadows future denouements with a calculated theatrical setting (Problem at Sea, Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan, Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, The Big Four). But what stood out to me in this early “big reveal” was a reminder of one of the reasons that David Suchet manages the character of Hercule Poirot so well. It’s one thing to say that he’s a great actor and does his homework and all that– true, but the same can be said for Ustinov and Branagh, and I don’t really want their Poirots. There is a combination of characteristics that Suchet seems to have a natural facility for playing really, really well. The “foreigner” is an obvious one. But in dramatic reveals like this one, a duality in Poirot’s personality is displayed in striking fashion: on the one hand, an extremely charming and/or charismatic gentleman; on the other, a figure who is ruthless to the point of death, and deadly terrifying as a result. Several of Suchet’s very best roles of screen and stage have featured this duality of character, including Robert Maxwell, Rudi Waltz, Melmotte, and Iago. Christie wrote this contrast into her own character, and to see someone of Suchet’s experience and skill have at it is absolutely inspirational.

Things I Didn’t Love:

-Hastings himself was a bit weirded out by the vaguely voyeuristic overtones of the awkward moment in the gallery when Dulcie Lang is posing for a life class. I mean, points for character representation of Hastings, I guess. Not devastating or anything as a moment, but awkward.

-For all the fun of the denouement, there were some curious choices in the general unraveling of the crime. The biggest clue in the story were the “blackbirds”– or blackberries– that the dead man with the unstained teeth was supposed to have eaten. This discovery of Poirot’s was revealed not at the climax of the story, but in the middle. Likewise, the supposition that the last meal that Gascoigne had eaten was not dinner, but lunch, became a deduction made along the way. The dramatic denouement was really more about informing Lorrimer how much tangible evidence they had against him. Part of me wanted a bit more recap at the very end as to just why Lorrimer’s performance was “fatally flawed” (mainly, because he forgot to eat like his uncle).

Things That Confused Me:

-If you were already familiar with the story, the dynamic shifts in the TV plot may cause a little confusion generally. In the book, Anthony Gascoigne had married a rich wife and was consequently well off, while brother Henry was an “extremely bad” artist who was poor. Lorrimer had to wait until Anthony died, because the money would come to his brother, who he had to kill shortly afterward, hence the careful timing of the murder. In the episode, Anthony may or may not have been well off, but Henry was, including assets that could only be sold after his death. If Henry Gascoigne is the rich one, why does Lorrimer have to wait until after Anthony dies to kill Henry? Instead of the chain of inheritance, the focus is shifted so that the very existence of Anthony serves to provide other plot elements: another suspect for the impersonator, some background as to the brothers’ quarrel and the influence of an artist’s model, and just general red herring-ness. It seems the story almost could have been told without Anthony.

-It was something that puzzled me in the book as well– how does George Lorrimer know that Anthony Gascoigne had made no will (or in the book, no recent will at least)? Since the twin brothers had a very long-standing quarrel, it makes sense that they’d consider cutting each other out of their wills if they’d had any.

-Why does Mrs Mullen, the observant neighbor, unlock the door of Gascoigne’s house and let Poirot and Hastings in, since she’s so suspicious of them? And if she knew that Dulcie Lang was upstairs, why “break in” at all– why not just ring?

-In Poirot’s first meeting with Dulcie Lang, he surreptitiously cuts a small piece of blotting paper from the blotter on Henry Gascoigne’s desk. We don’t discover what this is all about until the stage scene, where he reveals how the deception with the smudged postmark was done. But surely there is no way Poirot could have guessed at that point that the tiny blotter smudges he first saw on Gascoigne’s desk were of any relevance to his death.

-Are we supposed to believe that Dulcie Lang’s passionate retort that she would never part with Gascoigne’s paintings at any price indicates some romantic interest? It kind of comes across that way– and the deceased was not young, just saying.

-The restaurant in the book was called the Gallant Endeavor. This was changed to the Bishop’s Chophouse in the episode, and was accordingly filmed at the oldest chophouse in England, Simpson’s Tavern. This is all well and good, since the Gallant Endeavor is supposed to be extremely British in its cuisine, shunning all things hinting of the continental, and has all the marks of a chophouse. However, I don’t really understand why the sign “Simpson’s” is clearly visible on the outside of the restaurant as it was filmed, as characters in the episode clearly refer to it as the Bishop’s Chophouse.

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Conclusion: What can I say? I do love it! In all of its inimitable, sweater-vested glory!  🙂

Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster

Now that I’ve watched through the Jeeves & Wooster series several times and read a number of the books (all highly recommended), I feel vaguely qualified to do a bit of comparing and contrasting between it and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

It seemed a logical move. After all, the two series do have several rather notable things in common. Here’s some listage for you.


Compare…

• Both were produced, in the late ’80s- early ’90s, by Brian Eastman.
• Both are heavily defined by some excellent Clive Exton scripts. He adapted well and maintained quite a lot of the original authors’ dialogue and atmosphere, to the lasting satisfaction of hard-core fans. Speaking of which…
• Both series feature source material from 20th-century British authors that are known to be #1 in their genre. Not just close, but actually at the very top. You don’t get more superlative than Christie in mystery and Wodehouse in humor.
• The title character actors in the two series– namely, David Suchet, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie– are unquestionably some of the greatest talents England has ever seen fit to put on screen. And they all do great accents. 🙂
• Gorgeous sets, gorgeous locations, gorgeous clothes. All the great visuals of well-done period drama. Not to mention snappy theme songs.
• Eastman deliberately infused both shows with a cultivated domesticity that further endeared the characters to the viewer. There is an unmistakable “family” atmosphere at Whitehaven Mansions and Berkeley Mansions.
• Likewise, the shows are quite family-friendly, remaining consistent with the original authors’ material.
• The original stories which form both series include bachelor gentlemen friends sharing a flat and moving in more-or-less upper-class English society. One of the pair is super-intelligent, sartorially impeccable, and great at solving problems; the other is pleasant but not terribly bright, and serves as a frequent stooge and an admiring chronicler of the tales. This is very “Sherlock Holmes” in setup, but in both cases, the authors subvert things in their own ways: Christie makes her brainy cove an eccentric Belgian, while Wodehouse makes his “hero” the servant.

Contrast…

• Brian Eastman made a deliberate decision with Poirot to not include the character of George in those early episodes. This was entirely because he was working on Jeeves & Wooster simultaneously, and didn’t want another series with a valet! This led to greater emphasis on the character of Miss Lemon instead. Another result is that Hastings (patient soul that he is) ends up performing a number of minor tasks that you might normally associate with a valet, although he isn’t really employed in that capacity– paying cab fare and tips, helping with the jacket, nabbing drinks, and so on. To contrast Poirot’s actual valet, George, with Jeeves– it is clear that although George is a sort of paragon in his own way (he must be to come up to Poirot’s standard), he doesn’t possess nearly as much imagination or intelligence as Jeeves. Still, in the books at least, George is instrumental in helping Poirot with some of his cases (“The Under Dog,” “The Lernean Hydra”).
• Because Eastman produced, and Clive Exton scripted, ALL of Jeeves, there is greater consistency in the feel of the shows in many respects. The fact that it ran only four seasons would also be a contributing factor. Poirot, on the other hand, spanned some 25 years, with various script writers and others dealing with production. On the other hand, Jeeves & Wooster has a tremendous inconsistency in casting; Fry and Laurie are in every episode, but nearly every other important character is played by multiple actors, which can result in very confusing viewing. Only rarely in Poirot is a different actor cast for the same role (e.g. Vera Rossakoff). And Suchet’s consistency in the role over a 25-year-span is impressive, to say the least.
• There are some locations shared in common, as is typical in British period drama. Halton House, for example, appears in The Labours of Hercules as well as “Bertie Sets Sail.” Yet there isn’t quite as much location overlap as one might expect. Since Jeeves & Wooster leans “1920s” and Poirot is set firmly in the 1930s, and careful decisions were made regarding period architecture, there is some significant divergence here. Including…
• Although we often think of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries in an English country house setting, it seemed to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that Jeeves & Wooster takes us out into the country more often, despite Bertie’s preference for the metrop, while Poirot’s cases were quite often right in the city. Obviously there are a number of exceptions. But this may be because the Jeeves stories generally revolve around Bertie’s family and friends, many of whom are extremely rich and live in these huge country houses.
• If we are contrasting Hastings with the character of Bertie Wooster, we will find that Hastings is, understandably, not nearly so silly. Their manners of speech are quite different. In themselves, there are few great similarities beyond their time at Eton. But I’ve been wondering if Clive Exton didn’t deliberately (or not) imbue some of his Poirot scripts with Wodehousian moments. Hugh Fraser’s Hastings becomes known for his catch-phrases, including “I say!” But offhand, I can only recall Christie putting those words into Hastings’ mouth once– in Black Coffee! But Wooster is always dropping “I says” all over the place. Consider his very first words after meeting Jeeves. Another scene that suggests Wodehouse is at the beginning of The Incredible Theft, in which Hastings is lying on the couch, rambling about cubic “whatsits” and “thingummies.” Again, words never used by Christie’s character, but by Wodehouse’s. Exton’s adaptation of The Veiled Lady includes Poirot chastening Hastings for leaving him “in the soup”– never used by Poirot in the books, but a ubiquitous phrase Wodehouse uses for describing Bertie Wooster getting into trouble. And in Murder in the Mews, Poirot disparagingly asks: “‘The thing,’ Hastings? You think Poirot concerns himself with mere thingness?” The use of “thingness” is pure Wodehouse.

Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse– I don’t think you can possibly enjoy one without loving the other as well. Hercule Poirot is even mentioned in more than one of the Jeeves novels (Wooster being a big fan of detective fiction). For example:

“I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well” (The Code of the Woosters).

Christie, for her part, dedicated her Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party to Wodehouse.

“To P.G. Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened up my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

So, gentle blog reader, not only should you get watching– get reading, too! 🙂