Zut alors, but this week’s tale of murder and mayhem possesses quite the… how do you say… “stinky aroma of badness”? Yes, “stinky aroma of badness” is what we’ll go with. In an episode that even its own writer (Mark Gatiss) called “a loose adaptation of an almost unadaptable mess”, it’s… well, it’s not good, is what I’m saying.
Errrrgh. So, as World War 2 nears ever closer, an international political party calling themselves “The Peace Party” is gaining steam. Comprised of an American Industrialist, a French Scientist, a Chinese… something or other, it’s never made quite clear, unless “dissident” counts as a profession, the Peace Party is allegedly dedicated to promoting, er, peace. No, this is not a particularly policy-rich platform.
BUT, ALSO, dirtsheet journalist Mr. Tysoe has been receiving anonymous tips that the Peace Party may in fact be… *sigh*… a shadowy international cabal of power hungry pre-Instagram influencers seeking to do, um, the OPPOSITE of peace, I guess? Anyway, they’re referred to as
S.P.E.C.T.R.E. “The Big Four”.
Astute readers will have noticed that there are three Peace Partiers mentioned, while the name “The Big Four” would seem to indicate at least one more member if this conspiracy theory holds true. The identity of Number 4 is… look, this doesn’t get any smarter, but just hang on and you’ll see what’s going on.
Well, there’s a lot. At a publicity chess match, the American Industrialist plays against a Russian grandmaster, who keels over at the table. This kicks off Poirot’s involvement, who is in attendance when this happened. The American Industrialist soon disappears following the death.
Then we get another murder, this one of a Sinophile who literally wrote the book on the Chinese Whatever He’s Supposed To Be, killed and left for dead in his parlor.
Then we get another murder, this time a British politician (maybe? It’s hard to tell) in his home, as one night he’s found dead with his face melting off against the side of an electric heater. The French Scientist soon disappears following the death.
Meanwhile, our friend journalist Mr. Tysoe is supposed to meet another informant with info on The Big Four, but the informant’s stabbed before the meeting can happen.
Oh, and the episode opens with Poirot’s casket being laid to rest, so someone apparently kills him along the way. Sure, whatever.
SO MANY CRIMES.
I mean, pretty much the conceit of the whole episode is that The Big Four are committing these crimes to… um. Well, because… er. That is, they… hm. I mean, it’s rather implausibly suggested that each one of them was at risk of being discovered and revealed as Sinister Overlords Wot Plot To Thrust The World Into Chaos, but… yeah.
OK, well, let’s skip that bit, because Mark Gatiss sure as hell did. Suffice to say that each of the murders comes with its own little cast of suspects, motives, and whatnot, but let’s face it: you’re not writing something called “The Big Four” where the titular Four aren’t the suspects, right?
(For those of you suspecting one of Dame Agatha’s trademark tricks, I have some bad news. There’s a trick, but it’s not one of hers, and it’s far, far more stupid than you’re probably going to believe.)
Wot I Liked:
So, here’s the thing.
Taken individually, each of the crimes is… well, they’re not terrible, they’re little mini-mysteries that Our Belgian ferrets out a solution to, and could probably have made decent little individual episodes on their own with some gussying up and some genial banter, the sort that was prevalent in early seasons of the series.
Stylistically, I appreciated the Spinning Old-Timey Newspapers and general sense of paranoia created by the interstitial sequences that show the world at large becoming concerned about the Big Four. And the shot of the newspaper article with Poirot’s obituary nicely recreates with Suchet’s face the pose and expression from the real New York Times obituary published when Curtain was released.
And, yes, the return of Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson, and Pauline Moran was a bright spot, even though aside from Jackson their appearance amounts to little more than a cameo. (Our Man, though. Our Man gets to rush off to some vague notion of “action” like in the old days, and even gets to cap the episode with an all-timer “Good Lord!”.)
And that’s about it.
Wot I Not Liked:
How much time do you have?
First off, it’s dumb. It’s dumb, top to bottom. And it’s dumb because the solution is dumb, which I will now reveal to you with my deepest apologies.
The Big Four don’t really exist. They’re a creation of the erstwhile Number Four himself, Claude Darrell. Claude Darrell – this is so, so dumb – is a failed actor who got rejected by an actress years ago and has – my God, it’s even dumber written out – embarked on a scheme to win her love by proving he made something of himself. The scheme is, apparently:
Step 1: Spend years feeding the press clues and hints about a secret international shadowy cabal plotting to take over the world…question mark?
Step 2: Utilize his skills as a character actor months in advance for each of the murders to implicate individual members of the Peace Party as the Big Four while then kidnapping each of them and keeping them paralyzed and catatonic in an old run down theater…question mark?
Step 3: Reveal his role as the mastermind to his object of affection.
Step 4: Question Mark? Question Mark? Question Mark?
Yes, all this Bond-ian intrigue is just a single brilliant madman’s insane quest for acceptance by a woman who turned him down for dinner this one time years ago when they were acting in a play together. There’s not even an inheritance involved! Poirot finds him by looking his name up in an old theater program. I’m not even kidding.
It’s just. So. Dumb.
We’re apparently supposed to believe Darrell is such an everyman and SO GOOD AT ACTING that he was able to disguise himself and/or procure positions as a driver, priest, butcher, personal doctor, electrician, and probably the Prime Minister in order to set up and execute these schemes, and it is all one hundred percent Grade-A bullshit.
The original novel was cobbled together from a dozen unrelated short stories that Dame Agatha slapped on to an espionage framework, and it shows. The Big Four there were, in fact, The Big Four, and it plays everything straight with a heaping helping of Yellow Peril thrown in for bad measure. So when Gatiss refers to it as “an almost unadaptable mess”, he’s not entirely wrong.
But this? This takes a left turn at Crazytown and Insane Alley, and drives right into Stupidville.
Why in God’s name would you bring back the old gang to waste most of them with fleeting appearances and aside from Japp have absolutely nothing to do? I feel like positioning the team of Poirot/Hastings/Japp/Lemon as the real “Big Four” superhero team o’ crime solvers was a no-brainer here, one last ride for the cast we know and love and I JUST NOW THOUGHT OF IT.
Why start the episode off with a missives to the gang and a funeral scene for someone who’s clearly not really dead?
Why give the game away with repeated scenes of the actress in the middle of all this getting notes from a secret admirer signed with “4 kisses”?
Why even keep the Peace Partiers alive and paralyzed?!? Why?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
I mean, these are quibbles, comparatively, to the very bad no-good solution to the whole incomprehensibly dumb plot, but I’m convinced this would, somehow, have been better off just keeping the damn plot of the book, proto-James Bond stuff and all. Play it straight, ditch the racist parts and let the mini-mysteries entertain, and sure, chase down the sinister cabal, blow some stuff up, fake the death, whatever.
But wrapping all this garbage up and capping it off with a denouement action scene at the end that wouldn’t have even gotten past the Scooby Doo writer’s room?
Dumb, I tells ya. I’ve already spent more time on this episode than it deserves, and so have you. Let’s just move on and not speak of it again.
Next Week, on Poirot: It’s Zoe Wanamaker’s final appearance as Ariadne Oliver, as a murder hunt turns deadlier than expected on an English estate. (See? We’re already heading towards a much better episode than this one.) What’s really going on? What secrets will be revealed? And why don’t we ever do fun things like “murder hunts” over in the States? Find out in… “Dead Man’s Folly”!