POIROT: THE A.B.C. MURDERS

Appalling Bloodshed and Cedric, the Caiman

“The little grey cells, I fear, they grow the rust,” Hercule Poirot regretfully tells his friend Captain Hastings upon welcoming him back to London after Hastings’s failed attempt to settle into farming in South America. No case has kept him busy, Poirot complains; in fact, nothing interesting has happened at all. Now that Hastings is back, however, things will be different again: “But it must be no common affair, Hastings. It must be something recherché. Delicate. Fine.”

And just such a case is about to begin; in fact, it will turn out be one of Poirot’s most difficult ever. Because at this point, he has already received the first of what will be an entire series of letters from an apparent serial killer, brazenly announcing his crimes and taunting Poirot to catch him. In fact, this is the very day the first murder is supposed to take place, in the town of Andover, about 50 miles west of London – and in short order, a woman whose initials are A.A. is indeed found murdered there. Then, also as advised by the killer, a murder occurs in the East Sussex seaside resort of Bexhill … and the victim’s initials are B.B. The third murder’s location is Churston in far-away Devon in the south-west of England – and that victim’s initials are C.C. And to catch him before the fourth murder, the killer tells Poirot, he will have to travel to the Yorkshire town of Doncaster, on the day of the famous St. Leger race, no less.

By this time, the victims’ surviving relatives and friends have formed a “legion of interested parties” that works with Poirot to find the killer. Their task is not an easy one, for the only link between the murders seems to be an A.B.C. Railway guide left with the body of each victim, and the strictly alphabetic order of the victims’ names and the crime scenes. But eventually the detectives find themselves on the trace of a traveling salesman whose initials happen to be A.B.C.: a timid, extremely high-strung, desperately driven man who ever since his return from World War I has been suffering from epileptic seizures, repeated blackouts and (probably) what is today known as post-traumatic stress disorder, and whose presence at the locations of each of the crimes on the days when the respective crimes took place is quickly established. So is he the killer – or if he is not, what, if anything, does he have to do with the murders?

Written in 1935, The A.B.C. Murders is one of Agatha Christie‘s most intriguing mysteries; and this adaptation, in turn, one of the highlights of the long-running series featuring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. Like the screen versions of other Poirot stories, the present movie takes a number of liberties with Christie’s novel; but as in the case of the equally brilliant and darn near unfilmable Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the changes work well to the advantage of the adaptation. – Given Hercule Poirot’s stature in the annals of mystery writing, it seems strange that except for his portrayal by Albert Finney in the star-studded 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, for a long time there didn’t seem to be any actor who could convincingly bring to life the clever, dignified little Belgian with his unmistakable egg-shaped head, always perched a little on one side, his stiff, military, slightly upward-twisted moustache, and his excessively neat attire, which had reached the point that “a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet,” as Agatha Christie introduced him through Captain Hastings’s voice in their and her own very first adventure, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). But the perfect Poirot was finally found in Suchet, who after having had the dubious honor of playing a rather dumbly arrogant version of Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Japp in some of the 1980s’ movies starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, now finally moved center stage. And the match is spot-on, not only physically but also in terms of personality, for Suchet shares Poirot’s inclination towards pedantry: “I like things to be symmetrical … If I put two things on the mantelpiece, they have to be exactly evenly spaced,” he once said in an interview, adding however that unlike his on-screen alter ego, “I don’t need the same sized eggs for breakfast!”

My one quibble with this series is that Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser) tends to come across as somewhat more vacuous and naive than in the novels narrated from his point of view, and this movie is no exception in that regard. However, I frankly admit that I, too, have to chuckle at the subplot involving Hastings’s travel souvenir for Poirot (a stuffed, ill-smelling caiman named Cedric (!), shot by Hastings himself in the waters of the Orinoco and causing the pedantically neat Poirot repeated spells of queasiness); and Hastings’s eagerness to tell anyone who will listen how exactly he came into the caiman’s possession. And of course, Philip Jackson never disappoints in his role as a wonderfully down-to-earth, sturdy Inspector Japp; the supporting cast (including, inter alia, Donald Sumpter, Donald Douglas, Nicholas Farrell, Pippa Guard and Vivienne Burgess) is uniformly excellent, and so are the movie’s production values, from cinematography to art direction and costume design. Poirot even gets to have a Holmsean moment in the vein of “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” (“The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: Silver Blaze, 1894), when he points out to Hastings after the first murder that the A.B.C. Railway Guide found next to the victim cannot have been left there randomly: “The fingerprints tell us that.” “But … there weren’t any fingerprints,” Hastings responds. “Exactement,” Poirot explains. “Our murderer, he is in the dark, and seeks to remain in the dark. But in the very nature of things, he cannot help to throw the light upon himself.” And as always, Poirot turns out to be right in the end …

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studios: London Weekend Television (LWT) / Carnival Film & Television / Picture Partnership Productions / ITV (1992)
  • Director: Andrew Grieve
  • Executive Producer: Nick Elliott
  • Producer: Brian Eastman
  • Screenplay: Clive Exton
  • Based on a book by: Agatha Christie
  • Music: Christopher Gunning
Cast
  • David Suchet: Hercule Poirot
  • Hugh Fraser: Lieutenant Hastings
  • Philip Jackson: Chief Inspector Japp
  • Donald Sumpter: Alexander Bonaparte Cust
  • Donald Douglas: Franklin Clarke
  • Nicholas Farrell: Donald Fraser
  • Pippa Guard: Megan Barnard
  • Cathryn Bradshaw: Mary Drower
  • Nina Marc: Thora Grey
  • Vivienne Burgess: Lady Clarke
  • John Breslin: Mr. Barnard
  • Michael Mellinger: Franz Ascher
  • Ann Windsor: Miss Merrion
  • Miranda Forbes: Mrs. Turton
  • David McAlister: Inspector Glen
  • Peter Penry-Jones: Superintendent Carter

 

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