Sir Claud Amory has invented an explosive that could change the world, its formula being kept under lock and key in his house. Believing that someone is trying to steal the formula, for either treasonous purposes or monetary gain, he summons Hercule Poirot to the house. When Poirot (and Captain Hastings) arrive, they face the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. The household had been gathered in the library, Sir Claud giving the thief one last chance to return the formula. The lights are turned out so that the thief can do the right thing…
… and when the lights come up, the formula is still missing and Sir Claud is sitting very still in his chair. Too still, it seems, due to the fact that his coffee contained a significant amount of poison. Poirot (and Captain Hastings) arrive in the immediate aftermath, but can Poirot preserve national security, find a murderer and resolve a romantic matter or two between the suspects? Of course he can…
You may remember that last year, inspired by Mark Aldridge’s Poirot book, I started a chronological read of his canon. I’d got as far as The Mystery Of The Blue Train and then stopped. There was no particular reason, but one factor was this book – should I include it or not?
If you’re unaware, Black Coffee is a stage play, the only play written by Agatha Christie that features Poirot, inspired by Michael Morton’s disappointing attempt to bring her Belgian supersleuth to the stage in Alibi. It was then adapted into a novel by Charles Osborne in 1998 as a “new” Poirot mystery. Where it fits chronologically is unclear – it was first performed in 1930, placing it after The Mystery Of The Blue Train (1928) but Poirot mentions very early on that he has just sorted out The Big Four with Hastings. To confuse matters, Poirot also mentions early on that he has just been to the theatre with Mrs Oliver, who, presuming that is dear Ariadne, he doesn’t meet until 1936’s Cards On The Table. But Puzzle Doctor, I hear the pedants cry, he doesn’t call her Ariadne so maybe it’s another Mrs Oliver? Yeah, but I doubt he was involved in solving the murder of two Lord Edgwares (1933), a reference which I presume doesn’t come from the original stage dialogue. So I’m just using the publication date and am calling this Poirot 6.5.
How best to describe my thoughts on this one? Let me take you back to my childhood and a man called Terrance Dicks. Terrance is something of a hero of mine. Back then, I loved watching Doctor Who on the telly, but there were so many old stories that I had never seen. This was in the days before on demand television, before multiple channels that just might repeat it for you, before even the general use of video recorders – yes, I’m old. But Target books wrote novel adaptations of those stories for the young (and old) reader to enjoy and most of those were written by Terrance Dicks. Dicks worked on the show from 1968 to 1974 and knew the show inside out. His adaptations were wonderful things for a young fan of the show and it’s fair to say that they were instrumental to making me the reader that I am today. However, it would also be fair to say that they varied in quality. Some of them were wonderfully embellished, adding extra development to the core script that was seen on television – and some were basically the script with “said the Doctor”, “said Romana” and “said random extra” after each line. As a young reader, I didn’t particularly care, especially when, in 1980 for example, we got seven books! But it was these books that I was thinking of when I read this book. And when I say these books, I mean the second category.
There are two massive problems with this book. The adaptation isn’t very good and the source material isn’t great either.
There isn’t any real effort to stretch this beyond the stage show – the action is almost all set in the library, but you get some typical stage antics. Hiding behind the curtains; characters entering and not noticing other people in the room until they’re standing in the middle; the crucial box of miscellaneous poisons being kept in the library. Most of the characters are lacking in any depth and Hastings seems to have had some sort of lobotomy.
But to be fair to Osborne, he doesn’t have a lot to work with. There’s no real complexity to the mystery with one particular misdirection being particularly clumsy. When the reader is told before the murder that character X is putting bucketloads of poison into a coffee cup, it will come as no surprise to you that they’re not the murderer. There’s an emotional core between two characters that has the potential to liven up the story, but it’s unsubtle both in the character work and in the misdirection.
The deduction of who the murderer is leaves a lot to be desired, and what the murderer achieves in the dark does seem to be unlikely that no one would notice it.
All in all, this is disappointing. On the stage, perhaps where it should have remained, this might be more effective. But on paper, alas, this is a disappointment.
Ranking Poirot (so far):