So we need to talk about Poirot, I guess. The reaction to Sarah Phelps’ latest Agatha Christie adaptation/desecration (delete as appropriate) seems to be pretty bipolar, people either loving it or hating it. So as I seem to be at neither extreme, I thought I’d share my thoughts.
You probably know the plot. Hercule Poirot receives a few letters signed “A.B.C.” warning of upcoming killings – Alice Asher in Andover, etc. Meanwhile the disturbed Alexander Bonaparte Cust finds himself at the locations of the murders, somewhat confused as to what he is doing there. Four murders later and the killer is apprehended.
And, to be blunt, it’s my favourite Poirot novel – I think it was the first I read, which helps with the surprise, but it holds up well on re-reading. It’s an absolute classic in the Golden Age serial killer genre. It’s bloody brilliant. So what about the adaptation?
It’s not the first time it’s been adapted – Tony Randall’s The Alphabet Murders is based on this and, apparently, is a travesty. In this case, needless to say, you would need to make changes to the plot to make the story last three hours without it dragging. And it is the nature of Phelps work to make it more character-driven than the original story. So which of the changes work, and which didn’t?
Let’s start with Poirot himself. The idea that he was not popular in the police force and has fallen from grace is fine. Apparently working closely with him destroyed Japp’s reputation as well. That’s fine. The idea that Poirot might not have been a policeman when he fled Belgium at the start of the war… it’s an odd decision, but I thought that worked too. Sure, you are changing the character – please, dear reader, don’t start banging on about subtext, there was never any doubt about this in the stories – but it works, I thought. But the one thing that really bugged me about this Poirot was the murder party. That Poirot, while at the height of his powers, no less, would rock up to dinner parties and organise games of murder. This a) wouldn’t be done by “proper” Poirot in a million years and b) wouldn’t be done by this tortured Poirot in even longer. Plot-wise, it was necessary to generate the link between Poirot and the murderer, but surely Malkovich could have looked like he was forced to be there. But no, he seems to be embracing the experience, which just didn’t sit with the experiences.
Right, over to Cust. The problem with Cust is that you have to portray him as the prime suspect despite the fact that this being an Agatha Christie tale, he almost certainly isn’t the killer. So how much screen time do you give him? How do you make him a character without giving away the fact that he’s a massive red herring? I’ve no idea, but weird S & M with the landlady’s daughter is a strange choice. Of course, I know that Cust isn’t the killer, but I wonder, did anyone who saw this and hadn’t read the book actually think he ever was?
And now the killer. Glad to see that they hadn’t changed it, but there’s only one alternative suspect here. Phelps never tries to make anyone from the Andover or Bexhill killings remotely suspicious and spends a lot of time at the Churston household, with only the killer or the ambitious maid being suspicious – I did wonder if they’d switched the killer to her. But the problem here for me is the fact that the killer in the book is ruthless and logical whereas here he’s basically a loony, seemingly willing to work through the whole alphabet until Zebadee Zachariah from Zion is dead. The link between him and Poirot seemed really forced.
And the biggest problem for me? Where was the detection? How did Poirot deduce the killer’s identity? There’s something about a fingerprint but in the book, Poirot works out who the killer is and then proves it. The crucial clue from the letter in the book is completely missing – we just see Crome turning up to arrest him. Agatha Christie wrote detective stories but everything here was reaction.
I do think it’s hard to work out how to dramatically pace the ending – oh, the CGI train yard was a bit disappointing – but I’m not convinced the creators made it work here.
But overall, as a piece of drama, I thought this worked pretty well. I could have done without the high heels, but generally it worked well. But as a detective story…
Anyway, over to you. What did you think?