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!

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! 🙂

Partners in Crime… and a new prize giveaway!

What Poirot blog would be complete without a nod to the other books by Agatha Christie that feature Hercule Poirot as a fictional character? I’ll start with what is probably my favorite non-Poirot Christie: the Tommy and Tuppence collection, Partners in Crime.

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Tommy and Tuppence stories are always a treat because, despite certain moments of implausibility when things sometimes get a little international-spy-crazy, the two main characters are simply SO well drawn and interact so wonderfully. The stories tend to be light-hearted and hilariously funny, and anything farfetched just adds to the fun. Partners in Crime has some aspects of unique brilliance: the two main characters are posing as a fake detective agency while solving genuine mysteries, and for inspiration, they choose to solve each case in the style and idiom of different fictional detectives. It’s really a great way for Christie to show off her talent and a treat for mystery-lovers to see her characters tackle the modi operandi of their favorite sleuths!

The major Poirot book reference is that of The Big Four, though Poirot fanatics may also notice nods to Roger Ackroyd and more. The little grey cells are mentioned fairly early in Partners in Crime, but the very last chapter of the book is reserved for a case solved in the style of Hercule Poirot. It’s called “The Man Who Was No. 16,” in reference to “The Man Who Was No. 4.”

*****

‘So it is,’ said Tuppence. She lowered her voice impressively. “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.’

‘Well, sir, why not use your little grey cells, and see what you can do.’
‘It’s easier to use your little grey cells in fiction that it is in fact, my boy.’

‘He is the 4 squared– in other words, he is now the No. 16. You comprehend, my friend?’
‘Perfectly,’ said Tuppence. ‘You are the great Hercule Poirot.’
‘Exactly. No moustaches, but lots of grey cells.’
‘I’ve a feeling,’ said Tuppence, ‘that this particular adventure will be called the “Triumph of Hastings.”‘
‘Never,’ said Tommy. ‘It isn’t done. Once the idiot friend, always the idiot friend. There’s an etiquette in these matters. By the way, mon ami, can you not part your hair in the middle instead of one side? The present effect is unsymmetrical and deplorable.’

*****

Speaking of that last quote: if you like the book, you might also need the audio book. Read by Hugh Fraser, it’s almost worth it solely to hear the voice of Hastings himself call his own long-standing character “the idiot friend.” 🙂  There’s another reason to love this particular audio book– it features a bonus interview with Fraser in which he waxes eloquent about the challenges of recording about a million audio books (I forget exactly how many hours he’s recorded, but it’s insanely impressive), the technique of Agatha Christie, working on the show, and other fun stuff.

Now to the prize giveaway…

This one is a little bit girly, I suppose, but I can’t help occasionally making girly things. I dabble in crafting as well as the fine arts. In honor of Christie’s Partners in Crime, I offer you a pair of bracelets, embellished by yours truly… one to keep, and one to share with your favorite partner in crime. If bracelets aren’t your thing personally, the pair of them would make a great gift for any girl. They are 7.5″ and extend to 8.5″, and they feature two halves of a “partners in crime” heart, tiny key charms, and some of my favorite sea-glass-colored iridescent beads.

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I’ll ship these anywhere in the world. To win the pair of them, just share this blog post on Twitter or Facebook and send me your name. I’ll pull a name from a hat next Wednesday and announce the winner.  🙂  Bonne chance!

A-B-C: The musical landscape of The A. B. C. Murders

On June 21, Kingston Hospital Radio Online tweeted an interesting little tidbit about the music used in The A. B. C. Murders that Hugh Fraser retweeted, and so it came to my feed…

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For my part, I was both delighted and sort of chagrined that I had never noticed this before. Last night I finally re-watched the episode, and the A-B-C motif positively screams to high heaven. Once heard, it cannot be unheard. I also realized that a full-fledged lay analysis was inevitable at that point, and so I watched through the episode sitting at my piano keyboard to see just what happens with the alphabet (musically) throughout the episode. I won’t go through quite the entire thing here– there are about a hundred key changes and transitions– but I’ll share some of the more interesting highlights.  🙂  ***Plot spoilers ahead***

As a bit of an aside, is it coincidence or not that we see, on two different pieces of Hastings luggage, his initials? They happen to start with A, and I'm not sure we see this in any other episode.

As a bit of an aside, is it coincidence or not that we see, on two different pieces of Hastings luggage, his initials? I’m not sure we see this in any other episode.

The very first thing we see in the episode, which I love, is the rack of ABC railway guides at the station where Poirot is waiting for Hastings. A familiar cane appears to straighten those that are sticking out a bit. The very blatant A-B-C notes (representing the first three notes of the A minor scale) are the first things heard, and they quickly mingle with the Poirot theme, which has been transposed up a step from G minor to A minor and also contains those first three notes. This may explain why you can watch the episode so many times without realizing you’re hearing A-B-C… it just sounds like the beginning of the Poirot theme transposed (A-B-C-E-A from G-A-Bb-D-G). Clever.  🙂

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Throughout the episode– for example, early on when Poirot and Hastings are first discussing the first letter–  the A-B-C motif is sometimes paired with Eb-F-Gb to create a series of creepy-sounding diminished fifths. What better way to emphasize the unresolved tension of letters sent from a homicidal maniac? Diminished fifths give that delightful sensation of “something is really sick and wrong here.”

Whenever a new message from A. B. C. appears, the key reverts to A minor, and this also frequently happens when we encounter Cust. (Although he is also an A. B. C. in a manner of speaking, this is a bit deceptive musically because it causes the viewer/hearer to mentally associate that character with the typed letters. Sneaky!) By the time we get to Andover and the sign is zoomed in on, we get a very heavily-hammered A note. I was curious to see whether the same would hold true of the B, C, and D crimes. And sure enough– when the Bexhill poster is shown, we get a blaring B in the key of B minor, even– and later, Churston takes us to C minor! I was very giddy about this…  🙂  🙂  🙂  There are associations with keys for the different crimes in other places, too, such as when Donald Fraser is discussing the Bexhill crime and his dreams with Poirot, and the “ABC” theme plays in B minor again (B-C#-D).

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Doncaster presents some interesting musical moments, too. The drone of the D for Doncaster begins when Japp, in Poirot’s sitting room, contemplates the St Leger as a complication of plans. When Cust enters the train to travel to Doncaster with the rest of the crew, we hear a “A-B… C-D”! And when everyone arrives in town together, sure enough, the key is switched to D minor.

I just want to hug the composer at this point. But moving along.  🙂

One of the most intriguing sections, musically, is when the crowds are congregated at the St Leger, and we see our various characters standing at their posts while Poirot parks somewhere to employ the grey cells. The music starts in A minor, and slowly modulates up by half steps through various keys, so that we get the B minor and C minor moments of earlier crimes as Poirot sits and thinks about them. This is also interspersed with Poirot’s own “regular” G minor theme. And just when he starts to get his revelation, what happens but a determined, final resolve to D minor!

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We first hear the theme in F minor (I think) when Poirot is sitting and thinking about what will happen at Doncaster. Poirot’s denouement begins in his standard G minor, but when he gets to the part of his story where Cust meets the murderer over dominoes, the F minor key returns for the “ABC” theme. This is interesting– F for Franklin, perhaps? The reveal of the murderer takes us back to the original A minor, while the chase scene progresses through Ab minor, D minor, and F minor before returning to A minor. Franklin Clark is finally taken away by the police on a strong drone of F!!

Fascinating stuff!

Curtain: Why Hastings really dashes back upstairs.

***Spoilers, but if you’ve been here before, you know that! Watch Curtain already!  😛 ***

Anyway.

You know the scene where Elizabeth Cole is playing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude right after Hastings has had his final chat with Poirot? Hastings walks in on her; she stops playing when she sees him; Hastings has a few moments of pause, then dashes back upstairs to find his friend dead in bed.

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What exactly is it that triggers the dash upstairs? Instinct? The simple fact that the music has stopped dead is what immediately leaps to the eye (or ear), and that is an important part of it. But there’s another component that is more pointed.

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“La musique cesse.” Charcoal sketch on paper.

The fact is that this scene exactly parallels the scene where Hastings first meets Poirot again there at Styles, all those years later, at the beginning of the episode. Elizabeth Cole is sitting at the piano, playing the very same piece. Hastings opens the drawing room door, and there is his friend. Poirot turns to face him, and as he opens his mouth in greeting…

The music stops. And Poirot speaks: “Hastings?”

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The reason, I humbly and speculatively propose, that Hastings stands there awkwardly at the drawing room door when he opens it on the day of Poirot’s death, is that he feels déjà vu, as though he’s waiting for something to happen. And something does happen. Once again, the music stops. Once again, he hears his name: “Captain Hastings?” But it is not Poirot who greets him. That’s when it occurs to him that there is only one difference in the two scenes: Poirot is gone.

Poirot is gone. And when he realizes this, it is then that he rushes upstairs again to see if it is true… and it is.

Hastings returns to the drawing room to ruminate in grief with his daughter, Judith, afterwards.