Poirot (Classic): S13E03 “Dead Man’s Folly”

Ah, but we have reached very nearly the end of our travelogue through this series, mais ous? With but two episodes to go, and having recently been through a number of episodes that felt quite different than the classic Christie formula, it’s nice to get back to a good old-fashioned “mansion murder” utterly devoid of trains, spies, Shadowy International Cabals(TM) that don’t actually exist, and the like.

The Setup:

During a horrendous storm, Sir George Stubbs (a cracked, gravelly Sean Pertwee) and his rich-by-inheritance-wife Hattie arrive home to Nasse House (here portrayed by none other than Dame Agatha’s actual house, Greenway Estate). An enormous tree is uprooted in the surrounding grounds, and then we cut to…

…one year later, where Stubbs is getting ready to host a garden fete, which near as I can tell are little mini-fairs that the local lords and ladies of the manor used to host on their lawn for the surrounding village as a means of raising money for charity. This one apparently involves coconuts, for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear.

Also involved: one Ariadne Oliver, who’s been tasked with creating a Murder Hunt for the fete, where folks can buy the first “clue” to lead them on a sort of Scavenger Hunt But With A Fake Dead Body. She summons Our Belgian urgently, only for him to arrive and find out he’s apparently supposed to give out the prize to the winner.

BUT. Oliver also suspects there’s murder afoot, something she intuits but can’t quite figure out why; she feels manipulated into arranging certain locations and clues for the Murder Hunt, but it’s nothing more than that – a feeling. She asks Poirot to keep an eye out for the duration.

The Crime:

Sure enough, the day of the fete arrives and wouldn’t ya just know it but poor little 14-year old Marlene Tucker, a member of the Girl-Scouts-But-The-British-Version, pressed into service at the last minute as the Murder Hunt “victim”, gets horribly strangled whilst waiting to play her role in the adjoining boathouse (also played by Dame Agatha’s boat house, for the record).

As if that weren’t bad enough, Hattie Stubbs, the “beautiful, but dumb as a fish” (Ariadne’s words, not mine) wife of George, has disappeared without a trace. And during a fete no less! I’m pretty sure disappearing during your own party was a capital offense back in Olden Tymes.

Anyway, of course Our Belgian along with Oliver and DI Bland (played by Tom Ellis, whom you might otherwise know as Lucifer from the series of the same name) gets involved, and with a quickness we’re questioning locals, arching eyebrows, and hey… what’s with that weird folly built out in the middle of the woods, anyway? And what is that cryptic Grizzled Old Lush Ferryman spouting nonsense about?

The Suspects:

Not too many, not too few, but juuuuuuust about right. There’s the coarse Sir George, of course. And old Amy Folliatt, original owner of Nasse House who had to sell it to Sir George and Hattie after both of her sons died and who rents a cottage on the grounds to this day. There’s a nice couple with marital problems, Alec and Sally Legge who for some reason lies about her whereabouts during the fete. Shades of “Hallowe’en Party” appear in the form of an architect who’s not above chasing other men’s wives, and for good measure let’s throw in a housekeeper who’s secretly in love with ol’ Sir George herself. About a third of the way through the episode, a dude with a killer pair of sunglasses just straight up sails his yacht up to the grounds and introduces himself as the delightfully named Etienne de Souza, erstwhile cousin to the missing Hattie. He’s just the coolest.

Comfort food, all of it. Been there and done that with this kind of bunch, and I’m A-OK with it this episode.

Wot I Liked:

As mentioned up top, this one has a very classic (you can call it cliched if you like, you won’t be wrong) feel to it; the action takes place almost entirely on the Nasse House estate, and we never stray very far from the scene of the crime(s). Although not bursting with big-name actors in supporting roles, the cast acquits themselves quite nicely, especially Pertwee as George Stubbs and Sinead Cusack as the elderly, world-weary Amy Folliatt.

The solution, too, feels like a throwback to the older impossibly complex, Rube-Goldberg-machine trickery that has a ton of moving parts but lands just enough on the right side of plausible to not be eye-rolling.

Grey Cells:

George Stubbs isn’t George Stubbs, he’s James Folliatt, Amy’s ne’er-do-well son whom she sent packing to South Africa and most definitely did not die in a plane crash as she tells Poirot. “Hattie Stubbs” isn’t Hattie Stubbs either; she’s an Italian grifter James married in exile. The real Hattie Stubbs – a developmentally challenged girl whom Amy raised as an orphan and married off to James in the hopes that he’d become decent human being (whoops!) – is swindled out of her fortune by James and killed, with the grifter assuming the identity of “Hattie” from that point forward.

Upon returning to Nasse House on the night of the thunderstorm, “George” bundles up Grifter Hattie so no one can see her face, and soon replaces all the staff with no one the wiser. They bury Real Hattie where the gigantic tree had been uprooted, and build the folly over the top of the grave.

Unfortunately, the local Grizzled Old Lush Ferryman recognizes George as James, and blabs to his granddaughter, poor Marlene Tucker who’s in the habit of, er, blackmailing locals with her observations. She attempts this with James, who realizes she needs to be killed to protect his secret. This leads to the subtle changes to the Murder Hunt that puts her in a position to be killed by Grifter Hattie. Grifter Hattie then disguises herself as a visiting Italian hitchhiker at the local hostel, hence the “disappearance” of Hattie Stubbs.

(Look, I said “just enough on the right side of plausible”, OK?)

The Denouement here is full of twists, flashbacks, and turns, and both Pertwee and Cusack rise to the occasion as broken people; it’s the most satisfying Denouement in quite some time, actually, even as it’s just Poirot alone with Amy in the boathouse explaining all he knows.

And what a capper of an ending scene – Amy confronts her wayward son and finally forces them both into accepting responsibility for their actions the way she should have done from the beginning; we hear two gunshots from outside the house, and Poirot looks on with disgust and a single line of dialogue: “Bon.” Roll credits.

Victims you feel genuine sadness for (blackmailer at 14 notwithstanding, Marlene was just a kid, and the real Hattie’s story is incredibly tragic), a monster of a culprit abetted by a tragic figure in her own right, a well-meaning mother who couldn’t bring herself to see the worst in her own son… lots of pathos here, with a healthy and appropriate dose of moral indignation on the part of Our Belgian. Love. It.

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Like I said, it’s all, in total, fairly familiar; false identities, games about when letters arrived in the post, dark pasts and red herrings – but it’s all held together by the lush geography of Nasse House and a quickly moving plot. There’s no wasted time here at all, save for a funny little bit near the end where Poirot tells Alec Legge to man up, admit he’s an asshole, and beg his wife to take him back. Hercule Poirot, Marriage Counselor is a damn treat.

But let’s not overlook the real accomplishment here: 68 episodes into the series, they FINALLY manage to pull off someone wearing a disguise that isn’t A) immediately recognizable as a disguise, and B) not ludicrously obvious as a ploy. Sure, the “disguise” is a hat and a wig, but damn if it didn’t work exactly as intended for once!

And I loved the simple explanation Poirot offers for Ariadne’s “intuition”: something she has seen or heard triggers a warning in her brain; she just doesn’t know what it was. The case itself requires a combination of both intuition and deduction to solve, and it’s a nice way to send off the partnership between these two.

Wot I Not Liked:

Not a whole lot, as should be apparent. It’s just full of Christie Comfort Food, and one last serving before the series goes away really hit the spot. Suchet and Wanamaker hit their marks as expected, and… yeah.

I just really, really love this episode on its own terms, and really don’t have anything bad to say about it. It’s probably nobody’s favorite episode of the series, but it’s a damn good one, and an affecting send-off to the type of mystery that nobody wrote better.

Next Week, on Poirot: In the penultimate episode of the whole shootin’ match, Hercule gets a chance to right the wrongs of the past, as a stay in the Swiss Alps reunites him with past failures and triumphs. Will it be a relaxing vacay for Our Belgian, or is it just another holiday filled with work? Find out in… “The Labours of Hercules”!