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

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The paternalistic Poirot

Such is Poirot’s passion and enthusiasm for order, tidiness, and his own successful methods of operation, that he takes a frequent paternalistic interest in organizing the lives of other people for them. Whether it is rearranging crooked ties or engaging in matchmaking between timid parties, Poirot (himself of indeterminate but mature age) manages to treat many of the adults around him rather like wayward or slightly foolish children.

“Going to marry James Bentley? Deirdre Henderson? Who says so?”

“I say so,” said Poirot. “I occupy myself with the affair. I have, now that our little problem is over, too much time on my hands. I shall employ myself in forwarding this marriage. As yet, the two concerned have no idea of such a thing. But they are attracted. Left to themselves, nothing would happen– but they have to reckon with Hercule Poirot. You will see! The affair will march.”

Spence grinned.

“Don’t mind sticking your fingers in other people’s pies, do you?”

-Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

It is not surprising that a character like Hastings, who Christie writes as naive and boyishly eager, would be subjected to a great deal of paternalism, if not outright patronization, by his mentor. The fact that Poirot has (regrettably) had no family of his own, and Hastings has no near relations, probably heightens the dynamic.

The treatment in the television series is interesting, as the characters are cast very closely in age and thus perhaps present more of an air of domestic fraternity than one sees in the books. The character of Hastings is never infantilized in either book or television, but in the series the scriptwriters have allowed themselves several charming moments of parental condescension where– consistent with the books– Poirot clearly views himself as the wiser and more authoritative pater familias, and Hastings as hopelessly jejune.

Poirot: “Hastings, this is a recipe of my mother. Rabbit cooked in the style of Liège.”
Hastings: “Well, I bet it’s better than rabbit cooked in the style of Hastings.”
Poirot (pause): “Yes, that is quite funny, Hastings. However, when you are grown up, you will find that food is not really the subject suitable for the humour.”
-Four and Twenty Blackbirds

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Hastings: “Have you got a lot of plasticine? I could do with a bit.”
Poirot: “Hastings… you are of too great an age to play with plasticine.”
-Murder in Mesopotamia

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Poirot: “Hastings.”
Hastings: “Yes, old chap?”
Poirot: “I have worked hard, Hastings, to prepare for you the delicious dinner. I have searched the shops for the exotic herbs. I have argued with the butcher, who is a fool. I have beaten the escalopes with a little mallet until my arm, it aches! And you sit there shoveling food in your mouth and writing in your little book!”
Hastings: “Oh, I’m sorry…”

Poirot: “Now close your little book and eat your dinner!”
-The Adventure of the Western Star

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Hastings: “Running like a bird since I fitted those new gaskets.”
Poirot: “Birds do not run, Hastings. When you were little you should have paid more attention to your lessons in biology.”
-The Third Floor Flat

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Hastings (moving things into Poirot’s flat): “This is awfully decent of you, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Oh, not at all, mon ami. I need you where I can keep an eye on you. To protect you from the beauties with the auburn hair, no?”
-The A.B.C. Murders

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Poirot: “Hastings. Sometimes you are like a little child. So innocent, so trusting.”
-Curtain

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What is so interesting about Hastings’ reminiscences after Poirot’s death, as he sits in the drawing room of Styles Court with his daughter Judith, is that his thoughts seem to be largely occupied with moments of this sort. The paternal touch might have felt slight or unimportant to many viewers over the years, but it seems to have had a great impact on the character of Hastings. Of all the many things he could have said about his life and friendship with Poirot, this is how he sums it up…

Hastings: “He was my dearest friend, you know. He was always there– keeping an eye on me, ticking me off– like a father, really. I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope without him.”
-Curtain

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The painted miniature books (8)

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

deathonthenilemontage

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

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

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

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

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

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