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Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013) (Season 13, episode 1) sees the return of Ariadne Oliver (Zoë Wanamaker). While on a book tour, she’s buttonholed by Mrs. Burton-Cox (Greta Scacchi) who’s concerned her son is about to marry Ariadne’s god daughter, the allegedly unsuitable Celia Ravenscroft (Vanessa Kirby). The problem lies in the potential mental instability in the family. Her parents died in an apparent murder-suicide, and Mrs Burton-Cox wants to know whether the wife killed the husband or vice versa. Even though offended by the pushiness of this woman, Ariadne’s curiosity is piqued and, despite being warned off by Poirot, asks her god daughter what she remembers. The girl was twelve when the tragedy happened and was away at boarding school. Once the question is asked, however, she also asks Ariadne to find out what happened. So, with Poirot called into another case by Doctor Willoughby (Iain Glen) where his eminent father was killed in his own sanatorium, she sets off to Eastbourne to find elephants who might remember what happened all those years ago.

David Suchet begins what is billed as the final season

David Suchet begins what is billed as the final season

This Oliver safari leads us to an old friend who knew the Ravenscroft family in Sussex and an even older woman who was a nanny with ex-pat families out in India who knew the family. It seems there were troubles in Amritsar. One or more children may have died. The poor old thing keeps falling asleep. Who knows whether what she says is real. Then there’s the lady that used to char for the family in Sussex. She confirms the first woman’s story about Lady Ravenscroft wearing a wig and adds the snippet she went to Harley Street for treatment. Mental troubles, it seems. When Poirot’s attention can be diverted to the case, he and Ariadne talk to the now retired policeman who dealt with the case. He thinks it ought to be a murder-suicide, but worries there was no note. Aroused from his stupor, Poirot asks about the wigs and directs Ariadne to the shop to continue asking questions. Lady Ravenscroft had four wigs which was unusual. Most people only have two. And then three weeks after she took delivery, she died. Finally, Poirot talks with the surviving daughter. He offers the insight that the truth can be cruel given old sins leave a long shadow. Despite this warning, Celia Ravenscroft is determined she should know what actually happened. This leads us to a very effective piece of television.

Full credit must go to Nick Dear who wrote the script. To understand the man’s triumph, we need to consider the strength of the novel. This was published in 1972 by which time Agatha Christie was well past her best. Indeed, there are many signs her memory was beginning to fail, something that makes the choice of subject matter ironically appropriate. The idea of any investigator interviewing elderly people who can’t remember much about anything was something Christie herself was coming to understand. The relevance of elephants is twofold. We have the idiom in the title which is the supposed capacity of elephants to remember faces and places. In this instance, we’re to accept that old people “never forget” or have a memory like an elephant. However, the second use of elephants in this story reflects a folk tale from China and India in which a small group of wise but blind men enter a room containing an elephant. They each touch a different part of the beast and so come up with radically different descriptions of what beast is sharing their space. So here we have different people who each have a set of experiences of the past involving the same family. Each one therefore sees only a part of the larger picture and it’s not until all their views are collected and analysed that the key elements can be extracted from the mass of irrelevant detail and put together to form the complete picture.

Zoë Wanamaker talks with one of the elephants

Zoë Wanamaker talks with one of the elephants

So Nick Dear significantly tidies up the plot of the novel as designed by Christie and then adds a completely new subplot with a new murder in it. The result is coherent and compelling. Were she alive today, you have the sense Christie would have approved this expansion to her novel because, for once, it shows a rather tender side to Poirot. Too often he’s dismissive if not actively contemptuous of others. Here we see a mellower side, a man who might have married and protected his children. David Suchet gives a more restrained but powerful performance, offering emotional support to a family and those who were involved in a great tragedy. His interview with Zelie Rouxelle (Elsa Mollien), the French au pair now returned to Paris, is pleasing.

If there’s a fault with the adaptation, it’s the rather pointless melodrama of the attempt on Celia’s life towards the end. Having the police turn up in the nick of time is the ultimate cliché and spoils what was otherwise a well-paced plot. It’s also a relief to see Zoë Wanamaker given proper prominence in the first half of the episode. Ariadne Oliver is in the novel and Zoë Wanamaker deserves the space to develop the character. It’s sad the character has to slip quietly into the background once Poirot’s interest is engaged, but it’s his show rather than a partnership. She’s just a sidekick, albeit one with more brains than Captain Hastings. For once we get to see Whitehaven Mansions in their full glory with the south coast scenes, both contemporary and in flashback, done with appropriate style. Indeed, the flashbacks are essential to make the motive plausible. Unless we’re convinced this is a couple born and still espousing the cultural morality of the British Raj, we’re unlikely the find this plot scenario plausible. Having met such people as I was growing up, I can confirm this type of behaviour, while unusual, would have been possible. In a society where reputation was everything, families would go to unreasonable lengths to cover up indiscretions or worse. While this is extreme, it feels credible from what we see and hear about the couple. The relevant people might very well have gone along with this deception for a short time. . . until the burden became too much. All of which makes Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember a very impressive start to what’s billed as the final season of adaptations.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo

Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2013) is the eighth Maggy Thorsen Mystery and it invites us to consider the most desirable characteristics for that perfect cup of coffee (those of you blessed with a suspicious turn of mind will understand the seven previous titles are all relevant puns). The series in general and this book in particular, all begin with the aroma which alerts the other senses something good is on the way. Then we get to the body, i.e. the feeling the coffee has in your mouth or, if you prefer, Maggy Thorsen together with Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik with a murder victim on their hands. As the process of consumption begins, there must be elements of viscosity as the thick liquid lingers indulgently on the tongue before disappearing into the pit below for absorption into the gut. This delightful sensation stems from the solids produced by grinding and the oils extracted during the brewing leading us to conclude the best coffee, like the best novels, has a balance between sweetness and acidity, producing a rich and complex flavour.

 

Sandra Balzo has injected lightness into the milk to produce a frothy brew with a sprinkling of wit, humour and a little absurdity to create a slightly nutty aftertaste, the whole concoction leaving me in a mellow and satisfied mood. The aroma builds as we join Maggie and Jake booking into the hotel where the crime writers convention is to be held. The sly observations introduce us to the first evening’s event which is a short train journey in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We meet everyone of note on the bus to the station with their real-world names nicely alliterative to the characters from the novel so we don’t forget who everyone is. Then it’s off into the Everglades in a push-me, pull-you train where alien invaders eat the ‘gators or eat the food the ‘gators would eat before the reptiles can get at them — actually that’s confusing because the aliens are Burmese and African Rock pythons released into the wilds by pet owners who couldn’t cope with the little monsters which were becoming alarmingly big.

Sandra Balzo

Sandra Balzo

 

With the train leaving the station, we’re off on what should be a three-hour jaunt into the wilderness with the prospect of a murder to solve before the victorious sleuths are allowed to eat the celebratory cake. Except, as is required in books like this which depend on crimes for our heroic detectives to solve, there’s a real life murder with the cake knife — presenting a real challenge to those who wish to eat the cake but have nothing to cut it with save the sharpness of their wit. Such are the perils of those who organise events or conferences for creative people where petty jealousies and major disagreements combine to produce a hopefully only metaphorically murderous atmosphere.

 

This being a rerun of the Agatha Christie situation of a small group of people trapped on a train, the problem for the author is to decide how rigorously to follow the plot of the original. In this case, there’s a very nice balance with most of the people on the train having a motive for wanting this particular individual dead (so they all did it, right?) while there are wildly inventive moments that completely undercut the spirit of the original. It’s so artfully done: the fact the detective duo might debate whether to call the witnesses into the dining car for interview in the same order as in the novel, simply typifying the delightfully elaborate game being played — like trying to work out how far along the track they are. The other pleasing demonstration of good judgement is understanding the need to keep extended jokes short. Although we pivot rather neatly into a faintly absurd thriller ending, the explanation of whodunnit and why is clear and persuasive. Then it’s all over bar the shouting to the barista for more of the same.

 

For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Hit and Run.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010) is another of these adaptations that parachutes Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) into a novel featuring another investigator. In this instance, she’s displacing Ariadne Oliver. There’s nothing inherently wrong in doing so if the story is strong enough. A puzzle is a puzzle and anyone can be drafted in to solve it. The primary feature of both the novel and this adaptation is the supernatural element. Originally published in 1961, Britain was fascinated by the occult and black magic with Dennis Wheatley remarkably popular. I say remarkably because his prose writing style was terrible, but he made a good living out of the quality of the ideas he managed to get down on paper. Agatha Christie herself flirted with the supernatural from time to time and this is her most explicit use of “dark forces” as a murder weapon.

The best, if not the only way, to get anything sensible out of this story is to see it as a product of the time it was written. Let’s assume that everyone from the lowest class peasant to the upperist class nob was familiar with the uses of black magic for murder. Indeed, it must seem to the more wealthy members of society that, if they want a foolproof way of collecting on their inheritances early, the best way of cashing in is to get Satan or one of his minions to do the dirty deed for them while they are out of the country or obviously in a cast-iron alibi situation. So they approach a booking agent who sends them out into the countryside where three witches perform a ceremony. Pausing at this point, you have to accept that hard-bitten and intelligent people will not only part with their money, but also sit through this ceremony without bursting out laughing. Why? Because a few weeks later, the target of their murderous intentions will die from “natural causes”. Whoo hoo! Satan rules, OK!

So if you know someone, who knows someone, the word will come back to you that Satan is ready, willing and able to remove obstacles to your inheritance for just a few thousand pounds. Here’s an address. Knock three times and ask for Mr Bradley. Curiously, no-one ever goes to the coven at The Pale Horse directly. Their occult powers can only be bought when the telephone rings and Mr Bradley says it’s a done deal. So in cocktail parties up and down the Home Counties, the gossipers are hard at work. “Did you hear those darling witches did it again? Bazzer’s Uncle Valerian has just joined the Happy-Ever-After Brigade. I’ve booked in my Aunt Esmeralda and Great Uncle Arbuthnot next Tuesday week. They’re having a two-for-one special, doncha know.” Just thinking about this as a plot device gives me a headache, but this is “vintage” Agatha Christie. Although she was past her best by this time, let’s run with the notion that, if the greed is strong enough, both the cynical and gullible will play along with all the mummery to get the job done.

Juia McKenzie and Neil Pearson bring black magic into the light

Juia McKenzie and Neil Pearson bring black magic into the light

As a television episode in a period setting, this is written and performed in a quasi-documentary style. Under normal circumstances, the inclusion of black magic should provoke the production team into the usual melodramatic excesses to ratchet up the tension and aim to produce a few boo moments as evil stalks the streets. Yet this proceeds at the walking pace of a funeral cortège with no hint of excitement. This is surprising because we start off in a pea-souper with Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons), the parish priest, called around to hear a death-bed confession. Stepping back out into the fog, he’s then battered to death. This could have been played up but the word coming to mind after seeing it is “dull”. Lurking in the background is the police sidekick Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson). He trots around in Miss Marple’s wake nodding sagely whenever she vouchsafes a nugget of wisdom. As the primary setting, we have a creepy village and its local witch burning ritual which is observed by our historian Mark Easterbook (Jonathan Cake) as if he’s going to write it up for his next textbook. And then the satanic ceremony itself which is laughably tame.

So I see a slightly better performance from Julia McKenzie. Even though she’s being given less than sensible things to do, I actually felt she was more in the Miss Marple groove. There are the usual great production values on displace with Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire looking the part. I also thought one or two of the plot innovations were constructive, but the whole enterprise founders because of the horrendous coincidence required so that Miss Marple meets the murderer. In the original novel, the murderer is actually being quite helpful to the police as their inquiries are proceeding. This character’s involvement is therefore more natural. Here Miss Marple must suspect him from the outset without anything more than a marginal suspicion about the accuracy of a physical description of someone half-glimpsed in the fog. While taking nothing away from the quality of the traditional gathering of the suspects together at the end with the big reveal, The Pale Horse is a rather silly story that’s played out at a leaden pace with no spark of life about it at all.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

When you start with just the title, Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010), it sounds really impressive. The scriptwriter drawing the short straw for this Herculean task was Stewart Harcourt. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to take a short story and convert it into a television episode supposed to last 90 minutes (not including ads). What makes this more than usually difficult is that the original includes Dolly Bantree and the idea of yet another episode with Joanna Lumley in it was just too much to contemplate. So everything had to be relocated. With a clear vision of novelty, we now find ourselves switched to Little Ambrose (the internal scenes were filmed at Hatfield House) which is, as you will all know, best approached by road in one of those magnificently preserved coaches from the 1950s. Of course, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is not alone. She has an importunate Eddie Seward (Jason Durr) to interrupt her thoughts. At first, I thought this must be a victim of shell shock (what we now call PTSD). Just after the war, there were quite a lot of men whose experiences during the war led to such anxiety-driven behaviour. Except he later turns out to be a recovering alcoholic. I found his behaviour unconvincing. Men of that era avoided embarrassing themselves with outbursts of this type. I understand that it’s essential for Miss Marple to acquire some information from him, but this seems less than credible when he could just as easily have been bohemian and chatty.

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Julia McKenzie flanked by the police team with Kevin McNally on the right

Anyway, we retain something of the original short story by having a frame involving Miss Marple talking with Sir Henry Clithering (Donald Sinden). Now never let it be said I use words loosely. I consider it entirely appropriate to dignify the frame and its consequences of Miss Marple being called as a witness in a murder trial completely idiotic. The script clearly says Sir Henry has retired yet, on he basis of what Miss Marple tells him, he’s able to call up the judge of the ongoing trial and have everything grind to a halt. Instead of all the suspects being called together in the library for the amateur sleuth to explain whodunnit, this episode has everyone sit in court and both volunteer evidence and shout out denials as Miss Marple does the reveal. Neither the judge nor the opposing barristers say or do anything to prevent Miss Marple from hijacking the proceedings. She’s even allowed to publicly berate Detective Somerset (Kevin R. McNally) for making a mess of everything — the poor man was already in trouble because of his drinking and, after this experience, he would probably disappear into a bottle and not emerge for weeks.

As to the broad narrative, this is not without merit. With Eddie Seward almost immediately found floating in the river next to the golf course, we can focus on the village and its usual assortment of interesting characters. At the centre of it all are the two brothers who married two sisters. Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small), ended up married to the philandering George Pritchard (Toby Stephens) while sister Philippa (Claudie Blakley) married the gambling addict Lewis Pritchard (Paul Rhys) whose only contribution as an author has been to produce three children without the means to pay for their upkeep. Mary appears to be one of these chronic hypochondriacs, forever convinced she’s dying and hooked on fortune tellers who feed her doom-laden predictions. This makes her a difficult patient and she’s had a succession of nurses, the current incumbent being Caroline Copling (Claire Rushbrook). The local Doctor Jonathan Frayn (Patrick Baladi) feeds her placebos and takes the family’s money (private medicine was alive and well during the 1950s running in parallel with the NHS). It’s a bear pit of 1950s village normality according to Agatha Christie.

Anyway, to come to the nub of the mystery, Mary the hypochondriac gets one of these dire predictions. Pointing to the wallpaper which is decorated with many different varieties of flower, the fortuneteller predicts that in sequence the Primrose will turn blue as a warning. This will be followed by the Hollyhock turning blue to show danger approaching, and the Geranium turning blue means death. And, hey, what a surprise. They do turn blue and she dies. Life works in mysterious ways in these stories. I suppose it’s not uninventive to try killing a hypochondriac by “frightening” her except, of course, no killer ever leaves anything to chance with a woman who’s as strong as a horse. So there you have it. One more local bites the dust before Miss Marple walks into the witness box to reveal all and not a moment too soon. Frankly the whole thing is a wobbly artifice from start to finish. No-one in their right mind would go through this pantomime magic to change the colour of the wallpaper. The actual murder method is simple and straightforward and, with the woman universally disliked and, more to be point, regularly announcing she was about to die, a post mortem would be unlikely and the murder would have been undetected. Waving a big flag and firing off a canon to announce the murder in advance only happens in short stories blown up into episodes like this. This is not to deny Julia McKenzie does a reasonable job at bringing Miss Marple to the screen. But it’s a waste of effort when more or less everything about the story is fatuous.

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 Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010) is one of the better source novels. Sometimes the plot ideas just come together with a simple and credible motive for the first killing and a very elegant method of murder when the opportunity presents itself. Thereafter the deaths that follow show the killer(s) attempting to cover tracks and avoid detection. For these purposes there’s always at least one person who’s seen something incriminating and/or is in possession of information that would reveal the identity of the killer(s). The perennial problem for anyone who writes detective novels in the Golden Age tradition is to maintain some degree of credibility in the plots. Many resort to complexity, thinking the intricacy of the mechanisms substitutes for the need for simple elegance. Others feel the need for variation. Instead of it always being the butler that did it, everyone in the cast of characters must take their turn. So the writers defy plot logic in order the achieve the result they believe will be most surprising to their readers.

So where are we with this third version of the novel to be produced? Having the advantage of two previous adaptations to study, Kevin Elyot has wisely picked the best bits and added one scene which is rather cunning. For once, the core of the original is left intact, and the result is all the better for it. However, this is not to say the final script we see on the screen is a complete success. By modern standards, Agatha Christie’s novels are short. Publishers today think that quantity is quality. So if the original were to be brought to the screen unadorned, it almost certainly would not fill the designated running time at about 90 minutes (leaving plenty of space for ads to bulk it out to a nominal two hours). Even with added material, there’s considerable padding which fills the screen amiably but does not advance the plot with any real enthusiasm. While not blaming the producers for working to their brief, the show as we see it could benefit from losing about 15 minutes. Although it’s always sad to see one character’s part cut back, the role of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley) is overdone. It’s a good double act with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but it also jars since this repeats her appearance in this role from The Body in the Library when she did the same act with Geraldine McEwan.

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

This leads us to consider what’s added to the original. The major element comes from borrowing the film set idea from The Mirror Crack’d film adaptation which has Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) convinced someone has poisoned her coffee. Also from the film, Jane Marple’s foot is injured which leaves her housebound for the early part of the film and forces us to sit through Dolly Bantree giving a guided tour to the renovated Hall. Into the midst of all this strides Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville) who’s under instructions from his superiors at the Yard to co-operate with Miss Marple whose reputation has now been established as beyond reproach. He and his sergeant are the comic relief as they wander round trying to establish what it was Marina Gregg saw that left her so transfixed when greeting those entering the VIP area. The one original albeit minor addition is Marina Gregg visiting her son at a local care facility. This rather cleverly makes her seem a more human and tragic figure. Up to this point, she’s seen largely as an actress having trouble with her nerves and attention-seeking which makes her somewhat unsympathetic. Frankly you can understand why most of the people around her would have been queuing up to dispose of her.

I remain unsure whether this adaptation is better because Miss Marple saves one of the victims in the novel. When you have a killer on the loose and there are already two bodies, why not add the third? That said the ending retains the original equivocal nature. The way this is put together makes the suicide of the killer slightly more credible. Although it does remain open for the interpretation one other person might have administered the fatal dose. When you put all this together, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the best of the current adaptations so far. Given the poor standard, this is not saying much, but you do have the sense this was a better effort to capture the essence of the Agatha Christie original rather than try to rewrite in a way to make it fit modern expectations and sensibilities.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).

This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox

The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.

As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.

The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009) is another of these rewrites — a task which, this time fell to Patrick Barlow. So how did he do? Well, from his point of view, he was starting from near the bottom of the barrel. No matter how you view the Christie canon, this is not one of her best works. Rather it’s one of these romance-tinged mysteries which has a couple of bright young things investigating skullduggery and coming out of the experience deeply in love. I think the kindest thing anyone can say of this early work is that it’s best left in relative obscurity. However, by changing things around to introduce Miss Marple, it’s possible to rescue the leaking plot, give it some cohesion, and raise the general standard of the mystery to solve. Watching the result proves the old adage that not everything that’s possible may actually be achieved.

Sean Biggerstaff

Sean Biggerstaff

Let’s start with the set-up. Somewhat extraordinarily, the young man with time on his hands is first seen walking along the cliff top in full childhood mode. He’s playing cowboys and indians (although, given the relocation in time to the 1950s, I suppose he could be pretending to be a heroic Tommy). Either way, he’s using his fingers as guns and, at one time, is himself shot and falls down clutching his stomach. Unkindly, I was forming the impression this was a character in need of psychiatric assistance when he metamorphosed into Bobby Attfield (Sean Biggerstaff) because, attracted by faint cries not emanating from the circling gulls, he looks over the cliff edge and sees the body of a man on a ledge. Climbing down, he receives the fatal question forming the title to the book.

At this point, I need to make a minor detour through my own recollections of the time. Yes, by modern standards, it was remarkably amateurish. But if there was an unnatural death, an inquest would be held and our cowboy Tommy would be called. If he did not turn up to give evidence, questions would be asked. Put this the other way round. He was expecting to be called and, when the letter arrived, he set off, meeting Frankie Derwent (Georgia Moffett) on the train. She comes with him and they find the nominated building closed. So they just shrug their shoulder and go home? That’s not credible. They would hammer on the door of the building or go round to the nearest police station to find where the inquest is being held. They are socially responsible and intelligent people. If a mistake has been made, they would want to put it right. This fundamental plotting error is the first of an endless series that ends up in one of the worst examples of potboiling melodrama it has been my misfortune to see for years.

Georgia Moffet

Georgia Moffett

I will spare you the catalogue of catastrophe. Suffice it to say that very little of what we see on screen makes any sense or allows us to see an investigation into the sequence of events that occurred six months earlier. Let me put it to you fairly and squarely. If Miss Marple is going to be able to reconstruct what happened in a house she’s never visited involving people she’s never met, how can she do it unless she physically goes there and talks with those people? The answer provided by this adaptation is that she can have perfect twenty-twenty hindsight without have any beforesight, if you catch my meaning. Apart from the killer(s), this Miss Marple does not meet with anyone who could possibly have told her what happened. We’re supposed to accept she could infer events from seeing the will. None of this rubbish about motive and opportunity. No grilling of witnesses. This is the ultimate rabbit from a hat without the intervention of a magician.

So apart from changing virtually everything without improving the outcome, can anything good be said about the production? I loved the old house they used as a setting for the larger part of the action. If you’re going to have people eavesdropping and lurking in shadows, you need the right place to do it and this house was absolutely perfect. Despite being given very silly things to do, the cast was unusually restrained and quietly impressive (except during the climactic denouement where all intelligence was abandoned. If you’re going to have a group of people pretend that any one or more of them could be murderers, they all have to look deeply suspicious and yet normal in a surreal kind of way. Without exception, this was done brilliantly. It didn’t matter which of them was guilty of the murder(s), they were all enjoyable to watch. As to Julia McKenzie, this was the first time I actually felt she was a good version of Miss Marple. She hid behind her knitting and was quietly sitting unobserved in odd corners as “things” went on around her. She was also more effectively proactive in protecting the two lovers in their naive efforts to solve the crime. As a final thought about the ending (ignoring the two love birds skipping off into the sunset, of course), it’s rare to have a whodunnit end with two of the “innocent” members of the cast under arrest for the murder of the murderer(s). Without wishing to spoil all the “excitement” you might derive from watching it, we have a quite deliberate execution scene. Although a good argument might have been made for self-defence, what actually happens is a deliberate act going far beyond what’s actually needed to protect the person under attack. I fear a mandatory life sentence would be required for these last minute killers. So Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? has a dire plot but a not unenjoyable piece of acting in spectacularly appropriate locations. This series is proving a disaster of unmitigated proportions.

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: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (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 Big Four (2013)
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: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
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)

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