As a teenager, I worked my way through several meters of Goldmann Taschenbuch editions of Agatha Christie novels (along with some Edgar Wallace thrillers) which turned me into a committed, if ill-informed, anglophile. However, by the time I came across the Poirot mysteries starring David Suchet, I’d lived in the UK for some time and found their nostalgia sickly and their far-fetched plots boring. But when the BBC showed The ABC Murders, adapted by Sarah Phelps and starring John Malkovich, at Christmas, I wanted to see what they’d done with the book.
Phelps’ adaptation makes interesting choices about settings and characters. Instead of stylish Art Deco interiors we see mostly poverty. Fascist posters calling for an end to the “Alien Tide” point back to the uglier aspects of British politics in the 1930s, but also recall the rhetoric around “Brexit”. Poirot is here not the funny, clever little foreigner whose precise origin doesn’t really seem to matter, but instead a traumatised refugee whose carefully built existence is under threat. Detectives are often marginal figures; their involvement with criminals render them suspect to law-abiding civilians. In Poirot’s case his mannerisms, for example the often used phrase “mes enfants”, serve to make him appear harmlessly eccentric, to allow the (British) public to feel superior to him and thus to gain their acceptance. This familiar version of Poirot is established in Christie’s novels through the use of Poirot’s friend Hastings as narrator. Hastings attitude towards Poirot veers from the good-humouredly patronising to utter amazement when the funny little foreigner yet again proves to be much more perspicacious than expected. For the reader, who is likely to have more faith in Poirot’s abilities, this adds the satisfaction of feeling cleverer than the narrator, as well as facilitating all manner of misdirection and surprises to the resolution of the mystery.
Phelps omits Hastings altogether, instead telling the story from Poirot’s own perspective. We witness him in intimate moments: being humiliated by the police and by complete strangers; accepting a rare, tactful offer of friendship; praying. Moreover, we are given access to his mind: flashbacks to Belgium in 1914, fragmented traumatic memories, suggestive of PTSD, of terror and violence. We initially see these from Poirot’s point of view, only much later does the camera pull back to include Poirot himself in the frame and thus provide us with a coherent backstory. This reveals that Poirot had been a priest, and that he tried but failed to save his congregation from slaughter by German soldiers. It becomes clear that, rather than being overwhelmed by this experience of utter helplessness, terror and failure, Poirot has found a way of using it to motivate him in his work. The phrase “mes enfants” now acquires a deeper meaning: Poirot has taken on responsibility for those in need, particularly of justice. In The ABC Murders, these are are a disabled and confused war veteran, an alcoholic, and several abused and exploited women (the kind of people increasingly found on our streets as social security is dismantled).
This Poirot speaks up for victims of injustice, abuse or exploitation. And that is a powerful intervention, even though he cannot single-handedly rescue those people. Indeed the person who seems most likely to succeed in escaping her miserable circumstances is inspired by the words of her sister, the second murder victim and an independent “New Woman”, as much as by Poirot’s. Phelps’ narrative strategy, as well as Malkovich’s straight, resolutely un-twinkly performance, foreground the human in the “alien”. By insisting on his humanity with all its frailty, they open up a space for compassion and, crucially, for agency.