Vraiment, mes amis, but this week’s tale of murder is most bittersweet, as it marks the last time we will see Our Man Hastings for a very long while, series-wise. Fraser would return for a couple of episodes in the final series 12 years after “Murder in Mesopotamia”, but for now we must bid him a fond adieu and “Good Lord!”. Luckily, his final (for now) episode is quite a bit of fun.
Poirot is summoned to Baghdad by none other than his old semi-flame/definite jewel thief Countess Rossakoff, last seen legging it out of England on a train in “The Double Clue”. Upon arriving at his hotel, however, the countess is nowhere to be found, having left a note to await her return.
Luckily, Our Man Hastings’ nephew Bill is working at an archaeological dig outside of Baghdad, under the supervision of Dr. Eric Leidner. And so Poirot accompanies Our Man on a visit to said dig, where everything is… well, it’s a bit weird.
For one, someone at the dig kills a local in a shady deal of some sort gone wrong the evening before our heroes arrive. At dinner, one of the archaeologists Dr. Mercado seems jumpy and overly sweaty, even by “Summer in Iraq” standards. The hired “famous epigraphist” (God, I wish I’d been alive in the 30’s) Father Lavigny has yet to actually translate anything. And Dr. Leidner’s wife, Louise, has been seeing scary faces outside her window at night and trading strange looks with Leidner’s friend and colleague Dr. Carey over meals.
Have I mentioned the letters? No? Well, buckle up, kids, because it’s time to take a long drive down Exposition Highway.
Ol’ Louise Leidner’s ex-husband Fred Bosner was (deep breath) arrested during World War One and tried as a spy in the US, only he wasn’t executed as believed, he escaped, but was later killed in a train crash anyway, except he had a younger brother William who kept writing Louise threatening letters every time she started dating someone new and threatening to kill her, only the letters stopped once she married Eric Leidner, only the letters started again about a month ago, which is when Louise started seeing the scary faces outside her window and now you’re all caught up on everything that’s been going on with Louise except oh yeah all the letters she shows Poirot appear to be written in her own hand.
I mean, it’s a lot.
Shortly after arriving, Poirot decides after one night in a crappy little room on an army cot that he’s decamping back to his hotel in Baghdad, to await the Countess’ return and presumably sleep with less mosquitoes flying about. The next day, Dr. Leidner goes into Louise’s room and calls for help – his wife is lying dead on the floor, struck with a blow to the head, with no weapon in sight, the sole window locked from the inside, and no one seen entering her room through the only possible entrance.
It’s a buyer’s market for would-be murderers in this dig. There’s Leidner, the nebbishy expedition leader and his longtime colleagues: the lantern-jawed Indiana Jones-esque Dr. Carey and Anne Johnson, who harbors a long-simmering crush on Leidner. The odd Father Lavigny, sweaty Dr. Mercado, newly arrived Nurse Leatheran, alluring local superintendent’s daughter Sheila and even Hastings’ nephew Bill all get thrown into this mess o’ potamia.
It’s a quirky, well-acted bunch here. Everyone acts just slightly… off, and absolutely everybody seems to be hiding something. I haven’t even mentioned the Well-Dressed Local “Sir Skulksalot” who hovers around the edges of the dig and in Baghdad for Purposes Unknown for nearly all the episode. The suspects here are richly drawn, and we spend enough time with them to get a sense of them as characters, not just puzzle pieces.
As Poirot investigates, Anne Johnson seems to suddenly realize how the murder could have been committed with no witnesses, but refuses to tell Poirot her idea, claiming she needs to “think on it”. Of course, this is just as good as throwing herself off a building, so of course later that night someone swaps her pitcher of H2O with a pitcher of HCl, leading to one of the most gruesome deaths we’ve ever seen in the series. Through a bloody and scarred mouth, she utters the word “window” before dying, which gets us to The Denouement.
The murder was committed by Eric Leidner, Louise’s husband, who is actually also her first husband, Fred Bosner, the escaped spy. Fred survived the train crash, took the papers of the real Eric Leidner, and spent the next 15 years being an archaeologist and warning off Louise’s other potential suitors until he found and married her again under the guise of being Leidner. Um.
(Side Note: Presumably the growth of a beard and some facial disfigurement was enough to fool his wife into thinking he was a different person, and no, I don’t buy it either, but I confess I also didn’t see that coming at all.)
He killed her from the rooftop by attaching a rope to a quern and dropping it on her head after she stuck her head out her window to investigate a scary face. He pulled it back up to the roof, then went to her room on pretenses of checking on her, placed the body in the middle of the floor, and locked the window before shouting for help.
Why? Well, it seems ol’ Fred/Eric is slightly deranged and incredibly possessive, and although he ceased his letter writing campaign after he’d gotten Louise back, once he learned she’d been having an affair with his friend Carey he decided to kill her. He started writing the letters again (intentionally duplicating Louise’s handwriting) and scaring her with the scary faces.
Father Lavigny wasn’t the real “famous epigraphist” but an impostor working with the Well Dressed Local stealing and forging artifacts. Dr. Mercado was a heroin junkie who killed the local dealer at the beginning of the episode (and who subsequently commits suicide over his guilt). Carey was shtupping the victim, and Hastings’ nephew is basically just an innocent mini-Hastings.
Oh, and Countess Rossakoff never shows up, instead flitting off to Budapest and sticking poor Poirot with her hotel bill.
Wot I Liked:
I mean, almost everything? From the Middle Eastern-ized Poirot theme to the colorful cast of suspects to the so-simple-it’s-genius crime to the so-ludicrous-it’s-genius motive and identity of the killer, this really is one of the best movie-length adaptations of the series.
The episode moves with a brisk pace, and has an incredible sense of place. The geography of the crime scene and pavilion is well-established, and the story unfolds secrets and motives gradually throughout its length, making this feel very much like a full course, satisfying meal. Although it shoehorns in Hastings (absent from the novel), it keeps the delightful Nurse Leatheran in a supporting role, and she’s great.
Always a pleasure to see Poirot and Hastings in their Desert Campaign beige and white linens, and Our Man gets in a fair few “Good Lord!“s on his way out, as well. (The running gag of Hastings lecturing Poirot on his knowledge of women gets a grand payoff at the end as well, when Poirot points out that Hastings’ expertise with the fairer sex didn’t keep his wife from essentially kicking him out of South America.) Better still, Hugh Fraser adds “explaining the origins of the word ‘Mesopotamia’ to a table full of Middle East archaeologists” to the pantheon of Quintessential Hastings Scenes.
Wot I Not Liked:
Erm. Like I said, the central premise is a bit on the “oh, nonsense” side. But it’s so ridiculous that it almost circles back around to being brilliant, and anyway the villain has a nice moment of with Poirot in their confession, where they suggest that perhaps their and Poirot’s understanding of devotion and love isn’t so dissimilar (Our Belgian, it must be noted, does not disagree).
Also, I hope to never see the aftereffects of someone drinking hydrochloric acid ever again, much less flashed back to three separate times.
In Two Weeks, On Poirot: Series 9, kids! It’s another cracker of an adaptation featuring Toby Stephens, Aidan Gillan, and Marc Warren in a tale of long-simmering revenge, justice, and murder. Who’s headed to the slaughterhouse? Find out in… “Five Little Pigs”!