Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993) (Series V, episode 6) has Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) escorting Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) to Belgium to pick up an honour for services rendered and so keeping law and order in the linguistically divided country. They meet Claude Chantalier (Jonathan Hackett) a man who worked alongside Hercule Poirot twenty years earlier when Paul Déroulard (James Coombes), a distinguished politician, was found dead at his desk. According to the coroner, it was supposedly a heart attack. As an insomniac, he often worked through the night and, while doing so, was in the habit of nibbling chocolates. At the inquest, Virginie Mesnard (Anna Chancellor) asserts it was not a natural death. When the young Poirot talks with her, she admits this is pure instinct but, when he looks at the scene, he finds the top and bottom of the chocolate box are of different colours. Hercule Poirot gives the remaining flakes of chocolate to a chemist for analysis. Trinitrin is found. It’s a drug taken to relieve high blood pressure. The other bottom containing chocolates has been taken by the aged butler who admits the Trinitrin was stolen from him. He tells Hercule Poirot in confidence that he’s working for the Belgian Secret Services to discover who among the current crop of politicians would defend against a German invasion and who would collaborate. It was appropriate for him to be with Paul Déroulard. He was a liberal and a secularist, wanting to accommodate both languages and to find a better role for the Catholic Church, based on a separation of Church and State. This is clearly a matter of great political sensitivity and Hercule Poirot agrees to keep the state secret.
The most obvious suspect is the Count Xavier St. Alard (Geoffrey Whitehead), a staunch Catholic and the man who supplied the box of chocolates. Virginie therefore lures him to the Opera while Hercule Poirot breaks into the Count’s home where he finds an empty bottle of Trinitrin. They recognise that the case cannot be reopened without a confession. When they try to trick the Count into admitting he killed the politician, he makes an ambiguous remark. Unfortunately, they are interrupted so there can be no follow-up questions. In due course it becomes obvious who was responsible and why. What then makes this adaptation interesting is the focus on Hercule Poirot’s agreement not to reveal the truth at the time. In my review of the Murder on the Orient Express, I commented on Poirot’s decision to allow the murder(s) to escape punishment. It was my opinion that the Catholicism was overdone. Here, matters are rather more cut and dried. The victim’s mother, Madame Déroulard, is shown as intensely religious, saying the rosary every night before going to bed. Within the household, this meant there are tensions between mother and her increasingly liberal son. In society at large, there are also signs of the tension between Catholicism and a rising secularism. The murderer asks Hercule Poirot not to take action and he agrees that it’s in the interests of all concerned that the official record of a death by heart attack remains unchallenged. In practical terms, it avoids the need to open two key issues to public scrutiny — the loyalty of Belgian politicians and the role of Catholicism.
David Suchet is at his best, showing Hercule Poirot as a younger and older self. There are also hints of romance. Even today, our great detective still wears the button hole given to him by Virginie. It’s good to see our hero simply telling the story from twenty years ago. There’s no contemporary investigation. Just his memories. It’s also wonderful to see Belgium in all its glory with a delightful production. Authentic locations have been chosen and everything looks right with period costumes, horses and beautiful cars.
Douglas Watkinson has produced one of the best adaptations in this current series. The core of the story remains true to the original published in 1923, but the frame of the story is considerably enhanced. In the original, Hercule Poirot tells Captain Hastings of his “failure”. This trip to Brussels with Chief Inspector Japp, his investiture, and meeting up with Virginie at the end makes a real improvement. The secret service element is constructive, although I was disappointed not to see the younger Poirot disguised as a plumber as in the short story. As a final thought, it’s interesting that, when we go back in time and everyone is supposed to be in Belgium speaking French, they all still speak in perfect English apart from Poirot who continues to speak with a French accent. Obviously it would have been confusing to English viewers if they had suddenly to resort to subtitles to understand one of their favourite dramas. Put all this together and The Chocolate Box is a delightful amuse-bouche to watch.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)