Poirot (Classic): S01E05 “The Third Floor Flat”

On a third floor flat in Whitehaven Mansions, Ernestine Grant (Josie Lawrence) is in the process of moving into her new place; she signs for the delivery of her furniture and casts her eyes upward, at the loud tango music playing in the flat above her.

On a fourth floor flat, Patricia Matthews (Suzanne Burden) and her friend are dancing the tango, having a grand time just being silly.

On a fifth floor flat, our hero M. Poirot is miserable, in the throes of a head cold and holding a towel over his head while breathing from a 1933 version of a humidifier. He, of course, attributes it to the fact he hasn’t had a case in a few weeks.

Clearly annoyed by her no-doubt-scandalous new neighbors, Ms. Grant goes upstairs and drops a letter under the door for Ms. Matthews; it asks to speak to her at her earliest convenience, probably to chastise her for not knowing that Proper English Ladies most certainly do not tango before 6 PM.

Our Man Hastings arrives in his car to visit his friend, and explains he’s bought tickets to a murder mystery play called “The Deadly Shroud” for the both of them that evening. Although Poirot is sick, he decides to go, and accepts a bet from Hastings that he can’t figure out the killer. Meanwhile, An Ominous Pair Of Shoes knocks at Ms. Grant’s door; she recognizes the owner and lets him in.

At the theater, Poirot notices Ms. Matthews and her friend at the show with dates, Matthews’ fiancee Donovan Bailey (Nicholas Pritchard) and Jimmy Faulkner (Robert Hines).

(Side Note: Let me just stop here for a moment and point out that “The Deadly Shroud” is, in every way, taking the piss out of Agatha Christie. It’s got a murder, an assortment of suspects including a vicar, a butler, an army man and his fiancee, and a blustery inspector. The ending is classic Christie, with hitherto unexplained relationships and false identities completely upending Poirot’s guess at the killer. Poirot calls the writer “an imbecile”. It’s wonderful.)

Back at Whitehaven Mansions after the show, Hastings and Poirot are settling up the bet while Ms. Matthews and her friends try to get into her apartment; she’s lost her key, you see, and so they’re all locked out. Donovan and Jimmy decide to go through the dustbin shaft in the cellar up to her apartment and unlock the door from the inside, which, um, seems like a security flaw overall, but I’m not getting paid to give home defense advice to the owners of Whitehaven Mansions so I’ll say no more.

Entering the apartment from the dustbin, the boys try to turn on the kitchen light but it’s out. In the sitting room, they flick on the light and realize they’ve misjudged the floor, and they are in fact in the titular third floor flat, which now contains the dead body of one Ernestine Grant. She’s been shot, and lies facedown behind some moving boxes.

It doesn’t take long for Japp to arrive, and Poirot and Hastings’ curiosity is of course piqued by this turn of events so close to home. Investigating the flat, Poirot finds several curious things: a kitchen light that suddenly works again, and evidence that Grant was shot at the table then the body had been moved. Oh, there’s also a maid who slept through the whole thing, which rules her out.

(Additional Side Note: It’s well known that domestics in Christie stories are always either comatose sleepers, illegitimate children of nobility, or murderers. Look, I don’t make the rules around here.)

Also: the gang finds a letter on the corpse from a “Frazer” who promises to call around 6 PM, and a handkerchief with the initials “J.F.” on it. Could either of these things point to the Pair Of Ominous Shoes seen earlier? Or is that fishy smell a freshly caught batch of red herrings, courtesy of the S.S. Japp?

Either way, Poirot also makes a point to ask when the last post was delivered, and if you think we’re in for some more mail-related mischief…

Grey Cells

…you’re right, because Ms. Grant had received a letter from her lawyer along with a perfectly valid marriage certificate pronouncing her the wife of Donovan Bailey. Donovan, engaged to Ms. Matthews, wanted a divorce from Grant, who wouldn’t, er, grant one. When he started seeing Ms. Matthews, Ms. Grant started harassing him (or so he says) and going so far as to take up residence right beneath her to get closer and let her know her fiancee was already married (which, to be fair, was actually her plan).

So Donovan showed up in an Ominous Pair of Shoes earlier in the evening, endured some cackling from Grant about how she’s not giving him the divorce, and shot her. He looked for the letter at the time, but the post hadn’t yet arrived. So he hid the body behind the moving boxes so the maid would assume all was well when she came home, and then he stole Ms. Matthew’s key from her purse at the theater so as to set up the circumstance that would give him an excuse to “discover” the body and retrieve the letter with no one the wiser.

Discovered, Donovan makes a run for it, and steals Hastings’ beloved car; Hastings throws himself in front of it, and Donovan crashes into a lamp post before being arrested.

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As dawn breaks, Poirot’s cold (which has been getting better the whole night) appears miraculously cured, and he pays Hastings the ten pounds he owes him for losing the bet, pointing out that he’ll be needing it to pay for car repairs.

This will never be anyone’s favorite episode, but it’s a good one; it’s a neat little puzzle with some misdirection from Poirot, a focus on the elements of the crime, and it hits that sweet spot of giving you enough information to work out how it was done, if not necessarily who. It works as almost a bottle episode (no really, there’s a trick he pulls with a bottle of ethyl chloride), with the discovery, investigation, and solution all taking place in one location over the course of a single night.

And of course we get the character bits the show does so well; Hastings and Poirot taking in a show; Japp being simultaneously exasperated with and admiring of Poirot; Hastings having frankly concerning affection for his car; Poirot using his politeness and nonthreatening manner to hoodwink those that dare underestimate him; and his return to form once all is well, determined to keep up appearances.

Depressing Reminder Of The Timelessness Of Entitlement.: Although the killer explains their motivation at the end, and Lawrence gives us shades of someone who probably could be all the things she’s said to be… in today’s world it’s hard not to see this as yet another case of ego and grown-ass people behaving like spoiled brats because they can. At least they got caught here? Eh, let’s move on.

You, Uh, Might Want To Sit A Few Plays Out, Champ: Hastings, of course is absolutely despondent over his car being crashed, and Hugh Fraser plays it to the hilt, including an Anakin Skywalker-esque “NOOOOOOOO!” as he tries to keep the killer from stealing it.

Hey! It’s That Gal!: Josie Lawrence, who plays Ms. Grant, has been a mainstay of British TV for years, though I recognized her most from her appearances on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Because occasionally the Universe likes us, we live in a world where there’s a freely available clip of an episode featuring Stephen Fry (!), Peter Cook (!!), Lawrence, and last week’s WLIIA alum John Sessions.

 

Quotent Quotables:

Japp: “How did you discover the body?”

Donovan: “I’m afraid that’s rather a long story, chief inspector.”

Japp, audibly rolling his eyes: “It would be.”

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Hastings, staring sadly at his ruined car, oblivious to the murderer being arrested: “Hanging’s too good for some people.”

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Poirot: “”Poirot does not have colds, Miss Lemon. It is well known that Poirot scorns all but the gravest afflictions.”

 

Next Week, On Poirot: Hercule’s going on holiday, which is good news for the Greek economy and bad news if you’re staying at the same hotel. Greece! Poison! Greasy poison? We’ll find out in “Triangle At Rhodes”!