I have mixed feelings about this one. I remember finding the book a tad dull when I first read it, and it was with a certain reluctance that I reread it fifteen or so years later. The second time around, I was charmed by Poirot’s deductive technique, which manages to cleverly outwit the expectations of Hastings (and the reader) at every turn. I think the reason it seemed dull the first time around was the very domestic setting in which most of the action takes place. My younger self yearned for the more glamorous Christie trappings, which, in hindsight, are more often than not simply window-dressing for the puzzle on which the plot hangs. The plot of this one is very simple, the cast of characters kept very tight, but the TV adaptation suffers from unnecessarily trying to sex up the original material.
In the original story, the ne’er-do-well nephew Charles is a young, charming sponger and shameless gadabout, who engages in a spot of light theft and lots of amusing banter with his beautiful but amoral sister, Theresa. Charles is here transformed into a sporting comrade of Hastings, and is much less interesting for it. He has a speedboat accident in the opening minutes. Nobody cares.
The wittering companion, Miss Lawson, and eccentric old ladies with an interest in the supernatural, the Misses Tripp, are wisely left alone, but the second niece, Bella, is played less as the downtrodden, devoted mother of the book, and more as a grumpy sourpuss with bad taste in frocks.
It’s worth noting that the book is casually racist by today’s standards, noting, for example, that Bella’s children are “dark, much darker than English children could ever be“, as their father, Dr Tanios, is Greek. While the screenplay does deal some of the with the xenophobia faced by someone in Dr Tanios’s position (he is unwelcome at the local golf club), his character is written less sympathetically than he might have been, reducing some of the dramatic tension of the plot. If someone is presented as a sinister foreign villain, we will immediately discount him as being too obvious a candidate to be the murderer.
The screenplay also makes a more startling deviation from the original story by injecting another murder. It is believable within the boundaries of the plot, but it won’t take the most avid viewer to spot whodunit, as the victim is signposted well in advance, and the number of suspects limited. Sigh.
If nothing else, this screenplay made me realise all over again how brisk and entertaining the novel is by comparison. The dialogue is delightful, from the wonderfully observed inane pleasantries of Miss Lawson to the drawling discontent of Theresa, the little grey cells are in full force, and most importantly, the denouement is a surprise. Sadly, despite clearing up one famously unlikely element of the plot (nobody, but nobody, wears a brooch on a dressing-gown as in the novel, and here the initials are wisely embroidered onto the material – it’s astonishing that Christie didn’t make this so herself, as it doesn’t seriously alter the nature of the plot), there is a traditional parlour scene (where the murderer behaves completely out of character once revealed) rather than the more dramatically satisfying ending of the novel, where the murderer is trapped and Poirot explains all afterwards.
Overall, a lacklustre episode, which would have been served better by concentrating on the domestic tensions of the household to keep us all guessing, rather than throwing in an explosion and a second death to superficially liven things up.
Next Up: THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD