Bear with me on this one, because a lot of this is going to be in spoiler tags for obvious reasons.
We open, weirdly, on a slow-motion shot of Creepy Hopscotch Girls singing the children’s rhyme “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” while playing on the sidewalk outside a London dentist’s office. Then we see said dentist get shot. So far, so serial-killer-vibe.
Flashing back to 1925 India via newsreel footage of the Prince of Wales’ visit, promising young banker Alistair Blunt (Peter Blythe) gets engaged to marry actress Gerda (Joanna Phillips-Lane), to the delight of fellow actress and friend Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale (Carolyn Colquhoun).
(Side Note: Veteran Poirot-watchers will immediately recognize the twin signs of “extended pre-case flashback” and “main characters who are theatre professionals”, indicating that at some point someone will almost surely be pretending to be someone they’re not.)
12 years later in London, Mabelle runs into Blunt outside the dentist office of one Henry Morley, who has the unfortunate fate of being dentist to Our Belgian as well. Blunt doesn’t recognize her, but she’s delighted to see him, and asks to visit her old friend Gerda, who—- look, let’s just make this easier on all of us, okay?
The episode throws a lot of guff at us before we get to the actual crime, things like:
- Morley’s secretary’s boyfriend (uh huh) Frank Carter (Christopher Eccleston), hotheaded suitor by day and Nazi sympathizer by night (no, really).
- Recently-arrived-from-India-on-the-same-boat-as-Mabelle Mr. Amberiotis (Kevork Malikyan), a swarthy gentleman with a toothache.
- Blunt’s sister-in-law Julia Olivera (Helen Horton) and his niece Jane (Sara Stewart), two Americans in town to badger Blunt for more money than their $25,000 monthly allowance, which they receive because Blunt’s wife has been dead for a few years.
Anyway, I wanted to get all that out of the way because any further plot explanation is useless because of three big problems with this episode, which we’ll get to shortly. Over the course of two days, we see people come and go to Morley’s office, including most of our suspects and M. Poirot himself. Later on the second day, after another customer storms out in a huff, the pageboy opens Morley’s office to find Morley shot in the head, with a pistol in his own hand.
Before long, Japp is on the scene declaring it a suicide and Poirot finds himself investigating The Case Of The Definitely Not A Suicide Because We All Saw The Dentist Get Shot By A Pair Of Gloved Hands In The Opening Two Minutes Of The Episode. Now, about those problems.
OK, here’s what happened in a frankly humongous nutshell. Blunt committed bigamy by marrying Rebecca Arnholt, because he’d never divorced Gerda when he left India. When Mabelle came back to London, Blunt got nervous about being exposed, mainly because Mr. Amberiotis was about to blackmail him for it and ruin him. So Gerda – living under the name “Sylvia Chapman” – killed her friend then assumed her identity when she and Blunt killed Morley. Blunt then pretended he was Morley and gave Amberiotis an overdose of novocaine when he came to fix his toothache. Then (I know, I know) they switched the dental records of Mabelle and Chapman so Mabelle’s body would be misidentified at the inquest, and their backup plan was to blame Frank. Or something. Look, I didn’t write it.
Problem the First:
We spend a lot of time watching the flighty, somewhat naive Mabelle first in India, then in London talking to Amberiotis, Blunt, Morley, and the like. Which is fine! But then when Poirot encounters Mabelle outside Morley’s office — before the crime, mind you — it’s definitely, one thousand percent not the Mabelle we’ve been watching for the past half hour. Poirot doesn’t know that (yet), but we the audience absolutely do. And it takes about three seconds to assume that “Mabelle” is actually Gerde, her actress friend from India, because remember what I said about flashbacks and theatre professionals earlier.
In fact, the episode takes pains to shove not-Mabelle in our face during an interview with Japp and Poirot, even having her spell out her name to make sure the papers get it right. I get why plotwise — it’s all part of yet another elaborate double-bluff leading up to one of those “make folks think a dead body is someone they aren’t” schemes that always seem to me like they’re more trouble than they’re worth (though arguably part of the charm of Christie stories).
My issue is that this often leads — as it does here — to the audience knowing more than the characters on the show, and while dramatic irony works just great for a lot of things, it’s absolutely a killer (HAR!) for a Poirot episode. Not only does it complicate the already complex storytelling, it robs us of the joy of Poirot working his way towards an improbable solution. Here especially, it telegraphs far too much about what’s going on way too early in the episode.
Problem the Second:
Blunt, a prominent British banker now, is a widower, his wife having died 4 years ago. Unfortunately, either I missed a key line of dialogue somewhere or the writer (Clive Exton) intentionally left out the part where the dead wife wasn’t Gerda, the woman we saw him getting engaged to in India. And this is a key plot point of the entire mystery, which would be fine, except the way the transition from flashback to present day happens, we the audience are led to believe that it’s Gerda who died 4 years ago instead of this Rebecca(?) Arnholt, the never-seen-dead-wife that connects Julia and Jane to Blunt.
And so I spent much of the first half of the episode confused as to why everyone kept acting like Gerda was dead, when a scene showing Mabelle visiting her friend establishes that she’s most assuredly not dead (despite a clunky refusal to show us Gerda’s face in that scene). And once you combine that fact with Problem the First, it’s pretty damned easy to figure out the rough outlines of what’s going on before the murder even occurs.
Problem the Third:
This is really sort of the icing on the cake that combines Problems the First and Second, which is that given the duration and attention of the opening scene in India, there’s absolutely no way that anyone will end up having any relevance to the story who wasn’t involved in the goings-on in 1925. Once Mabelle (the real one) turns up dead in the apartment of a “Sylvia Chapman” (again, exterior location shots let us know that it’s Gerda’s apartment), there’s nobody left to plausibly be involved. Which makes it a matter of killing the clock until the denouement, despite a halfhearted stab at making the Nazi-In-Training Tenth Doctor a suspect. Hell, they even kill the only other possible connection to India – Mr. Amberiotis, a blackmailer, (not that it matters at all until they try to square the plot up) – almost immediately on the heels of Morley’s murder, so he’s out too! Attempts to push the “Morley killed himself because he accidentally OD’d Amberiotis on Novocaine” narrative just never grab hold, because again we saw him get shot in the first two minutes.
So half the mystery is already worked out for you before the murder is even committed, the other half relies on a coincidence of staggering proportions and yet another overly complicated scheme that I’m still scratching my head over. Look – I get that “overly complicated schemes” are sort of our stock in trade round these parts, but this is another one of those that gets tripped up in its script, making some clever bits stupefyingly obvious and getting sunk by having to tell the story in a visual medium.
Which isn’t to say, actually, that I hated the episode. I don’t think it’s particularly good, mind you — it suffers from a lot of the same problems as “Death in the Clouds” in its slow start, dry procedural tone, lack of Our Man Hastings, too many plot elements that don’t contribute anything to the story — but the supporting actors and characters here are at least marginally more interesting this time out, and there’s a bigger theme to the story, which pits individual evils against a greater public good, and vice versa. M. Poirot gets a nice principled moment at the end that spells out exactly where he stands on the issue, too.
I can’t remember reading this one ever, so I’m curious for those of you that have — did they make it as plain in the novel what was going on? It seems like without the early reveal of the ol’ switcheroo that this would have worked much better as a mystery.
Oh, and hey, fun fact: Julia Olivera, the money-grubbing sister-in-law from New York, is played by the same actress who voiced the computer “Mother” in the movie Alien. So, uh, yeah.
Next week, on Poirot:
Hey, remember the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb? Well — and I’m just spitballing here — what if a certain egg-headed Belgian had been called in to investigate? I bet that would make for a good hour of TV, huh? Let’s find out when series 5 kicks off with… “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”!