Poirot (Classic): S05E01 “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”

We begin with some Old Timey Newsreel footage of Sir John Willard’s expedition to the Valley of the Kings in Cairo, where he’s about the open the tomb of the pharaoh Men-Her-Ra. Helpfully, the newsreel takes pains to introduce the suspects other expedition members, including:

  • Felix Bleibner, the financier of the expedition, who’s accompanied by
  • Rupert Bleibner, his nephew and
  • Nigel Harper, his secretary, who along with Rupert knew
  • Doctor Ames, the surgeon of the party, when they were classmates at Yale
  • Doctor Foswell, a boffin from the British Museum
  • Doctor Schneider, a boffin from the New York Museum

(Side Note: Apparently in 1937 doctorates were not particularly hard to come by.)

Look, there’s not a lot of characterization I’m going to go into here, because the plot kicks off straightaway with Sir John breaking the seal of the tomb, getting about three steps inside, then keeling over from a heart attack.

It doesn’t take long for rumors of a curse to circulate, which is why back in London Sir John’s wife summons Poirot. It seems Guy Willard (Grant Thatcher) is determined to carry on his father’s work at the expedition, and she’s deathly afraid of what might befall him. Surprisingly, Poirot agrees that superstition is a dangerous, powerful force.

Before leaving, Poirot asks Miss Lemon to cable New York for some information on Bleibner’s nephew Rupert (Paul Birchard), however she informs him there’s no need to do so because they already have an asset in New York that can help, and his name is OUR! MAN! HASTINGS!

Hastings visits Rupert, who’s recently returned from the expedition and has a serious case of the Howard Hughes going on; he finds him alone in his penthouse, drinking in his bathrobe and wearing gloves for no apparent reason. Downstairs at breakfast where he struggles to comprehend the American way of cooking eggs “over easy”, Hastings reads of Felix Bleibner’s death in Egypt, and exclaims, “Good Lord!” (It’s good to have you back, son.)

Rushing back to Rupert, Hastings finds him dead of apparent suicide, a hole in his head and a gun in his hand. A farewell note calling himself a “leper and and outcast” despite his apparent wealth and physique only serves to deepen the mystery, and he heads back to London, where we get a wonderful scene of Miss Lemon and Our Man attempting a seance with a planchette that Poirot is not having.

News reaches home that ol’ Doc Schneider is having some possibly-curse-related health issues, and before you can say “death in relative proximity to the Nile” our heroes are off to Egypt. Unfortunately, by the time they get there Schneider has died a rather convulsive death, despite Doc Ames’ (Rolf Saxon) attempts at saving him with antitoxin.

(Additional Side Note: Special mention here to the scene of Hastings having an absolute ball off-roading his way to the expedition camp, with a suitably perturbed Poirot bouncing dustily around in the back seat.)

Upon arriving, Poirot – presumably just playing the averages here – inquires as to whether Schneider could have died from strychnine, but Ames confirms he died from just routine tetanus, as one does.

In one of those ludicrous-to-actually-watch-but-absolutely-probably-happened-back-then-because-upper-class-twits-gonna-upper-class-twit-amirite scenes, the expedition gathers for dinner in formalwear that night under a tent (interestingly, everyone but Poirot is dressed in whites, while he has the usual black tuxedo).

Poirot floats the idea that there’s something to all this curse hooey, and we’re treated to the extremely unfortunate line “If the white folk lose their heads, the natives won’t be far behind,” which comes courtesy of the twit called Nigel, because if it didn’t come from someone named Nigel you’d have to invent a Nigel to deliver that particular line. After dinner, yet another doctor falls ill, this time Ames himself.

The next day, we’re treated to a scene where the sarcophagus itself of Men-Her-Ra is opened, and it’s actually really well done; Poirot feels genuine awe at the scope of history and the occasion, and is grateful to have been part of the moment. But will the opening of the sarcophagus spell even more terrible death for the party?

Grey Cells:

Nope, actually everyone gets a nice photo op out of it. After some more investigation including a search of Ames’ tent and a call from Miss Lemon with the contents of Rupert Bleibner’s will, Poirot himself appears to fall ill after drinking his nightly tisane! However, it’s just a ruse; he’s poured the contents of his cup out in another bottle, leaving only the smell of bitter almonds left, and avoided a lethal dose of cyanide.

We learn that the real curse is the presence of Doctor Ames. Although Sir John’s heart attack was indeed a natural one, Ames saw the possibilities and jumped on the chance to spread rumors of a curse by introducing septicemia into Felix Bleibner’s cut, knowing that all his money would go to Rupert.

Of course, since Rupert Bleibner in a drunken Yalie frat party or poker game years ago left all his money to his buddy Ames (as one does), all that was left was for Ames to convince Rupert that the eczema on his hands was really a case of leprosy, prompting him to leave the expedition and eventually kill himself. Yeah, the whole “I wrote my will at a party in college years ago” thing seems pretty thin, but I’ll add points for having Ames manipulate Rupert into killing himself by playing on his hypochondriacal tendencies.

Ames also killed Schneider by injecting him with the tetanus that killed him rather than the antitoxin he claimed it was, just to make the score Curse: 4, Alive People: 2.

Ames attempts to escape with a gun, but is apprehended by the native camp assistants.

[collapse]

Upon returning to London, Poirot presents Miss Lemon with a cat statuette retrieved from the tomb and tells her it will act as a vessel for her recently deceased cat’s spirit to visit her in the night, bringing her comfort. Before we can think too much about the fact that Our Belgian is basically now a grave robber, Poirot closes with a line about the power of superstition.

I don’t know about you, but after the relatively lifeless and dry two-hour episodes before this, a Hastings-juiced sleek hourlong episode is like a drink of water to a dying man in the desert.

Tonally, it pulls off the creepy Egyptian vibe quite well, with a lot of transitions being fade ins and outs of Ancient Egyptian death masks, heiroglyphs, and statuary; too, the fact that the alleged curse takes its time – people get sick and get worse, as opposed to someone being found stabbed – lends a mounting tension to the endeavor, with our heroes in a race against an unknown enemy that will keep killing until stopped.

And the mystery is fairly straightforward, keeping more in line with the psychological bent of the best Poirot stories as opposed to focusing on intricate means of murder or “crackerjack coincidence”. Although none of the supporting cast quite rise to anything other than “interchangeable white dudes in desert gear”, they serve the function of “victims” well enough, and if the final piece of evidence was pretttttttttty farfetched, it at least had the benefit of being completely unsuspected. The plot moves at a quick pace, pausing only for a brief contemplative moment by Suchet alone in the British Museum at the Egyptian exhibit.

(Curse Of The Side Note: I’ve had the good fortune to visit the British Museum, and I can tell you — I spent two full days exploring it, and I could have taken a week. Despite the sometimes uncomfortable provenance of the items on display, it’s hard to argue with history so immediate and accessible. The fact that admission is free is a minor miracle, and I cannot recommend it enough if you get the opportunity to visit.)

But let’s face it, the real magic in this episode isn’t Egyptian, it’s the return of Hugh Fraser, who livens up the whole affair with his credulity, humanity, and enthusiasm (he even volunteers to stay on with the dig after the case, because of course he does). He’s a great foil to put Poirot’s desert fussiness in sharp relief, and keeps the whole thing grounded, even as he indulges in nonsense like seances and theories about Egyptian death cults.

“The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” is a spooky, atmospheric Poirot that gets back to the basics of why the show works so well, and is a great opener to what’s going to be the final series to feature hour-long episodes.

History’s Mysteries: In the episode, we learn that Miss Lemon is mourning the death of her cat, named Catherine the Great, which is so adorable it makes me weep, but we also learn that she calls it that because it sleeps in the fireplace. I have no idea why, because as of yet I have been unable to find any record of the Russian empress sleeping in a fireplace on the regular. If any faithful readers can help out in the comments, please enlighten!

Hey! It’s That Guy!: Doctor Ames is played by Rolf Saxon, whom I immediately recognized as the actor who played one William Donloe, the poor bastard that gets the sticky end of vomit-inducing poison so that Ethan Hunt’s team can crack the CIA computer in the safe room in the first Mission: Impossible movie, which I’ve seen roughly seven billion times.

It Belongs In A Museum…Just Probably Not Yours!: Egypt is currently seeking the repatriation of both the Rosetta Stone and the famed bust of Nefertiti, held by the British Museum and the Neues Museum in Berlin, respectively.

Quotent Quotables:

Poirot: “Playing the good golf is no reason not to commit suicide, Hastings.”

Hastings: “You just don’t understand golf, Poirot.”

___

Poirot: “Hastings, the sand. It gets everywhere.”

Hastings: “There’s sand in Belgium, isn’t there?”

Poirot: “Not in Brussels, Hastings.”

___

Miss Lemon: “I could say ‘biog’.”

Poirot: “Comment?”

Miss Lemon: “Instead of ‘biographical’, I could say ‘biog’.”

Poirot: “Is that a word, Miss Lemon?”

Miss Lemon: “It sounds efficient. I heard someone say it in a picture. ‘Gimme da biog on Dutch Schultz, Miss Longfellow.'”

Poirot: “‘Biographical material’ will do very nicely, thank you, Miss Lemon.”

 

In Two, Maybe Three Weeks, Tops On Poirot: Mai ouis, your faithful chronicler is off on a cruise to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary and so we will have a break before plowing ahead with Series 5. (Chances of me plotting out Poirot cases involving fellow passengers at every opportunity: one hundred percent. Chances of these recaps continuing should an egg-headed Belgian be on the passenger list: significantly lowered, based on the literature.) Nevertheless,  the time off should give us plenty of time to get worked up about a case involving… uh… the CEO of a chemical plant and his new formula for synthetic rubber, right? We’ll find out in… “The Underdog”!