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! 🙂

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The A.B.C. Murders… inspired by Chesterton’s Father Brown?

***Requisite SPOILER warning***  🙂

The first detective fiction oeuvre with which I was to become extensively familiar was not Agatha Christie’s. It was the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. There was an overlap in their crime fiction careers– Chesterton was the first president of the Detection Club, formed in 1930 (with Christie as a member), until his death in 1936. Christie took up the presidential mantle in 1957 until her own death nearly two decades later. In general, there’s no question that Christie imbibed the influence of Chesterton. (Incidentally, Father Brown’s sidekick is a Frenchman named Hercule Flambeau, who has, if you can believe it, some really impressive black moustaches.) In Christie’s delightful and hilarious Partners in Crime, featuring Tommy and Tuppence, the young sleuths decide to solve crimes in the styles of different classic fictional detectives, and a chapter is reserved for Father Brown. In this chapter, Chesterton readers will recognize direct allusions to his stories “The Mistake of the Machine” and “The Invisible Man.”

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I remember wondering, the first time that I read The A.B.C. Murders, whether part of the initial idea for the plot was supplied by Chesterton from his story “The Sign of the Broken Sword.” The two stories use similar language and adages to describe the murderer’s ingenious idea of concealing his crime by hiding one particular murder in a group of other murders.

In the great unveiling of The A.B.C. Murders, Poirot says via Christie:

*****
‘What would be the object of writing such letters? To focus attention on the writer, to call attention to the murders! En vérité, it did not seem to make sense at first sight. And then I saw light. It was to focus attention on several murders– on a group of murders… When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of related murders.’
*****

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In the television adaptation, Poirot couches the adage in slightly different terms:

*****
“Where is the best place for a man to hide himself?”
“In a crowd of other men.”
“Yes, Hastings. And where is the best place to conceal a murder?”
“A murder? I don’t know… among a lot of other murders, I suppose.”
“Précisément, Hastings! At Churston, I said that the victims were chosen in a manner that was haphazard, selected only because of their initials, yes? I was wrong, Hastings. All of the victims are haphazard, yes, except for one. This monster is committing a series of murders in order to draw away our attention from one murder in particular!”
*****

And from Chesterton’s “The Sign of the Broken Sword,” we have this…

*****
After the first silence the small man said to the other:
‘Where does a wise man hide a pebble?’
And the tall man answered in a low voice: ‘On the beach.’
The small man nodded, and after a short silence said: ‘Where does a wise man hide a leaf?’
And the other answered: ‘In the forest.’

‘Yes; the wise man hides a pebble on the beach. But what does he do if there is no beach?’

The priest said again:
‘Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?’
‘Well– well,’ cried Flambeau irritably, ‘what does he do?’
‘He grows a forest to hide it in,’ said the priest in an obscure voice. ‘A fearful sin.’

‘…If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest.’
There was still no reply, and the priest added still more mildly and quietly:
‘And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in.’
*****

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Some weeks ago, I ran across a more direct reference to this same Father Brown story in The Clocks! I have no idea how I could have missed it. For those of you who are more familiar with the Poirot television series, you might remember that at the beginning of Third Girl (as in the book), Poirot is sitting at the breakfast table, contemplating a book. It is his own work, an analysis of crime fiction. As it happens, in The Clocks (the Poirot story directly before Third Girl), the detective has begun to seriously study crime fiction, preparatory for that future book, and holds forth on the subject at some length to Colin Lamb. “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is explicitly mentioned in the denouement.

*****
Poirot went on:
‘It is, as it were, the opposite of Chesterton’s, “Where would you hide a leaf? In a forest. Where would you hide a pebble? On a beach.” Here there is excess, fantasy, melodrama! When I say to myself in imitation of Chesterton, “Where does a middle-aged woman hide her fading beauty?” I do not reply, “Amongst other faded middle-aged faces.” Not at all…’
*****

Not only is Christie familiar with Chesterton’s story and that memorable, monstrous criminal notion, but Poirot is, too! The idea of hiding one significant murder among several other “decoy” murders is, perhaps, not original to Chesterton, but I think that his story, with its haunting language and broody atmosphere, clearly stayed in Christie’s crime-writing consciousness. She seems to be willing to attribute the idea to him. Could it have been the spark that had eventually led to The A.B.C. Murders? I don’t deny Christie’s ingenuity– she used that idea in a wonderfully inventive and original way in what would become one of her very best, most memorable novels. But in light of those striking adages, and Christie’s own  familiarity with “Broken Sword,” I’m convinced that there is a tip of the hat to offer to Chesterton’s Father Brown there.  🙂

The painted miniature books (10)

I’ll call this lot “Unlikely Sidekicks?”  🙂

The cover for After the Funeral includes Robert Bathurst as Entwhistle. The quote is typical Poirot.

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Cat Among the Pigeons is the Poirot novel in which the detective is most absent; it almost needn’t be a Poirot novel at all. (The fact that Poirot is insanely tiny in the shot sort of makes sense in that context.) The cover image features a scene where Poirot is addressing Meadowbank School, and it very nearly breaks my self-imposed rule of “if it couldn’t have happened in the novel, it can’t go on the cover.” I decided that Poirot could, conceivably, have addressed the school in some capacity, so I went for this shot after all. It was so hard to find a usable pic for this cover. I’d found a nice still of Poirot with the voodoo doll, but that’s totally not a plot point in the book, so that was right out. And the quote was hard to find, too, because of the lack of Poirot dialog in the book! Incidentally, the Poirot quote I did find actually sounds like a bit of an echo from a passage in the Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. All told, a very tricky cover.

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Blue Train was full of beautiful shots and wonderful quotes to boot, so no problems there. I decided on this encounter between Poirot and Katherine Gray (played by Georgina Rylance). The still featured some lovely blue highlights that matched the color (and title) of the book, and Poirot’s outfit here is one of the very best I’ve painted. Loved painting those beautiful little lavender roses and the crystal glass as well. The quote is one of Poirot’s best and most memorable. Delightful miniature to work on all around.

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The Clocks contains one of the rare first-person narrations by a character (albeit inconsistently) in a Poirot novel other than Hastings– in this case, Colin Lamb, played by Tom Burke. I admit I had no idea who this actor was, but when I first posted this miniature on Twitter, all these Tom Burke fans suddenly came out of the woodwork, which was all right. Lovely to encounter them.  🙂  The image here is sort of vaguely psychological, which I thought was interesting, and it reflects the quote. Whereupon those investigating are, as is usual when Poirot is concerned, interpreting things in quite different and contrary directions.

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I must be nearing the end of this collection of mini-books as far as these blog posts are concerned. Getting tired of them yet?  🙂  I just thought it might be a good idea to put a thorough record of what went into making them down somewhere.