“Good pictures”: the Japanese prints in Poirot’s study

When I see art used for the set, I tend to be curious as to where it came from. In Taken at the Flood, David Hunter and Rosalind are perusing Poirot’s new flat. Hunter wryly comments on the “good pictures” that Poirot has, referencing a couple of Japanese wood block prints. You were wondering about those prints that caught Hunter’s eye, weren’t you? Of course you were…聽 馃槈

I finally managed to track down the one on the right, anyway. It appears to be by Kunisada II: 鈥淎ctors Band么 Hikosabur么 V as Akogi Gennoj么 and Onoe Kikugor么 IV as the Female Street Musician (Onnaday没) Ohaya.鈥 This print was purchased and had been donated to an American museum by the early 20th century.

Japanese wood block prints became fashionable throughout Europe in the 19th century, and the art of Japan came to influence genres from clothing fashion to the fine arts. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese prints, and the flat, vivid, outlined imagery would come to be seen in his own work and that of others of the Post-Impressionist and Expressionist movements. Poirot’s second flat was full of the fashionably continental.

And it would be a picture of actors, wouldn’t it.聽 馃檪

I included miniature paintings of these two prints in my own 1:12-scale Poirot study.

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Missing out on domestic love: 15 moments of loss

One of the most touching aspects of Christie鈥檚 characterization of Poirot are those glimpses of loneliness inherent in a character who has missed out on the personal relationships that lead to marriage and family life. ***As always, spoilers for everything!***

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鈥業, Madame, am not a husband,鈥 said Hercule Poirot. 鈥楢las!鈥 he added.

鈥業鈥檓 sure there鈥檚 no alas about it. I鈥檓 sure you鈥檙e quite delighted to be a carefree bachelor.鈥

鈥楴o, no, Madame, it is terrible all that I have missed in life.鈥

-Dead Man鈥檚 Folly聽
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Viewers of the television series will notice that the theme develops and increases over time, especially in the filming of the novels. And yet, glimpses can be seen very early on in the series as well. Some are subtle, and others are blatantly obvious. There are nuances and shades of meaning in these fleeting and poignant moments, but they all share the same characteristic of wistful loss. Here I present 15 gloriously-rendered examples.

1) Third Floor Flat鈥 Perhaps the first clear example in the series. It is unique, and pleasing for Christie readers, in that we get a glimpse of the nostalgic admiration of a girl who resembles an old flame of Poirot鈥檚 before the matter is explained to the viewer. So, readers who know the story are gratified to have 鈥渋nside knowledge鈥 of what lies behind the faraway smile, which will be explained in later scenes. 鈥業f I were your age, monsieur, without doubt, I too would be in love with her.鈥

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2) The Plymouth Express鈥 Another early example, this is the first clear indication we have that Poirot would very much have liked to have been a father and a husband. The expression says it all, in response to Halliday鈥檚: 鈥榊ou鈥檙e not a father, Poirot. You don鈥檛 know what it鈥檚 like, trying to bring up a daughter all on your own… no wife to talk it over with…鈥 Also, it is perhaps the first time the viewer becomes annoyed with the lack of tact of those who remind Poirot what he鈥檚 missed out on!

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3) The Double Clue鈥 This one鈥檚 pretty obvious, of course, and it has the added novelty of a presently-kindled flame, with some returned affection, yet the impossibility of the relationship going anywhere. There are several other meditations on personal loss throughout the episode, from the loss of wealth to the loss of one鈥檚 homeland. But all the poignancy is concentrated in loss of a chance at love.

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4) The Chocolate Box鈥 It鈥檚 fascinating that this particular story was, when scripted, turned into another sort of dead-end romance, this time from Poirot鈥檚 past. I suppose it gives Virginie a little more 鈥渃onnection鈥 to the plot than she seems to have in the original story, and since the incident is buried long in the past, one can get away with adding romantic elements. An added nuance to the sadness-tinged reunion with her is that Poirot has a glimpse of what life could perhaps have looked like for him, had les Boches not driven him from his native Belgium as a refugee: sons in native uniform, and a wife of his own country. 鈥…I was just saying to Jean-Louis that he was always the most fortunate of men.鈥

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5) Lord Edgware Dies鈥 A rarity in that Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon are all together at dinner when the conversation turns to Poirot鈥檚 lamented bachelorhood. It鈥檚 a subject that is clearly uncomfortable for Poirot, made weirder with the flattering attentions recently given him by Jane Wilkinson. Also, we have another indication (suggested as early as Third Floor Flat) that Poirot considers himself too old, and that the time of la tentation is lost in the past. 鈥楤ut now, alas, I think it is too late.鈥

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6) The Mystery of the Blue Train鈥 This is one of several examples of the awakening of loneliness and loss that comes, not from a romance of his own, but from some pretty young friend Poirot has met in the course of the case. In this instance, he has a travelling companion to whom he becomes an 鈥榓vuncular.鈥 Like a daughter (in fact, she had lost her father and has a cry on his shoulder about it), Katherine Grey is a somewhat needy character who was taken under his wing. When she leaves him unexpectedly to go off on her own, he is struck again by the pain of solitude. The film ends when, after she leaves, he is left by the water鈥檚 edge, contemplating the happy, carefree family before him (consisting, incidentally, of an older woman, her much younger husband, and her grown daughter). This loss strikes me as resonating more with the parental sadness of the empty nest鈥 although in Poirot鈥檚 case, his patronage came and went very quickly. I鈥檓 also reminded of one of Poirot鈥檚 iconic lines at the end of the book: 鈥楲ife is like a train, Mademoiselle…鈥 And ultimately, he is fated to travel it alone. And we鈥檙e all sad.

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7) Death on the Nile鈥 A classic example, and one that works beautifully with the plot, which is seething with the desperation to which love might drive a person. 鈥楲ove is not everything,鈥 Poirot says to Jacqueline. When she disagrees, he is forced to admit that he does not really understand this on a personal level, and is faced once again with the great loss of his life. At other times in his literary journey a la Christie, Poirot has expressed relief that he does not have an 鈥榓rdent temperament鈥 because it has saved him from many embarrassments. But in this case the overwhelming devotion to a lover鈥 an alien experience to Poirot鈥 sparks pity in him, and he permits the couple to commit suicide rather than face the executioner. The precise reasons why鈥 Poirot always has precise reasons鈥 are spelled out a little more thoroughly in the book than in the adaptation.

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8) After the Funeral鈥 鈥楾he journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone, Mademoiselle.鈥 These are words, reminiscent of the theme in Blue Train, that Poirot states to the murderer鈥 interestingly, very shortly after she has unknowingly incriminated herself with a fatal clue. In this context, the realization of loss and loneliness in life is displayed as a reality that transcends class, and the point of commonality Poirot finds here gives him an insight into the killer鈥檚 motive. To find another example of Poirot鈥檚 sympathy towards a woman who works as a lower-class companion and is driven to crime in a desperate bid for money, see 鈥淭he Nemean Lion鈥 from The Labours of Hercules.

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9) Taken at the Flood鈥 In this story, Poirot finds himself as a sort of godfather-type figure to Lynn Marchmont, whose father was a good friend. And, Lynn happens to fall in love with a mass murderer (!)聽 This causes an awkwardness similar to Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy鈥 鈥淓r, I鈥檝e kinda just sent the guy you love to the gallows… sorry/not sorry?鈥 But I include this example here because Lynn, of whom Poirot is 鈥榤ost fond鈥 and who had been planning on staying in England permanently, decides to leave again. 鈥榃rite me a letter, Monsieur. I like your letters.鈥 It is a familial sort of loss for Poirot, and one full of turmoil in light of the bizarre circumstances of her departure.

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10) Cat Among the Pigeons鈥 This is one of the most curious and enigmatic moments of 鈥渨ist鈥 in the series. It is very fleeting moment in which Poirot, in the course of observing the various teachers at Meadowbank School, is watching a ballet lesson. A row of girls are at the barre and are practicing positions in pointe shoes. Poirot watches them with the most startling expression of bittersweet nostalgia on his face. Of what exactly is he thinking? The touching innocence of youth, uncorrupted by matters of crime? The disappointing fact that he himself was not to be the father of a daughter? Someone please ask David Suchet… he鈥檚 the only one who can read Poirot鈥檚 mind…

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11) Third Girl鈥 Another case (and a particularly disturbing one) in which the young couple in love awakens in Poirot his own sense of loss. This is one of the most emotional reactions Poirot has in the series; even Mrs. Oliver comments on his tears. 鈥…The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve… the nature of love…鈥

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12) The Big Four鈥 Almost everything in the final series touches on this theme. There鈥檚 a really interesting moment in this script when the housekeeper describes the fastidious and irritating habits of the deceased man (a bachelor), and Poirot appears to have a moment of sober enlightenment concerning his own bachelorhood. It鈥檚 very subtle and lends a moment of personal poignancy to the scene where the viewer wasn鈥檛 expecting one. Japp: 鈥淒id he ever marry?鈥 Housekeeper: 鈥淥h, no! Can you imagine it? What woman would have him? Woe betide you if you tried to move one of his precious books, or tidy up his bloomin鈥 letters!鈥

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13) Elephants Can Remember鈥 Poirot says to Zelie: 鈥楳ademoiselle, neither you nor I are married. We may never be married. But they should be.鈥 It鈥檚 the argument that finally persuades the chief witness to come forward with her story.

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14) The Labours of Hercules鈥 The scriptwriters were going really, really heavy on the 鈥渨ist鈥 here. The first example of the theme is Poirot鈥檚 visit to his doctor. 鈥榊ou鈥檝e had a remarkable career鈥 at the expense of having a family! Nothing wrong with that, but that鈥檚 what you鈥檝e chosen…鈥 This is adding insult to the injury of having 鈥渇ailed鈥 as a detective, and these two horrible realities dovetail to serve as the impetus to reunite Poirot鈥檚 chauffeur Ted with his lost love. This successful reunion contrasts with the totally tanked relationship with Vera Rossakoff, another grievous 鈥渨hat might have been鈥 in the realm of personal relationships. There鈥檚 also an unprecedented use of fake wistfulness, when the Countess speculates what鈥檚 going through Poirot鈥檚 mind when he sees Alice, her daughter. 鈥楬e looks at you… and he sees the life he might have had.鈥 We learn later that this isn鈥檛 actually what Poirot is thinking鈥 he鈥檚 too busy having his suspicions alerted by the girl鈥檚 biting of her thumb!

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15) Curtain鈥 Was television ever as moving as this? Throughout his life, Poirot had never really brooded excessively on his regrets concerning love and family– rather, we see him repressing the pain and struggling past it. We don’t see this brooding in the final days of his life, either, as he focuses his attention on this most difficult of his cases. If anything, Hastings becomes the torch-bearer on the pain of loss in this episode鈥 his wife, his daughter (to Franklin and Africa), and Poirot himself. In such a context, this line of Poirot鈥檚, one of Christie鈥檚 own, is a most meaningful one: 鈥楳y heart bleeds for you… my poor, lonely Hastings.鈥櫬 Poirot knows, on every count, that Hastings is about to be left very much alone in the world. A lifetime of domestic loneliness endows him with sympathy for his friend’s losses, the blessings of which he had himself never enjoyed in the first place. Hastings finds himself choked up at this sentiment of Poirot鈥檚, possibly because in spite of the fact that the man is near death and has struggled with loneliness for so many years鈥 he will even die alone鈥 it is Hastings鈥 loneliness, not his own, that most concerns him in those final moments.

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The painted miniature books (11)

I’ve got two little lots of miniatures left to cover. I’ll call this one “moments of truth.” What they share in common is a close-up of the title character in the process of making some startling discovery.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t want my miniature Poirot books to simply be a series of straight mug shots. That would have gotten boring in a hurry. But now and then, I found episode stills that featured a clear close-up of the character in which he was still obviously interacting with, say, a clue of some sort. Of course, the great benefit of using close-ups for miniatures is that the portraits tend to be a good deal easier to paint than if, say, the portrait is a scant 1/4″ across. The shots I used for these three miniatures fall into that category; for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the image is of Poirot having discovered the dead man’s missing diamonds.

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Sad Cypress is a wonderful book and lovely episode. The quote is a favorite one. The image chosen involves Poirot with the clue that turns the tide of the story: the thorn-less rose.

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Speaking of “turning the tide” (and Shakespeare quotes, which Sad Cypress is as well), the cover of Taken at the Flood also shows Poirot having discovered a formidable piece of evidence. He’s so delighted by his deduction that he doesn’t even seem to care that one of his hands is dirty.

Only three more miniatures left to document…聽 馃槈