In a cold open, a shady character robs a jewelry store in a crowded marketplace. The next day, as Poirot is bemoaning the lack of criminal ingenuity, Japp recounts the crime to Poirot and Hastings as the three of them are spending the afternoon by a lake in a public park. Apparently, even though the man was apprehended by citizens, he managed to slip the gemstones to an accomplice in the crowd that caught him.
Poirot idly ruminates about how he would have made a great criminal, while Hastings admires the toy boats people are sailing on the lake.
(Side Note: I… don’t get this old-timey hobby. I mean, people are pushing little wooden boats into the water and… watching them? For a minute or so before they drift into the deep part? I’m a live-and-let-live guy, but this whole thing seems like one of those things people did before “fun” was invented. See also: “parades”.)
Shortly thereafter, Poirot is contact by a Lady Millicent (Frances Barber) – she of the titular veil – who’s desperate to get back a love letter written to Not The Duke She’s Due To Marry In A Month. She tells Poirot she’s being blackmailed by the holder of the letter, an oily Mysteriously Behatted Man named Lavington (Terence Harvey) and hires him to get the letter back.
Lavington visits Poirot and Hastings in the office at night, and makes it abundantly clear that A) he’s not particularly scared of Poirot, and B) when he returns from Paris he expects Her Millicentness to pay up, or else.
Sensing an opportunity, Poirot poses as a locksmith to gain access to Lavington’s house (in Wimbledon!) while he’s away. After meeting the hawkeyed housekeeper Mrs. Godber (Carole Hayman), Poirot spends the day working on an outer door, promising to return the next day.
Did I mention Poirot does this in disguise? Because he does this in disguise, and LOOK AT THE MOUSTACHE.
Coming back later that night, Poirot and Hastings (dressed in all-black, Raffles-style) sneak in through the door Poirot spent all day preparing, and burgle the house looking for the Chinese puzzle box Lavington keeps the letter in.
(Side Note: Poirot is dapper even as a burglar. It’s… kind of amazing.)
While Poirot and Our Man Hastings do indeed find the puzzle box in a log (don’t ask), Mrs. Godber creeps down the stairs and flags down a passing policeman, who nails our heroes in the act. (In one of the hands-down funniest moments of the series, Our Man Hastings – stoic, noble Englishman that he is – immediately abandons Poirot, bolting out of the room and throwing himself out a window to escape.)
Poirot is arrested and spends the night in jail, before Japp (in another hilarious scene) comes and gets him out of the pokey. After springing “Mad Dog” Poirot (Japp’s joke, not mine), he casually asks Poirot why he’d burgle the house of a man who’s been dead a week… and suddenly our straightforward little comedy caper takes an extremely interesting turn.
After getting back to the office an opening the puzzle box to find the letter, Poirot and Hastings meet Lady Millicent at the museum to deliver it to her. During a tense exchange, it’s revealed that the real target was the puzzle box the letter was kept in – because it contained the stolen jewels from the caper seen in the cold open and mentioned by Japp!
(Side Note: I’m not afraid to say, this twist completely blindsided me, and I grinned from ear to ear when the gems tumbled out of the box. Very neat bit of misdirection, having Japp write off the cold open and simply some amiable chitchat with Poirot at the beginning of the episode.)
Turns out Lady Millicent, The Man Who Would Be Lavington, and, um, Actually Lavington were part of a “tomfoolery” gang responsible for the theft at the beginning of the episode. Lavington betrayed the gang and was killed when he scarpered off to Amsterdam, but nobody knew where he’d hidden the jewels. So Lady Millicent and The Man Who Would Be Lavington hired Poirot to find the box for them. (The letter was a ruse in case anyone accidentally discovered the box.)
One chase through the museum later, a stray cat helps Hastings nab the crooks and save the day.
Back at the park lakeside, Hastings has a really stupidly large toy boat and sets it sail on the lake, while Poirot looks on and Japp gets unexpectedly deep, saying forlornly, “I used to dream about the sea.”
Aside from that final-scene record scratch that just kind of comes out of nowhere, this is a terrific episode that’s basically a comedy for about two-thirds of the time. Wonderful character bits between our main three heroes (I just about died at the look on Japp’s face as he deals with Poirot in the pokey) and a sense of boyish adventure (Hastings is unmistakably gleeful when he realizes he and Poirot are going to burgle the house) make this completely watchable, even if the premise initially feels warmed-over.
But just about the time you’re thinking it’s nothing more than a Poirot-ified A Scandal In Bohemia played for laughs, the twist is revealed and it turns the whole thing on its ear, and suddenly there’s a straight up mystery to solve that causes you to reconsider everything you’ve seen up to that point, in the way the best twists do.
Hats off to the three supporting actors here, too – Lavington and Mrs. Godber in particular make very strong impressions, and steal their scenes from Suchet (no mean feat, that).
It’s an inconsequential hour of television, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun from front to back, and I rank this among my personal favorites as an episode, if not as a story.
Hey! It’s Not That Guy!: No notable faces in this episode that I recognized.
Welcome To The ‘Hood, Old Chap, Stay For Tea?: Mrs. Godber laments of the house in Wimbledon, “Hasn’t been the same around here since they started the tennis up the road. All the riff raff coming to watch.” One suspects the property values turned out just fine nonetheless.
Thank Goodness It Wasn’t The Shenanigans Cartel: Yes, “tomfoolery” gangs were real gangs specializing in jewel theft, so-named because “tomfoolery” rhymes with “jewellery” in Cockney. Here’s one comprised of elderly men who nabbed nearly $20 million dollars worth of jewels back in 2015.
Lavington: “She must think I’m an idiot.”
Poirot: “Perhaps you are.”
Poirot: “They fear me, Hastings. The criminals, they fear Hercule Poirot so much that they have repented of their naughty ways and have become citizens of the most upright.”
Poirot (opening the puzzle box): “”What a cracksman was lost when Hercule Poirot decided to become the world’s greatest detective!”
Poirot: “Why did you wish to know where Monsieur Lavington lives, Hastings? ”
Hastings: “I don’t know. He was so beastly, the way he talked about Lady Millicent, I wanted to kick him down the stairs.”
Poirot: “You wanted to do it in the comfort of his own home, yes?”
Next Week, on Poirot: Do not pass Go, do not collect the deed to a silver mine, and make sure to grab Chinatown before the dead bodies turn up! It’s a rousing game of Monopoly (no, really) between Poirot and Our Man Hastings in “The Lost Mine”!