oooooOOOOOOOooooo, mes amis, but it is the time for spirits and all manner of things which go bump in the night, is it not? (Well, it’s not, but it’s a Halloween episode this week, so let’s all just pretend for a few minutes.) This week there’s a village, a few corpses, and an astonishingly good character actor, so how bad can it be? (Don’t answer that just yet.)
In the village of Woodleigh Common, Rowena Drake is hosting a Halloween party (I’m not using the annoying apostrophe, you can’t make me) for the village children, and most of the parents are along to help. Also helping: Ariadne Oliver, who’s a friend of one of the villagers. They’re doing traditional things like eating goodies, shooing away the village busybody who bursts in dressed like a witch (uh huh), telling spooky stories, playing snapdragon, and bobbing for apples…
…except for one of the children, a thirteen-year-old girl named Joyce, who’s found dead, head in the apple-bobbing-bucket, lungs presumably filled with water from having been drowned. Of course, prior to this Joyce had just made the rookie mistake of loudly announcing to everyone present that she’d seen a murder a few years ago, so… not completely unexpected, all things considered.
(Side Note: If your first reaction was, “Wait, they killed a kid to kick things off? That’s a bit dark, and not usually how these things go.” then you’re not alone. Making it arguably worse is the fact that Joyce pre-drowning is shown to be picked on by the other kids, making her death that much sadder.)
Oh God, who’s not a suspect here? There’s all the grownups at the party – various villagers whom I won’t bother to name, plus a couple of the older kids and the ever-present threat of an “unseen village tramp” of the kind that Our Man Japp was so keen to pin the blame on back in the day. There’s also a recently-returned-to-town bohemian gardener Michael Garfield who tends the estate garden for Rowena and who seems to have deeper ties to the village than he’s letting on. Also, there ends up being two more murders and stack on top of that four deaths that happen prior to the action of the episode, and Woodleigh Common is essentially a slaughterhouse.
Basically, it’s probably not the tramp, is what I’m saying.
Wot I Liked:
Well, first and foremost I’m a sucker for the “pick a card, any card” angle in mysteries, where we’re given a selection of multiple people or events in the past and a big part of the solution is in divining which of the options is actually relevant to the crime in the present day. Here we get that in trying to figure out which of the three recent-ish deaths in Woodleigh Common is the murder that Joyce claimed to have witnessed. I think the adaptation does a decent job of making a case for all of them, making it somewhat less surprising when it turns out
all three are in fact connected in some way
Also, I have to admit that I found Julian Rhind-Tutt’s portrayal of Michael Garfield absolutely terrific. He has an easy, greasy, kicked-about charm and high-wattage smile, and in several scenes he shows up to take the piss out of a dark and serious proceeding. You want to like the guy, despite the fact that
he tries to murder another child in a paganistic ritual for knowing that he and Rowena are responsible for virtually every single death in the village for the last two years
And to its credit (and somewhat surprisingly), the episode never tries to suggest a supernatural reason for all this killing, which is good because it never works. As we’ve discussed before, Christie stories rely on the presence of a rational solution that can be explained, not on magical or otherworldly presences mucking about.
Oh, and you can’t go wrong with “whispered chanting of a children’s song” overlaid in the background to up the Spooky Factor. Snip, snap, dragon indeed.
Wot I Not Liked:
And yet, something about this episode failed to really grab me. Perhaps it’s all the talk about a codicil to a will that might or might not be fake (or both). Perhaps it’s the way that apart from a few extra church services most everyone in the village seems to take the death of these children in stride. Perhaps it’s the completely batshit-crazy reveal of the killer’s manipulation of another would-be victim into sacrificing herself that just tosses the whole thing overboard.
Perhaps it’s any, or all of those. But it’s also definitely the fact that wayyyyyyyy too much of the motivations and action here are all in the past, and the fact that we have to keep track of those three possible murders, PLUS an au pair that disappeared whom we never meet PLUS a will written by someone we don’t ever meet, PLUS a clerk we never meet, PLUS a set of frankly interchangeable white ladies in the village, and even though it all comes together in the end, it’s an irritating and disjointed ride getting there.
I’m also gonna complain here about the fact that for a Halloween episode, there’s nothing particularly scary, stylistically. Sure, there’s lots of jack-o-lanterns hung up everywhere, but aside from that crazy-ass sequence at the end, I think this was a missed opportunity to inject something bizarre or grotesque into the proceedings of what’s really just an overly complicated village plot with a somewhat insane gardener.
Look, this was written in 1969, making it the closest thing to a modern-day Poirot story we have outside of Curtain and Elephants Can Remember, and clearly at this point Christie had nothing to prove, so I think some of the fault is just that by this time, the inheritance/will/hidden relationship dance won’t surprise anyone; the fun is left to be had in the details, and the fact is that there’s few details in this one to elevate it above anything beyond “just OK”.
It’s not terrible, mind you, but I’d be in no hurry to rewatch it, either, and there’s nothing particularly commendable about any of the acting, dialogue, or direction; it’s fine, I guess, but nothing more and occasionally less.
But man, that Garfield dude can build a hell of a garden.
Next Week, on Poirot: Perhaps the most famous of all Christies gets its due here in this series, as a luxury train ride on the Continent turns into a tale of redemption, revenge, and astonishingly fancy hats. All aboard for… “Murder on the Orient Express”!