Poirot (Classic): S08E01 “Evil Under the Sun”

Been a hot minute since Our Belgian last whisked off to an island resort to get someone killed a little rest and relaxation, so in this week’s installment of Someone Please Stop This Man From Going On Vacation, People Are Dying For God’s Sake we get our four Musketeers together for some sun, sand, and murder.

The Setup:

In a weird opening scene, somewhere in a small English village wood a body is discovered by a cyclist while an Extremely Sweaty Vicar delivers a sermon condemning jezebels. We see the victim’s husband exonerated of her murder because he had been on a train at the time the murder was committed, and so the inquest basically ends with a shrug and that’s that.

Cut to two years later. Our Man Hastings, last seen returning to England dead broke until Poirot handed him the case fee from L’Affaire d’ Edgware, does the responsible thing with his newfound wealth and invests in a sensible retirement plan opens an Argentinian restaurant and invites his Best Belgian and Chief Inspector Japp to attend opening night festivities; things are going swimmingly until Poirot keels over from an apparent heart attack, and before long Miss Lemon and his doctor have him booked for two weeks on the Road to Wellville, on an island off the English coast of Devon.

Accompanied by Hastings, Our Belgian proceeds grumpily to partake in steam baths, swamp grass smoothies, and making excuses not to exercise. It’s a gorgeous little island, replete with beaches, hidden coves, tennis courts, and a weird elevated tractor-type thing to carry guests to and from the island from the mainland.

The Crime:

Of course, this being a luxury wellness resort, you have all sorts of Rich White Folk staying here as well. Chief among them being the actress Arlena Stuart, a vivacious, rich, flirty woman who’s got more money than sense and somewhat… er… progressive views on the sanctity of marriage, let’s say.

One sunny afternoon, fellow resorteer and ex-flame Patrick Redfern sails out to Pixy Cove on the other side of the island and sees Arlena sunbathing; stopping to say hello, his hopes are dashed when it turns out she’s not sunbathing, but rather engaged in a healthy regimen of stiffening due to being strangled.

Not long after, Japp arrives on the island and before you know it Our Belgian is neck deep in work, interviewing suspects and sending Miss Lemon on tasks in London to ferret out the killer.

The Suspects:

Oh, it’s a Very Christie Lot, this bunch. The aforementioned Extremely Sweaty Vicar is here (and taking quite a lot of drugs, it would seem). There’s an ex-Army officer, natch, in the form of Major Barry. There’s of course the victim’s cuckolded husband and his son; Patrick Redfern and his shrinking violet of a wife Christine; a well-meaning woman who carries a torch for the cuckolded husband; and dear old gadfly Mrs. Brewster, who discovers the body with Patrick.

They’re… OK, I guess? Serviceable. That’s the word. Serviceable. They pale in comparison to the supporting cast of the 1982 Peter Ustinov adaptation, but to be fair that bunch had the virtue of including Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, Jane Birkin, and James Mason.

Also to be fair: Evil Under the Sun isn’t really concerned with its suspects, not really; moreso than other stories in the canon, they’re less human beings than simply puzzle pieces with alibis that need breaking in service to a devious crime. The only one really given any depth or characterization is the Extremely Sweaty Vicar, who’s just creepy, man.

Grey Cells:

Every single guest appears to have an unshakeable alibi for the time of death, which means of course there’s trickery afoot with the time of death. Patrick and his wife Christine conspired to kill Arlena Stuart (for her money, of course) and so the body found on the beach by Patrick and Mrs. Brewster was actually Christine disguised in suntan oil; having sent Brewster back to fetch the police, Patrick then met the very-much-alive Arlena Stuart in their prearranged rendezvous spot and strangled the life out of her.

Christine then legged it back to the resort, washing off the suntan oil and for reasons I can’t quite explain chucking the bottle of oil out the window, where the remnants prove a clue to solving the mystery. With no one the wiser, Arlena is presumed to have died a full half hour before she actually did, when everyone had an alibi.

It’s revealed that the two used this same trick in the murder seen in the opening two years ago, with Christine pretending to discover the body before the murder was committed and Patrick then committing the murder later.

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Wot I Liked:

Look, I’m always a sucker for a clever crime and an island full of suspects, and this is indeed a clever crime with an island full of suspects, if a little too dependent on some superhuman feats of athleticism by one of the participants.

Also neat: the hotel and island featured here is apparently the same one Christie stayed at while writing the book itself, so… yeah.

Most of the joy in the episode comes from the setup though – “Poirot at a health spa” is mined for all it’s worth, and the writers spend fully half the episode setting the scene before the crime is even committed…

Wot I Not Liked:

…and there’s a reason for that, which is as I mentioned earlier, there’s not a whole lot of discovery to do subsequently once there’s been a murder. From then on out it’s strictly devoted to solving the puzzle, and there are no ulterior motives, no hidden relationships, no further inciting incidents or characters to drive anything, which is why I suspect they padded out a subplot about heroin smuggling instead of wrapping it up early in the case.

And honestly, I wish they had done more with at least a few of the supporting characters, in particular I think it would have served the episode well to focus a bit more on Patrick and Christine and their relationship; it’s a pretty twisted pair these two make, and failing to examine the psychopathy of the whole enterprise seems like a missed chance.

I keep coming back to the word “serviceable” for this episode. It’s got a clever plot, but it sort of just drags a bit and errs on the side of focusing on plot mechanics over its characters, and we’ll come back to this as a study in contrasts when we get to its sister episode, “Death on the Nile”. While the crime itself is deservedly the centerpiece here, watch this one more for one last look at Poirot, Hastings, Japp and Lemon together for the last time for a long, long while.

Next Week, on Poirot: Yup, it’s the end of Series 8, and get ready for another vacation in the desert, as Poirot goes to Iraq on vacation and susses out murder at an archaeological dig (no mummies this time though, sadly). It’s also Hugh Fraser’s quasi-farewell to the series, so get ready to pour one out for Our Man as our dynamic duo solve… “Murder in Mesopotamia”!