Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders

Thankfully, no major cast members were caught up in #MeToo allegations this year, so the BBC’s Christmastime Agatha Christie adaptation was able to go forward as scheduled. Unlike previous years, which saw the Beeb adapt standalone Christies, this time they took the plunge and went for one of her major characters: the much-beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Especially brave, considering The ABC Murders already has an adaptation starring David Suchet, who so memorably brought Poirot to life in the early-to-mid-1990s (and later, but the later episodes were kind of a mess, so I pretend they didn’t happen). Suchet did such a bang-up job that many people (honestly, myself included) consider him to be the quintessential Poirot. John Malkovitch had quite a task ahead of him, and so did the makers of this three-part miniseries, if they were going to set it apart from the earlier work.

So, how did they do? Quite well, in some ways. In many ways, in fact. This had a distinctly different mood to it than the Suchet version. In keeping with all reboots nowadays, this is darker, and grittier. The Suchet episodes always depicted a very sleek, clean, stylish version of 1930s Britain. Nearly every set was an art deco masterpiece (Poirot’s flat!), the costumes and hair were always extremely up-to-the-minute; even the (rarely seen) poorer people were very nicely turned out. Not so with this. Everything here has a dark, grubby, run-down feeling to it. Even Poirot’s beautifully appointed flat has a lonely, melancholic air. There is filth, and frizzy hair, and dirty clothes.

It all fits with a sense of sadness, neglect, and decline that pervades the episode. Far from being a celebrated detective, Poirot is now retired and mostly overlooked. A victim, perhaps, of the anti-immigrant sentiment pervading the country.

Now, here, I feel the show made a misstep. Although there is some historical truth to the xenophobia so prominently on show in the episode (Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were really picking up steam in this period), it doesn’t actually contribute anything to the story. It feels, instead, like the writers were working a little bit too hard to make this seem very current to our present-day situation, which is something I find happening more and more in films and TV shows. It’s great if that happens organically, but when it’s shoehorned in, as it is here, it’s jarring. Can nothing just stand on its own merits? Can a Christie mystery not just be a Christie mystery, without trying to make a political point about our present-day lives?

The prejudice Poirot runs into seems only to serve to feed into some increasingly intrusive, extremely repetitive flashbacks to Poirot’s life in Belgium that result in a total WTF reveal that… oh, we’ll get to that.

A big change from the novel: Hastings and Japp have been eradicated (although Japp makes a very brief appearance before dropping dead). My guess is this was to further set this version apart from the earlier one, and I’m ok with that, much as I loved Japp and Hastings as characters. Instead, Poirot must deal with Japp’s replacement, the surly, antagonistic Detective Crome (played by a nigh-unrecognisable Rupert Grint, firmly putting Ron Weasley behind him).

Poirot finds Crome a difficult partner, because Crome isn’t interested in partnering with him at all. It seems that Japp was sort of forced to retire after it came to light that Poirot was never a policeman back in Belgium, as he claimed. Nobody knows what he was, and so… Japp was punished for that? Because everyone hates foreigners now? Yeah, I didn’t feel like that worked.

Crome, being a great admirer of Japp, holds a serious grudge against Poirot for all this. So, when Poirot appears at Scotland Yard with a pile of letters he’s been sent by some deranged individual calling himself ABC and claiming to be planning a series of murders, Crome just ignores him.

But then, the murders begin. First it’s Alice Ascher, whose throat is cut in Andover. A copy of the ABC Railway Guide is found beside her, open to the letter ‘A’. She’s also wearing a new pair of stockings.

Next is Betty Barnard in Bexhill, strangled in a seaside hut with–you guessed it!–a pair of stockings. Now, Betty is a repulsive little creature–Regina George in Marcel waves–but unlike Alice she has people. Her boyfriend, Donald (who remains slavishly devoted to her, despite the fact she was openly cheating on him), and her sister, Megan (played by Bronwyn James, who’s in Harlots and also appeared as Mavis in the Christmas episode of Call the Midwife). Megan, especially, ends up helping out with the investigation when she recalls having seen someone dressed similarly to Poirot hanging around her sister the day she was killed.

These murders at last draw the attention of Scotland Yard, which immediately turns to Poirot, but not in the way you’d expect. Crome gets a search warrant and proceeds to ransack Poirot’s flat in order to get his hands on the ABC letters, even though Poirot freely offered them up earlier and Crome couldn’t even be bothered to speak with him. Crome kind of sucks at police work and being a basically nice or sensible human being.

Poirot notices that the places where the murders are taking place seem to have a connection to him, so when he receives an ABC letter telling him the next victim will be in Churston, he quickly gets on the phone to Sir Carmichael Clarke’s home to try and warn them. Unfortunately, it’s too late: Clarke is dead.

Crome’s kind of ludicrous lack of any sort of detecting is so off-putting to Clarke’s brother, Franklin, that Franklin hires Poirot to investigate. Poirot gathers together Donald, Megan, Franklin, and Clarke’s former secretary, Thora Grey (now enjoying a liaison with Franklin) in order to try to get to the bottom of this. And Crome finally realises that he’s in over his head somewhat and begins working with Poirot as well, particularly after they all realise that Poirot, along with the stockings and matching initials, connects these murders.

Let’s take a break and talk about another character: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Cust is the kind of character you automatically feel sorry for. He arrives in London and takes a room at a seriously disgusting boarding house run by a slatternly woman who’s pimping out her daughter, Lily. Cust, who suffers from epileptic fits, hires Lily to walk on his back while wearing high heels, hoping the pain will distract him from his other torments. Lily is clearly a bit concerned and creeped out by this.

Cust works as a travelling salesman, peddling stockings. Surprise! And he travels to all the murder sites just before each killing takes place. Occasionally, he finds something on his person, like a bloody handkerchief, that suggests he might be the killer, though it’s clear he has no memory of having done anything like that.

Another murder is due to take place at Doncaster. But this time, the victim’s name doesn’t fit the pattern, leaving everyone kind of baffled. Crone guesses that this victim was a mistake; that someone else was actually targeted but the killer got the wrong guy.

But things seem back on track with the death of Ernie Edwards in Embsay (invented for the adaptation). Cust comes to after a fit in a railway station restroom with a bloody knife in his pocket and a gruesome dead body in a nearby stall. He flees in a panic, ditching the knife, as well as his coat nearby.

When Poirot and Crome arrive, Poirot finds a package of the same stockings that help link the other murders (Thora Grey had spoken with a stocking salesman the day of Clarke’s murder) in Edwards’s suitcase. A gift, apparently, for his lady friend.

Poirot goes to the company that manufactures the stockings and learns that they have no salesmen in London: they operate strictly in the north. But a secretary recalls someone ordering a bunch of stock to be sent to an address in London, and also recalls that they received a thank-you note in return. She fishes out the note and, at last, ABC has a name, and that name is Cust.

The police head right over to his boarding house, but Lily tries to warn him. She’s too late, and Cust is taken into, uh, custody. Poirot pokes around, finds the typewriter used to write the letters to him (covered in Cust’s fingerprints, naturally, though there are also some others on there that the police can’t identify and don’t seem too concerned about). Seems an open-and-shut case, but of course Poirot doubts this man is their killer. Cust seems too meek, and, frankly, too much of a mess to commit such brutal murders.

Everyone thinks the case is closed, but Poirot has his suspicions. He invites Franklin over for a brandy and pulls a fingerprint off the glass. It matches one of the unidentifiable prints from the typewriter. Poirot deduces that Franklin wanted to murder his brother in order to inherit his estate but decided to hide the murder in a series of similar killings, which is quite clever, really, but also incredibly cold-blooded.

Franklin not only came up with this plan, but also set the wheels in motion for Cust to be framed. He met the guy playing backgammon, and realised Cust was pretty desperate. He offered him a job selling stockings, set him up with that whole arrangement, and even provided him with a hat and coat similar to Poirot’s because… well, honestly, that bit wasn’t very well explained. Because Franklin’s kind of a nutso Poirot fanboy, I guess.

Franklin is arrested and set to hang for murdering quite a lot of people. Poirot kindly brings him a very nice breakfast so they can have a chat, during which Franklin tells Poirot that this is all, actually, his fault. Five years ago, Poirot visited the Clarke home to conduct a murder mystery evening in honour of Sir Carmichael’s wife’s birthday, and apparently learning about all the different ways someone could get away with murder clicked Franklin over into full psycho mode. K.

So, that’s the actual story here. Now, on to the random stuff the powers that be decided to make up out of whole cloth and insert in the mystery for no discernible reason.

Throughout this three-hour, three-night story, we keep flashing back to Poirot’s time just before he fled to England in 1914. We see the same flashback again and again and again and again of a bunch of villagers outside a church watching one of their own get shot by approaching soldiers. The first time or two that I saw this I thought: Well, ok, no issues adding some extra depth to Poirot. Except Poirot doesn’t appear in this flashback until the very end, and after the fifth or so time seeing the exact same scene I started to get really bored and annoyed. It wasn’t adding to the story, it was just intruding on it. Ditto the scenes of Poirot going to a church in London. And then there are Crone’s constant questions of who Poirot was before he arrived in England, which Poirot keeps evading.

So, the big reveal? Poirot was a priest at the church.

The what now? Why? Why did they change that? That’s a complete departure from the Christie novels. Poirot was a policeman in Belgium before the war. What purpose does this serve?

None whatsoever! Seriously, if I missed something and this revealed some kind of deep truth about his character that being an actual gendarme in his pre-war days wouldn’t, then do feel free to let me know in the comments! But I fail to see what making him a village priest did here.

In the full flashback, Poirot sees his parishioner get gunned down and tells everyone else to get inside the church. Once there, he soothes them, and then goes outside to confront the soldiers. He winds up face-to-face with a very young soldier, who can’t bring himself to shoot Poirot, despite his officer ordering him to do so. The officer then shoots the soldier and simply knocks Poirot unconscious.

So, the officer wanted this kid to shoot Poirot, but didn’t do it himself? Instead he shot his own man? The hell?

When Poirot comes to much later, he finds his church aflame. Presumably the people were still inside, because burning villagers in a church is a fun shorthand for wartime atrocities that films seem to oddly enjoy using.

Poirot screams that the soldiers are murderers, and I guess that makes him want to become a detective? And that’s why he lies about his past profession when he arrives in England?

But… why lie? Sure, being a policeman would probably have lent him greater weight as a detective, but being a priest wouldn’t have meant he couldn’t also be a detective. Hell, there are loads of clergymen detectives in the mystery genre!

And his reputation as a great detective wasn’t even founded on his past as a policeman: it came about because he solved a really tough case soon after his arrival in the country, and he was roped into that because of his friend, Hastings, who knew him from before the war.

I just don’t get it. Why did they do this? Why did they add this in? What purpose did it serve, other than padding this thing out considerably? I won’t lie: I didn’t like this addition at all. It just felt strange and, as I said, it added nothing.

So, that’s the big misstep here, in my opinion. But otherwise, this was a good bit of television. Malkovitch did a great job as Poirot (though his accent was a bit rough, and the bits where he spoke French, well, they probably should have been left on the editing room floor). His detective, less twinkling and fussy than Suchet’s, is a tired, sad man with little purpose but plenty of daemons (which, I should say, he very likely would have had without that whole clerical backstory. After all, he was a war refugee!) But as the case heats up, he clearly begins to feel reinvigorated. It’s nice to see!

And everyone else here did a great job as well: Rupert Grint, as I said, was very different from the character we’re accustomed to seeing him play. His Crone was gruff and resentful, but when push came to shove, he accepted help and started to move towards some sort of understanding with his Belgian adversary. The rest of the supporting cast did a splendid job, and the set and costume design were great, managing to run the gamut from sleek, stylish and moneyed to poor, filthy and striving. I think they could have occasionally done with better lighting (come on, not everything has to be dark–we get it! Moody!). But overall, these Christie adaptations have been great, and I’m looking forward to Death Comes at the End next year.