Marcus Waverly (Geoffrey Bateman), a “simple country squire” and his wife Ada (Julia Chambers) are in distress. Someone has been sending them letters warning that their son Johnnie will be kidnapped, and the author of the letters keeps demanding an ever-increasing price not to do so. After failing to get any attention from the police, Squire Waverly turns to Poirot, who agrees to visit the Waverly estate in the countryside to protect the lad and determine who the would-be kidnappers are.
(Side Note: Did I mention Waverly is a squire? Because he’s a squire. In case you forget, the episode will remind you of this fact roughly every ten minutes.)
Hastings, who’s beaming that he’s been accepted into the Le Mans race despite having zero racing qualifications or experience, offers to drive them both up to Waverly’s in his Lagonda; Poirot and Waverly decline in favor of a train, but not before stopping off at Chief Inspector Japp’s office so that our Simple Country Squire can give the civil servant an earful about how the Squire’s taxes should guarantee police protection.
Upon arriving at the Waverly estate, there are some signs that all is not well. The house itself is in mid-restoration, which appears to have been paused for some time. There’s only one potato for each person at dinner, fires aren’t lit in the bedrooms, and horror of horrors, there’s no traditional English breakfast to be found! Instead, plates of kedgeree consisting largely of just rice.
(Additional Side Note: Listen, I had two weeks of traditional English breakfasts once while vacationing over there. My verdict as an uncouth American is that while I can get behind the tomatoes, the art of scrambling eggs is best left to us colonials.)
At dinner, Ada is agitated, and wakes up very early feeling ill; Squire Waverly is enraged to find a note pinned to his pillow warning that the kidnapping will take place at precisely 12 noon that day. In a fit, he claims it must have been an inside job and fires the entire staff including the child’s nanny, Miss Withers (Carol Frazer). The only remaining help kept on are the longtime family butler Tredwell (Patrick Jordan) and Ada’s secretary.
Unexpectedly, Japp arrives with a contingent of bobbies and stakes out a perimeter around the house. Poirot and Hastings take the Lagonda into town to question the locals and get a decent breakfast. On their way back to the estate (with a delightful scene of our boys driving along singing together) the car breaks down, and when Hastings is unable to repair the car (mainly because the problem is that it’s run out of gas), they consequently miss the appointed hour of the kidnapping.
As Japp, Waverly and Johnnie wait together in the drawing room for the clock to strike 12 (and it’s a well done, very tense scene, crosscutting between the faces of the concerned men, the hands of the clock, and the oblivious little boy as the music ratchets up and the clock ticks grow louder), the moment of 12 o’clock passes without incident until police whistles bring everyone running out into the yard.
A tramp has been caught carrying chloroform, some wool and a ransom note, claiming he was paid by a strange man in a chauffeur’s outfit to deliver it to Mr. Waverly. As he’s explaining this, a car peels out down the road… with Johnnie Waverly in it! As everyone looks around in confusion, another clock strikes 12 – and we realize that the kidnapper had set the drawing room clock ahead by 10 minutes as part of the dastardly plan.
M. Poirot, however, seems unconcerned… and we soon find out why.
Ye Olde Country Squire Waverly was behind the whole thing; he needed money because Ada was the one with all the cash, and he needed money to finish restoring Waverly Place. I guess. With the help of Miss Withers (who, um, is apparently Tredwell’s niece, in a particularly grating last minute reveal) who disguised herself as a chauffeur to hire the tramp as a diversion, Waverly set the clock ahead, pinned the ransom note to his own pillow, poisoned his wife at dinner to keep her bedridden, then had Withers spirit the boy away through a hidden priest hole to the waiting getaway car.
Poirot deduces that only Waverly could have pulled all the inside job stuff, confronts him, then Our Squireness takes the group to a house where little Johnnie is indeed unharmed, waiting with Miss Withers.
In a… weird turn of events, Poirot lets Waverly off the hook, believing him to be a good father at heart, despite zero evidence of Waverly being anything other than a greedy blowhard.
No, it doesn’t hang together particularly well, does it? I mean, I guess “stingy wife who won’t pay for house repairs” is technically a motive for ransoming your own child to her, but it’s not a particularly good one as these things go.
This… this is not a very good episode, frankly. It’s let down by a story that’s nearly all setup with a quick resolution, a client who won’t shut up about being a Squire, and the fact that Poirot himself doesn’t seem all that worried about things sucks a lot of the energy out of the story. It’s also a bit too heavy-handed in foreshadowing the culprit’s identity, and the supporting characters aren’t as well drawn as in the first two episodes. Even Poirot gets annoyed with the whole thing near the end, and he’s as anxious to wrap this all up as I was.
In fact, the best bits of the episode are the padding; the car trip with Poirot and Hastings into town, the subsequent breakdown of the vehicle, scenes of Poirot making his way back on foot, and the odd little vignette near the beginning of Miss Lemon attempting to create a new filing system. These scenes work because it’s just fun to see our heroes out of their usual settings, and the car bits show us the goofy, boyishly enthusiastic Hastings at his most charming and helpless. The scene where Poirot interrogates the tramp also reinforces the dignity and respect we’ve seen Poirot often show to the less fortunate or forgotten members of society, and was a warm character beat.
A Good Question, Mon Ami!: Poirot muses to himself near the start of the case that kidnapping a young child is, all things considered, relatively easy. Why would the kidnappers make it harder by warning the family ahead of time?
Hey! It’s Sort Of That Guy!: Geoffrey Bateman looked vaguely familiar (he’s a poor man’s Peter Firth), but he’s got sort of that solid upper-crust Englishman everyman face to him so I couldn’t swear I’d seen him in anything. An IMDB search does note, however, that he voiced characters in Heroes of Might and Magic V, so… that happened, I guess.
Now That’s Just Good Sidekickin’!: Hastings expresses disbelief that one of his own countrymen might stoop so low as to kidnap a child: “Kidnappers, in England? Could be some band of foreigners, you know.” Hastings will always be the first person to advance the most lurid, unlikely scenario, and I love him for it.
(Son Of Side Note: Also, there’s at least two mentions of how kidnapping in England is virtually unthinkable, which… seems unlikely? I mean, for crying out loud, kidnapping someone to ensure the line of succession in the monarchy or to get one over on the chap with the fancier house was practically par for the course for what, hundreds of years?)
Waverly: “Your superior shall hear of this!”
Japp, stonefaced: “I hope he enjoys it as much as I have.”
Japp: “Where’s our simple country squire?”
Poirot: “You’ll find him in the hall, sacking all his staff.”
Hastings, pulling a random part out of his car’s motor: “Well, it’s not the carburetor.”
Poirot: “That is not what I want to hear, Hastings. I want to hear what it was, not what it was not. Better still, I want to hear the MOTOR.”
Hastings: “I see a light up ahead!”
Poirot: “Good. I am bored with this tunnel.”
Next Time, on Poirot: Load up yer pockets full of rye, because it’s another short story adaptation, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”. Will they be baked in a pie? Or will they be baked in…. murder?!? (It is murder.)