Mais oui, we find Our Belgian’s mood lightened ever so much this week, n’est ce pas? A pre-war tale with the Soviet baddies from the original book swapped out for a pack of German sympathizers and spies, and a bit of metatextual commentary thrown in to boot.
At an MI6 facility underneath Dover Castle, a female spy steals some documents, but is trailed by another MI6 employee, Fiona, to her contact in Wilbraham Crescent, a neighborhood nearby. Fiona is noticed, however, and as both women tussle in the street they’re hit out of nowhere by a car, killing them both. Her fiance, Lt. Colin Race (the son of Poirot’s old friend), had ignored her pleas for help and feels guilt at having blown her off for a poker game. On her person he finds a cryptic rebus with a picture of a crescent, the letter “M”, and the number “61”.
Meanwhile, in London, Our Belgian is suffering through a stage adaptation of a Sven Hjersson adventure when Lt. Race approaches him in the lobby and asks for help on a completely different problem that also occurred in Wilbraham Crescent.
There’s a lot going on here, gang.
Lt. Race explains that while he was investigating the cryptic clue from Fiona in Wilbraham Crescent, he stumbled across a woman running out of a house screaming. The girl – a young typist named Sheila Webb – was asked to go to Crescent resident Mrs. Pebmarsh’s house by appointment; however, upon arriving she found nobody home, about four too many clocks in the living room all set incorrectly to 4:13 (one of which was… her own?), and oh yeah, a dead body behind the desk who doesn’t have any identification.
Race believes her to be innocent, and asks Poirot for his help to prove it. Alongside a skeptical Chief Inspector Hardcastle (Phil Daniels, playing a poor man’s version of James Japp), the three men investigate the cozy confines of Wilbraham Crescent to find out whodunnit and why. Also: SO MANY CLOCKS.
Pretty much everyone around 19 Wilbraham Crescent, where Mrs. Pebmarsh lives. There’s Pebmarsh herself, a blind woman who lost two sons in the previous war (played terrifically by Anna Massey in her final performance). Mr. and Mrs. Bland, who recently inherited a bunch of money from a relative in Canada and seem just a bit too pleasant; Mrs. Hemmings, a cat lady who is entirely too comfortable letting guests sit in cat pee; the Waterhouses, who seem just a bit too uninterested in the goings-on; and Mr. Mabbutt, an older gentleman who has two little nieces that live with him. Then, of course, there’s Sheila Webb herself, who may or may not be hiding a secret of her own.
The question becomes, then, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying?
Ha! Ha! I am, of course, kidding. Being Christie, they are of course all lying in some way, shape, or form, with the possible exception of the Cat Lady.
Wot I Liked:
One could be forgiven for thinking this was a castoff script from Foyle’s War, with its espionage plot and an unusual amount of time devoted to showing Lt. Race and Sheila’s burgeoning romance; indeed, Race himself is as much a main character as Our Belgian here, as we see him haunted by his failure to save Fiona and struggle with his feelings and his duty to country. It’s a good look, frankly, and Tom Burke (son of Watson-eer David Burke) plays the role with the right amount of messiness and resolve to make a worthy companion to Poirot.
I also – and I’m likely alone in this – really, really loved the way the show presents the initial puzzle; an obtuse series of clues in flashback all thrown together – the mysterious call for Sheila to appear at Pebmarsh’s house, the clocks, the body – it’s all very Holmesian in its approach, and this is where the metatextual bit comes in, but you have to know the solution first. Deep breath.
Sheila’s been framed for the murder of the dead man by Miss Martindale, the head of the typing agency. Martindale is actually the sister of Mrs. Bland, who committed fraud in pretending to be the heiress to the Canadian relative but was in fact Mr. Bland’s second wife. When the dead man – a relative of the first Mrs. Bland – came to visit his relations in England, the Blands and Martindale killed him to protect their secret. Martindale, the executor of a famous mystery author’s estate, borrowed a plot from one of his books to frame up Sheila, whom she despised for having “loose morals” (i.e., having an affair with an older man).
So the bit with the clocks, the 4:13 significance, all that – red herrings, every last one, and that’s not even counting arguably the biggest red herring: the entirely unrelated espionage plot that we’re led to believe ties into L’affaire D’ Webb, but which most assuredly does not, and is in fact the coincidence it first appeared to be.
Mrs. Pebmarsh and Mr. Mabbutt are the Nazi sympathizers, passing secrets from the MI6 mole overseas to Germany; Pebmarsh used her position as office manager at a photography studio to photo important documents, then passed them to Mabbutt who would take them overseas on his frequent trips as an executive in an arms manufacturer. Pebmarsh, angry and embittered over the loss of her two sons in the previous war, wanted to see England quickly defeated so as to prevent another long drawn out war killing thousands, and Mabbutt is basically just a fascist in English clothing.
It’s hard not to see this as Christie taking the piss out of what had by this time (thanks largely to her own efforts) become almost the expectation of a detective story – a bag full of seemingly unrelated, weird clues and tying them altogether in a grand web (Web? As in “Sheila Webb”? Oh, I see what you did there, Dame Agatha) of connections and motives. In this story, it’s literally a plot from a Christie-esque detective novel thrown up as smoke and mirrors to conceal a really quite straightforward murder and motive.
Hell, even the cryptic rebus Race is trying to decipher from Fiona is hilariously solved by turning it upside down, where it translates as the address of Mrs. Pebmarsh, the German spy. Credit where it’s due; how many other authors could pull off cooking up an entire plot that might rightfully deserve its own book and using it as a decoy?
Poirot himself remarks on this about mid-way through the case, in this exchange:
LT. RACE: This murder gets more complicated by the minute.
POIROT: Mais oui. Which can only mean one thing, mon ami. The solution, it must be very simple.
And the episode does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing, with planted evidence, head fakes in many, many directions (I didn’t even mention the second murder of someone who spots false testimony at the inquest, or the dead man’s wife showing up to identify the body) and balancing a pretty big cast with a plot that keeps moving quickly and sustains interest.
It’s also, frankly, nice to see Poirot smile a bit again, especially after last week’s ill-fated train ride. There’s still a tinge of his cynicism here – at one point he remarks, “The world is full of good people who do bad things,” and several pointed remarks about his fear of the coming war and its necessity land well, as it’s made clear that geopolitics is much more than just something to be discussed abstractly. But the presence of Lt. Race and Poirot’s delight at being able to help a friend provides a welcome warmth and a bit of an emotional breather after the cold and dark of the Orient Express (notably, Stewart Harcourt also wrote this adaptation).
Hell, even Chief Inspector Hardcastle and Poirot end up on good terms by the episode’s end, with Poirot offering to buy him a cocktail the next time he’s in London. There’s even a few jokes here and there, and glimmers of the older, less serious spirit of the show; one could have easily transposed Hastings and Japp for Race and Hardcastle, and it would have fit snugly somewhere into series 3 or 4.
Wot I Not Liked:
I mean, let’s face it, it takes massive chutzpah and remarkable self-awareness that only a renowned bestselling author could get away with to make a point about coincidence and complication and how ludicrous the entire conceit is, especially when you’ve largely built your entire reputation on the sort of nonsense you’re skewering. To her credit, it actually comes off quite nicely here – but it doesn’t prevent a sense of deflation when you realize that huge 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle you’ve been working on for the last 90 minutes was really a 10-piece puzzle with 990 extra pieces in the box.
I also wish they’d kept from the book the detail that
Pebmarsh sent coded messages in braille
Overall, I think the right choices were made in adapting this; obviously the time frame had to be changed from Cold War-era to pre-WW2, but the plot still works fine (and informs the rest of the show in a good way). Race acquits himself well, and it makes more sense for him to be the son of Poirot’s old friend rather than the son of Superintendent Battle. And they cut out a stupid familial relation that made no sense.
I’m not a huge fan of Christie’s espionage stories in general, but I think this one works splendidly, and even a bit better on the screen than it did on the page, where the gimmick is that Poirot solves the crime entirely from his chair (leave that sort of stuff to Rex Stout, willya?) I’m a fan of this one, set as it is in the gloaming before World War II, and I think it’s an excellent cap to what – “Hallowe’en Party” notwithstanding – was overall a very strong Series 12.
In Two Weeks, on Poirot: Well, gang, this is it. The final series of the show. Five episodes left to go on this journey, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gonna miss it. Series 13 starts off with another tale of a crime set in the past, and Our Belgian is enlisted by Our Novelist to untangle memories both real and imagined. Find out if… “Elephants Can Remember”!