Hickory Dickory Dock
This is an uneven adaptation, with some ingenious and much needed improvements to the plot, but also some incredible lapses of judgment by Anthony Horowitz, who would later find fame as the author of the Alex Rider teenage spy series. Let’s begin by saying straight up that it’s not one of Christie’s best works. It was published in 1955, when her talents were beginning to wobble. I’d imagine it was chosen for a full length adaptation as it was the first novel to feature Miss Lemon, still a stalwart of the TV show (she had previously appeared only in short stories).
The opening sequence is quite fun, with Poirot discovering three mistakes in one of Miss Lemon’s letters. As well as proving Miss Lemon human (although she was given more foibles in the TV show than was allowed for in the books), this alerts Poirot to the fact that all is not well in Miss Lemon’s usually emotionless world. Her sister works at a youth hostel which has been plagued by a series of petty thefts. Poirot is intrigued and agrees to investigate.
The first problem with the adaptation is that it completely whitewashes the cast of characters. In the original story, there were, unusually for Christie, some non-white suspects. Were the stereotypes she employed offensive to modern sensibilities? Arguably – but then, most of Christie’s characters are stereotypical, whether its of jaded actresses, boring colonels or ethnic minorities. Why not update the black and Asian characters, rather than remove them altogether? It seems like a missed opportunity to have increased the visibility of non-white characters in period drama. Besides which, if you think Christie was racist, you should read some of her contemporaries’ novels – she shines as a beacon of tolerance and enlightenment compared to Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham.
Another problem is that the first victim is a rather colourless character, and is quickly forgotten by readers, viewers and indeed her fiancé. Still, the story was written that way, so let’s move on to the plot.
“But did you know there are TWO MILLION UNEMPLOYED, Nigel?” (Who said Christie shied away from social realism?)
Horowitz has done a good job in expanding what was a minor sub-plot into the backbone of the murder inquiry, deftly weaving two story strands into one. A dying politician’s dark past comes back to haunt him via the spectre of Inspector Japp, in a way that is naturally connected to the spate of murders that erupts at the hostel. Again, the nursery rhyme motif is mildly irritating rather than pivotal to the story. The clues are carefully laid; the conspiracy involving a smuggling ring is more cleverly worked into the TV episode than the novel; the murders are nicely paced.
Unfortunately, there is a massive, clumsy reveal early on in the adaptation that literally shows whodunit. I will say no more and hope you accidentally blink during that part. The friend with whom I was watching this exclaimed, “Hang on! Did we just see – ?!”, to which I merely tried to look quizzical. Oh dear.
That said, the subplot of the dying politician is very well done indeed, improving the plot immensely. By this stage in her career, Christie sometimes dispensed with the messy business of detection altogether, often preferring that Papa Poirot told a little story that tied up everything nicely, with barely any evidence with which to wave at the culprit before said culprit confessed the lot and went off mumbling, to be hanged. To his credit, Horowitz invents actual evidence to tie the murderer to the crime, and tactfully drops one of the overbearing coincidences involving family ties that Christie sprinkled like parmesan into far too many of her later works.
Which would be grand, except the whole thing is wrapped up with a rather laboured joke about Poirot’s, ahem, “phobie du faggots“. Racism and homophobia. Mr Horowitz, you spoil us.
Next Up: MURDER ON THE LINKS