REVIEW: The ABC Murders (S1 E2/3)

Last night’s opening episode of The ABC Murders introduced us to a new kind of Poirot – tired, persecuted, guilt-ridden and locked in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a serial killer who seemingly knew every move he was going to make before even he knew he was going to make it. Poirot found himself in the unlikely position of a kitten (albeit a gruff one, plagued by an existential crisis) at the end of a ball of string. He was being toyed with.

All this in a world where fascism was on the rise, poverty was ever-enveloping and mistrust lurked around every corner.

Opinion has been divided ever since that first episode, but personally speaking I like to be challenged, and I like my crime drama with nuance, intrigue and featuring characters that you can believe in. I also don’t like to be spoonfed the same thing over and over again, which is why the negative reactions to this have surprised me.

David Suchet had a moustache. So does John Malkovich here. Malkovich has a beard, too. He’s different from David Suchet. David Suchet spoke in an over-the-top French/Belgian accent. John Malkovich’s accent is different from David Suchet’s. But that’s ok, because this is a different version.

Clive Exton adapted Suchet’s 1992 version of The ABC Murders. This time Sarah Phelps has adapted it.

It’s different.

It’s good. Really, really, very good.

But it’s different.

And that’s ok. More than ok.

Judging by some people’s reaction on social media, Phelps has committed a heinous crime. But all it is is different. Better? Maybe. But definitely different. I like that – I like that she’s pushing boundaries, looking into the character and trying to find out what makes him tick. We’re getting an idea why Poirot is the man he is, and why he exists and learning about the time he existed in. Character and place are intertwined.

If that first installment helped to set things up, added some meaty character backstory and a terrifying social context, tonight we really saw Poirot regain some of his lustre. In fact, if episode one threatened to go off-road, this second part of the story brought it back down more to the original story – the hunt was on, the pace quickened and the clock began to tick.

The man behind the letters and the killings saw his wish granted – the newspapers and the radio news were in a fervour and whipped the population into a panic. Everyone was trying to guess where he was going to strike next. He had already ticked A, B and C off his list. Where would D be?

Before D, Poirot deduced that he had a personal connection to both Andover and to Bexhill, and that Churston – a place he had also previously visited – was to be next. But he was too late. When Sir Carmichael Clarke perished at the hands of ABC, Poirot hotfooted it to the house to investigate for himself. On the way, he was spat at and shouted down by a mob, who blamed him for not doing enough to stop the killer. Such was the ferment.

Despite this ignominy, it felt like purpose had returned to his life – Poirot was back doing what he loved, what he was good at. There was a powerful scene in a church later in the episode, where Poirot explained to a priest who wanted him to take confession that he feared failure, had failed.

“God forgives all,” offered the priest.

“But I do not.”

Walking now with not exactly a spring in his step but certainly more urgency, he got to work the only way he knew how – he began to break things down and took a closer look at the links and the details. He called a meeting of all those close to the victims (what was called ‘the legion’ in the book), which didn’t go down too well and instead laid bare the frayed relationships between the victims and those closest to them: Betty Barnard’s uptight fiance, Donald Fraser, and sister; and Carmichael’s brother Franklin, and his assistant and wannabe lover, Thora Grey. And this is what I loved about the original, there were stories within stories that punctuated the search for ABC, which seemed to touch on Christie’s greatest love of all – dysfunction within families.

By this time Poirot was observing and the clues – or in this case – were beginning to present themselves, the key one being the stockings that Cust was selling around the scenes of the crimes. The detective found the burnt remnants of a stocking packet in the fireplace in Alice Asher’s back room, Betty Barnard was strangled with a pair, and a man seen dressed similarly to Poirot was seen at Churston, initially by an infirm Lady Hermione Clarke (who had, we saw in flashback, once welcomed Poirot at the height of his fame to her birthday party years before, for a lavish murder mystery evening) and then a less morphine-addled Thora Grey. (As an aside, Lady Clarke’s terminal cancer made her and Poirot two unlikely bedfellows – both remembered the glamour and life of the 1920s, when both were younger, beautiful, and alive with possibility and energy. Tara Fitzgerald was superb in these scenes, body and mind broken, shimmering briefly again as she saw her hero.)

This link to the stockings was the crack in the door that Poirot needed, and he began to focus on this crucial lead.

But there was something else that was gnawing away at the great detective: the flashbacks of his time in Belgium, where it was shown that a young Poirot had witnessed a shooting. Was he to blame? Could he have done more to stop it? In another flashback, we saw Poirot gain entry into the UK, and seemingly make up the profession of gendarme on the spot in order to gain quick and safe passage. Is he the liar Crome accused him of being?

As a note left by ABC after a tense semi-chase through the tunnels of the London Underground at the end of the episode asked: who are you really, Hercule?

Who indeed.

And what of Cust? We saw him wracked with torso-shaking epilepsy and a psycho-sexual need to banish all pain, to the point where he asked Lilly to walk across weeping, open wounds on his back in red shoes, heels digging into fleshy craters. There was something vaguely religious and ultra-penitent about this disturbing scene – something Poirot has also shown, but not quite as masochistically. Cust also seemed hyper-sensitive to every noise, sound and texture in Mrs Marbury’s house – the lurching, enormous fellow lodger, in particular, became a focus not least because of his ‘relationship’ with Lilly, and not least because of his deliberately grotesque demeanour (and pustule on the back of his neck). Phelps has definitely expanded this area of the story, adding a dynamic within the boarding house that’s disturbing, scary and, in the case of Cust and Lilly, oddly touching in a strange sort of way. The whole house, with its peeling Victorian wallpaper, sweetly-sung lullabies and simmering rancour feels purgatorial – a world between worlds.

It’s all extremely atmospheric, and I think really does add something to the story.

The links between Cust and Poirot seem to be deep. The two must come from Belgium. Cust’s forenames, for instance, are Alexander Bonaparte Cust, and while reflecting Poirot with Crome (who seemed to actually be showing Poirot some respect) thought that he might have helped to deliver a baby by a Belgian migrant woman in Andover some 19 years before. Perhaps they have a link from that, but perhaps the two first met at the time of the shooting he was remembering constantly.

Like any good cat-and-mouse story, Cust and Poirot were edging ever closer to each other, brushing aside all obstacles to try and get to one another. At the start of this episode, Cust was dictating the rules. Not so much by the end of it – the killer had made a mistake in Doncaster (haven’t we all) and you got the impression that Poirot was now hot on his heels.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in tomorrow night’s final episode.

Paul Hirons

FOR OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW CLICK HERE

7 Comments Add yours

  1. COOKE says:

    I’m enjoying this very much, for all the same reasons as you, but I had to watch through my fingers as the camera lingered on the boil on the lodger’s neck – followed by the slicing of the fried egg….. yuk!!

    Like

  2. Tom says:

    Personally, I’m struggling more to accept Ron Weasley as Inspector Crome than John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. Other than that, I’m enjoying it.

    Like

    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Haha… I know what you mean, although on social media it seems Rupert Grint is going down well, apparently. Just shows you – it’s all subjective!

      Like

    2. Seija says:

      There’s nothing weaselly (pun intended) about the former ‘Ron Weasley’ in this series at all, in fact Rupert Grint has grown up to be a serious actor to be reckoned with IMO. He just needs to grow up and act some more still ;)

      Like

  3. Keith says:

    It’s different. It’s atmospheric and it’s a good drama. But Christie’s Poirot it isn’t. Phelps (or maybe Malkovich) has thrown away the key elements of Poirot’s physical characteristics and lessened the man in my opinion. It probably doesn’t help that Malkovich has opted to revive the Pascal Sauvage voice – I keep expecting Johnny English to blunder on set at any moment.

    I’ll see it through as I enjoy a good whodunnit but this will not trouble my list of great Poirot portrayals. Malkovich is to Hercule Poirot what Cruise is (was…) to Jack Reacher.

    Like

    1. Seija says:

      Totally disagree with you, Keith. In John Malkovich’s Poirot we now have a real human, three-dimensional being, and not a cartoon or comic style characterization as in David Suchet’s Poirot, as magnificent as he was nevertheless.

      Liked by 1 person

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