“When you are a stranger in a strange land, it helps to be entertaining.” Hercule Poirot
You can feel it in every frame, that unease, despondence, numbness, poverty of means and imagination, sickly green light down endless corridors, the bloody boil on a man’s neck about to burst. It’s 1933 Britain, a gentleman enters a ladies’ hosiery factory, and the poster by the door is calling to arms, flash and circle, ‘we must stem the alien tide.’
This is how Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders starts in 2018/19 on BBC (and Amazon), and it’s a ticking bomb, you know this is a race against time, and that the time in question might not only be diegetic. So informed we are of our world, it seeps into this story, uninterrupted, yet gains in clarity, when we encounter in genre how history hides underneath its own frayed repeats.
The intro is a work of deviant art, Orwellian shout-out to True Detective. Railway tracks, twisting and turning, a maze of transference, iron hot, so the metal can bend and follow the path of the neuron to form a living, breathing human being, bound by the connection to the machine.
Hercule Poirot is now played by John Malkovich, inhabiting the part as if owning the true detective’s cellular memory. This is a Poirot that lives in perpetual mourning, a man with history, whose knowledge of human nature comes from experience of collective trauma, guilt of the survivor, many lives lived in one. His dandyish exterior is carefully constructed as camouflage to hide an entirely different garb. Vanity as shield. Entertainment as deflection.
There is a young man, Mr Cust (Eamon Farren), clearly keen, and clearly unwell. He likes things orderly, we later learn, instructions on how to proceed in life, so he can drown out the terrible thoughts swelling in his head. This also requires pain. Mr Cust is a travelling salesman, and sells Twinkle Toes, ladies’ pantyhose.
Then there is a young lady called Lily (Anya Chalotra), in red shoes, the kind of woman who can spot a kind heart beneath perversion, because she knows the brutality of men. She is the daughter of a boarding house landlady. Her body is for sale for the requiring tenant, her mother, her pimp.
The mother Rose (Shirley Henderson) goes on meetings, the daughter says, gets all riled up and rat faced, doesn’t like the ‘foreigns’. There is a slight possibility in Lily’s face that the her father might have been foreign.
‘You abuse your daughter, madam?’ asks Poirot, towards the end. He is the kind of man who knows questions.
Letters arrive for Poirot from a ‘faceless beast’, foretelling murder. Random butchery in anatomical order. All the train stations in Britain, alphabetically, people with alliteration in their names, all the places where Poirot’s polished shoe set foot. He has a fan.
Police does not believe Poirot should have fans. After all, his entire pre-Britain identity is brought into question. Who is he really, this man that’s better at what he does than us? He is an impostor, Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), the good egg, tells him outright, someone who for 19 years perfectly pretended to be a world-class detective.
Envy dressed as outrage. Internal suffering projected. The other shoe drops.
Institutions across the country are showing distrust of foreign influence, it’s not in ‘alignment’ with the public mood, they say. Paranoia always spreads like wildfire. The press asks ‘if the murderer is even English?’. The reporter smirks.
Poirot, the Belgian celebrity detective, reverts to being Poirot, the refugee, whose ‘shitty’ country someone’s father defended, a young man shouts at him from an angry mob. The power of feeling righteous in a crowd. Poirot’s star had fallen way back, this is just the crescendo march towards existential obliteration. Lines of mass reasoning blurred by self-pity, fear, and primal impotent rage.
Then we see the aristos, playing birthday mystery games some years back, murder as conceptual entertainment. Lady Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) was the birthday girl, now she is dying. Poirot was the MC. There’s a spark lit. It travels through time. A demon found its host.
As with all slaughter, follow the money, and you’ll find the beast master. It’s the genius of Agatha that does not settle on this. She pushes towards the pivotal point. Vanity seeks a mirror. Not everything can be mastered.
The need for connection as hunt for admiration, ownership mistaken as love. Human beings treated as letters of the alphabet.
Fascism as collective narcissism. Narcissism as ultimate isolation from life source.
‘I fear your soul is a charnel house. I grieve for you.’
Standing over the dead body of Alice Asher (Tamzin Griffin), owner of a tobacco shop in Andover, Poirot swears an oath to find her killer.
This is esoteric Christie, avenging angel, her agent, screenwriter Sarah Phelps, at the steering wheel. It’s easy to see why folks that stick to an image that never was – hate it. All that stuff under the rug. Dusted.
There is flesh & bone to canon, it requires new blood, or else it mummifies. It takes a bold person to attempt to revive it. When that happens, it’s a miracle.