Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013) sees Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) called into action. He’s still mourning the death of his wife, Bella, but when Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) calls, who is he to refuse. When he arrives at Styles Court, he finds Poirot is now confined to a wheelchair. Fearing a murder is about to take place, our dying detective needs someone to be his eyes and ears. The fact that Hastings has nothing between his ears is not a factor to be weighed. When it comes to the last case, the old team must be back together. While he may not be able to prevent it, Poirot does at least hope to be able to catch the one responsible. To add extra emotional weight to the episode, we’re introduced to Judith Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing), the daughter of the good Captain. She’s currently working for one of the long-term guests at Styles Court, now being used as a hotel. This is post-war England and Styles Court is well past its glory days. Whereas other mysteries in this series have been filmed in immaculate settings, both Poirot and this old house are approaching a melancholic and terminal state. Of course, the house could be repaired, given enough money. Those of us who long ago read the book know this restoration exercise cannot be applied to Poirot. With his heart playing up, he has only days left to live. The question, of course, is how he should spend these final days.
In this episode, it’s not surprising to see Poirot returning to his Catholic roots. In the television adaptations, it was featured in Murder on the Orient Express as the man wrestled with his conscience. There are times when the use of the little grey cells may produce results which are not quite as expected. For him, the problem is the considerable flexibility in the boundaries of sin and, as a thinking man, he cannot avoid the idea he may be guilty, if only of the sin of pride in his intellectual prowess. On the Orient Express, he’s returning from advising the army on a delicate matter in which a man died as a result of the investigation. Indeed, death has never been far from his preferred outcome. If you consider the ending of Dead Man’s Folly, he considers the death of the killer(s) by suicide an appropriate outcome. There was sufficient evidence for the killer(s) to have been tried but that would have been untidy. He feels it’s socially acceptable for killers to take personal responsibility for their actions and to save the state the need for a trial and potentially expensive life imprisonment. I suppose the classic examples of this are Death on the Nile which might be considered a more humane ending than that provided by the criminal justice system in Egypt, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. So when it comes to Curtain, it’s perhaps appropriate we should be continuing this exploration of suicide, encouraged or forced.
In Catholicism, suicide is considered a sin. Life is a gift from God and it’s not for us to breach the sanctity of life. So at the very least, Poirot is breaching his own credo by encouraging criminals to kill themselves. In criminal law terms, suicide was a crime in many jurisdictions at the time Agatha Christie was writing. In England, it would therefore have been an offence for Poirot to incite or aid, abet, counsel or procure a suicide, successful or otherwise. Of course, such secular concerns would never stop an author from producing the result her protagonist considered the most appropriate. Lack of accountability is necessary if her series character is to continue in business but, in the final case, he can be seen to consider whether St Peter is going to be waiting with welcoming arms. To get the best view of this final book in the Poirot saga, it’s convenient to assess Curtain and The Labours of Hercules together. In the latter, the narrative is triggered when Poirot gives his word and fails to protect a young woman being used as bait to trap a master criminal. When the thief not only steals the jewels but also kills the girl, Poirot feels intense guilt. In his pride, it did not occur to him that the criminal would evade capture. We should therefore see this episode as a quest for some level of personal redemption. Poirot must reach an accommodation with himself and the inevitable fallibility that lurks waiting to spring its trap.
Here we have a more existential issue. If The Labours of Hercules is personal, Curtain is repaying a form of debt to the abstract notion of justice. Whoever the detective, the imperative is the same. He or she must strive to bring the wrongdoer before a court for judgement. This provides the necessary social utility to justify the sometimes extralegal strategies employed by the detectives. The more the detective strays from the procedures mandated by the law, the greater the debt owed to justice. We can only forgive the detective his or her trespasses when the gains significantly outweigh the losses. Think of it as an application of utilitarianism. If we were being strict in our use of labels, the detective would step over the line and become a vigilante. Under normal circumstances, this would justify dismissal and probable prosecution for the breaches of the relevant laws. But a state might decide the ends justified the means. So if a major criminal network was disrupted and key organisers taken out of play, this might be taken as exculpation. When we get to the possibility of deaths being retrospectively decriminalised, the decisions are more difficult. If we treat the Christie canon as sufficiently “real” to be judged by actual laws, we might accept the state’s decision to ignore Poirot’s assisted suicide plans for identified murders as legitimate public policy.
In discussing this issue, I invite you not to be misdirected by David Suchet’s performance as the dying Poirot which was beautifully managed. You’re supposed to see him as a sympathetic character. That’s supposed to seduce you into approving his behaviour both in this and earlier episodes. Let me provoke you into thought. Is there any real difference in outcome between Poirot and Batman? One uses his little grey cells and the other his technology and fists to beat the opposition to a pulp. In theory, neither intentionally kills an opponent, but in self-defence or the pursuit of the greater good, criminals are injured and die. In this case, the real point of interest lies in the reason why it will be almost impossible ever to prove this person guilty of any crime. We’re actually given a practical demonstration of how malevolent he or she can be, but this is not behaviour easily prosecuted. The criminal law requires certainty of guilt and is better suited to simple murderous attacks with weapons to hand than this more subtle approach. Hence the need for Poirot to take more direct action, although not quite in classic Batman style despite the use of the Poirotmobile.
For those of you who like completeness, the cast features Elizabeth Cole (Helen Baxendale), Daisy Luttrell (Anne Reid), Major Allerton (Matthew McNulty), Dr Franklin (Shaun Dingwall), Stephen Norton (Aidan McArdle) and Sir William Boyd-Carrington (Philip Glenister). During the course of the episode, we have a death by poisoning, a suicide and Poirot’s death by natural causes. All is explained in a letter which Poirot leaves behind for Hastings. Without being oversentimental, Poirot’s death is handled well although it might have been more appropriate to have Miss Lemon and Japp show up for the funeral. If they could all make it for the fake funeral in The Big Four, it seems a little mean-spirited not to spare a few moments for his loyal friends to mourn his actual passing. I’m left feeling Curtain makes a fine swan song for the great detective and, more importantly, the production is one of the better efforts in this series. It’s always better to finish on a high.
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: 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)