Poirot (Classic): S02E05 “The Cornish Mystery”

On a rainy afternoon in London, Mrs. Alice Pengelley (Amanda Walker) asks M. Poirot to meet her in the park to talk about the fact that she’s being poisoned. Although the village doctor Adams (Derek Benfield) insists it’s nothing more than gastritis, Alice suspects her husband Ed (Jerome Willis) of slipping weed killer into her meals, and attributes his motives to a “young blond hussy” that recently has taken a position as his assistant in his dental practice. The Pengelleys live in the town of Polgarwith, in Cornwall, and after our heroes promise to come investigate the next day, Mrs. Pengelley returns home.

On the train ride to Cornwall, Our Man Hastings practices his cover identity by interrogating himself, and Poirot thinks things over, wondering whether Mrs. P came to him to prove her suspicions wrong or prove them right. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a chance to ask her directly, because upon arriving at the Pengelleys’ house he learns that he’s too late – Mrs. Pengelley has died. WELP.

The maid reveals that she’d seen Ed with the weed killer the night before, and he’d seemed jumpy. Just about then, Ed himself walks in, and after offering condolences, Poirot and Hastings take their leave.

Poirot being Poirot, he immediately sets about A) blaming himself for failing Mrs. P, and B) investigating the hell out of Polgarwith.

Doc Adams, in a funny scene, refuses to let Poirot get a word in edgewise, and claims the death was of natural causes, citing the gastritis he’d repeatedly diagnosed. When questioned about Ed’s L’Affaire d’ Hussy, he dismisses it as nonsense.

Back at their hotel later that night, Poirot is right pissed about having been too late to save Mrs. P. He vows to unmask her murderer.

The next day, our heroes visit the Young Blonde Hussy at Ed’s dental office, and in another funny sequence Our Man Hastings is rendered speechless by said hussy’s beauty and unable to perform the planned questioning. (This, of course, doesn’t stop him from touting his “understanding of women” to Poirot.)

Questioning the Pengelleys’ niece Freda (Chloe Salaman) and her fiance Jacob Radnor (John Bowler), it’s revealed that Freda left over a disagreement with Mrs. P — apparently rooted in the fact that Mrs. P had a thing for Jacob, and wouldn’t stop chasing him. Well, then! Also, ew!

Jake corroborates Freda’s story, but tells Poirot he’d rather not testify against Ed because of the damage it would do to Freda’s and his reputations. In fact, he’d like it very much if the whole thing were just quietly left alone. Poirot basically says, “Dead body? Small town? Husband having an affair, and you want it hushed up? Yeah, good luck with that.” Nevertheless, he agrees to stop investigating. (OR DOES HE?!?) (He does not.)

At the reading of the will, it’s found that Mrs. P left a couple thousand to Freda and about twenty grand to Ed. Freda doesn’t seem too happy about it. As Poirot and Hastings board a train back to London seemingly finished with the case, Poirot predicts that in a couple of months’ time they’ll be back in Polgarwith to rescue Ed from being convicted of murder…

Grey Cells:

…which, of course, they are. Having announced his engagement to the Young Blonde Hussy, Ed Pengelley is now being tried for his wife’s murder; it seems the engagement announcement combined with vox populi has led us to a point where Chief Inspector Japp calmly drinks a cup of coffee as Mrs. P’s coffin is dug up.

Japp, of course, considers this an open-and-shut case, and compares it to being on holiday (and judging by the amount of local food we see him scarfing down, he’s apparently signed up for the Eating Your Way Through Cornwall package); he’s none too pleased to see Poirot and Hastings show up in town.

As the trial continues, Jake Radnor is forced to admit that he’d seen Ed dinking about with weed killer the night of Mrs. P’s death, which just about seals the deal. Poirot flags him down later and invites him to his hotel suite, where he demands Radnor sign a confession admitting to murdering Alice Pengelley.

Poirot confronts him, explaining that he knows Radnor seduced Mrs. P to gain her trust, fueled her doubts about her husband, then proceeded to poison her slowly. He administered the lethal dose, but also needed Ed out of the way in order to get the big $20K prize in the will – so he let the local gossip run its course to where he knew it would lead, a trial and hanging for Ed.

Some late-hour heroics by Hastings (more on that in a bit) sees Radnor sign the confession, which Poirot delivers to the court, so Ed won’t get hanged.

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The episode ends with Japp learning that his “open and shut case” has just been “rekt” by Poirot, and he shakes his fist “comically” at the carriage taking our heroes out of town.

This is a really different episode than the usual Poirot, for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s virtually no mystery to be solved insofar as clues, evidence, alibis, and the like; Poirot reaches his conclusions based almost entirely on his understanding of human behavior and motivations. He reasons that if Ed had been guilty, that guilt would have kept him from announcing his engagement so soon and publicly after his wife’s death, for example. The confession is pretty much a one-shot ploy by our heroes that leaves them little recourse if it doesn’t work, since as Poirot points out they haven’t a shred of evidence to support their theory. (This being Poirot, of course, it does.)

Second, the ostensible prime suspect – Ed Pengelley – gets almost no dialogue at all in this episode. Aside from a few mumbled niceties at the funeral and the reading of the will, he’s a cipher; perpetually stonefaced and silent even at his own trial, we’re left to draw our own conclusions about his character and motivations. I realized about halfway through that by doing this the director puts the viewer in the same position as the townsfolk of Polgarwith, left to our own devices to speculate and assume about this person we’ve only heard and seen things about.

It’s a languidly paced hour of inquiry that’s more interested in human behavior than in devious clockwork plots, and it suits the cast brilliantly. Suchet and Fraser are in fine form here, playing off each other in nearly every scene as the two old friends they are, complete with their characteristic foibles and displaying the kind of allowances we only make with people we care about. The partnership here feels extremely lived-in, and the generous sprinklings of humor make this one a cozy, fun watch even if the plot itself is just as much of a gamble on our willingness to believe our heroes as the confession scene is.

Now That’s Just GREAT Sidekickin’!: Holla for our Our Man Hastings here, who saves the day with some quick thinking by convincing the murderer that the two old village townsfolk outside the hotel are actually “our operatives” ready to pounce on them lest they try to make a run for it without signing the confession. Brilliant idea, works perfectly, and it was goddamn heartwarming to see Poirot express his admiration for his friend’s ploy. Fist bump for My Man Hastings, getting the job done and getting some respect.

Hey! It’s Not That Guy!: No recognizable faces from other places here in this one.

Japp of the (Grave)Yard!: Love the dialogue-free scene that’s just a smash cut to Alice Pengelley’s coffin being dug up as Japp calmly drains a cup of coffee. Philip Jackson was probably the only baby in the nursery that looked world-weary.

Is It Cold In Here, Or Are You Just Belgian?: Poirot promises the killer a 24 hour head start before bringing the confession to the authorities… and then wastes zero time delivering the confession to the authorities. Suchet does great work throughout the episode making us believe he takes Alice’s death as a personal failure, and his line to the killer at the end is delivered with a boatload of conviction: “”I represent – no, not the law. I represent… Madame Pengelley.”

Quotent Quotables:

Poirot: “Look after the liver, and life will take care of itself.”

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Dr. Adams: “Edward Pengelley’s no murderer, he wouldn’t poison his grandmother’s dog!”

Poirot: “But it is not the dog of Madame Pengelley’s grandmother that has been poisoned!”

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Poirot: “A doctor who lacks doubt is not a doctor. He is an executioner.”

 

Next Week, On Poirot: Poirot and Hastings become Nero Wolfe and Archie, as Our Belgian wagers he can solve a case before Japp without leaving his flat. Will Hastings grumble about the bank account? Will Poirot suddenly take to tending orchids and drinking beer? Find out in “The Disappearance Of Mr. Davenheim”!