Poirot (Classic): S04E01 “The ABC Murders”

We begin, like so many of these do, at a train station, where whistles are blowing, steam is fssssh-ing, brown-becoated men are walking about, suitcases are being loaded, and the ubiquitous ABC Railway Guide is prominently on display. A familiar pair of spats walks the platform.

Before you can say, “Good Lord!”, M. Poirot warmly greets an arriving passenger just in from South America, Our Man Hastings and his new pal Cedric the Stuffed Caiman, about whose capture and death Hastings will desperately attempt to tell the story of roughly five times over the course of the next two hours, to no one’s interest.

(Side Note: Cedric is a great running gag in the episode. Hastings brought him back as a gift for Poirot, who summons all of his willpower to ignore A) the stench and B) the fact that it’s a big freaking crocodile that doesn’t really fit in with the decor.)

Back at Whitehaven Mansions, Poirot mentions a letter he received recently, a typewritten letter taunting him with a crime to be committed in Andover a day hence. The letter writer calls him (or her) self “A.B.C.”.

Poirot has warned Scotland Yard already, and the next day when Japp phones down to the town, we learn that there has indeed been a crime – one Mrs. Alice Asher has been Attacked and killed in her Andover shop.

Asher’s niece Mary (Cathryn Bradshaw) seems genuinely broken up about her aunt’s death, but after ruling out a violent drunk of an ex-husband, Poirot and Hastings are left with zero clues about the murderer and nothing left to go on except the presence at the crime scene of the ABC Railway guide.

(Additional Side Note: A nice bit of shade thrown towards a certain British doctor’s way here, as when Hastings complains about the lack of clues, Poirot pokes fun at the idea of a bit of unique tobacco ash, stepped in by a pair of distinctively-patterned shoes).

Another letter arrives, this one promising a new crime in the seaside resort of Bexhill-On-Sea a couple of days later. Although our heroes try to warn the local superintendent, Bexhill is a seaside resort and it’s holiday season – so the super basically turns into the Mayor of Shark City and throws up his hands. That evening, Poirot seems genuinely afraid of what will happen next.

Of course the killer strikes again, and strangles Blond Betty Barnard’s Body on the Beach in Bexhill, which could only be more on the nose if she’d died by bee sting. Japp and the gang notify her parents, in a very sad scene (and one that kind of stuck out – we don’t get many of these in Poirot episodes).

Betty’s sister Megan (Pippa Guard) – who is EXACTLY the sort of auburn-haired beauty that catches Our Man’s eye – mentions Betty’s jealous boyfriend Don Fraser (Nicholas Farrell) and although he admits he has no alibi, once again the detectives don’t turn up anything concrete other than yet another fingerprint-less copy of the ABC Railway guide found with the body.

At this point, we cut to a Creepy Bespectacled Man (Donald Sumpter) watching a movie in the cinema. It’s Footsteps in the Sand with Raymond Massey, about a serial killer called the Dorset Murderer. He seems to be enjoying himself just a little too much. (The Creepy Bespectacled Man, I mean, not Raymond Massey.)

Japp goes public about the ABC killings, and we get lovely Old-Timey Whirly Newspaper Shots of headlines as the public learns of the serial killer in their midst. Poirot begins to suspect the murderer has a personal vendetta against him because of the letters, and as he and Hastings eat dinner together the late post arrives.

It carries, of course, a third letter – but this one has been misaddressed to Whitehorse Mansions, hence it arrives days later than intended. It warns of yet another murder, in Churston… that day.

Sure enough, Lord Carmichael Clarke has been Clubbed and pushed over a Cliff in Churston. Clarke was a millionaire, survived by his terminally ill wife and his brother, Frank (Donald Douglas) and secretary Thora (Nina Marc). And, of course, by an ABC Railway guide.

(Son of Side Note: When Our Man is introduced to Thora, he basically makes cartoon eyes and does everything but shout, “AWOOGA!” at her. It’s a little embarrassing, frankly.)

Once more, the detectives are stymied: no one saw anyone strange on the grounds that day or night, and no connection can be found between the victims. Poirot comes to the conclusion that they’ve been looking for connections that aren’t there; the victims, of course, have all been chosen by the madman because of their names.

Poirot then convenes the surviving associates of the victims together in the hopes that working together on the investigation someone will remember something to point them towards the murderer’s identity, but nothing immediately washes out. There’s a sense of hopelessness that hangs heavy over our heroes and the newly-assembled Whitehaven Irregulars.

Meanwhile, Creepy Bespectacled Guy puts on a graduate-level clinic in Acting Like An Insane Killer during a library conversation with a stranger, laughing madly at the idea of war being preventable; it’s clear he’s a bit addled from his time in the Great War.

They travel once more to Churston at Lady Clarke’s request, and she expresses her disdain for Thora, saying the secretary lied about not having seen anyone — Lady Clarke saw her meet someone at the gate the day of the murder.

Back in London, Don Fraser is there to confess to Poirot that he’s been having dreams about killing Betty and/or her sister, and seems a bit frazzled himself. In a very yell-at-the-TV sequence, the mail goes unnoticed on the desk as Don recounts his dream, until finally Our Man takes a second look and opens the fourth letter from ABC: the next target will be in Doncaster, a week hence on the day of a Big Horse Race.

More Old-Timey Whirly Newspaper shots, and Poirot gathers the Whitehaven Irregulars again to discuss plans for Doncaster.

(Abbott and Costello Meet The Side Note: Delightfully, we learn that the dishes in Poirot’s kitchen are arranged in order of height, with the cups up high and the saucers down below, which might be the most Poirot thing ever.)

When pressed about her earlier lie, Thora remembers she met a shabby-looking stocking salesman, the sort of person you’d never give a second thought to. Poirot realizes that stockings were present at both the Asher and Barnard homes, and puts two and two together, as we see the Creepy Bespectacled Man – the improbably named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust – in his boardinghouse room reading a Non-Whirly Newspaper headline about Doncaster.

In his room are a copy of the ABC Railway Guide, a typewriter, and a suitcase full of stocking samples…

Grey Cells:

…which if this were any other mystery story would lead to another half hour of the detectives playing catch-up to something we already know, ending with the arrest and conviction of Cust.

And it almost does! At Doncaster at the crowded racegrounds where the Whitehaven Irregulars are keeping an eye out for… uh… an innocuous stocking salesman I guess (this is, honestly a stupid idea)? However in a magnificent directorial flourish we cut several times between (frankly pretty clumsy) stock crowd footage and Poirot sitting motionless, eyes closed amidst the chaos. A slight smile creeps on to his face. His eyes open. He has the solution.

Poirot twigs to the fact that the best place to hide a murder is in a sea of other murders; only one of the ABC murders in particular had any meaning – the others were just cover to promote the idea that a mad serial killer was toying with Poirot (which still ends up being kind of true?).

But first, Mr. Cust attends another movie in Doncaster, and as he leaves we see some poor bastard stabbed in the back. When Cust returns to his room, he’s in shock at the sight of blood on his hands and a bloody knife in his coat pocket. He scrubs furiously, then leaves town, but not before his landlady reports him to the po-po, and the bloody evidence is discovered in his room.

Upon returning to London however, in a fantastically creepy sequence Cust’s paranoia and horror get the best of him. The voices in his head grow louder, and he stumbles his way to a police station to turn himself in, where he’s jailed and committed to trial for the ABC murders.

You’d think Dame Agatha would be more inventive than that. You’d be right.

A witness turns up that claims to have spent the night of Betty’s murder playing dominoes with Cust, so he couldn’t have killed her. A jailhouse interview with Poirot – and man, what a scene this is, with Suchet and Sumpter working together to show us the sympathetic detective and a sad, broken man who’s lived an unremarkable life of unrealized expectations and convinced himself he’s a monster – explains that Cust suffers from epilepsy and blackouts. Curiously, he claims that he was sent the typewriter and stockings from his employer along with a list of cities to travel to and clients to visit that match the ABC murders to a T. Cust’s ostensible employers deny any knowledge of him whatsoever.

Poirot gathers the Whitehaven Irregulars for the denouement where it’s revealed that Frank Clarke was the murderer all along. Looking to get rid of his brother Carmichael the millionaire before Lady Clarke died and ol’ Carm took up with his secretary – which would deny Frank his inherited millions – he cooked up a scheme.

After meeting Cust over a game of dominoes in the city, he realized he had a weak-spirited, suggestible man he could bend to his will. Faking a letter of employment, he sent Cust the typewriter, stockings to sell, and the list of cities and clients. He then proceeded to follow Cust from town to town, committing the murders himself and leaving Cust increasingly unsure of his own behavior.

Clarke typed up all of the ABC letters ahead of time, and mailed them to Poirot as per the schedule; he intentionally misaddressed the C murder letter in order to give himself enough time to ensure the important target Carmichael was killed. He chose Poirot because he had a private address that he could be sure the misaddressed letter would eventually arrive at. While the rest of the Irregulars were casing the race track at Doncaster, Clarke slipped away and followed Cust to the movies, knifed the dude in the back, then slipped the hankie and knife into Cust’s pocket as he was leaving.

Poirot accuses Clarke, saying that he’d left his fingerprints on Cust’s typewriter which prompts a sort of pointless escape scene that ends with Clarke’s arrest.

(I Know What You Did Last Side Note: If you’re wondering why someone so careful not to leave prints at no less than four murder scenes was stupid enough to leave prints on the typewriter, fear not; Poirot reveals that he was lying about that bit, and threw that bluff into the explanation just to satisfy Hastings’ need for “clues”. Wonderful.)

Back at Whitehaven, Cust comes to thank Poirot for his help, and excitedly says he’s been offered a hundred pounds to tell his story to the papers. Poirot warns him to accept no less than five hundred, as he’s now quite possibly the most famous man in England – just as Clarke had promised him he’d be when he recruited Cust over dominoes.

Cust also takes a shine to Cedric the Stuffed Caiman, and Hastings finally gets to tell his story about how he acquired him.

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Boy, where to start here?

It’s just a fantastic episode from start to finish, helped in no small part by that amazing Suchet-Fraser chemistry. Whether it’s physical comedy, small shared two-hander scenes in train compartments or washing dishes in a kitchen, or the wordless expressions exchanged as a suspect enters a room or the two contemplate the mystery before them, it’s a terrific pairing that brings a whole lot of warmth to what’s generally a fairly ominous episode.

Special mention, too, to Donald Sumpter, who plays ABC just off enough to make us wonder if he could be the killer, then decide he is, then decide he’s not again, then decide yeah, this guy’s loony tunes. Yet Sumpter’s performance makes him ultimately the most sympathetic character in the story, and he (ironically) establishes himself as perhaps the most memorable supporting player in the show’s history. (You may have seen him recently as Zharkov in HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries.)

And of course, it’s all built on one of those you-can-only-pull-that-trick-once plots of Christie’s, working off a sturdy skeleton of psychology, base motivation, and clever misdirection. The great deception The ABC Murders pulls off is that it cons you into thinking the there’s no clue in the victims themselves, then doubles back on itself, using that very point to prove that the opposite is true. And so much of it still feels ahead of its time; witness the tons of “killers playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police” potboilers churned out on a regular basis in print and on screen since. Christie used that entire premise as a goddamned red herring, a simple means to an entirely unrelated end.

Too, this episode is a bit of a lovely little travelogue, with constant train journeys between locations in England. We go from city to village to seaside resort to manor to boardinghouse and back alleys and racetracks; for a movie-length episode, this thing moves, man, and the breakneck pace of the plot combined with the constant feeling of helplessness against an unknowable, unstoppable maniac really sells the desperation of our heroes. Tonally it hits its marks perfectly, balancing investigation and rumination in the manner of the best of Poirot. A great script by Clive Exton.

And let’s not forget the humor! Aside from Cedric The Stuffed Caiman’s constant presence, we’ve got a joke about Japp hauling groceries home that pays off an hour later, Hastings falling deeply in love with every pretty young thing with a pulse, and subtle needling between friends that serves to lighten the mood lest it turn from ominous into ponderous.

OK, I’ve done enough talking, let’s wrap this up (and apologies for the lengthy exposition – I’ve gotta adjust my approach going forward as these turn into mostly movies). In short, “The ABC Murders” is Poirot done nearly perfectly, the total opposite of the recently-released-for-the-love-of-all-that’s-holy-why-did-they-do-this John Malkovich adaptation, and you can’t convince me otherwise.

(Oh and hey, if you’re looking for a rad present for that Poirot fan in your life, you can still get a copy of the 1937 ABC Rail Guide for just about sixty bucks (murders not included)! Giftmas is right around the corner!)

Quotent Quotables:

Poirot: “When do you notice least a pin? When it is in a pincushion.”

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Poirot (trying to be polite about the stench of a stuffed caiman in his living room, which are words I never thought I’d type): “One feels… braced! It brings to London the Jungle!”

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Cust: “I just had to come and say “Thank you,” Mr. Poirot. You are a very great man.”

Japp: “Oh, he knows that.”

 

In Two Weeks, On Poirot: Ladies and gentlemen we’ll be descending into London shortly. Please remember to store your carry-on bags, return your seats to their upright positions, and duck if you see any poisoned darts headed your way! You can’t be too careful when there’s… “Death in the Clouds”!