An audiobook listen-through of the Poirot canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hastings sketch

Ringing in Hastings Monday (okay, this post is coming a couple days late) with a pencil sketch on white paper. My favorite drawing pencil these days is General’s Kimberly 9XXB, which is the darkest and softest they have. Intensity of charcoal, but not as dirty and without the graphite glare!  🙂  It’s been easy to get lazy with my gray paper where all the midtones are provided for you and you add pencil and pastel as the random shadow or highlight. So every now and then I’ve been switching it up with good old traditional white paper again.

By the way, Hugh Fraser is really hard to draw. I have no idea why. I’ve drawn his character many times and this is usually my experience. Hypothetically (by my own technique, anyway) no person should be harder to draw than any other. I’m working off a photo and just copy what I see. But it may be that, compared to Poirot, Hastings’ fairer coloring creates more difficulties, like the greater likelihood of being “washed out” or having less of the contrast that comes more naturally with light skin and dark hair/eyes. Clean-shaven people are also harder to draw. Poirot is a piece of cake, really. If you get the moustache right, everything else just falls into place!

Problem at Sea: episode overview

***Spoilers as always***

Things I loved:

1.) Everything Hastings! “Problem at Sea” was a Hastings-less short story of Christie’s, but as usual, he was written into this earlier episode. In some ways, his involvement with this plot is more incidental than terrifically important, but whenever he shows up, he’s adorable and endearing. Some notable moments: his arrangement of the clay pigeon shooting tournament; Poirot’s unsuccessful attempt to engage him in conversation with Miss Henderson (“Oh, Hastings, Hastings, Hastings”); his participation in the “usual sort of tourist things” he’d planned to avoid in Egypt (and Poirot’s serious analysis of the photo poses); his successful nabbing of a jewel thief. If you didn’t love Hastings already, you definitely loved him by this first-season episode.

2.) Some of the additions used to bolster the plot. “Problem at Sea” is one of Christie’s more “slight” stories, one that requires some padding to make it work onscreen. Using the arranged entertainment on the ship was a clever way to introduce Ismene and her dolls, tying it into the ventriloquism thing. To make General Forbes have a romantic interest in Mrs. Clapperton was also natural, I think, considering that in the book, he rails against Col. Clapperton as a fraud. It might feel a bit of a stretch to think of anyone sustaining an interest in Mrs. Clapperton, but that’s just because the role was played with such perfectly-appropriate odiousness.

3.) Pamela and Kitty were hilarious. Well done.  🙂

4.) The wardrobe. I mentioned the wardrobe already in my review of Triangle at Rhodes— it’s great throughout the series– but what stands out to me in Problem at Sea is Poirot’s wardrobe. Some of my favorite outfits of his are unique to this episode. Hastings, also, sports some great clothes, including casual wear that is not often seen in the series.

5.) Suchet’s dramatic delivery of the denouement. Absolutely spine-tingling, just as it was intended to be in the book.

Things I didn’t love:

1.) Despite the wonderful delivery mentioned above, the script’s climax was written to be much less dramatic than the book. And this is my primary criticism. What makes the story interesting is not really Clapperton being a ventriloquist; in fact, that’s certainly one of Christie’s most unoriginal solutions, in my opinion. What makes the story fascinating is that Poirot knows that Clapperton has a weak heart and deliberately shocks the crud out of everyone with his dramatic denouement– purposefully sending Clapperton to his death from shock. When confronted by Ellie Henderson for his “cruel trick,” the story ends with this ominous, ironic, and chilling statement:

“I do not approve of murder,” said Hercule Poirot.

In other words, Poirot basically murdered the guy because he didn’t approve of murder. This was, perhaps, considered too much for the TV audience to handle, or something. But it’s what makes the whole story intriguing.

2.) I wanted Mrs. Clapperton’s voice to be more distinctively annoying than it was. Its very shrillness is part of what made it possible for her husband to imitate it so convincingly. In the episode, it was a little hard to believe he had so accurately imitated the woman’s voice that came through the other side of the door…

3.) Col. Clapperton’s stiffness at supposedly being “found out” during the card trick rang a bit hollow to me, and sounded more like he was angry or offended rather than embarrassed.

4.) I didn’t understand the point of some of the characters. The Tollivers, for example, seemed to have no real reason for existing. (And their first names are Oliver and Molly– Ollie and Molly Tolliver! Ack.) Also, although no one (except Forbes, apparently) likes Mrs. Clapperton, it is perhaps a bit difficult for the viewer to formulate ideas on why she would have been murdered. There’s the money and jewel-robbery angle, but that is pretty quickly diffused by Poirot. It’s impossible to suspect the two girls. Forbes, old Mr. Russell, a random bead-seller, or the Morgan sisters? Meh. The only people one suspects at all are the husband or Ellie Henderson.

Things that really confused me:

1.) Pamela and Kitty are chasing after Col. Clapperton, described by Christie as a “tall, soldierly-looking man.” Now, no disrespect intended to John Normington. But HASTINGS IS ON BOARD. Seriously– who ought Pam and Kitty be clamoring after? Seriously? I’ll tell you:

And there’s no excuse. Pam and Kitty can’t even be mere gold-diggers, because Clapperton’s wife is the one who has all the money.

2.) The amber beads. First, when they were found near the body, Poirot doesn’t scold Hastings for picking them up and possibly ruining fingerprint evidence. Second, Poirot asserts at the end that the beads were definitely not Ellie Henderson’s, despite the fact that they look identical to the ones she bought. How does he know they weren’t hers, and that someone didn’t just take them because they were convenient to plant suspicion on either her or a bead-seller? She had mentioned earlier that she lost her beads; why insist those weren’t hers? That seems rather an odd coincidence.

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3.) I really wanted to know more of the back story hinted at when Hastings and Bates are standing on the deck. Hastings bemoans the woman inside singing “The Army of Today’s All Right” and “The Kashmiri Love Song,” after he’d explicitly asked for no soldier songs or Indian love lyrics. “We’re all civilians now, Bates.” In the midst of all the comic moments Hastings supplies, this is a rare glimpse of something dark in Hastings’ past, probably related to his military service. The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain are almost the only stories that hint of this past, but incorrigible fans want to know more!

Conclusion: An episode with plenty of fun. Not the most brilliant of scripts, but very well-delivered, including one of Poirot’s best denouement speeches of the earlier episodes. Some great character development for Hastings, too.

 

Poirot as linguist

“There is not much against him, except the fact that nothing is known of his antecedents, and that he speaks too many languages for a good Englishman! (Pardon me, mon ami, but, as linguists, you are deplorable!)”
-“The Kidnapped Prime Minister”

* * * * *

Based on what is explicitly stated in Christie’s own books, we can know that Poirot is fluent in at least four languages: French, English, German, and Italian. The French and English are self-evident. In Murder on the Orient Express, he conducts interviews with the passengers in three languages; this is where we learn that he is conversant in German. In the episode The Clocks, Poirot uses his knowledge of the construction of the German language to clear a certain English-speaking (but actually German) couple from suspicion.

We know he speaks Italian from this charming moment in Christie’s play, Black Coffee:

Carelli: Ah! Monsieur Poirot. Vous voulez me questionner?
Poirot: Si, Signor Dottore, si lei permette.
Carelli. Ah! Lei parla Italiano?
Poirot: Si, ma preferisco parlare in Francese.
Carelli: Alors, qu est-ce que vous voulex me demander?
Hastings: I say, what the hell is all this?
Poirot: Ah, the poor Hastings! We had better speak English.

It is also perfectly possible that Poirot was fluent in Flemish (that is, Belgian Dutch), which would seem a useful asset as head of police in the city of Brussels. But to my recollection, nothing is mentioned of this in the books. Hastings once or twice describes Poirot’s habits as “Flemish,” but the language is not commented upon. Only in the televised adaptation of The Chocolate Box is there a conversation at the Déroulard house about the use of the Flemish language.

The television series adds further glimpses of Poirot’s cosmopolitan linguistic skills in episodes such as Triangle at Rhodes, in which he ably poses some questions to the locals in Greek…

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…And in Murder in Mesopotamia, which has the following:

Hastings: “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Just a few words that I have picked up, Hastings. One should never squander the opportunity that travel affords.”

In The Labours of Hercules, it is revealed that Poirot had never studied the Classics, having “got on very well without them,” at which point he is treated to a Homeric epithet in the original Greek, quoted by his friend Dr. Burton. However, in one of his labours, that of the Stymphalean Birds, he is able to solve the crime with his understanding of the average Englishman’s ignorance of foreign languages, inspiring a young man to up his linguistic game.

Poirot also admits that he knows no Russian in the case of “The Double Clue,” which is why he purchases First Steps in Russian to study the Cyrillic alphabet on a hunch. He learns enough of the alphabet to be ready when another Cyrillic clue of the same type– this time a monogrammed handkerchief instead of a cigarette case– presents itself to him in his adventure on the Orient Express some years later.

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Poirot’s English vocabulary is pretty extraordinary– not terribly surprising, considering his long-term residency in London. All the same, there are several funny moments in the books in which he expresses bewilderment at some colloquial turn of phrase. For example, there’s this little conversation with Hastings from The A.B.C. Murders:

“Perhaps some convivial idiot who had had one over the eight.”

Comment? Nine? Nine what?”

“Nothing– just an expression. I meant a fellow who was tight. No, damn it, a fellow who had had a spot too much to drink.”

Merci, Hastings– the expression ‘tight’ I am acquainted with…”

Peter Ustinov, when playing the detective in the 1980s, took issue somewhat with the dialogue that Christie wrote for her detective. “On the printed page, Poirot is no more Belgian than Major Thompson is English. In language terms we probably see him as one of those foreign schoolmasters whose English is too correct– all very fluent and fluid and quite artificial. Remember that Poirot only puts the simplest words into French, the complex ones are always left in English.” Christie herself sometimes describes Poirot, through other characters, as appearing as a sort of “parody” of a Frenchman. For my part, Ustinov’s critique does not deter my (and presumably many fans’) enjoyment of the character’s dialogue. When Poirot uses simple French phrases like “mon ami,” it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t because he doesn’t know how to say “my friend” in English– rather, he relapses into French for comfortable phrases, or idioms that are better expressed in his native tongue and perhaps also known to his English hearers (e.g., “cherchez la femme” or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”). Also, as the detective explains to Mr. Satterthwaite at the end of Three Act Tragedy:

“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly… And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”