On a small cruise ship headed to Alexandria, Col. Clapperton (John Normington) is being henpecked nearly to death by his overbearing wife, Adeline (Sheila Allen), though that doesn’t stop him from making time with another woman, Ellie Henderson (Ann Firbank) or being escorted ashore by two young female passengers who have taken a shine to him.
Nor does it stop General Forbes (Roger Hume) from attempting to rekindle an old flame with Adeline, and it most certainly doesn’t stop the elderly Mr. Russell from remarking to Poirot about Adeline, “I’d take a hatchet to that woman if I were her husband.”
Of course, in the midst of all this Superheated-English-on-Vacation Sexual Energy, Our Man Hastings is preoccupied with organizing a clay pigeon shooting tournament for everybody. You can take the man out of England, but you can’t take England out of the man.
Before arriving in Alexandria, we’re treated to a scene of Col. Clapperton displaying some sleight of hand magic tricks, and we’re told he was a music hall officer in the war before meeting Adeline in the hospital she ran. We also learn that Miss Henderson is very much looking for love at this point in her life, hence her putting the moves on the ol’ Colonel.
(Side Note: There’s a tremendous scene where Poirot attempts to get Hastings and Henderson together via conversation out on the deck, and of course Our Man is completely oblivious to it, choosing instead to chat her up about clay pigeons.)
Upon arriving, the Colonel is escorted ashore by two young girls on vacation, both far younger than either he or Mrs. Clapperton. Before going, he asks Adeline through her locked door if she’d like to come ashore, but she says she’s not feeling well, and won’t even let him in to get some money.
(Additional Side Note: I can only assume that the character notes for Adeline Clapperton in the script simply read “THE WORST”, because she completely is. She’s arrogant, entitled, vain, and throws her weight around, and treats everyone with the same level of derision.)
Most everyone disembarks, and spends the day in the bazaars of Alexandria. Some local appropriately swarthy bead sellers sneak onto the ship at dock, attempting to hawk their wares with no success.
Also, one of the ship’s stewards appears to have an eyepatch, except that it’s not an eyepatch, it’s those weird glasses where one lens is completely blacked out. In any event, Patchy the Steward does some vaguely sinister things, like clearing plates while ominous music plays in the background.
While on shore, Hastings takes the opportunity for some holiday snaps, as he dresses up in explorer getup and sits astride a fake camel. To wit:
“You look constipated,” remarks M. Poirot.
Miss Henderson wanders by and remarks that Hastings looks dashing, which Poirot quickly throws cold water on by saying that “He looks like he’s summoning up the courage to order the second tea cake”, OH SNAP, HASTINGS, YOU JUST GOT HERCULE’D!
As the Colonel and the young girls wander by, Miss Henderson remarks that the girls are not children, and with not a little sadness adds, “Nor am I.” Props to Ann Firbank here, she pulls off a very believable lonely middle-aged woman who’s developed some feelings for the Colonel.
At the end of the day most folks are back on board the ship, and the Colonel finds his room still locked. Unable to get in and with Adeline not answering, everyone begins to get nervous (except for Hastings, who’s still fretting over dates for the clay pigeon shooting championship, because Hastings gonna Hastings).
Breaking into the room, Adeline is found lying in her bed stabbed through the heart. A souvenir necklace is on the floor, some money and jewels are missing, and Poirot snaps into action questioning suspects.
The Colonel adamantly refuses to believe anyone would want to kill Adeline, despite the previous 40 minutes of the show.
Miss Henderson had a necklace exactly like the one on the floor in the dead woman’s cabin, but says she lost it.
General Forbes admits he came back to the ship early, intending to put the moves on Adeline but when he knocked there was no answer and he dropped the matter.
The Young Girls are resolute in the fact that the Colonel was with them all day minus a 4 minute trip to the loo.
Patchy the Steward doesn’t get questioned, but continues to look sinister while putting out lunch menus. At night, Hastings notice him slip off the ship and Our Man follows him to a back alley, where he catches him trying to hawk Adeline’s jewels! Patchy admits stealing the jewels but says she’d already been killed when he took them.
Poirot assembles the guests in the lounge that night, and presents the answer to the Problem at Sea, which is, and I am not making this up…
…delivered via a doll that Poirot borrows from a child on board. With the guests assembled, Poirot explains that the doll is a witness to the murder, and from behind a curtain we hear the doll’s owner repeat the last words of Adeline on that fateful morning. Col. Clapperton immediately bolts, then confesses to the murder with a simple “YES!”
Turns out the Colonel was a ventriloquist in the music hall, not a magician as he’d tried to lead everyone to believe. Having stabbed his wife earlier that morning, he then made a show of knocking on her locked door and threw his voice to make it seem like she was still alive and responding to his questions. As one does.
Confronted by a passenger on deck after having solved the mystery, Poirot is told that it was a cruel trick he played by revealing the murderer in the manner he did, and Our Belgian IS NOT HAVING IT. He gets stone-faced, indignant, and icily replies, “I do not approve of murder,” before dropping the figurative mic and walking away.
It’s a cozy little whodunit, but I’m not the biggest fan of locked room mysteries, mainly because after years of watching and reading detective fiction any time there’s a locked room I immediately suspect whoever’s going out of their way to make sure we know the door is locked.
I also think the cast is little too big – I didn’t mention another four or five passengers who get screen time because they’re not essential to the plot, but this one has quite a lot of people to keep track of.
But that’s not important, what’s important is that the denouement is absolutely great, with Suchet hamming it up full blast in Poirot’s theatrics. His eyes light up as he sets the scene with the doll, and he relishes every word; he really does seem to be having a ball here. And the final scene, in which Poirot makes it extremely clear that when it comes to murder he ain’t playin’, is note-perfect in showing us exactly where his moral lines are drawn.
Hastings brings his “clueless Englishman” A-game here and also a little unexpected poignancy in some side remarks to a fellow soldier, remarking somewhat wistfully that “we’re all civilians now”. One senses that he’s a little lost post-war, and maybe his automobile, cricket, and clay pigeon shooting distractions are an attempt to figure out what to do next.
And a special note to the aforementioned Ann Firbank for her portrayal of Miss Henderson, as she brings some lived-in depth to the role. In fact, if this vacation episode has much less local flavor than “Triangle at Rhodes”, I think it’s stronger overall because of the acting by everyone here and a focus on the characters. I wouldn’t call it top tier Poirot, but it’s a very solid episode with a good cast and a bonkers ending.
Belgian Fashion Watch!: We do indeed see the appearance here of Hercule’s spyglass cane, in all its glory:
Hey! It’s That Guy!: Colonel Clapperton is played by John Normington, and it bugged me all episode that I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him before, until it struck me: 1988’s absolutely ludicrous and wonderful Jack the Ripper, starring Michael Caine and produced by Granada (they of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes series). Normington plays Armand Assante’s dresser (the theater assistant, not the furniture) in the film, which I have seen more times than I should probably admit and is one of my “comfort food” background movies. If you’re a Caine fan or just dig period Ripper pieces, Joe Bob says “Check it out!”
Hastings’ Science Korner: Turns out those weird eyeglasses ol’ Patchy the Steward was wearing are a remedy for those who suffer from aniseikonia, which is a condition in which each eye perceives images as different sizes. You’re a sinister inspiration to us all, Patchy!
Poirot: “You think, mon ami, that ladies don’t commit murder?”
Hastings: “Ladies don’t get found out.”
Poirot: “If everyone on board who said a bad thing about Mrs. Clapperton were to make as much noise as your friend, this vessel would become a danger to shipping.”
Mrs. Tolliver: “Tolliver. Mrs. Tolliver.”
Mr. Tolliver: “And I’m Mr. Tolliver.”
Adeline Clapperton (with icicles): “What a clever arrangement.”
Next Week, on Poirot: A Nazi sympathizer! A wealthy industrialist! Plans for a secret fighter plane! All this and a title that makes it seem like a more exciting episode than it actually is, in “The Incredible Theft”!