Poirot (Classic): S01E09 “The King Of Clubs”

Hastings and Poirot are visiting a movie studio at an invitation from Hastings’ friend director Bunny Saunders. His latest picture – some sort of colonial desert romance – stars Valerie St. Clair (Niamh Cusack) and Ralph Walton (Gawn Grainger). Val is a young ingenue and bona fide star, and Ralph is an older former silent film star having a bit of trouble transitioning to the “talkies”. While there, we see studio boss Henry Reedburn (David Swift) being basically a tyrant, shouting at the actors and overruling Bunny as a director.

(Side Note: Reedburn has a vaguely Eastern European accent, and I’m wondering if he’s modeled after anyone in particular? Speak up in the comments if you have any ideas.)

(Additional Side Note: I’ll point out here that Hastings is absolutely ROCKING the white turtleneck/leather trenchcoat look here. Watch out, ladies! Unfortunately I can’t find any screencaps of it, but trust me: he looks fly as hell.)

In addition, we meet the producer, one Prince Paul of Maurania whom Poirot has done some unspecified work for in the past. Paul seems like a prince of a guy (HAR!) and also a bit nervous, probably because he’s secretly engaged to Val and doesn’t want it getting out because of class-based reasons.

Reedburn is pretty much the dictionary definition of tyrannical; he makes unwanted advances towards Val, fires Walton, and treats most everyone like garbage. In other words, he might as well have “PENDING VICTIM” painted on his forehead.

Later that night, we see Ralph stumble out of the studio vowing to get revenge on Reedburn, who’s at his house viewing dailies with Bunny. Bunny leaves, frustrated, and is run off the road by Ralph, who’s drunkenly driving towards Reedburn’s house. As a storm rolls in, we also see Val arriving outside Reedburn’s house in a taxi. Some time later, we see her leave via the side door, distressed. The cherry on top of this Suspect Sundae is a Mysterious Mr. X who leaves via the side door shortly thereafter.

Val makes her way to Reedburn’s neighbor’s house, where a family of Oglanders reside, and Mrs. O calls the police. At the same time, Prince Paul calls Poirot, asking him for his help and discretion in a matter involving Val.

Turns out Reedburn’s lying dead on the floor in his library, with a hole poked in the back of his head and bruises on his face. Well, then. Hastings wonders if it could have been an accident, with Reedburn falling and hitting his head on one of the ornaments next to the body, but it’s dismissed by Japp as there’s no bloodstain on the one closest to the body.

(Revenge of Side Note: When it’s pointed out that the body could have been moved, Hastings asks “Why would anyone want to make an accident look like murder?” and it’s like he’s never even SEEN “Murder in the Mews“.)

Poirot and Hastings make their way to the Oglanders’ house, which consists of Mother and Father Oglander and their creepy adult kids Ronnie and Geraldine. In fact, everything about these people is creepy, as they stare silently with blank expressions. Geraldine says the whole family had been playing bridge last night when she noticed Val come beating on their window. They let her in, and immediately called the police after hearing her story.

Questioning Val, Poirot learns that Reedburn was blackmailing her into signing a new contract – though she won’t say how – and that she had gone to meet him at his request and found the body lying there. She says she noticed a curtain move while she was in the room and a pair of feet in hobnailed boots hiding behind it. Scared, she took off for the first house she saw (the Oglanders’).

Japp, of course, wastes no time in rustling up the local Romani that had been seen around the property, and collecting their boots trying to find a match.

Hastings studies a picture of the Oglander family and notes that there are three children in it; Mrs. O says their other daughter died some time ago, and this is the part where literally anyone who has ever read a Christie story starts looking for which cast member is actually the missing Oglander daughter. Poirot studies the card table where the Oglanders had been playing on the night of the murder, and notices that there are only 51 cards in play; the king of clubs is missing. HMMMMM.

Why would anyone play bridge for an hour with a missing card? Why did both Geraldine and Mother Oglander claim they were sitting facing the window that Val appeared at? Who was the Mysterious Mr. X at Reedburn’s? What was he blackmailing Val about? Where in blue hell is Maurania, anyway? And who murdered Henry Reedburn?

Grey Cells:

Um, nobody, sort of? Eh, this is complicated.

Of course Val is the estranged Oglander daughter, and Reedburn had been blackmailing her because he had proof (or, er, newspaper clippings, I guess) that her father was a disgraced industrialist who had to change his name and hide out. (Reedburn discovered this when he moved in next door.) When Val went to Reedburn’s house that night, her brother Ronnie (who was the Mysterious Mr. X) accompanied her and punched Reedburn in the face (hence the bruises).

Reedburn fell back and hit his head on a different ornament (not the one that was originally near the corpse’s head) and died. Val ran straight to the Oglanders’ for help, whereupon they concocted the bridge game as an alibi… a really sloppy one, as it turns out.

Despite this being a pretttttttttty clear case of manslaughter at best and 2nd degree murder at worst, Poirot keeps quiet about Ronnie’s involvement. Val and Prince Paul are free to marry (secretly), and the murder will go down as unsolved (until, one presumes, Japp railroads a Romani hobo into taking the rap.)

Oh, and the missing card was the clue that let Our Belgian know that the bridge game had been a ruse all along. Plus, there’s no such thing as “Maurania”, although to be fair I spent half the episode assuming I’d heard “Mauritania”, which is decidedly real but was French-owned at the time and I’m not afraid to say I spent a decent amount of brainpower trying to figure out why Britain would have a prince there.

This is a pretty workmanlike episode; it’s all steak and no sizzle, with a focus on the story at hand rather than illuminating moments of characterization or the in-between bits that usually make the show a lot warmer. (As you’ll see, I couldn’t even find a single line of dialogue worth putting up as a Quotent Quotable for this ep.)

And that’s… fine, I guess. In fact, “fine” is probably the best description of the episode overall. If it’s got some of Dame Agatha’s worst tendencies (the familial connection that springs out of nowhere, the evidence that should have been impossible for any half-conscious policeman to overlook but somehow got missed, the wildly improbable coincidence) it also has a chain of deduction that really does Poirot justice and got more satisfying the more I thought about it afterwards:

1) The king of clubs is still in the card box, hence the Oglanders weren’t playing cards as they said. If that’s true, then…
2) …why would they and Val lie about it? If they’re all lying, then…
3) …there must be a reason why they want the police to believe Val’s appearance at the house was pure chance. If that’s true, then…
4) …it wasn’t chance. And if it was intentional, then it follows that they probably know each other. And if they know each other…
5) …then there’s a good chance they’re family, as borne out by the clue of the newspaper clipping. If they’re family, then…

And so on, and so on.

The biggest problem I had was the discovery of the bloodstain on the second ornament, which didn’t look hidden AT ALL, and I can’t quite believe Japp or the plods didn’t see it in their initial examination. It beggars belief and nearly ruins the whole thing, especially because we get Maximum Japp this episode – he’s constantly telling Poirot how “the professionals” do it, and explaining his overall superiority. And yet the bloodstain is RIGHT THERE.

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I’m still not sure about Poirot letting things go here; on the one hand, Reedburn is clearly odious, and not a gigantic loss to humanity. On the other… the killer still basically killed a guy? I suppose one could make an argument either way, with Poirot erring on the side of loyalty and intent, but I dunno about this one.

Now That’s Just Good Sidekickin’!: To his credit, Hastings doesn’t immediately leap in with “Good Lord, you’re right!” when Japp says the killer was probably a local “gypsy”, which is one thousand percent something Our Man Hastings would have done nine episodes ago.

Hey! It’s That Guy!: Sean Pertwee, who’ll pop up later in the series in a much bigger role in Dead Man’s Folly, plays Ronnie Oglander (with nary a line of dialogue, I might add) here and you might be currently enjoying him on FOX’s Gotham series as Alfred Pennyworth. Then again, you might not. I don’t know, I’m not your boss.

Once More We Begin Our Eternal Dance, You And I: The smile on Japp’s face when he sees Poirot at the crime scene is equal parts “Hey, it’s my buddy“, “I had a feeling this would happen“, and “I am trapped in an eternal time loop in which there is no escape from this Belgian“. It’s pretty great.

Quotent Quotables:

None. In a series that’s given me at least one or two memorable lines of dialogue per episode, there’s nothing particularly clever or funny or insightful coming out of anyone’s mouth here – it’s kind of a by-the-numbers-procedural feel.

Next Week, on Poirot: It’s more pastry-based mayhem, as a pie magnate has visions of his own death! Will it turn out to be flaky and delicious? Season One of Poirot ends with… “The Dream”!