Missing out on domestic love: 15 moments of loss

One of the most touching aspects of Christie’s 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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‘I, Madame, am not a husband,’ said Hercule Poirot. ‘Alas!’ he added.

‘I’m sure there’s no alas about it. I’m sure you’re quite delighted to be a carefree bachelor.’

‘No, no, Madame, it is terrible all that I have missed in life.’

-Dead Man’s Folly 
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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– 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’s before the matter is explained to the viewer. So, readers who know the story are gratified to have “inside knowledge” of what lies behind the faraway smile, which will be explained in later scenes. ‘If I were your age, monsieur, without doubt, I too would be in love with her.’

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2) The Plymouth Express– 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’s: ‘You’re not a father, Poirot. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to bring up a daughter all on your own… no wife to talk it over with…’ Also, it is perhaps the first time the viewer becomes annoyed with the lack of tact of those who remind Poirot what he’s missed out on!

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3) The Double Clue– This one’s 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’s homeland. But all the poignancy is concentrated in loss of a chance at love.

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4) The Chocolate Box– It’s fascinating that this particular story was, when scripted, turned into another sort of dead-end romance, this time from Poirot’s past. I suppose it gives Virginie a little more “connection” 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. ‘…I was just saying to Jean-Louis that he was always the most fortunate of men.’

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5) Lord Edgware Dies– A rarity in that Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Miss Lemon are all together at dinner when the conversation turns to Poirot’s lamented bachelorhood. It’s 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. ‘But now, alas, I think it is too late.’

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6) The Mystery of the Blue Train– 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 ‘avuncular.’ 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’s 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– although in Poirot’s case, his patronage came and went very quickly. I’m also reminded of one of Poirot’s iconic lines at the end of the book: ‘Life is like a train, Mademoiselle…’ And ultimately, he is fated to travel it alone. And we’re all sad.

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7) Death on the Nile– A classic example, and one that works beautifully with the plot, which is seething with the desperation to which love might drive a person. ‘Love is not everything,’ 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 ‘ardent temperament’ because it has saved him from many embarrassments. But in this case the overwhelming devotion to a lover– an alien experience to Poirot– sparks pity in him, and he permits the couple to commit suicide rather than face the executioner. The precise reasons why– Poirot always has precise reasons– are spelled out a little more thoroughly in the book than in the adaptation.

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8) After the Funeral– ‘The journey of life, it can be hard for those of us who travel alone, Mademoiselle.’ These are words, reminiscent of the theme in Blue Train, that Poirot states to the murderer– 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’s motive. To find another example of Poirot’s sympathy towards a woman who works as a lower-class companion and is driven to crime in a desperate bid for money, see “The Nemean Lion” from The Labours of Hercules.

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9) Taken at the Flood– 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 (!)  This causes an awkwardness similar to Death in the Clouds and Three Act Tragedy– “Er, I’ve kinda just sent the guy you love to the gallows… sorry/not sorry?” But I include this example here because Lynn, of whom Poirot is ‘most fond’ and who had been planning on staying in England permanently, decides to leave again. ‘Write me a letter, Monsieur. I like your letters.’ 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– This is one of the most curious and enigmatic moments of “wist” 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’s the only one who can read Poirot’s mind…

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11) Third Girl– 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. ‘…The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, will never be able to solve… the nature of love…’

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12) The Big Four– Almost everything in the final series touches on this theme. There’s 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’s very subtle and lends a moment of personal poignancy to the scene where the viewer wasn’t expecting one. Japp: “Did he ever marry?” Housekeeper: “Oh, 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’ letters!”

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

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14) The Labours of Hercules– The scriptwriters were going really, really heavy on the “wist” here. The first example of the theme is Poirot’s visit to his doctor. ‘You’ve had a remarkable career– at the expense of having a family! Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what you’ve chosen…’ This is adding insult to the injury of having “failed” as a detective, and these two horrible realities dovetail to serve as the impetus to reunite Poirot’s chauffeur Ted with his lost love. This successful reunion contrasts with the totally tanked relationship with Vera Rossakoff, another grievous “what might have been” in the realm of personal relationships. There’s also an unprecedented use of fake wistfulness, when the Countess speculates what’s going through Poirot’s mind when he sees Alice, her daughter. ‘He looks at you… and he sees the life he might have had.’ We learn later that this isn’t actually what Poirot is thinking– he’s too busy having his suspicions alerted by the girl’s biting of her thumb!

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15) Curtain– 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– his wife, his daughter (to Franklin and Africa), and Poirot himself. In such a context, this line of Poirot’s, one of Christie’s own, is a most meaningful one: ‘My heart bleeds for you… my poor, lonely Hastings.’  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’s, possibly because in spite of the fact that the man is near death and has struggled with loneliness for so many years– he will even die alone– it is Hastings’ loneliness, not his own, that most concerns him in those final moments.

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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:

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‘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:

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

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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.

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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…’
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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.  🙂

Reused paintings in the Poirot series

There’s nothing particularly newsworthy about reused props in a television series, or in more than one series made by the same people. But it’s fun to point them out all the same.  In Poirot, you’ve got a good 25-year span to notice them in. I recount a sampling of these occurrences…

Possibly the single most obviously reused painting is this guy, because the picture is specifically focused on in the episodes The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, where the painting features prominently at the men’s club, and Dumb Witness, in which the painting at the Arundell house dramatically falls from the wall.

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Dumb Witness

Another fairly easy-to-spot painting of a mother and her sick child appears in at least three episodes: Dead Man’s Mirror, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Third Girl. The painting functions as a major plot point in the first of the three, and this makes it easier for fans to spot the same painting appearing in Ackroyd’s home and in David Baker’s studio.

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Some recognizable paintings are not merely reused props so much as entire locations. The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly and Third Girl share a location, Wrotham Park, as shots like these indicate.

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But for me, the most interesting of all is this painting here. It is a fairly unremarkable little scene that took up residence behind the sitting room fruit bowl, so that we see it in several episodes.

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But when The Mysterious Affair at Styles is filmed, we might be astonished to discover that this very same painting hung in Poirot’s own room at Leastways Cottage, where he was living by the charity of Mrs. Inglethorp!

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More remarkable still: when Poirot retires (temporarily) to his little house in King’s Abbot in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that painting is again in his residence! (Far left)

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I guess it may be that the art department was running out of paintings of a certain sort to shuffle around. I myself like to imagine that there’s an untold story here. Did Poirot take the painting away from Leastways Cottage when he left to remind him of his humble beginnings at Styles, his generous sponsor there, and the first major case he investigated in his new country? Did the picture have sufficient sentimental value from the past that he could have even had it sent over from Belgium when he first emigrated, and subsequently installed it in each new dwelling where he lived? Ah, the unsolved mysteries…

The painted miniature books (8)

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

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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.

Poirot and Ariadne Oliver – painted sketch

Poirot and Mrs. Oliver, from Third Girl. Acrylic on watercolor paper.

Poirot and Mrs. Oliver, from Third Girl. Acrylic on watercolor paper.

The style for this little painted sketch was different from my usual; I decided to be a little crazier with the colors, brushstrokes, and the dark outline. The picture was created because someone on the Internetz happened to say that they wished there were more Mrs. Oliver pictures or some such. (I told you I create fan art on slight provocation.) The one problem is that it was done on very poor-quality watercolor paper. The paper was actually disintegrating as I used it. Ugh.

But I hope to do more pictures of Mrs. Oliver in the future. Zoë Wanamaker was splendid with David Suchet in the series, and matches very well to the book description of the character. And I know that she’s great fun to paint, because the three miniature books I painted with her picture all turned out very well. Her outfits are glorious, too.  🙂