I’m still behind on my ambigram-posting… Since I’ve been doing a lot of Christie titles, here’s a mirror ambigram I did not long ago of The ABC Murders. Acrylic paint on square canvas board. 🙂
“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…
…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.
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.”
Because you can never have enough Poirot-themed quilts… 🙂
This black-and-white fabric below was so Poirot, I just had to get it. The phrases above the symbols read: “A gentleman is always well-groomed,” “A gentleman is always well-dressed,” “A gentleman is always well-prepared,” and “A gentleman is always well-mannered.” That’s Poirot to a tee, is it not?? 🙂
The fabrics of red and charcoal squares repeat “A B C” and feature lots of typewriters, one of which features importantly in the book. And the black “French phrases” fabric was my own custom design.
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…
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***
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. 🙂
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).
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!
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!!
***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.”
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.’
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.’
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. 🙂
In a previous post entitled “The theology of the Clapham Cook,” I discussed some interesting script choices in that first episode; namely, that a passage of Scripture is read by a background character which actually encapsulates the entire theme of the episode. Something similar happens in the television adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders, coupled with a few religious artifacts of note.
Those interested in fashion particularly notice the amazing wardrobe skills on display in a series like Poirot; car enthusiasts are apt to point out the vintage cars. Well, art and theology are two special hobbies of mine, and they inevitably jump out at me in viewings of the show. Sometimes this takes the form of vintage devotional items, which I always notice with great interest, and there happen to be some in this episode.
There is a flashback scene in the denouement in which Cust is receiving his new typewriter. Sitting on his little table are a few personal objects and knick-knacks, including three devotional items: a Bible, a palm cross, and what looks like a little picture or prayer card.
A Bible shows up at least twice more around Cust: in his Doncaster hotel room, and in the prison cell, where he is reading it. (More on that later.) The palm cross is an interesting prop choice– it is a simple, traditional Lenten and Easter craft made from a folded blade of palm frond, sometimes from the palms used on Palm Sunday. It is a symbol of suffering, martyrdom, and future glory. It initially stood out to me because the scene takes place at a different time of year than you’d usually see palm crosses about.
The prayer card or picture is just barely visible, but due to the universal iconography of the figure, I am about 99% sure that there is a picture of St. Jude on it. That particular apostle has for many years, and certainly by the 1930s, been depicted in a white robe with a green drape over one shoulder, holding a staff or club (referencing his martyrdom), having a small flame over his head, and holding an image of Christ. The last two objects are indeterminate in the shot, but the rest are clearly visible. Compare for yourself, intrepid blog reader, whether the card in the shot above is likely to be a picture of St. Jude…
“Fine, well spotted, but who cares?” you say.
It’s merely the interesting coincidence that a glance through the hagiography of St. Jude happens to show some unusual points of connection with A.B. Cust. The Catholic Church represents him as the patron saint of lost causes, things despaired of, and hopeless cases. That association has to do with the fact that St. Jude (or Judas) shares the name of another apostle, Judas Iscariot, the traitor to Jesus. The unfortunate similarity of name, and the subsequent oft-mistaken identity, apparently resulted in a sort of neglect and forgetting of St. Jude by many in the Church, and so he is regarded as a beacon of hope for things despaired of and forgotten. Does that does not ring a bell with the pitiful, forgotten, hapless Mr. Cust– who is not, in fact, the A.B.C. letter-writer, but is presented as the murderer to the police in a case of mistaken identity?
But wait, there’s more. 😉
In his prison cell, just as Poirot enters, we can hear Cust reading from the Bible– to be specific, the Beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. “And He taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit–”
The Beatitudes are a well-known Christian text that offer words of comfort and blessing by Christ to the suffering, wrongly oppressed and accused, and persecuted. Again, this fits Cust to a tee, and the reading here at least was certainly not coincidental, but chosen for that purpose.
But in other interesting details of chance: the staff or club held by St. Jude signifies that he was martyred by being bludgeoned to death, which is how the murderer commits two of his deeds, including the “main” murder of his brother. And also, take notice where Cust suddenly stops in his reading. “For they shall inherit…” Unknowingly, Cust utters the real motive for the crime of which he is unjustly accused– Franklin Clarke kills in order to inherit his brother’s fortune!
“’Course, it might be a coincidence.”
Oh, who am I kidding, of course I do! 😉
I don’t pretend that the particular choice of devotional items was intentional, in those particulars, for the episode, but how very well it all hangs together, n’est-ce pas?
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.”
“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
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
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
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
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
Poirot: “Hastings. Sometimes you are like a little child. So innocent, so trusting.”
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.”
So I finished painting the last four Hastings novels (fighting Peril at End House tooth and nail along the way, using a sample of my “two shots spliced together” technique for Lord Edgware Dies, trying a bit of tiny landscape painting with Dumb Witness, and rounding them all off with a slightly impressionistic The Murder on the Links). Now what?
These little books were pretty time-consuming. Each one took a total of at least five to seven hours, including prep time. I had to watch through the episode, collect a bunch of likely screen shots (for some episodes it was as many as two dozen to choose between), choose one and print it out in large and small sizes to work from, paint the cover on, re-read the book, make a list of representative quotes that might fit onto the back, choose one, and paint it on the back. This project had the potential to be wearying.
Unfortunately, it was also really stupidly fun. And tremendously addictive. I wanted to carry on, but if I kept going, where would it end?
I’d been posting the books on Twitter as I went along. So, at the end of my Hastings novels, this conversation happened:
Well, that was it. It was onward to the bitter end. “Please don’t” stop? I’ve created fan art on WAY less provocation than that.
If Suchet could finish all of Christie’s Poirot novels without whining, so could I. Maybe it wouldn’t even take me 25 years.
(to be continued)
My series of miniature Agatha Christie books was such a long and involved project that I figured it would make more sense to break the thing down into a series of posts to explain how it all came together.
I’ve been painting miniatures for years; in my younger years I used to paint things like album covers and portraits onto guitar picks. (Nowadays you can get all kinds of printed picks, so it seems less chic somehow.) In February of this year, I thought I’d make use of a few wooden miniature books sitting around my art room and paint them up to look like Christie’s Poirot novels. The complete series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot had been a Christmas gift and I’d been through them all, so with all the episodes at my fingertips, I could collect stills and paint them onto corresponding book covers. A representative quote from the book would be painted on the back. “What fun,” I thought. “I’ll just do a few of my favorite books, then.” Ha!
The Hastings novels seemed a splendid place to start. I’d already determined to put Poirot on each cover (Christie, incidentally, never wanted Poirot on her covers!) and I liked the idea of having Hastings on the covers of his novels as well. The first four are some of my favorite Christie books. The Big Four and Curtain both posed difficulties at once, however; I could not seem to get a screen shot of Poirot and Hastings together that met my criteria for a book cover. Each cover had to contain an image that could be cropped into a rectangle of the proper proportions, and needed to be satisfactorily representative of the content of the book. In the end, for Curtain I did a little montage, a portrait of each heavy on the chiaroscuro, and for The Big Four I was obliged to add a shadowy, mystery figure into the back of the shot, which could be construed as either Number Four or Hastings.
That might have been the end of it. But it nagged me to only have half the Hastings novels done. Crikey, surely I could finish them. Then there would be a neat little collection of eight books…
(To be continued.)