Problem at Sea: episode overview

***Spoilers as always***

Things I loved:

1.) Everything Hastings! “Problem at Sea” was a Hastings-less short story of Christie’s, but as usual, he was written into this earlier episode. In some ways, his involvement with this plot is more incidental than terrifically important, but whenever he shows up, he’s adorable and endearing. Some notable moments: his arrangement of the clay pigeon shooting tournament; Poirot’s unsuccessful attempt to engage him in conversation with Miss Henderson (“Oh, Hastings, Hastings, Hastings”); his participation in the “usual sort of tourist things” he’d planned to avoid in Egypt (and Poirot’s serious analysis of the photo poses); his successful nabbing of a jewel thief. If you didn’t love Hastings already, you definitely loved him by this first-season episode.

2.) Some of the additions used to bolster the plot. “Problem at Sea” is one of Christie’s more “slight” stories, one that requires some padding to make it work onscreen. Using the arranged entertainment on the ship was a clever way to introduce Ismene and her dolls, tying it into the ventriloquism thing. To make General Forbes have a romantic interest in Mrs. Clapperton was also natural, I think, considering that in the book, he rails against Col. Clapperton as a fraud. It might feel a bit of a stretch to think of anyone sustaining an interest in Mrs. Clapperton, but that’s just because the role was played with such perfectly-appropriate odiousness.

3.) Pamela and Kitty were hilarious. Well done.  🙂

4.) The wardrobe. I mentioned the wardrobe already in my review of Triangle at Rhodes— it’s great throughout the series– but what stands out to me in Problem at Sea is Poirot’s wardrobe. Some of my favorite outfits of his are unique to this episode. Hastings, also, sports some great clothes, including casual wear that is not often seen in the series.

5.) Suchet’s dramatic delivery of the denouement. Absolutely spine-tingling, just as it was intended to be in the book.

Things I didn’t love:

1.) Despite the wonderful delivery mentioned above, the script’s climax was written to be much less dramatic than the book. And this is my primary criticism. What makes the story interesting is not really Clapperton being a ventriloquist; in fact, that’s certainly one of Christie’s most unoriginal solutions, in my opinion. What makes the story fascinating is that Poirot knows that Clapperton has a weak heart and deliberately shocks the crud out of everyone with his dramatic denouement– purposefully sending Clapperton to his death from shock. When confronted by Ellie Henderson for his “cruel trick,” the story ends with this ominous, ironic, and chilling statement:

“I do not approve of murder,” said Hercule Poirot.

In other words, Poirot basically murdered the guy because he didn’t approve of murder. This was, perhaps, considered too much for the TV audience to handle, or something. But it’s what makes the whole story intriguing.

2.) I wanted Mrs. Clapperton’s voice to be more distinctively annoying than it was. Its very shrillness is part of what made it possible for her husband to imitate it so convincingly. In the episode, it was a little hard to believe he had so accurately imitated the woman’s voice that came through the other side of the door…

3.) Col. Clapperton’s stiffness at supposedly being “found out” during the card trick rang a bit hollow to me, and sounded more like he was angry or offended rather than embarrassed.

4.) I didn’t understand the point of some of the characters. The Tollivers, for example, seemed to have no real reason for existing. (And their first names are Oliver and Molly– Ollie and Molly Tolliver! Ack.) Also, although no one (except Forbes, apparently) likes Mrs. Clapperton, it is perhaps a bit difficult for the viewer to formulate ideas on why she would have been murdered. There’s the money and jewel-robbery angle, but that is pretty quickly diffused by Poirot. It’s impossible to suspect the two girls. Forbes, old Mr. Russell, a random bead-seller, or the Morgan sisters? Meh. The only people one suspects at all are the husband or Ellie Henderson.

Things that really confused me:

1.) Pamela and Kitty are chasing after Col. Clapperton, described by Christie as a “tall, soldierly-looking man.” Now, no disrespect intended to John Normington. But HASTINGS IS ON BOARD. Seriously– who ought Pam and Kitty be clamoring after? Seriously? I’ll tell you:

And there’s no excuse. Pam and Kitty can’t even be mere gold-diggers, because Clapperton’s wife is the one who has all the money.

2.) The amber beads. First, when they were found near the body, Poirot doesn’t scold Hastings for picking them up and possibly ruining fingerprint evidence. Second, Poirot asserts at the end that the beads were definitely not Ellie Henderson’s, despite the fact that they look identical to the ones she bought. How does he know they weren’t hers, and that someone didn’t just take them because they were convenient to plant suspicion on either her or a bead-seller? She had mentioned earlier that she lost her beads; why insist those weren’t hers? That seems rather an odd coincidence.

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3.) I really wanted to know more of the back story hinted at when Hastings and Bates are standing on the deck. Hastings bemoans the woman inside singing “The Army of Today’s All Right” and “The Kashmiri Love Song,” after he’d explicitly asked for no soldier songs or Indian love lyrics. “We’re all civilians now, Bates.” In the midst of all the comic moments Hastings supplies, this is a rare glimpse of something dark in Hastings’ past, probably related to his military service. The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain are almost the only stories that hint of this past, but incorrigible fans want to know more!

Conclusion: An episode with plenty of fun. Not the most brilliant of scripts, but very well-delivered, including one of Poirot’s best denouement speeches of the earlier episodes. Some great character development for Hastings, too.

 

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The best endings to Poirot stories: My top 12

Here I shall opine on a list of the best endings of Christie’s Poirot stories, both novels and short stories. (For the purposes of this exercise, I will count The Labours of Hercules and The Big Four as collections of short stories, which they essentially are.) By best endings, I don’t necessarily mean best ultimate plot twists or best solutions. I mean that, after all is said and done, the actual last few words of text themselves strike amazement into the heart and leave me, the reader, in just the right place. For the purposes of this post, the funniest endings are not included– that’s another category altogether. If you haven’t read some of these, you should be warned of SPOILERS, because I will spoil BLATANTLY, and quote, and explain. My comments will be in italics. Here goes, in no particular order!

1.    Dead Man’s Folly

Then Mrs. Folliat of Nasse House, daughter of a long line of brave men, drew herself erect. She looked straight at Poirot and her voice was formal and remote.

‘Thank you, M. Poirot,’ she said, ‘for coming to tell me yourself of this. Will you leave me now? There are some things that one has to face quite alone…’

Certainly one of the most enigmatic and fascinating of Christie’s endings, we are left not knowing what action Mrs. Folliat is going to take when Poirot reveals to her that he knows the truth about her son. The reader may assume that she has something like suicide, or a double suicide, in mind. This is the interpretation used by the writers of the 2013 television episode. Christie frequently enjoys using elipses or a dash to leave the very last words hanging.

2.    “The Lemesurier Inheritance”

‘You have disposed very successfully of the curse of the Lemesuriers.’

‘I wonder,’ said Poirot very thoughtfully. ‘I wonder very much indeed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mon ami, I will answer you with one significant word– red!’

‘Blood?’ I queried, dropping my voice to an awe-stricken whisper.

‘Always you have the imagination melodramatic, Hastings! I refer to something much more prosaic– the colour of little Ronald Lemesurier’s hair.’

What Poirot is getting at– though it is not explicitly spelled out for Hastings or the reader– is that although Ronald, the elder of the two boys, has inherited the estate and therefore the “curse of the firstborn” appears to be broken, it may be that the curse continues after all. Ronald’s auburn hair suggests that he might actually be the son of the secretary, and not of Hugo Lemesurier at all! So Gerald is actually the true firstborn; as the firstborn, he did not inherit, in keeping with the curse; and Hugo had been trying to kill the wrong son! Despite Poirot’s words about his observation being “prosaic,” his ending sends a chill to my heart every time I read it. It puts an entirely different complexion on the events that have passed.

3.    “Problem at Sea”

‘It was a trick– a cruel trick,’ cried out Ellie.

‘I do not approve of murder,’ said Hercule Poirot.

The ending of this short story is so shocking that it was altered for the sake of the television series, although this text remains essentially the same. In the book, Poirot knows the murderer has a weak heart, and deliberately seeks to shock him to death by means of a particularly stunning denouement. In other words, Poirot basically murders the guy. He does so thinking that it is the best and most merciful way for all involved, but he still deliberately causes his death. This makes that last sentence, an oft-repeated phrase of Poirot’s, so chillingly ironic. Listen to the story via this audiobook to hear the full, ruthless shock of the moment come through.

4.    The Murder on the Links

‘It’s the Prince’s turn to interrupt,’ I interpolated. ‘Do you know what he said?’

‘No?’

‘”Hell!” said the Prince– and kissed her!’

And I suited the action to the word.

Hastings puts in a brilliant comment (it has to happen sometimes, right?) and ties up the romantic ending to this fabulous tale with a neat reference to Chapter 1 and his first meeting with Cinderella. What a pleasure this story is to read…

5.    “The Mouse Walks In” (Chapter 13 of The Big Four)

I turned my head aside. Poirot put his hand on my shoulder. There was something in his voice that I had never heard there before.

‘You like not that I should embrace you or display the emotion, I know well. I will be very British. I will say nothing– but nothing at all. Only this– that in this last adventure of ours, the honours are all with you, and happy is the man who has such a friend as I have!’

Speaking of Hastings doing something amazing, he has here just put his own life and (so he thinks) the life of his wife in deadly peril to save his friend. What follows, at the end of the chapter, is one of the most moving exchanges between Poirot and Hastings to be found anywhere.

6.    Cards on the Table

Despard said cheerfully:

‘Let’s stab him, Rhoda, and see if his ghost can come back and find out who did it.’

For the sheer impudence and audacity of the comment. Cent tonnerres!

7.    Three Act Tragedy

‘My goodness,’ he cried, ‘I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoned cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.’

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,’ said Poirot.

‘Eh?’

‘It might have been ME,’ said Hercule Poirot.

This is a particularly brilliant ending because it comes across as comic OR poignant. The first instinct, perhaps, is to laugh at Poirot’s incorrigible vanity– that his death would be so much more tragic than that of an ordinary person. But then immediately one is reminded that, strictly speaking, he’s right, insofar as it’s true that if he’d been killed, the murders would not have been solved and the evil bigamist would have succeeded in his plan. The serious reality of that fact is compounded by Poirot’s own realization that his friend Cartwright was willing to let him die in such a pointless way just for the sake of testing out a future murder. All of the complexity and poignancy this entails is captured in full by Suchet’s great performance of that moment. Martin Shaw does a superb job as Cartwright, as well– everyone has tears in their eyes by the end. Go watch it!

8.    Five Little Pigs 

‘I died…’

In the hall she passed two young people whose life together was just beginning.

The chauffeur held open the door of the car. Lady Dittisham got in and the chauffeur wrapped the fur rug round her knees.

When the murderer is revealed, she gives a little monologue that is a wonder of crime fiction character psychology. It underscores an observation that Poirot makes near the very end of Curtain: the worst part of murder is the effect it has on the murderer. The ending is subtle and stark, and seems to reinforce the futility of a life of luxury when obtained at the expense of a murderer’s own sanity and happiness. Zowie. I admit I prefer it to the melodramatic conclusion that the television adaptation attempts.

9.    The Mystery of the Blue Train

‘Yes– yes, it is true. You are young, younger than you yourself know. Trust the train, Mademoiselle, for it is le bon Dieu who drives it.’

The whistle of the engine came again.

‘Trust the train, Mademoiselle,’ murmured Poirot again. ‘And trust Hercule Poirot– He knows.’

Just a lovely, elegant conclusion. Eminently quotable; as Christie might have said, a “typical exit line.”

10.    “The Wasp’s Nest”

‘Listen, mon ami, you are a dying man; you have lost the girl you loved, but there is one thing that you are not; you are not a murderer. Tell me now: are you glad or sorry that I came?’

There was a moment’s pause and Harrison drew himself up. There was a new dignity in his face– the look of a man who has conquered his own baser self. He stretched out his hand across the table.

‘Thank goodness you came,’ he cried. ‘Oh, thank goodness you came.’

Poirot has just saved his dying friend from becoming a murderer. A wonderfully satisfying conclusion to one of Christie’s cleverest little tales.

11.    “The Apples of the Hesperides”

Hercule Poirot said gently:

‘He needs your prayers.’

‘Is he then an unhappy man?’

Poirot said:

‘So unhappy that he has forgotten what happiness means. So unhappy that he does not know he is unhappy.’

The nun said softly:

‘Ah, a rich man…’

Hercule Poirot said nothing– for he knew that there was nothing to say…

From the stories comprising The Labours of Hercules comes this deep conversation with a nun about Poirot’s most recent client. More splendid character psychology from Christie.

12.    Murder on the Orient Express

‘Then,’ said Poirot, ‘having placed my solution before you, I have the honour to retire from the case…’

After a slick and streamlined investigation, the book builds to a crescendo with Poirot’s two solutions to the mystery, followed by Linda Arden’s impassioned plea, and draws to a close with Poirot’s calm and matter-of-fact pronouncement. The only hint we have of a kind of lack of closure is in those trailing elipses. Are the passengers surprised by Poirot’s reaction? What is passing through Poirot’s mind? I admit candidly that I have never seen an adaptation that completely satisfies me as far as the script’s relation to the text is concerned. The book comes across as an extremely difficult story to adapt in general, but I would really love, somehow, to see a performance in which the last few pages of the book are read pretty much exactly as written.

Weird endings: The Veiled Lady

The episode The Veiled Lady begins (more or less) and ends with Poirot, Hastings, and Japp enjoying a pleasant jaunt in a park. This particular park is full of boys who have somehow acquired toy sailboats and are taking them out for a float on the water.

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Poirot: “They fear me, Hastings, the criminals, they fear Hercule Poirot so much that they have repented of their naughty ways and have become citizens of the most upright.”
Hastings: “Oh, rubbish, Poirot– I say! Look at that schooner!”
Poirot: “Rubbish, do you say, Hastings?”
Hastings: “Well, I don’t imagine most of them have ever heard of Hercule Poirot.”
Poirot: “You strike a man while he is down, eh!”
Japp: “I wish you were right. I wouldn’t mind retiring early. It strikes me they’re getting even cleverer, our criminal friends…”

Japp goes on to explain a recent jewel robbery that has impressed him; Poirot seems to consider it not really in his line, being a mere crime of “audacity.” But he falls into a reverie– what fun it would be to work against the law. Who better to confound Japp and his men than a great genius like himself, Hercule Poirot?

And at the end of the successful case, they’re back at the park and Hastings has procured for himself an enormous sailboat.

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Poirot: “Sit here, Hastings. Now I hope that you will not again wound my feelings by saying that I am unknown to the criminal classes.”
Hastings: “Oh, I didn’t mean that, exactly.”
Poirot: “Ma foi, they even employ me themselves when they do not know which way to turn!”
Hastings (finishing with the boat): “What do you think?”
Poirot: “Well… I think… that we have made a good choice, Hastings.”
Hastings: “Not bad, eh?”
Japp (suddenly coming up): “Poirot, Hastings? I thought she’d never stop talking!”
Hastings: “What do you think?”
Japp: “It’s a beauty. I thought you were going to get the smaller one.”
Hastings: “Oh, I’d feel silly with a small one.”
Japp: “You going to try it out now?”
Poirot: “Captain Hastings has not brought it here for the good of his health.”
Japp (wistfully watching Hastings launch off): “Did you ever think of going to sea, Poirot?”
Poirot: “No, no, my friend. This is as close as I like to get.”
Japp: “I used to dream about the sea.” (Boat drifts away; credits roll.)

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What. Was. That. All. About.  ??

It drives me crazy when I can’t figure out just why dialog is used. I mean, the boat scenes certainly serve a couple of obvious useful purposes. They showcase Hastings’ impulsive boyishness (often directed toward cars, tracking down criminals, or auburn hair). Perhaps the juvenile nature of the activity is part of what directs Poirot’s imagination to the prospects of playing the criminal and the fun it would be.  And is that an unconsciously jesting dig against Poirot when Hastings tells Japp, “Oh, I’d feel silly with a small one”?

But what is the takeaway supposed to be? It has the feel of a takeaway. Is Japp considering the “audacity” with which Poirot and Hastings pulled off their little investigative stunt– audacity inspired by the initial jewel robbery– and reflecting on his own stolid and by-the-book existence in Isleworth? Japp’s a homebody who likes his garden, and never really seems too enthusiastic in the few times we see him abroad. Does he feel a sudden longing for adventure? Are his words about early retirement coming back to him? “When I retire, I shall have a little place in the country, far from crime– like this,” Japp had said in Christie’s “The Market Basing Mystery.” Does he sense early retirement might be coming after all, what with Poirot putting all these criminals away?  😉

Hastings, that impulsive romantic who pushes off his sailboat, does in fact ultimately get in a boat and go across the sea, all the way to South America, leaving Poirot and Japp behind. Is this a deliberate presage that we, the viewers, are seeing?

What are your impressions of these scenes? What’s up with the boats? What do you get from watching it?