POIROT: THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES

The Little Grey Cells’ Debut

“Another example of the English bucolic beliefs,” Hercule Poirot pontificates to a group of puzzled fellow Belgians. “Anagallis arvensis. In English: the scarlet pimpernel. It is believed that when this flower is opened, it is a sign of a prolonged spell of the fine weather. It is seldom seen open in this country …”

What we first see of the little detective with his unmistakeable egg-shaped head, stiff, upward-twisted moustache and many little grey cells, as he utters these words, is a pair of patent leather shoes, gingerly traipsing right through a military exercise preparing the local village population for war on the “home front.” Recently arrived from a Belgium made “temporarily uninhabitable” by the Germans, Poirot and his compatriots have found refuge in Styles St. Mary, a quintessential English village, where the detective insists that they must speak English even among themselves, to quicker learn the language and thereby “gain the confidence of the natives,” and is much chagrined by his countrymen’s preferred method of acclimatization: visits to the local pub; a place he just can’t get himself to enter. (“All those bottles of a different size, all in the wrong order … Ech.”)

But Poirot’s mood considerably lightens when he unexpectedly meets a pre-war acquaintance, Lieutenant (Captain-to-be) Hastings (Hugh Fraser), temporarily returned from the front to nurse an injured leg and currently visiting his friend John Cavendish’s (David Rintoul’s) family in nearby Styles Court. As coincidence has it, Hastings has already boasted about his knowledge of the Belgian to John’s family – not knowing that Poirot in fact lives very close by now – and admitted “a secret hankering” to become a detective after the war himself, working on a system “based” on Poirot’s. Neither of them knows how quickly they will find themselves working together. For not long thereafter, John Cavendish’s mother Emily Inglethorpe (Gillian Barge) is poisoned, and Hastings obtains John’s permission to call in Poirot. (“[You] have given to me faithfully the facts,” the detective subsequently comments on Hastings’s report of the crime. “But of the order in which you present them I say nothing. Truly, it is deplorable. But I make allowances – you are upset. Later, when you are calmer, we will arrange the facts neatly; each in his proper place. Those of importance we will place on one side … and those of no importance …” – he blows a speck of dust off his jacket – “we will blow them away.”)

Suspicion quickly falls on Mrs. Inglethorpe’s twenty-years younger husband Alfred (Michael Cronin), but Poirot insists to Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), arriving from London, that arresting Mr. Inglethorpe will bring him “no kudos.” So who then is responsible for the murder: John Cavendish? His brother Lawrence (Anthony Calf)? John’s wife Mary (Beatie Edney)? Mrs. Inglethorpe’s protege Cynthia (Allie Byrne)? Or her factotum Evie Howard (Joanna McCallum)? While several members of the family would have had the opportunity to come by the poison, hardly any of them seems to have a motive to kill their strict but benevolent matriarch. (Or do they?) Only at the last minute, a chance remark by Hastings, coupled with Poirot’s pedantic neatness, leads to the killer’s discovery.

Given Hercule Poirot’s prominence 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 Agatha Christie‘s clever, dignified little Belgian. But the perfect Poirot was finally found in David Suchet, who after having had the dubious honor of playing a rather dumbly arrogant version of Chief Inspector Japp in some of the 1980s’ movies starring Peter Ustinov now moved center stage. And the match is spot-on, not only physically but also in terms of personality, because 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, adding however that unlike his on-screen alter ego, “I don’t need the same sized eggs for breakfast!”

Published in 1920 but set three years earlier, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie‘s first-ever book and thus, established not only Poirot’s and Hastings’s characters but also their relationship. Unfortunately, Hastings comes across as a bit more vacuous here (and in the series in general) than in the novels narrated from his point of view; and this although the same station, ITV, did so well in debumblifying Sherlock Holmes’s friend and chronicler Dr. Watson. That, however, is my only quibble. As always, Philip Jackson is a wonderfully down-to-earth Japp, the supporting cast is uniformly first-rate, and the movie maintains the tone and atmosphere set by Christie‘s novel in a marvelous fashion, in everything from cinematography and costume design to its soundtrack (which repeatedly and cleverly transforms the title melody into an apparently completely different piece of background music reflecting a given scene’s mood), and the use of real WWI footage to underscore Hastings’s nightmare-inducing wartime experience. To today’s viewers, the mystery’s solution may seem a bit contrived; but that certainly wouldn’t have been noted in 1920 – and in fact the killer’s disguise is so clever that Christie used similar methods again and to equally great effect in later novels, for example in Miss Marple’s debut mystery The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

___________________

Poirot to Hastings, during a walk in the woods: “Have you ever been to New York? … It is a beautiful city. Beautiful. There each street is at right angles to each avenue, and each avenue is numbered nicely: first, second, third, fourth. Man is in command there. But here? How does one live with the fact that, au fond, nature is untidy – uncontrolled – anarchic – inefficient?”
Hastings: “But that’s what I like about it.”
(Poirot sighs, foregoing further comment.)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studios: London Weekend Television (LWT) / Carnival Film & Television / Picture Partnership Productions / ITV (1990)
  • Director: Ross Devenish
  • 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
  • David Rintoul: John Cavendish
  • Beatie Edney: Mary Cavendish
  • Gillian Barge: Mrs. Inglethorp
  • Michael Cronin: Alfred Inglethorp
  • Joanna McCallum: Evie Howard
  • Anthony Calf: Lawrence Cavendish
  • Allie Byrne: Cynthia Murdoch
  • Lala Lloyd: Dorcas
  • Penelope Beaumont: Mrs. Raikes
  • Merelina Kendall: Mrs. Dainty

 

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