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Remembering an Agatha Christ-mas

What maintains our fascination with the worlds of Agatha Christie?

Festivities over, we have had time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, which is television, and its universal message, which is that nothing better entertains enforced family gatherings than to watch someone being murdered. Rejoice, rejoice, for unto us a killer hath been caught.

According to our modern Bible, the double-issue Radio Times, between Christmas and New Year’s Days, across seven channels you could have watched 29 broadcasts of an Agatha Christie work, at a combined 56 hours and 50 minutes. On the steam-wireless, Radio Four Extra offered a Miss Marple mystery and a Poirot short story, notching up 9 hours. For just over one-third of those eight days, someone was broadcasting Christie. Admittedly, this includes repeats and outrageous padding for commercial breaks (yes, Drama TV, it was you, in the lounge, with the remote).  Equally, it ignores plagiarisms of Dame Agatha’s plots and characters, or non-fiction programmes discussing her.

Once again, the Queen of CrimeTM received more coverage at Christmas than the King of Heaven. It was possible to watch three different adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express. None of which depicted the story actually in her 1934 novel.

Each retains the basic framework. Spoiler alert! The Orient Express is held up by an obstruction. An American called Ratchett is found murdered, stabbed twelve times in his bed by a variety of blows. Poirot discovers that Ratchett was really Cassetti, responsible for the kidnapping and murder of little Daisy Armstrong. He deduces that all the other passengers and one conductor are concealing links to the Armstrong household, and thus motives for revenge.  Poirot presents two possible solutions. The simple explanation is that Ratchett was murdered by a rival gangster disguised as a conductor, who has since escaped. The complex explanation is that all the suspects conspired in the killing, as a quasi-jury to enact justice, leaving false clues to imply an outside assassin.

Some changes are minor, e.g. names and nationalities. To save time, interrogations are compressed, and incriminating admissions swapped between suspects, whilst some of their strategies for confusing Poirot on the night of the murder are dropped. He is given a better recollection of the Armstrong case for a more insightful and brisker investigation.

Nobody copies the novel’s opening, Poirot being seen onto a train at Aleppo by a French lieutenant, after investigating a scandal in the garrison of Syria involving a suicide and a resignation.

The novel stresses that the simple solution is impossible, the train having been unexpectedly blocked by a snowdrift. Ratchet’s compartment window was left open to suggest an exit route for the assassin, but there are no footprints in the snow. (Christie forgot that the cold would have affected the onset of rigor mortis and subsequent timing of the death.) After hearing the complex solution, the conspirators promptly confess. Mrs Hubbard offers to take the blame. (Christie has provided thirteen suspects with a motive, so has to clumsily explain that one did not participate.) A director of the train company conveniently on hand instantly accepts the simple solution he rejected outright fourteen pages earlier. The book ends abruptly with Poirot declaring that his work is done.

The 1974 film boasted an impressive cast, of whom Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar, and an even more impressive soundtrack, but the real star is the locomotive. Albert Finney plays Poirot as a comedy foreigner, drawing more on Christie’s earlier short stories than the novel in hand.

Events open with a flashback of the Armstrong kidnapping. This rather gives the game away.  Poirot’s time-consuming journey through Turkey is replaced by a short crossing of the Bosporus by ferry, now in 1935. He is accompanied by a British officer who thanks him for upholding the honour of the garrison in Jordan after a helpful confession by a brigadier. A silly-ass British toff is always funny.

In the denouement, Poirot purports that both theories are equally plausible. (On this train, Ratchet’s window is left shut.) He even surmises that the Yugoslav police would prefer the simpler solution. The company director agrees, and Poirot offers to report it — whilst admitting this requires him to wrestle with his conscience. There are no confessions. The film ends with the suspects drinking champagne.

Paul Dehn, also responsible for Goldfinger, wrote the script. Where he deviated from Christie’s dialogue, he was wittier and more polished, providing fleshed out back stories. For example, that Colonel Arbuthnot needs to conceal his amour with Miss Debenham because he is divorcing his wife — something Christie leaves unexplained. Dehn’s only real blunder was to stress the 12-man jury angle, but then have all 13 suspects deliver between them 12 stab wounds.

The film is an opulent indulgence, a confection of consequence-free fun. Just what everyone wanted in 1974 — and every Christmas since. Far more entertaining than the story Christie gave us.

The 2010 drama appeared in the penultimate season of a 25-year project to televise all the Poirot stories, by which point a darker side to the plots was being emphasised. David Suchet had perfected his portrayal of an obsessive-compulsive, fussy and vain, not flamboyant, with a deep Catholic faith.

Stewart Harcourt, the screenwriter, had a background in police dramas. He uses more of the original novel, but incorporates most of Dehn’s back stories and compressions whilst shrinking the cast. Constantine the Greek doctor becomes a conspirator, but Ratchet’s window is open again and only 12 suspects undertake the murder. This is the only version to consider the inconveniences of being snowbound in December, now placed in 1938.

Commencing on the Bosporus ferry, Poirot recalls his investigation of a scandal in the British garrison in Palestine. The escorting officer upbraids him for causing the suicide of a lieutenant.  No comedy here. With the anachronistic depiction of a woman stoned for adultery in Istanbul (Ataturk abolished sharia law), this frames an examination of the meaning of justice, and who may enforce it. Deftly, we later see an intercutting of both Poirot and Ratchett reciting the Night Prayer.  We are all sinners.

Poirot indignantly rejects the simple solution, despite the urgings of the train company director.  He is outraged at the conspirators resorting to mob justice. They admit what they have done. Princess Dragomiroff offers to take the blame. Colonel Arbuthnot threatens Poirot, but the others dissuade him: unlike Ratchett, the detective has done nothing to merit death; they are not evil people. After an ice-cold night grappling with his conscience, Poirot himself decides to offer the simple solution to the police, then refuses to rejoin the others and walks off, saying his rosary.

The only false note is a sub-plot in which Ratchett is attempting to make amends by returning the Daisy Armstrong ransom money, which then goes missing. This version has a depth and dimension not found in the novel, and by far the best acting.  It is thought-provoking and repays rewatching.

Neither applies to the 2017 movie. Kenneth Branagh gives us Poirot as an autistic Charlie Chaplin sporting a handlebar moustache wide enough to embrace a motorcycle display team. The opening is delayed by a ludicrous drama in which Poirot defuses a riot in Jerusalem by exposing a British officer for stealing from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Double woke points: bad British Empire; bad Western intervention in the Middle East.

The train is now derailed by an avalanche in 1934. Dr Constantine is amalgamated with Colonel Arbuthnot as a coloured crack sniper who spoofs assassination attempts on Poirot and other suspects to confuse the investigation. When Poirot accuses the suspects of working together, he challenges them to kill him.  Mrs Hubbard attempts to commit suicide.  This persuades Poirot to present the police with only the simple solution, resigned to the impossibility of achieving justice.

Very sumptuous. And very dull

Very sumptuous. And very dull. The screenwriter, Michael Green, previously worked on sci-fi and superhero movies. It shows. The Branagh movie is a hollow attempt to cash-in through false glitz and virtue-signalling. Very 2017.

Filming a drama is expensive, but potentially lucrative. Producers will be reluctant to risk big money on an unknown author wanting to exercise personal hobby-horses. Safer to take an established brand, with proven customer loyalty, and crowbar in latter-day prejudices.

Thus, a modern Christmas tradition is discovering which work of literature has been butchered by the BBC in the name of woke piety. This Yule’s sacrificial log was Murder Is Easy by — my God, Holmes! — Agatha Christie. Compared to previous barbarities, such as 2019’s witless re-write of War of the Worlds, or 2021’s emasculation of Phileas Fogg’s globetrotting, the Dame escaped lightly. Shifting the action by twenty years, and converting the protagonist from a returning white Indian Police officer to an arriving Nigerian subject is relatively mild. The injected anti-colonialism and feminism was par for the course these days. David Jonsson made a better fist of a duff script than Eleanor Tomlinson in 2019 or David Tennant in 2021. We will be seeing more of him.

We will be seeing far more of Agatha Christie, usually at Christmas — if somewhat less of her actual work. Hers is an extremely trusted brand, the most-translated author in history, and still one of the highest-selling. Helpfully, her spare style and formulaic structuring are easily adaptable to serve other purposes. The point of each story is the killer’s motive. The hook for the reader is the clever twist at the end, not the landscape on the journey to reach it. People have been transforming her work since well before she finished writing. They will carry on doing so.

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