Poirot (Classic): S06E01 “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”

Simeon Lee is a right bastard, and asking in all but name to be killed from the moment we meet him. In South Africa in 1896, he murders his prospecting partner in order to keep a diamond mine claim to himself, then when he’s rescued from the brink of death by lonely homesteader Stella he takes advantage of her kindness and then promptly abandons her to return home.

Forty years later, now old and wheelchair bound (OR IS HE?!?) he’s grown even more cruel (and rich off his diamond mines, to boot); for Christmas, he summons his family to his home for… uh… well, frankly the only reason seems to be so he can pretend to change his will and see his children twist and fight about it. At the behest of local policeman Superintendent Sugden, he rings up Poirot and asks him to attend as well; given that Our Belgian’s boiler is in need of repair and Lee’s home has central heating, he accepts, despite not knowing entirely why Lee has requested his presence.

The family, of course, is the usual motley crew of various ne’er-do-wells and backbiters; there’s somehow-living-on-an-allowance-yet-still-a-member-of-Parliament son George and his probably-a-con-artist-wife Maggie; black sheep son Harry, recently returned from South America (OR IS HE?!?); never-seen-by-anyone-until-now Spanish niece Pilar; and long-suffering-enabler son Alfred and his wife Lydia, who’s had just about enough of the old lech Simeon’s behavior.

(Side Note: Lecherousness runs strong in the Lee family apparently, as ol’ Harry wastes zero time in hitting on Pilar, and this continues even after he’s learned they’re related. Ew.)

In other words, the table is set exactly as you’d expect for the inevitable murder that happens after dinner, in which a hideous scream and thrashing about is heard from Old Man Simeon’s (locked, natch) room. Breaking down the door, the guests find Simeon dead, his throat cut and the room in shambles. What’s more, the old man’s prized diamonds have been stolen from his safe.

And so, over the next three days Poirot and Japp investigate, questioning the pit of vipers that passes for a family and making trips here and there to the village local and post office. Clues are found, red herrings are planted, identities are exposed, motives are revealed, and it would take too much space here to detail out everything that happens, so let’s just put it this way:

Grey Cells:

Despite every single one of them having had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill Simeon Lee, it turns out to be none of the family we spent the last hour and a half with, but none other than Superintendent Sugden!

Turns out Sugden is Simeon’s illegitimate son borne from his encounter with Stella all those years ago in South Africa, and he (along with his mother) has been living his life in proximity to Simeon all these years, waiting and plotting his revenge for abandoning them.

He visited Lee earlier that night on pretense of collecting donations to the local orphanage, then killed him, stole the diamonds and stacked the furniture in the middle of the room bound with a cord that he threw out the window below, attaching a Dying Pig toy (more about this in a minute) balloon to the whole thing.

Locking the door from the outside, he left the house, waited an hour or so, then returned to the grounds and pulled the cord, toppling the furniture and releasing the, er, pig so as to cause the crash and scream heard by the rest of the guests. Re-inserting himself into the case as the investigator let him do things like plant the diamond case in Maggie’s luggage and the diamonds themselves in Lydia’s miniature garden to throw suspicion on them.

It’s ludicrous, yes – but also devilishly clever, and one of those last-minute familial reveals that you sort of see coming but manages to still surprise (and even better, make sense in the reveal flashbacks of the investigation).

As long as you don’t ask yourself why Sugden made the boneheaded mistake of having Simeon invite the World’s Greatest Detective down to ostensibly provide an alibi instead of just hiring some schlep out of the phone book, it’s a satisfying tale of long-simmering revenge and richly drawn characters behaving badly. The fact that you’re rooting for the old man to get what’s coming to him from the start makes it all go down smoother, and the corrupt blood that runs in the family makes most of the motivations make sense.

(Additional Side Note: It’s also nice, frankly, to have a motivation other than “rich people want more money” behind the murder, as the revenge angle makes this a much more visceral and understandable crime.)

Also great: the fact that Poirot twigs to what’s going on with the help of a novelty moustache placed on a portrait of young Simeon (it helps him see the family resemblance between Simeon and Sugden). Not only does it make the ginormous portrait that we’ve seen looming over the entire episode a key clue, it drives home the point that – really – Simeon’s death was simply the harvest from a garden of cruelty he spent his entire life tending.

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So much to like here, in what’s a Knives Out-esque full-throated embrace of Christie tropes. It’s almost comfort food, and that’s sort of what you want in a Christmas episode, innit? The manor full of guests, the impossible locked room, the hidden motivations, secret identities, hell – even the village local acting as a place where innocuous pints of lager turn unwittingly into truth serum.

The mood is dark overall, with the wintry landscapes, countdown to Christmas, ominous choral music, the enormous manor that seems to swallow up light in every room and the evil Simeon’s portrait hanging over everything. Poirot barely conceals his disdain for almost everyone in this dysfunctional family, and Japp takes no guff from anyone trying to tell him his business (there’s a great scene in which the MP George threatens action over Japp’s “bullying” of his wife by… uh.. asking her whereabouts… and Japp is stone cold, gives-zero-damns about it).

But it’s frequently funny, too, and Suchet and Jackson have their usual marvelous chemistry. The scene at Japp’s relatives’ house in Wales where they’re all singing around the piano and he sits staring morosely like he’d rather eat a bullet than hear one more carol is priceless. Japp’s present to Poirot (a hand-knit pair of… let’s say “colorful”… mittens) was sweet, if not exactly what Poirot was hoping for, and it’s nice that the episode takes time to remember that these two are friends, not just drivers of the plot.

A clever, satisfying holiday meal full of everything I like about the genre and a great start to the rest of the series.

Who Thought This Would Be Fun?: Believe it or not, the Dying Pig was in fact a real toy that was popular in the early 20th century, which is just sort of shudderingly awful. Thank God we as a society matured to the point where our noisemakers of choice went from dying animal screams to farts, I guess.

(The best part of that newspaper article I linked to is the description “they utter a mournful squeal and become thinner and thinner, finally toppling over in a dejected heap, in the funniest way possible. Ye Gods!)

Storm Clouds Looming: Adding to the darkness of the episode, the Spanish Civil War hangs over the episode as a backdrop, as Pilar is recently returned from her country and the experience of being in the middle of the horrors and atrocities there has left her understandably sharp-edged. It also throws into relief the utter obliviousness and casual cruelty of other family members, who declare themselves pro-Franco and talk about it as if it were a sporting event, with no regard for someone in their company who doesn’t have that luxury.

>I DON’T KNOW THE WORD “TRESYLLIAN”: The family butler being named Tresyllian immediately put me in mind of the old Infocom game Moonmist, itself a text adventure in the Gothic/Cozy mystery genre. The game takes place in Tresyllian Castle, and I immediately wanted to fire it up again, not least because it’s a bit of a Christie riff on its own. Recommended!

(Hm. Now I have an urge to do a series on all the Infocom games. So many hobbies, so little time.)

Quotent Quotables:

Sugden: “They definitely only were missing, but only two people could have done it, and one of them might have done it as a joke.”

Poirot: “I have yet to meet anybody in this household that has even the most rudimentary sense of humor.”

___

Poirot: “Ah, chief inspector. You have been thinking again. I have warned you of this before.”

Japp: “Oh, well.”

___

Harry Lee (with lecherous grin to Pilar): “So, I’m not your uncle anymore, eh?”

(Again. Ew.)

Next Week, on Poirot: Kleptomania strikes at a university hostel, but things turn even more serious when the dude from Billions shows up and someone steals a life! It’s… “Hickory Dickory Dock”!