Poirot (Classic): S01E04 “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”

Somewhere in Brighton, old man Antony Gascoigne is on his deathbed. His housekeeper Mrs. Hill phones his nephew, a music hall director named George Lorrimer (Richard Howard) to tell him the news, to which Lorrimer reacts with about as much concern as someone who’s just been told their front driver’s side tire is a bit low on air. He tells Hill not to bother phoning Antony’s brother Henry, as the two have been estranged for years.

Meanwhile, back in London, Poirot and his dentist are eating dinner in a restaurant, and they spy said brother, an elderly painter who is wearing basically what you’d wear if you were going as a painter for Halloween. (Seriously, between the beret, cloak, and scarf, the only thing missing is a comedy palette and a tattoo on his forehead that reads I AM AN ARTIST.) The waitress remarks that Henry is usually there on Wednesdays and Saturdays and orders the same meal, but last week he came in on Monday and ordered something different, including a blackberry crumble.

The next day, Henry is found dead; a recluse, his body was discovered when a neighbor noticed that his milk hadn’t been taken in for a few days. The cause of death is apparently a broken neck from a fall down the stairs.

Poirot takes it upon himself to investigate, and after an interview with the neighbor (who keeps repeating her words slower and louder for Poirot’s benefit, him being a foreigner and all) he and Our Man Hastings check out Henry’s apartment. There, searching Henry’s stuff is his model and muse, Dulcie Lang (Holly De Jong). A brief interview with her leads them to Henry’s agent, Peter Makinson (Clifford Rose). The pair learn that Henry would never allow any of his work to be sold, and that the brothers were virtually twins.

A quick visit to Scotland Yard gives us Japp showing off his new forensics lab (and the staging here is hilarious, with a half-dozen identical Science Boffins picking at fibers, looking through microscopes, and doing other vaguely science-y things). Lamenting the sunset of old-fashioned police work (and police officers), he lets us know that the day and time of death has been established due to a letter that Henry collected from the post that night and still had in his pocket when found.

We also find out that the reason the brothers are estranged is that Antony stole ol’ Henry’s muse and married her twenty years ago, and that pretty much ended any further Christmas visits and birthday cards in the Gascoigne family.

In a really nice scene, Poirot convinces Japp to direct him to the pathologist in charge of the case by appealing to his sense of camaraderie as a fellow detective on the brink of extinction, and after examining the corpse the Belgian is convinced this fall was no accident; the dead man’s teeth are remarkably white for someone who had recently plowed through a blackberry crumble…

Grey Cells:

…and that’s because the man that Poirot saw in the restaurant was not Henry G., it was the nephew George pretending to be Henry. He did this because earlier in the day George had in fact straight up murdered Henry, so as to leave no other relatives to inherit the dying, will-less Antony’s large fortune. By impersonating George at the restaurant and faking the postmark date on the letter he was able to convince the police that Henry had died much later than he actually did. The appearance in the restaurant on the prior Monday was a dress rehearsal for the performance on the day of the murder.

Stupidly (and it is so, so stupid) George discarded his Comedy Painter Costume in a public bathroom after the restaurant episode, and Poirot and Hastings find the custodian wearing them after retracing “Henry’s” steps from the night in question.

Poirot, with the help of the Science Boffins (again comedically staged at the music hall for the denouement) confronts George with the evidence, and he’s arrested.

Look, there’s a lot of moving parts to the actual crime here, including a too-complicated-for-its-own-good chronology of the murder days just before and after. The biggest problem, though, is the fact that our first introduction to Henry Gascoigne makes it entirely obvious that it’s someone dressed up in old man makeup. Once you start from the premise that the person is not who everyone else thinks it is, there’s little real mystery left.

The pile of suspects dwindles pretty rapidly, too; alibis for Makinson and Lang are established, Antony is dead, and there’s literally no one left to be the murderer but George, with 15 minutes still to go in the ep.

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I liked this ep for a number of reasons, though. For one, it moves along at a pretty brisk clip, and no scene outstays its welcome. And it’s funny! There’s a great running gag about Hastings constantly trying to get updated on the cricket score by radio and newspaper, which Poirot keeps admonishing him for paying too much attention to (and which pays off in the final scene in an unexpected way). There’s a throwaway scene in the middle where Poirot cooks Hastings dinner that serves no discernible purpose but to give us a chance to hang out with these guys and deliver a few funny lines. And Hastings vs. modern art plays out exactly the way you’d expect it to.

The exchange between Japp and Poirot about the advances of science and the bond shared by guys like them lends a weight and respect to their friendship; Hastings (or perhaps just Hugh Fraser) trying not to laugh as Henry’s neighbor keeps shouting small words to Poirot; Poirot ribbing Hastings’s defense of Darcie Lang as rooted in Our Man’s predilection for redheads. All these are very human moments, and make the characters feel lived-in. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps me watching the show over the years, even though the plots have long since lost their surprise.

Great Moments In David Suchet-ing: There’s an absolutely brilliant, wordless, 5-10 second bit of acting here when Poirot interrogates the model Lang; he considers her response, and the frame is locked in on Poirot, silent and thoughtful. Suchet runs through two or three microexpressions, and you can literally see the man acting out thinking. He absorbs, pontificates, and concludes, and it all happens so very subtly on his face in real time. It’s tremendous, trust me.

Hey! It’s That Guy!: British comedian/actor and Who’s Line Is It Anyway? alum John Sessions provides the radio voices here, both as cricket commentator and as that dashing gentleman thief Raffles, of whom Miss Lemon is quite the fan apparently.

More Like Hercule More Dough, AMIRITE?!?: Poirot cooks Hastings a recipe of his mother’s, rabbit “in the style of Liege”, which is a town in Belgium known for its… wait for it… waffles. Try some this weekend!

 

Quotent Quotables:

Poirot: “Rabbit, cooked in the style of Liege.”

Hastings: “I bet it’s better than rabbit cooked in the style of Hastings.”

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Hastings: “Tastes more rabbity than any rabbit I’ve ever tasted.”

Poirot, beaming: “That is the juniper berries.”

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Japp: “Won’t be long before the likes of you and me are gone forever. Cast onto the scrap heap of life like so much… scrap.”

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Poirot: “The mantle of life should fit like a well tailored suit of clothes.”

 

Next Week, On Poirot: Who killed Ms. Grant? Did someone drop a box of nails in the hallway? And how on earth did they get that car into an apartment three stories up, anyway? It’s… “The Third Floor Flat”!