Nick Dear has rewritten Cards on the Table as an anti-gay cautionary tale. The plot has been unforgivably mangled and the homophobia leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
The book itself is incredibly deft, setting up the central conceit – four detectives and four murderers who evaded justice brought together for dinner and bridge – with great verve and style. Mr Shaitana, a queer, foreign gentleman who is soon to be murdered by one of the murderers he’s uncovered, is wickedly well-drawn, and yes, a modern telling of this tale could easily draw out the gay subtext of his character. Unfortunately, the TV show does so in the poorest possible way.
The first mistake – and it’s a huge one – is to make two of the four murderers related. The idea of four respectable people having gotten away with murder is in itself sufficiently incredible without stretching credulity so far as to make Mrs Lorrimer, bridge fiend, the long-lost mother of Anne Meredith, a shy, pretty, penniless girl.
The second mistake is to change the character of Mrs Lorrimer from an elderly grande dame to a middle-aged tartar, and to change the character of Dr Roberts from bluff, hearty, and salt-of-the-earth to young, flashy and cheap. Even Anne Meredith is rewritten to make her sympathetic, when the entire point of her character is to play on people’s sympathies to get away with murder.
The only character who remains well-drawn is the fourth murderer, Major Despard, but the screenplay soon takes so many liberties with the plot that the elegant intricacies of Agatha Christie’s masterful whodunit are lost amidst shameful caricatures of gay lives.
Here are the problems in full:
1. Mrs Lorrimer and Anne Meredith should NOT be related as this stretches credibility too far.
2. The love story between Anne Meredith’s flatmate Rhoda and Major Despard is the crux on which the second half of the story turns, and, in typical Agatha Christie style, leads us up the garden path and away from the true solution. To throw this away for a ridiculous twist in which Rhoda is a murderous lesbian is insulting to everyone’s intelligence, and makes a mess of the plot.
3. To extrapolate that a doctor is gay based on the fact that he doesn’t sexually harass his secretary is irredeemably stupid and utterly unworthy of Poirot.
4. Not content with a wanton gay character (Roberts), a mad gay character (Shaitana), and a bad gay character (Rhoda), Nick Dear treats us to a sad gay character in the shape of the fourth detective, here transformed from the wooden character of the book into a professional family man turned astray by the wicked fleshpots of gay Soho. Oh, fuck off. Go write leaflets for Christian Fundamentalist Churches instead.
Messing about with plot or character in Agatha Christie rarely pays off, and certainly not in her best work, amongst which Cards on the Table ranks. There are some clever touches that would have worked if the plot had been otherwise left intact – was Shaitana inviting death? Could the person who discovered the body have stabbed him? – but changing three of the four murderers’ characters and plots is too ambitious for a writer of mediocre talent, and it fails.
“You can do this if you want, but I don’t think it suits you,” sniffs Poirot, about the sad gay character’s sexual experimentation. Please. Save the judgments for the sad mess you’ve made of a great book.
Next Up: TAKEN AT THE FLOOD
The Mystery of the Blue Train is a comparatively weak novel which has been transformed into as rare a gem as the Heart of Fire, the ill-fated ruby on which the murder hangs.
It is one of the earlier Poirot books, and the quality of Christie’s output, which had been climbing steadily until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, takes a notable wobble after her infamous disappearance and subsequent divorce from Archie Christie.
The Big Four was cobbled together from sketches of ideas that would have made more sense as parodies of Sherlock Holmes, and The Mystery of the Blue Train is nothing more than a padding out of a previously published short story featuring Poirot, The Plymouth Express – which had already been filmed as one of the hour-long episodes. How to make the story seem original?
Wisely, the screenplay focuses on the characters in the drama, and transports the main thrust of the drama to the titular train. The novel is saved from being humdrum by the excellent heroine Miss Katherine Grey, one of Christie’s no-nonsense, capable heroines, who has inherited money from an elderly employer and enters the glamorous, sometimes puzzling world of the gentry.
Her gold-digging relatives – a charming bunch of wasters, whose hijinks set the tone for one of Poirot’s more silly adventures, despite the brutal murder – find themselves on board the sleeper carriage as Ruth Kettering, the beautiful but troubled heiress whose father ruined Katherine Grey’s family, demands a divorce from her alcoholic, gambling husband, keeps an assignation with her sleazy lover, and drops hints about another mysterious pilgrimage with roots in her tragic past.
The dreamy James D’Arcy as the louche Derek Kettering gets all the best lines.
The dialogue in this adaptation is particularly good, the cast is superlative, and the plot has been tweaked just enough to differentiate it from The Plymouth Express (cross-dressing killers wisely edited out). The Poirot adaptations work best like this, when Christie’s characters are allowed room to breathe rather than serve the plot – her dialogue, often imitated, is widely underrated. At it’s best, it sparkles, dazzling the reader while concealing the clues within. The novel is not as tight as it could be, and contains some dated racial stereotyping, necessarily wiped from the screenplay.
The whole film is beautifully shot, capturing the decadence of the French Riviera, and every scene is a little masterpiece of characterisation. This is the first Poirot adaptation which greatly exceeds the source material.
Published in 1946, The Hollow was written at a time when Golden Age detective fiction was on the wane. Tricky plot devices, unusual methods of murder, and elaborately faked alibis were increasingly seen as old-fashioned, as the influence of psychological thrillers and American noir began to rise.
Never let it be said that Agatha Christie did not attempt to keep up with the times. As is typical, there is very little post-war colour, and the murder takes place on a large country estate. However, two things are immediately notable. First of all, Christie has tired of Poirot, and, as is increasingly the case in later Poirot novels, his presence is minimal.
Secondly, the murder comes rather late in the game, almost one third of the way through. There is an unusual amount of set-up, as we are introduced to the passionately ambitious Dr John Christow, his dim but devoted wife Gerda, and his free-spirited mistress, Henrietta.
Many of the characters and their plights are skilfully drawn. Hostess Lady Angkatell is a memorable mixture of charming fluff with a mind as sharp as a dagger; Henrietta, despite sleeping with her husband, is the only character who can bear the company of dreary Gerda; Veronica Cray, Christow’s ex-fiancée, is a lovely, callous cat (and allegedly based on Veronica Lake); Cousin Midge, in the spirit of the creeping social realism Christie is forced to address, has a soul-crushing job in a shop; the pale Cousin Edward pines ineffectually for Henrietta, until murder raises his manly hackles.
What is also unusual is the apparent simplicity – and apparent lack of mystery – about the murder. By coincidence (or design?) the family, and their reluctant guest Poirot, converge on the patio as Christow lies dying by the swimming-pool, his wife standing over him, revolver in hand. Blood drips into the pool. Christow says one word as he dies, “Henrietta.” Poirot feels the entire scene unreal. Everyone assumes that Gerda has snapped, finally killing her philandering husband…
The beauty of the plot is its deceptive simplicity. Everyone has equal opportunity to have shot John, and others besides his wife have the motive. The question of whodunit becomes one of Poirot’s beloved psychological puzzles, to be found in the myriad tangles of the family’s interpersonal relationships. Physical clues are not plentiful, and the family close ranks, as Poirot finds himself in a battle of wits against a cool, calm intelligence which thwarts him at every turn – until he discovers both the physical and emotional hollows at the heart of the mystery…
The screenplay is a wonderfully faithful adaptation, which captures the heart of the story, while deftly sketching in the clues, but the true beauty of this tale – most unusually for Christie – comes from the very real tragedy of a complex man’s murder. As with every episode this season, there is a genuine emotional pull to the solution, and its aftermath.
Notably, one character – grumpy Cousin David – has been wisely dropped, as he adds nothing to the plot, bar comic asides at the expense of his communist agitation (there was nothing of the socialist about Dame Agatha). The only criticisms are barely worth mentioning: a little more could, perhaps, have been made of each character’s lack of alibi; the wonderful scene in the book where Midge quits her job is left out; but then, the element of mystery is lightly worn, and, in the spirit of the novel, the viewer is allowed to fill in the gaps for her- or himself. There is no parlour scene where suspects are gathered and the murderer unmasked, as the ending is only lightly tweaked – and arguably for the better. A wonderful end to Season 9, the greatest season of Agatha Christie’s Poirot to date.
Next Up: THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN
Most viewers will be familiar with the star-studded 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, which was campy good fun, and possibly the best of the Peter Ustinov Poirot films (although the shamefully inadequate Lord Edgware Dies makes Thirteen at Dinner, with David Suchet’s effervescent turn as Inspector Japp, look like a masterpiece). The challenge for the TV show is to make the story appear fresh, juggle the huge amount of characters and subplots, and still pack an emotional punch. At this point in the series, the tone is becoming deliberately darker, and the characterisation of Poirot as a lonely old man is being developed as a major theme.
The story opens with Jacqueline and Simon, a young, poor couple in love, and swiftly sweeps us up into the world of Linnet Ridgway, the beautiful, privileged socialite – a Paris Hilton figure of the 1930s perhaps? – who casually snorts cocaine while her friend idly chatters about dropping friends such as Jacqueline who’ve lost all their money, admiring the pearls which will later have their part to play in the drama, and laughing about the chagrin of the maid, Louise, whose boyfriend Linnet has refused to spring from jail. It’s a masterful introduction into the major themes of the story, and the clues are already being placed by the time Linnet sets eyes on Simon, changing the course of all their lives…
Fast forward to the cruise on the river Nile. One character, the token spy, is wisely dropped (he adds nothing to the novel, and jars even on re-reading as a throwaway suspect). There are so many characters – the dipso romantic novelist and her long-suffering daughter, the klepto old snob and her wide-eyed ward, the self-satisfied German doctor, the ruthless American lawyer, the slightly unbelievable Commie agitator, the mummy’s boy – that it’s a testament to the writing that none of the relationships feel forced, none of the subplots seems laboured, and we can still keep a mental tally of all the possible suspects and motives for the inevitable murder.
This a fast-paced, blink-and-you-miss-it screenplay, but there’s still time for Poirot to reminisce on the things in life he’s missed, as he attempts to convince Jacqueline, who has followed Simon around the world, that love is not everything. The comic turns from Frances de la Tour and Daisy Donovan work even as the deaths escalate. There is even room for gorgeous cinematography as the subplots are kept spinning like plates in the air, before the truth crashes around Poirot’s ears, and the tone becomes distinctly tragic – amazingly, avoiding melodrama – and Poirot finds himself, for once, with something approaching sympathy for the murderer he has trapped…
Deft, smart and near perfectly judged all the way through.
Next Up: THE HOLLOW