Poirot (Classic): S05E06 “The Chocolate Box”

Mais ouis, mon amis!  We are delightfully returned to our little mystery club here in the new year, and with a case most entertaining!

Not for plot-related reasons, mind you: it’s a fairly standard “pick which one of the dinner guests poisoned the chocolates”  joint (oh, that old chestnut?), but a few things set this one apart as one of my favorite episodes of the series.

Poirot and Japp are visiting Brussels, where Our Chief Inspector is due to receive an honor from the Belgian police for his assistance over the years. The trip to the city occasions Poirot to recount the tale of one of his old cases as a member of the Belgian police, the death of Paul Deroulard – ruled to be death by natural heart attack, but which Poirot has long since been convinced was murder.

That’s right, kids: it’s a FLASHBACK EPISODE! It’s not an origin story per se, but it does provide a fascinating glimpse into how A Belgian became Our Belgian.

We begin in the early 1900s in Brussels, where up and coming politician Paul Deroulard argues heatedly with his wife Marianne over what appears to be a disagreement over his perceived anti-Catholic reform policies, and — HEY! Wake up! It gets better!

Anyway, Marianne flees and runs to the stairs, but trips and falls, apparently breaking her neck; this is all witnessed by Paul’s mother.

Some months later, after Paul and his mother entertain the usual assortment of suspects rivals, frenemies, and ill-wishing relations at a (say it with me) weekend dinner party, Paul is found dead in his study, after eating chocolates from a box very much like the one present at dinner that evening.

Rising young star in the Belgian police force Hercule Poirot and his partner Claude are called in to investigate, and though the case appears to go nowhere, Poirot is convinced by Paul’s cousin Ginnie (played by a never-more-gorgeous Anna Chancellor) to look further into his death, as she suspects foul play.

What follows is a solid thirty minutes of Young Poirot in action, and it is goddamn wonderful, for a variety of reasons, albeit most of them boiling down to “David Suchet Is A Hell Of An Actor”.

Reason The First: The producers did a great job transforming Suchet into a younger version of himself, and did so in a way that you’d swear Suchet himself stepped out of a time machine. No obvious toupees or whiplash-inducing character-behavior-opposite-of-how-he-acts-today hackery here, instead the changes are subtle enough to where you look at them and go, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

Physically, Our Belgian is graced with just enough more hair on top; his moustache is fuller and longer; and he appears a good twenty pounds lighter (Suchet wore clothes throughout the series to make him appear heavier than he actually was — I wasn’t able to find out if he simply wore clothes that fit him this episode or if he actually shed a few pounds for it).

Too, we see that Young Poirot is most certainly vulnerable to the charms of Ginnie, and is excited by her audacity and impetuousness; YP isn’t afraid to go full-on cat burglar (yes, we get to see Poirot’s BurglarWear(TM) this episode) in the home of a Count in order to investigate, and he’s persuaded to partake in Ginnie’s plan to trick a suspect into confessing via a theatrical ruse — a method Our Belgian will use to great success later in life, as we’ve seen.

Everything here points to a Poirot quicker to action, less discreet in his methods, and defiant of authority, but no less convinced of his own brilliance than his present-day counterpart. It’s incredibly easy to draw a line from this younger, less suspicious, somewhat looser version of Poirot to the hero we’ve come to know now.

Reason the Second: The story is told cutting back and forth between Young Poirot’s investigation and present-day Poirot’s interactions with Japp and some of the principals involved with the case, and it manages to weave the two timelines together in a way that makes sense narratively. Poirot’s old partner is now Commissar of police; the Count Poirot suspected of murder is now the Mayor of Brussels. The meat of the story may be in the past, but Poirot’s present day interactions effectively convey the passage of time and hint at the presence of old wounds.

There’s a lovely sequence where Japp is given the Honor of the Golden Eagle, and the admiration Poirot shows for his friend is genuine; and there’s an absolutely heartbreaking sequence in the closing minute where Poirot is reintroduced to now-married Ginnie, that might be the best-acted thirty seconds Suchet ever committed to film, with his face registering joy, regret, longing, and loss all at the same time with the simple kiss of a hand. It really is a sweet gut punch to end the episode.

Reason the Third: The mystery, as mentioned, isn’t anything to write home about – it’s basically two or three suspects, a secret agent, and a bit more convolution than I’d prefer – but it’s saved at the end not by revealing the murderer [spoiler] (Paul’s mother, who killed her son because of what he was doing to the country and the church)[/spoiler], nor the vital clue [spoiler] (red/green colorblindness led her to mismatch the tops of the chocolate boxes) [/spoiler], but by a final twist – that [spoiler] the initial flashback scene to the argument between Paul and his wife didn’t show the whole picture; Paul quite literally pulled the rug out from under his wife’s feet at the top of the stairs to cause her fatal fall down the stairs [/spoiler].

That final revelation and Poirot’s actions upon finding out serve to highlight how far he’s come in his attitudes towards crime, authority, and his own moral balance – and lends an even greater weight to the decisions we know he’s already made. It’s a hell of a reveal, superseded here only by the origins of Poirot’s ever-present lapel pin. (Seriously!)

It’s a gimmick episode, yes – but it’s one that works amazingly as an hour of TV with Our Belgian, and a treat for viewers who have been watching since the beginning.

Next Week, On Poirot: A total jerkface! Shady auction shenanigans (as if there were any other kind)! And a murder, probably, given that next week’s title is… “Dead Man’s Mirror”!