Poirot (Classic): S03E08 “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”

With a stylish cold open on a sepia-toned flashback sequence of two men in fencing gear dueling over what one claims was “merely a joke”, this episode announces itself as yet another in what’s rapidly becoming a long line of memorable Series 3 episodes. The duel happens, and the older of the two men gets raked across the cheek, no doubt the origin story of someone we’ll meet soon.

In the present day, Our Man Hastings and Poirot are out at the opera – Verdi’s Rigoletto, which Poirot professes to enjoy for its insights into the psychology of murder – when Lady Chatterton flags down Poirot and asks him to help out her friend, Marge Clayton (Caroline Langrishe). Seems that Marge’s husband Ed (Malcolm Sinclair) is a beast of a man, with a violent temper; Lady Chatterton fears for her friend’s life.  Marge and her…uh… “Special Man Friend” Major Rich (Pip Torrens) are also attending the opera, and look very much like Special Friends. Poirot promises to visit tomorrow.

Then we spend what seems like a hell of a lot of time with our non-regular players, and the episode is all the better for it:

Marge and Ed, of course; Ed comes home and relaxes a bit with his favorite hobby, Pretending Marge Doesn’t Exist. He ignores Marge and when she tries to have a conversation with him he tells her he has to leave for Edinborough and can’t come to a party that night at Major Rich’s – but that she should go without him.

Ed and Oh Hey This Dude Has A Scar Like The Guy Wot Got Slashed In The Fencing Bit  Col. Curtis (John McEnery) converse at a military club, where Ed says Cryptically Ominous Things like “I don’t know if I can go through with it”, and “I must be insane”, while Curtis does everything he can to insist that Ed MUST do whatever Cryptically Ominous Thing he has planned, which almost assuredly does not involve Edinborough (for once, amirite?!?).

Curtis spies Rich in the billiards room and warns him away from his “old, dear friend” Marge.

Ed visits Rich’s house – where Rich is most assuredly not at – and tells the butler he’ll wait for Rich to arrive home, and leave a note if he decides to pack it in. He closes the door to the sitting room, and that’s the last we’ll be seeing (HAR!) (You’ll see why that’s ostensibly funny in a minute) of Ed for the rest of the hour.

Eventually, the script remembers that the title of the show is Poirot, not Ex-Military English Jerks, and we cut back to Our Belgian, who’s going to Rich’s party tonight with Lady Chatterton for an opportunity to meet Ed. Swank!

At the party, of course, Ed isn’t there but Poirot stays nonetheless, and we’re treated to a series of short scenes as the party goes on, as Poirot does a bit of mingling and observation.  The whole sequence is directed nicely, aping the sense one sometimes gets at parties where moments here and there are remembered, wandering between conversations but nothing seems really connected. A few highlights from this series of vignettes:

  • Major Rich immediately recognizes Poirot… as a famous writer. Womp womp.
  • Major Rich doesn’t like Marge talking to Curtis. At. All.
  • Speaking of Curtis, if you weren’t sure he was a bastard before, well, his comments to Poirot about a jazz record being played — “Music for second-rate people, provided by inferior races” — should clear up any lingering doubts.
  • Nobody seems to notice the blood leaking out of the gigantic Spanish chest in the corner behind a screen.
  • In a top-10-Poirot moment if I ever saw one, Lady Chatterton convinces Poirot to dance, at which point David Suchet pulls the rarely-used “Poirot Dancing The Charleston And Clearly Hating Every Moment Of It” arrow out of his actor’s quiver and hits an absolute bullseye.

The next morning sure enough Chief Inspector Japp shows up at Poirot’s office, to interview him as a witness. They’ve arrested Major Rich, because that blood leaking out of the chest was actually leaking out of Ed Clayton’s eye socket – he’s been found in the chest stabbed through the eye.

(Side Note: I told you that joke about “seeing” Ed for the last time would pay off. ZING.)

(Additional Side Note: I am so, so sorry.)

Poirot, for his part, immediately says it’s impossible that a man would murder someone, stuff him in a chest in his living room, throw a party in said living room, then somehow not dispose of the body in the middle of the night, and… he’s kinda right?

Grey Cells:

Some investigation reveals a circular hole drilled into the corner of the Spanish chest, along with some wood shavings. More on this in a bit.

After a suicide attempt by Marge, an admission that she hated her husband and was… let’s say “on the journey”… to becoming more than just a Special Woman Friend to Major Rich and some investigations by Our Man Hastings at the club that reveals the duel seen at the beginning, Poirot makes a spectacle of having Marge arrested.

Later that night, he gets a mysterious phone call from a shad—- oh, let’s just stop, it’s Col. Curtis, like we all suspected approximately 3 seconds after we saw him introduced. I mean, between the scar, the racism and the fact that you can see his moustache practically twirling on its own every time he speaks, he might as well have knuckle tats that spell “MURDERER”.

Curtis stoked the fires of suspicion in Ed, and encouraged him to

*checks notes*

Hide in the chest during the party – the chest mostly obscured by a screen from the rest of the room, mind you – and drill a hole in it to see if Marge and Major Rich were… dancing? Canoodling? Pawing each other during the party of at least twenty other people, any of whom would almost surely be aghast at one of their own society types flaunting an affair so publicly? From behind the screen, no less? I guess?

(I feel for any soldiers who found themselves having to carry out a Col. Curtis battle plan in the field, is what I’m saying.)

Curtis, being in love with Marge himself – it was he who demanded the duel way back when over a joke about her – saw an opportunity to get rid of her husband and frame Rich for the murder at the same time, so during the party he

*checks notes again*

sidled over behind the screen, surreptitiously unsheathed his sword cane, and stabbed Ed through the eye via the hole that

*checks increasingly insane notes*

Ed had drilled in the chest after hiding in it, using a pocket awl he’d brought along with him for the occasion.

*Rope snaps, sending 8-ton weight labeled “Disbelief” crashing through the floorboards*

Curtis tells Poirot to meet him at the club, in the dueling gymnasium where Poirot gets him to confess and reveals all of the above. Just as Curtis has a sword pressed to Our Belgian’s throat, Major Rich literally bursts into the room in a fencing mask and duels Curtis, except I stopped caring because I was laughing so hard at Rich looking like a dime store superhero in his mask.

Rich, of course, wins, and Curtis is presumably arrested.

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All’s well that ends well, and most everyone else ends up happy, with Poirot having (sort of) learned a lesson in humility.

Like I said, “memorable”.

I’ll be honest, this episode dares to climb the heights of Mount Contrivance and then pile a few stones more on to the peak, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t supremely watchable (despite a noticeable lack of Pauline Moran, who’s not in this episode at all – Miss Lemon is off visiting a relative in Frenton).

The time spent early on with the non-regular cast members pays off, as the relationships, moods, and two-hander scenes go a long way towards selling these folks as characters more than most of the suspects in these hour-long stories. Fleshing them out and letting us see them interact before the proverbial corpse hits the fan makes for a more satisfying experience. The fact that the supporting cast are all excellent actors this time out doesn’t hurt, either.

And we kind of need that extra exposition here, because without it this is basically a 15 minute story along the lines of:

The Mystery Of The Spanish Chest Teleplay, Draft 1.0

JAPP: “Oi! This man in the box has been stabbed in the eye!”

LITERALLY ANYONE TAKING MORE THAN 30 SECONDS TO EXAMINE THE CRIME SCENE AND VICTIM: “Hey, there’s a hole in the box and a drill in his pocket.”

POIROT: “Someone must have stabbed him through the hole that he himself made!”

HASTINGS: “I say!”

THE MAID WANDERING IN OVERHEARING JUST THAT LAST LINE: “I wonder if anyone at the party last night is known to fancy knives or swords?”

LITERALLY ANYONE AT THE CLUB WHERE THE MURDERER HUNG OUT ALL THE TIME: “This bad-tempered guy known for precision swordplay who has an obvious long-simmering crush on the victim’s wife does.”

RANDOM PASSERBY: “Arrest that man!”

JAPP: (arrests murderer): “You’re nicked, sunshine!”

FIN

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In any event, it’s hard to complain about the plot here when it’s so insane and well-acted as this episode; from the intriguing opening sequence to the laugh-out-loud moments, it’s tonally all over the place but it’s also Poirot at its most ridiculous and entertaining all at once.

Japp Of The Clod!: If there’s one beef I have with this ep, it’s that it makes Japp and the police out to be idiots, which is something the show usually manages to avoid. Here, though, we’re asked to believe that nobody asked themselves why the dead man carried an awl in his pocket or whether or not it had anything to do with the circular hole in the Spanish chest? Most irritatingly, there’s a scene where Japp is trying to figure out how a typewriter works, an invention that had been around in its modern form for at least 20 years by the time of the episode.

Hey! It’s That Gal!: Not gonna lie, there’s a ton of British TV mainstays here, but of course my eye was drawn to the lovely Caroline Langrishe, who played the role of Charlotte Cavendish in the final two series of my other favorite 90’s Brit show, Lovejoy.

We’ll Have Plenty Of Room, This Wall Can Be Completely Removed!: Don’t think too hard about the number of guests at the party and the dimensions of the room, because I started to wonder how on earth you could fit twenty people in a single sitting room that didn’t look all that large to start with and had loads of furniture. (Credit where it’s due though, apparently you could maximize space by stuffing at least one of them in a Spanish chest.)

Second-Rate People, My Eye!: The jazz music that grated on Col. Curtis so badly was almost assuredly “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” by The Mills Brothers. Here, have a listen!

Quotent Quotables:

Poirot: “I am learning, Hastings. It is more English, yes, the humbleness? So, I am learning. I shall be the most humble person in the world. No one will match Hercule Poirot for his humbility.”

___

Poirot: “I am not a bloody little Frog! I am a bloody little Belgian!”

___

Poirot: “Chief Inspector Japp, I must ask you to trust me as you have never trusted me before.”

Japp (audibly rolling his eyes): “Here we go.”

___

Col. Curtis: “I think it’s a godsend. I mean, you’re a detective. ”

Poirot: “I am THE detective, Colonel Curtis.”

___

Poirot: “I would ask Miss Lemon, but… alas.”

Japp: “She’s not ill, is she?”

Poirot: “Worse. She’s in Frenton.”

Next Week, on Poirot: Anthony Horowitz was impressive this week in delivering a script that managed to be entertaining without any Miss Lemon at all, but apparently he felt the need to really challenge himself, so he goes for the Triple Lindy next week with a Christmas episode that finds Poirot tracking down yet another jewel that’s gone on walkabout… sans Lemon AND Hastings?!? Tune in to see if he can pull it off in… “The Theft Of The Royal Ruby”!