I mean, come on: it’s a Christmas episode, which makes it pretty firmly review-proof for lots of folks, and why not? I’ve always cut holiday-themed episodes a little slack, because the priority is usually to evoke a specific feeling or see beloved characters enjoying (or not) the same holidays we do, and that’s sometimes at odds with the show as we’ve come to enjoy it.
(Side Note: I think my favorite holiday-themed episodes are the Thanksgiving episodes of King of the Hill. I REGRET NOTHING.)
In any event, this is actually one of those episodes that I suspect a lot of people have seen or remember, as it’s one of the more famous Poirot short stories and adaptations.
So just this once I’ll put away the knives and enjoy this episode in the spirit for which it’s meant: burglary, colonialism, casual poisoning, and a murdered child.
Prince Farouk (Antony Zaki) is young, arrogant, Egyptian, and stupid. Today, he’s also drunk, which isn’t helping his judgment at all – he lets the woman having lunch with him wear the fabulous Royal Ruby, which she promptly scarpers off with, leaving Farouk facing scandal.
With Miss Lemon off visiting relatives and Our Man Hastings in Scotland golfing, Hercule Poirot is looking forward to enjoying a quiet Christmas holiday alone with his radio, his books, and a demi-kilo of fine chocolates.
The British government, however, has other ideas. After being picked up by two agents (dressed like a 1936 version of English MiBs, in matching topcoats and bowlers) and driven to Whitehall, the Foreign Secretary asks for Poirot’s help to locate the ruby, as they need Farouk to ascend the Egyptian throne to sign a deal that will protect British interests in the area – specifically, the Suez Canal.
After Poirot has a “he’s right behind me, isn’t he?” moment disparaging the Prince, he acquiesces to the Foreign Secretary’s request; suspicion falls on renowned Egyptologist Col. Lacey (Frederick Treves) and his family, who were the only ones who knew about the jewel – Poirot reasons that it must have taken more than one person to plan the robbery. I didn’t quite follow this, but the bottom line is that basically it’s an excuse to get Poirot to stay over at the Lacey house for Christmas, and hey presto! We’ve got ourselves a Christmas episode.
At the Lacey house (which is literally the same house used in the Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim with an Egyptian obelisk stuck in the front lawn) we meet far too many people:
- the Colonel
- his wife
- his antiquities dealer and family friend David (John Vernon) who’s keen on
- the Colonel’s daughter Sarah (Helena Michell), who’s keen on
- cad Desmond Lee-Wortley (Nigel Le Vaillant), who’s got a sister named
- Gloria (G-L-O-R-I-A)
- Colin, the Colonel’s Tween Son
- Bridget, the Colonel’s Tween Daughter
- Michael, the Colonel’s Tween Son But With Glasses
- the cook
- the maid
- the butler
There’s probably a few house pets, gardeners, and estate attorneys I left out there, but let’s just marvel at the sheer size of that suspect pool for a moment. (Don’t worry, it’ll get trimmed down to a healthy “2” here in a minute.)
Poirot arrives just as the family is partaking in the Venerated English Tradition of having a stir of the Christmas and New Year’s puddings for luck, and the family for the most part greets him warmly and invites him to partake in the same.
Later that night, we’re treated to… an extended scene of Poirot showing the Colonel how to peel a mango. I am not making this up.
Next morning at church, the family sings together except for Des and Gloria, who rather loudly and conspicuously say things like, “Why a bloody detective?” and “He’s got to be dealt with!” in the middle of the song. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to have doubts about these two.
That night, we hear the Tweens planning to put on a mystery for Poirot to solve, except they do it right underneath his window. Poirot finds a note on his bed telling him not to eat the pudding.
The next morning is Christmas, and everyone is enjoying the Venerated English Tradition of wearing paper Burger King crowns and eating lunch when the pudding is served. Since another Venerated English Tradition is apparently putting choking hazards in the dessert, people start finding stuff in their food; one of the children gets a thimble, another gets a coin. Col. Lacey though gets a ruby, which Poirot pronounces as merely a piece of glass and pockets.
Problem solved, right? It is, of course, the real ruby, and Our Belgian takes it to the local village inn where the Prince is lying in bed smoking a cigar, being completely asinine about its return; he demands that simply getting the ruby back isn’t good enough, and that the thief must also be apprehended. The Foreign Secretary concurs, and it’s clear that Poirot has just about had enough of this jackass.
Back at the house, Renowned Egyptologist and Presumable World Traveler Col. Lacey is beginning to suspect this Poirot fellow is foreign, because he said “bonsoir” last night. Which….weird, because I’d think it would be impossible to be in a room with Poirot for 30 seconds without realizing he’s Belgian (mainly because he’d probably tell you himself) or at least suspect he’s French? For a moment I thought maybe the episode was trying to imply that Lacey was beginning to suffer dementia or somesuch, which was a weirdly jarring note in an otherwise goof of an episode.
Poirot overhears Des on the phone saying things that basically translate to “I AM TOTALLY PROBABLY THE BAD GUY”.
Later that night, the family plays charades, and Sarah and Des are kissin’ in the hallway as Poirot looks on. Des is bringing the room a tray of coffee, but Poirot notices something off — we don’t see what it is, but when Poirot is served he surreptitiously switches his coffee with that of Col. Lacey, which is just jaw-dropping when you consider that Poirot may have just inadvertently killed him if there’s anything stronger than sugar in the coffee.
Retiring early, Poirot goes to bed, and we see later that night a Mysterious Flashlight Enthusiast break into Poirot’s room searching for something.
(Additional Side Note: I’m no cat burglar, but I’m pretty sure rule number two of Searching A Room While Someone’s Sleeping In It is “Don’t shine your flashlight on the sleeping person’s face“, a rule our Mysterious Flashlight Enthusiast breaks three or four times.)
They don’t find anything, but after leaving Poirot opens his eyes – he’s actually been awake the whole time.
In the morning, the Tweens flag down Poirot and ask him to come look outside – it seems that Bridget is dead, her body on the ground with a knife in her back! Of course, we the audience know it’s their cooked-up mystery game, but the episode takes a legitimately chilling turn when Poirot tells them Bridget has no pulse – she is apparently actually dead! Des comes to investigate and finds the ruby in Bridget’s palm, and leaves to get a doctor. Col. Lacey can’t be wakened. Things start to get a little more chilly, and this left turn into murder…
…lasts all of about a minute and a half, when back at the house Poirot reveals that he enlisted Bridget as his accomplice to trick the thief into making a run for it (she’s not really dead, come on this is a Christmas episode).
Col. Lacey can’t be wakened because he’s under the effects of the sedative in the coffee that Poirot switched with his own the night before.
Des, of course, who’s been wearing a neon sign around his neck the whole episode that blinks “THIEF” on and off at regular intervals, takes off with his accomplice Gloria, who’s not really his sister but definitely IS the woman the Prince gave the ruby to at the start of the episode.
Apparently after Gloria stole the ruby, she planned to meet Des and escape in his plane(!) back to Egypt, where he would continue fighting for the Wafd against the Egyptian monarchy(!!) – except his plane broke down, and they had to wait a few days over Christmas for it to be repaired.
One car-on-plane chase through a field later, the crooks are apprehended, the ruby returned, Sarah and David are making eyes at each other, and Poirot spends an inordinate amount of time explaining to the rest of the cast what we’d pretty much already put together by this point. Turns out the maid was the one who left the note in Poirot’s bed after she’d heard the baddies loudly plotting in church.
Poirot is driven back to London, smiling – despite the change in plans, he’s enjoyed himself this Christmas after all, it seems.
Again – it is what it is, a fun little Christmas story populated with the Christie mainstays of a sprawling cast, manor house, weekend of crime, and Our Belgian. There’s something cozy and charming about this one in watching Poirot take part in a traditional English Christmas, and with the exception of about 4 minutes where we think a child has been murdered none of the stakes get higher than a missing jewel for the Prince of Jerks, so it’s hard to be disappointed here.
If anything, I would have liked to have seen more of the English traditions – in particular I was thinking there’s fertile ground for some funny scenes with Christmas crackers and Poirot’s sometimes tenuous grasp of the English idiom. But what’s here is good, and there’s a warmth throughout the entire episode as Poirot behaves exactly as a gracious guest should. No use complaining about that.
Instead, best to sit back with a cup of cocoa (check diligently for strychnine, natch) and enjoy our Belgian spend the weekend peeling mangoes, poisoning old men, and enjoying the traditions of the season.
History’s Mysteries: The real-world situation at the time is pretty accurately reflected here: the Wafd that the thief is supporting was the pro-Egyptian-independence political party that opposed the British-backed King Fuad (later, King Farouk seen here as a prince). The Foreign Secretary was concerned about the Suez, likely because the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 was right around the corner, and it was in the British interest to keep the royal family in power. Which… doesn’t exactly make the thief the hero of the tale, but does sort of shave a few layers of villainy off him, especially given how Farouk is portrayed.
Hey! It’s That Guy, Not That You’d Know It!: Not much to go on here, so I’ll just point out that Auctioneer David is played by John Vernon, whom IMDB claims is “known” for appearing in CD-ROM science fiction space simulator Privateer 2: The Darkening, a full-motion video game from the 90’s that somehow managed to also feature Clive Owen and John Hurt(!!!).
(Son of Side Note: Being a FMV game connoisseur – believe me, between that interest and Poirot recaps, my Saturday night dance card is ALWAYS full – I must now go back and replay it to see if I can spot him. This is my cross to bear.)
Perhaps His Lordship Would Care To Pit An Avocado?: That weird non-sequitur of a mango peeling scene? Um. I’m just gonna leave this delightful little anecdote right here, straight from the trivia page for this episode:
“David Suchet was a guest at a lunch with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. When Suchet chose a mango from a fruit bowl but didn’t know the proper way to peel it, the Duke demonstrated. Suchet later asked the scriptwriters to include the incident. On screen, Poirot peels the mango, and says, ‘A duke taught me’.”
Poirot: “This is a matter for the Commissioners In Lunacy!”
Farouk: “Dignity. Ah. Yes.”
Farouk (screams at thief): “DAUGHTER OF A LICENTIOUS CAMEL!”
Mrs. Lacey: “Never good telling a young girl that a man has a bad reputation, is it?”
Poirot: “It is often, I believe, an added attraction.”
Next Week, on Poirot: The gang’s all back together, and attending a lavish costume party! Who doesn’t love a bit of dress-up? I mean, except for person who ends up stabbed and the other one who overdoses? They probably don’t love it. Join us for… “The Affair at the Victory Ball”!