REVIEW: The ABC Murders (S1 E3/3)

“Mes enfants”

We all know that this Poirot hasn’t been to everyone’s tastes, but let’s not go over all that again, because, to me, Sarah Phelps’ adaptation has been a resounding success and we have a final episode to discuss. If anyone knows the original story then you know that all is not what it has seemed. Or, at least, in the original it isn’t. It was anyone’s guess as to how Phelps was going to treat the ending, The Twist, or indeed if she was going to leave it intact (something she hasn’t done in some of her other, magnificent adaptations).

The first two episodes had gently increased the heat to a rolling boil, and, on top of everything else, The ABC Murders has been a masterclass in pacing and tempo: episode one started off slowly, increasing the pace and tension in episode two and here, in the final episode, we were on a runaway train.

Within the first 20 minutes, the whole Cust storyline had been more or less sorted. We knew he was an ill boy, wracked with convulsions and a hypersensitivity to atmosphere, environment and pain. So much so with the latter, he had been seeking to block everything out with regular back walking sessions with Lilly, who he had formed a close friendship with.

But things were getting worse for him, his condition deepening and debilitating him.

We first joined him as he lay prostrate on a train station toilet floor, holding a blooded knife. Inside one of the cubicles was a station hand, stabbed to death. Cust was in a town called Embsay. The man’s name was Ernie Edwards. He and it signified the letter E. ABC had struck again. He was suddenly in an impossible position, found himself on the run and was soon apprehended. Crome was mightily relieved.

(It must be said that Rupert Grint as Crome has been excellent in this story – a flawed man but, by the end, a lot like all of us: beneath that gruff exterior, he craved recognition and even a bit of love. His relationship with Poirot had developed to the point of almost friendship by the end of it all.)

Job done.

Or not.

Poirot was taking his time at the Marbury residence, first chatting to Lilly – like Betty’s sister, Megan, he recognised the people he needed to talk to, showing empathy and compassion – and finding out that Cust was a gentle if physically sick man, and, crucially, back home a mere 20-odd minutes or so after the Doncaster incident. He started to wonder. He started to wonder about the typewriter and the books, he started to wonder about Cust’s backgammon board, and he started to wonder about the stockings. While he was thinking, he also chided Mrs Marbury for the abuse of her daughter.

Poirot visited the maker of the stockings. They had never heard of an Alexander Bonaparte Cust.

Poirot then visited Cust in hospital, and calmly asked him questions. There was no way Cust could have carried out these murders. He had heard of the great Hercule Poirot, who hadn’t, but did he know him? Of course not.  “I don’t want to be a monster,” he grimaced.

And so the twist.

Crome had said that there were ‘other’ fingerprints on the typewriter. Poirot went to see Franklin Clarke, who, we had seen earlier, share a bed with Thora Grey. During their conversation, Franklin told Poirot that he was worried about him, and that he thought he had looked rather tired. This conversation mimicked ABC’s own concern in the letters. Could a warped kind of altruism have sealed Clarke’s fate? Not quite.

Crucially, Poirot made sure he had a drink with Franklin. He also made sure to take fingerprints from the glass. And, of course, they matched the fingerprints on the typewriter.

It was a breathless passage, one of plans crashing down, deduction and rapid denouement.  In fact, if I was being hyper-critical, it was a little bit too rapid – so atmospheric and engrossing has this tale been, I could have quite easily lapped up another episode of slow-burn deduction and capture. But alas.

The case was, finally, cracked. Poirot had done it again, but there was no showboating or twirling of his moustache. He had kept his solemn promise to the dead, and felt an almost tacit acknowledgement of the cruelty in this world. A cruelty that takes many forms and just keeps on coming.

It was explained that Franklin Clarke had wanted to get rid of Sir Carmichael Clarke to get his title and his money, and concocted a plan of such breathtaking complexity to do so. It had almost worked. He had met poor Alexander Bonaparte Cust by chance, playing backgammon with him one night and hearing his sob story about wanting to find a profession. So he invented one for him, invented a life… and a purpose. Playing on his physical condition, Clarke got him a room in a grotty boarding house, set up the travelling salesman job, sorted out a typewriter and the ABC books and delivered them to the Maybury residence. Clarke had his puppet, and now Clarke could type the letters he needed to begin the game, to manipulate both Cust and Poirot.

(I loved the way the boarding house had a touch of the Lynchian about it in atmosphere and weirdness, and that boil-egg-slicing scene? Very Un Chien Andalou.)

And in this respect, Phelps had kept The Twist, and had kept the murderer and his plan intact. And why not? It’s always been a corker of a twist.

But there was more. Much more. The last 15 minutes fairly astonished me. They were some of the best 15 minutes in crime drama this year. Andrew Buchan – who we’ve seen be brilliant in Broadchurch, stepped up to the plate and gave an incredible performance in that final scene. He sat with Poirot for his last breakfast, and they talked. It was such an intimate, intense scene that featured language that was out of this world (“I believe your soul is a charnel house”). Clarke explained why he did it. Said it was Poirot’s fault because he had never forgotten the time he had visited Churston, and the fiendish webs of murder the detective had spun. “You sharpened the knife,” he smiled quietly. Clarke pleaded with Poirot to love him, to recognise his genius and to tell him his secrets. “Who really were you? What are your secrets, Poirot? Respect me enough to tell me.” Poirot didn’t budge.

We’re two sides of the same coin you and I, argued Clarke. I gave you back your mojo, argued Clarke. You could not have existed without me, argued Clarke.

Poirot didn’t budge. Poirot gave him nothing.

Clarke, with a quiet, smiling, tearful demeanour, also told Poirot that Alice Asher and Betty Barnard (and D and E) were mere collateral, decoys to deflect from the real crime he wanted and needed to commit – Sir Carmichael Clarke. His brother. He also admitted that murdering was damned exciting and he couldn’t stop.

As Clarke was led away, a priest came into the room to read him his last rites and accompany him on his final journey. “What use is praying?” he sneered.

What use is praying?

What use is praying?

Poirot did not have an answer to that question. Throughout these three episodes we’ve seen Poirot kneel at his own home altar, contemplate life in church and seem to be both deeply, spiritually connected to his God, and disdainful. Finally, we found out why.

We saw what happened in his previous life. We saw the soldiers coming, the children cowering, the lone soldier walking through the cornfield… and we also saw where the children were hiding – in a church. In the middle of that church was a man – a man we now know as Hercule Poirot – dressed in a cassock and collar. Poirot was a man of God. He was protecting the children and the village folk from the encroaching tyranny of German soldiers. Mes enfants, I will protect you. He went out to remonstrate, coming face-to-face with the young soldier, who could not pull the trigger. Someone else did it for him.

Poirot was struck on the side of the head. The church, and everyone in it, was razed to the ground. From that moment onwards, so was his faith.

Mes enfants.

It was an astonishing, brilliant, believable twist. We’d already had the Christie twist, and now we had the Phelps twist – and they fitted together beautifully. He was a warrior zen monk; a Dark Knight with the bitterness of trauma and injustice burning through his blood, and yet compassion still in his heart.

Throughout this series you could not take your eyes off John Malkovich – he played Poirot with a quiet power and a soft determination. Gone were the almost comic affectations of past incarnations, replaced by unsureness and existentialism. Yes, the vanity was still there and a sense that the status he once enjoyed was still well remembered, but this was a Poirot whose identity had been stripped bare and was now being forced to piece together the shards of his personality and his experiences. To move forward, to feel part of this world again, he had to acknowledge and process everything.

Before we only knew Poirot as a totem, and a vehicle for carrying a mystery. During this ABC Murders Hercule Poirot became a fully-formed human being before our eyes. And that was thrilling to watch.

For John Malkovich, he fit this part, this person like a glove.

As Phelps panned around the victims of the crimes – the families and the dead themselves (I love the way she gives respect to the dead, always gives them meaning and never forgets) – we were left to ruminate on another fabulous adaptation that made you think and affected you emotionally. It was a terrifying world in which Poirot found himself – full of horrors past and horrors to come – and a world that was about as far away from a so-called Golden Age as possible.

Earlier in the episode, a framed newspaper headline sat pride of place on Crome’s desk. Poirot saw it.

“Crome of the yard: a new detective for our new and cruel age!” it screamed.

“Such vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new,” sighed Poirot.

Cruelty is never new.

Paul Hirons




13 Comments Add yours

  1. Seija says:

    What an outstanding take on Agatha Christie and Poirot. During the first episode I was doubtful, didn’t know if I was going to like it. I recognised how classy and artsy it was visually, and John Malkovich is always superb but the slow and somewhat confusing (I haven’t read the book) story line was putting me off. And then came episodes two and three. No more doubts. Excellent work by Sarah Phelps again, her best A.C. adaptation to date.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth Macpherson says:

    I’m now going to binge the 3 episodes ;)


    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Enjoy! (and don’t read these reviews!)


  3. Colin Cutter says:

    Episodes 1 and 2 were too slow and the final part was all too quick. As is too often the case.


  4. Chris Jenkins says:

    On the whole I enjoyed the adaptation, didn’t mind the revisions, and appreciated the depth added to the character of Poirot. My only two slight niggles (whether faults of the original plot or the adaptation) were that Cust had such awfully convenient weaknesses – both easy to manipulate and prone to blackouts – and that no-one seemed to think about fingerprints until the typewriter, which the villain had thoughtlessly left covered in dabs. My only other caveat is that I thought Rupert Grint was dreadfully miscast – he just looked like a teenager with a stick-on moustache, not at all convincing as a police inspector. Nonetheless, I think this was the best of the BBC adaptations so far.


  5. My watching of the whole series was broken – and I admit to being put off in the first episode by the seeming women roles of only sexual predator, or pale innocent, and nothing else.
    But in the end came away with far more than any other Xmas TV gave – one being the reminder of what a terrible disease TB was, and still is. Tara Fitzgerald ravishing as always.
    The slow burn of morals and ethics on trial was much needed. Far too little is made of consequences in this time.


  6. soulman1949 says:

    Excellent. I binge watched all three episodes tonight. I don’t think I’ve read the book (or if I have, it would have been over 50 years ago) so I didn’t have anything to compare regarding any storyline revisions. What I did have was previous Poirots and this one seemed to possess far more gravitas, a fuller more-rounded figure. Thoroughly enjoyed it. As you say, different, but a change is always welcome.


  7. Terry Ignaciot says:

    Loved it and looking forward for more Sarah Phelps adaptations of Agatha Christie.


  8. Tim Saville says:

    Very good adaptation and Malkovich was great. There was one thing that I wasn’t clear about, although I may missed the reference. In what way did Poirot let down his policeman friend who died at the beginning and disgrace himself?


    1. Chris Jenkins says:

      I think that the implication was that by hitching his wagon to Poirot’s reputation, Japp had fallen out of favour with his superiors and his career had suffered. Crome was warned that the same might happen to him.

      Incidentally, I looked up a synopsis of the plot of the book, and was surprised to find that this adaptation was pretty faithful, resisting the temptation to change the perpetrator or the motive. The only real changes were that in the book, Cust’s affliction was caused by a head wound while in the army, and Poirot’s claim that the killer’s fingerprints were found on the typewriter was a bluff (I don’t see why this was changed for the adaptation – it would have made more sense).

      I don’t think there was any mention in the book of Poirot’s past life, so this was presumably an invention, though I think a very appropriate and effective one.


  9. William Thomas says:

    What an excellent review Sir. You clearly should be working for a newspaper or the like.


  10. marblex says:

    Brilliant! Phelps has done it again. I’m speechless. And those of you who know me know I hate writers who take liberties with the works of others. This adaptation was beyond good.


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