The Double Clue, Marc Chagall, the elusive lovers’ dream, and guilt expiation

Well… that’s the direction that my convoluted brain wanders while watching this Poirot episode… (Note: associations are my own and are not intended to reflect genuine intent on the part of script writers or art departments.)  🙂

The only thing that comes as close to the awesomeness of the famously-moustachioed Dying Gaul as a focal statue in the chess tournament scene of The Big Four, is the use of Chagall’s “Feathers in Bloom” in The Double Clue.

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Before reaching the gallery interior, previous conversations with the Countess had emphasized certain points of commonality between the characters: the sad and lonely aspects of foreign exile. Despite the mutual appreciation of the painting and the reference to Chagall’s own “exile” from Russia, the gallery scene in general focuses more on the differences in personality and background between the pair. Poirot offers to take the Countess to the Tate to see the Turner landscapes– sublime, comparatively bourgeois,  and quintessentially English. She voices a preference for the more “exciting” and avant-garde continental Expressionists, which Poirot only appreciates “in part.” (At this point, he gently chides her for using his first name, maintaining a wholly formal address between them.) The scene concludes with Poirot demonstrating his cred as “the most famous detective in England” by hinting that he already knows of her guilt. This all resolves with Poirot maintaining himself on the side of England, as it were, while able (as a fellow foreign refugee) to grasp something of the psychology of the criminal.

That’s about as far as the episode goes with Chagall. But there are some other interesting things about it that come to bear on some of the story’s themes.

“Feathers in Bloom” features some of Chagall’s most commonly-used symbols. The moon is usually present at the meeting of lovers. The horse (in this case, with the legs of a man) represents ideas such as strength, virility, and freedom. The chicken or rooster is used throughout his work in two senses: first, in terms of fertility and also associated with lovers; secondly, as a Jewish symbol (along with the goat) for the expiation of guilt and sin, in connection with Yom Kippur. More on that later.

You can see typical examples of all of these symbols together in Chagall’s works, such as the following:

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…But of course, those Chagalls all share another iconic visual that is (perhaps sadly) lacking in the “Feathers in Bloom” painting encountered by Poirot and the Countess. Namely, this one:

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One could, perhaps, read “Feathers in Bloom” in this context as a meeting of love interests that will not result in that idyllic, dream-like state with bride and groom flying off into the sunset.

But speaking of goats and chickens…

Chagall’s Hasidic Jewish background is one of the preeminent influences of his artwork, and the goat (or, by more modern parallel, the chicken) as symbols of sacrifice and atonement happen to come to bear on some of the story’s themes, as well. In ancient times, the Day of Atonement would involve the sacrifice of a goat, and the binding of a second goat in scarlet which would then be driven away into the remote wilderness as a sign of the expiation of guilt. This is where we get the term scapegoat. The scapegoat appears throughout The Double Clue.

Japp: “The Commissioner’s come down on me. He wants action. If not, he’s going to have to give them a scapegoat.”
Poirot: “A goat?”
Japp: “Me.”

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In the episode, the propitiation takes the form of the Countess relinquishing her stolen goods, Poirot “covering” for her, and transferring the guilt onto the tramp as a scapegoat. However, like the scapegoat, the Countess herself must be driven away, never to return to the society.

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Yes, I know I’m reading a lot into it. Blame whoever thought to stick Marc Chagall into the script!!  🙂  🙂  🙂  Where there is Chagall, the symbols start flying!

Speaking of Chagall and all the random mental associations he seems to conjure up, we could finally note a few coincidences of his family history. Born and raised in Russia, of a Lithuanian Jewish family (Moishe Shagal russified to Mark Shagalov). Found his way to Paris and its creative epicenters, where the family name was rendered as the French-sounding Chagall. From Paris, moved on again into the English-speaking world, where he settled for good. If that doesn’t remind you of a certain unnamed actor’s family history, well…

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The theology of The A.B.C. Murders

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.

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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.

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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…

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“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–”

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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.”

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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?

The theology of the Clapham Cook

There’s an interesting detail in the first episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, that (with ironic appropriateness) very nearly flies under the radar. But if you’re a theology buff, it may have leapt out at you.

It involves the scene in which Eliza Dunn is relaying to Poirot and Hastings her encounter with the disguised Simpson. We see a man preaching on a street corner; he is quoting Psalm 118:22-23. “The stone which the builders rejected, the same has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” He then goes on to give what seems to be a brief homily, which is largely inaudible beneath Miss Dunn’s voice-over. It is not a scene that Christie wrote, but was added by the creators of the episode.

It’s just possible that it was a highly unusual coincidence, but if so, it was a rather remarkable one. This very passage that is quoted does, in fact, sum up the theme of the episode. When Poirot reflects on what he’s learned at the end, having humorously framed his one guinea from Mr. Todd, he says: “It is to me, Hastings, the little reminder: never to despise the trivial, or the undignified.”

Poirot had been inclined to reject Mrs. Todd and her seemingly insignificant case out of hand; it did not have the glamor of a case of “national importance.” But as he discovers, that lowly, minor affair was the key to solving a much larger and critical matter. Christie writes this attitude in Poirot elsewhere; in The Labours of Hercules, Poirot is presented with a case involving a stolen Pekingese, which fills him with loathing. He had been dreaming of solving a case that would bring earthly glory, and instead, it seems to be a minor affair of a lady’s lost pet. But when he takes a second look and digs deeper into the case, he learns of a clever and elaborate criminal scheme.

Indeed, Christie is a master at taking small, insignificant (often domestic) matters, and weaving them into a fantastic tapestry in which their importance is magnified immensely. In several stories, Poirot checks his personal pride, picks up on clues that are rejected by others as dreadfully common or insignificant– or regards persons of low bearing whom others might not have listened to– and in so doing gleans valuable and even game-changing information.

Psalm 118 is the final text of the Jewish Hallel, a series of psalms historically sung during Passover in celebration of Israel’s surprising and dramatic triumph over the Egyptian slavers, as well as on other joyful occasions. Jesus himself quotes the verses from this psalm about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone in his parable of the tenants (Matthew 21 and Luke 20), likening it to his own rejection as the Son of God. From the earliest days, beginning with St. Peter’s address to the council in Acts 4, the psalm was regarded by the Christian church as a prophecy of the unexpected lowliness, but ultimate triumph, of the Messiah. 1 Peter 2 also quotes the psalm and deals with this theme. This upside-down reversal of the high and the low is, in fact, a dominant theme of the Christian faith, one that is particularly emphasized in seasons such as Christmas and Lent. A ubiquitous Lenten reading from Isaiah 53, understood of old by the church to be a prophecy of the Christ, lays the same motif out clearly:

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

 In short, the fact that the man on the street corner in The Adventure of the Clapham Cook is reading and reflecting on a text about rejecting the trivial and insignificant–  which will turn out to be the most critical link, the cornerstone– dovetails exactly with the theme of the story.