To me, Sarah Phelps’ now-annual Agatha Christie adaptations have been nothing short of revelatory. Phelps has always been a skilled writer of human drama, but these Christie reworkings have more social context and emotional depth than even Christie’s originals. Ally Phelps’s nuance with Christie’s supreme plot structure and addictive whodunit elements, and the three stories before The ABC Murders – And Then There Were None, Witness For The Prosecution and Ordeal By Innocence – have been real crime drama treats, and exactly the kind of crime drama I want to watch.
Each one has been different – in tone, structure and feel – but one common denominator has linked them all: these stories have a greater sense of socio-economic background and place, and there are believable reasons given for why people committed murder in those times. If I’ve ever had a criticism of Christie’s work – and it’s not really a criticism, it’s more of a slight bugbear, because who can really have a go at such a totemic, skilled writer? – it’s that the murders or the victims of murder aren’t given the same kind of weight as the whodunit puzzle itself (feel free to @ me on this one if you disagree). In these adaptations, they are.
Christie wrote her immense canon largely during the so-called Golden Age of crime, but let’s look at that period in more detail: the 1920s and, especially, the 1930s were as far removed from a so-called Golden Age as you could possibly imagine. There was a yawning, cavernous class and wealth divide, a society riven with persecution and explicit, emboldened racism, extreme poverty, alcoholism, destitution, drug abuse, and a sense that the world was edging towards another end-of-days cataclysm.
This is the world that The ABC Murders inhabits, and a grimy, soot-stained world we are plunged into straight away.
If you wanted to watch an escapist, feel-good whodunit, you will have been disappointed. You will have also been disappointed with some of the other decisions Phelps took with the structure and the plot details. But that’s fine – these are reimaginings, refreshes and fresh, new takes.
And we haven’t even started talking about John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot yet.
Proceedings start with a Mr Cust, booking himself into a lodging house. Outside, fascist posters sneer from brick walls as grey, smog-filled London wheezes. This young man is nervy and seemingly timid, with brilliantined hair and a lacquered skin pulled so tightly across his face he looks as though he’s made from Furnivals china. The opening exchanges between him and his new, louche landlady, Rose Marbury (a fabulous turn from Shirley Henderson), are straight out of the pages of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – so full of faux speaking-propah (“Brown paper items littering my vestibule? This is no post office. I don’t hold with none of my gentlemen out carousing half the night; I don’t hold with no toppers, nor no sots either, nor no bad language, profanities, blasphemies and the like”) they’re at once both hilarious and sinister (especially the latter when she makes it known to Cust, for instance, that her daughter, Lilly, is for hire for certain services if he so wishes… as the noises of grubby sex thump and moan from the upstairs room).
From this room, however, Cust unpacks his typewriter and proceeds to wage a war of words against the recipient of his letters: the great Hercule Poirot.
Soon, we get our first sighting of the icon. Unlike David Suchet’s incarnation – and certainly, Kenneth Branagh’s version – this Poirot does not walk with a jaunty skip, does not twirl his moustache and does not have the same exuberance or glint in his eye. Instead, this Hercule looks weather-worn, weary and tired. Even Cust, in one of his letters, says he looks tired, and, after observing him from afar, surmises that he walks in a way that suggests his feet hurt, and expresses half-genuine, half-mock concern for him. And there’s good reason for Poirot’s frayed, pained, quiet demeanour: seemingly wherever he goes he’s looked on unfavourably, as those wearing the fascist insignia (more than you ever dared hoped to think existed in 1930s London) are quick to sneer whenever they hear his soft, Belgian accent. He looks embattled, and as though he has no direction or purpose.
Which is strange because Malkovich has much more physicality than Suchet, for instance – he’s bigger, stockier and speaks in a deep, staccato manner; he plods rather than skips daintily; and he’s dressed in low-key greys rather than fashionable, showy browns and creams.
And then there’s his home life.
He goes back to his apartment every day, where he leads a solitary existence (there’s no fawning Captain Hastings here to keep him company). He prays diligently every evening and is a penitent man (more on that later). He reads Cust’s letters, so conversational it’s as if the writer knows him as a friend. His only friend.
As Cust’s letters begin to map out a plan, Poirot takes them to his friend Inspector Japp in the police force but learns that he retired some months ago. His replacement, Inspector Crome, makes him wait like all the others. Whatever special relationship or link Poirot thought he had with the police is now in tatters – Crome and his chums laugh at him when he insists that these letters must be taken seriously, especially when poorly-applied hair dye from his moustache and beard begins to streak down his chin. Crome makes a point of telling him that he may have been a big star in the 1920s, solving crimes for the rich and famous, but he’s an irrelevance now.
He means nothing in this new world of cynicism and fear. He should go away for good.
And this is clever. Using the moustache as a device to examine his own identity, his own mortality even (furthered when his old friend Japp keels over on his allotment, another thing traditionalists might not like… but I totally got this – to make Poirot even more vulnerable and to make him feel absolutely more alienated and under threat, all his friends needed to go), this Poirot is going through an identity crisis – unsure of who he his, and where he fits into this world. This examination of his own identity is heightened further, when memories of Belgium begin to shimmer back to the surface. Something bad happened there. Something very bad. And… Crome accuses Poirot of lying about his identity when he first came to the UK.
Soon he’s not the only one asking who the real Hercule Poirot is – we are too.
He’s being attacked from all sides, but instead of cowering, he does something else.
He decides to wash the dye from his moustache and beard, acknowledge that it is grey and that he is older, and begins to reclaim himself – from the racists who stare at him in the street, from Crome (a sneering spiv of a man played very well by Rupert Grint), who figures him to be nothing more than a washed-up celebrity detective who has wronged his old boss somehow (we’ll find out why later), and from the writer of the daily letters who intends to do great harm.
He goes lone wolf. He goes to solve the crime. He begins to emerge from the hot tendrils of persecution. He begins to fight back.
It is a Dark Knight version of Poirot, and I loved it.
And so The ABC Murders really starts. We see those little stories within stories that were so great in Christie’s original: shopkeeper Alice Ascher is bludgeoned to death in Andover; spiteful waitress Betty Barnard, a frequenter of dances and dalliances and unpopular with her sister, is strangled in Bexhill; and Sir Carmichael Clarke, living in a big, posh house with plenty of familial dysfunction simmering around him (Christie loves this), is about to be murdered . They’re all from different backgrounds, social classes and in different locations. It seems that this type of evil knows no boundaries when it comes to gender, class or race. (Surely a metaphor for the creeping, wider evil that was spreading across 1930s Britain and Europe like poison ivy.) The ABC murders is a terrifying, clever and intriguing concept – it always has been – and soon, not only is Poirot fully engaged, but the police are taking notice, too. They’re ransacking his apartment for clues and treating him as if he was a second-class citizen.
The parallels between 1930s Britain and the Britain of today are chillingly similar and this is why, of course, Phelps has decided to use this as a backdrop for this story, and as an atmosphere for Poirot to work in. Some won’t like it, but I think it’s clever, adds depth to the character and adds a disturbing dimension to what is already a tense, race against the clock.