Saturday, 29 December 2018

"The ABC Murders" Murder

NB This post contains spoilers for several Agatha Christie books. 

The defining scene of the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders, written by Sarah Phelps, came quite early on in Episode 1. Poirot was talking to Japp on the latter’s allotment. It was just about the only moment in the whole adaptation that felt like it had any connection at all to the spirit of the original novel, not least because it involved two likeable characters, bearing at least some resemblance to their literary counterparts, having an amicable conversation (this made it practically unique among any of the scenes in the entire three hours).

It didn’t last. In what was clearly intended to be a giant middle finger to dreary bourgeois squares who actually enjoy Agatha Christie novels, Japp promptly dropped dead from a heart attack. In the books, he is still going strong in 1948, fifteen years after the setting of this adaptation, when he receives his last mention in that year’s Taken At The Flood. Of course only suburban pedants like me actually care about such trivial matters, and who are we to question the Great Artiste?  

The scene symbolised everything I disliked about this mini-series, and have disliked about all the recent BBC Christie adaptations. It showed disdain for the source material, an obsessive focus on shock value, and a barely concealed and rather unpleasant contempt for the “traditional” audience.

People who read this blog or follow me on Twitter will know that for several years now I have been reading quite widely in the Golden Age of detective fiction (see my lists of books read for 2017, 2016, 20152014 part one and 2014 part two). One of my main conclusions from this reading is that Agatha Christie genuinely was outstandingly good at writing detective stories. Other well-known names were more technically accomplished writers, or had a more balanced view of the social changes in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, or could create more consistently vivid characters (that said, I will go twelve rounds with anyone who repeats the canard that Christie couldn't do character at all). But no-one comes close to Dame Agatha for near-unswerving excellence in plotting ingenuity. At her peak in the ‘thirties and ‘forties she turned out classic after classic, beautifully constructed and strongly clued. Her Five Little Pigs (1942) is arguably the apotheosis of the traditional murder mystery. It is near-perfect.

She varied her approach and challenged the conventions of the genre in a way matched by few of her contemporaries. She more than once experimented with unreliable narrators, famously in The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and less famously, but still to excellent effect, in Endless Night (1967). She explored murder of children (Halloween Party, 1969) and murder by children (Crooked House, 1949), and probed the limits of justice and the meaning of moral guilt in And Then There Were None (1939). At her best she displayed solid psychological insight: in Appointment With Death (1938) she portrayed with considerable subtlety the social-emotional dynamics that might lead abused children to stay with their monstrous abusive mother. In Ordeal By Innocence (1958) she examined the difficulties of living with suspicion, and the reasons why people might accept a convenient and plausible untruth rather than confront a difficult truth.

Granted that classic detective stories are rarely serious literature, but to write a very good one makes great demands on a writer’s ingenuity and originality. This will be obvious to anyone who reads, as I have, a large range of work by the journeymen of the Golden Age. To write thirty or forty very good classic detective stories over the course of four or five decades shows a mastery of craft that should give critics pause. Christie's continued pre-eminence is not some fluke of a capricious posterity. She really was the most clever writer of the traditional detective story in English, and her stories give harmless pleasure to millions of people.

Why does this matter in connection with the recent terrible adaptations? It matters because she deserves respect and her work deserves to be treated with integrity, not used as a convenient means for lesser writers to work out their tiresome neuroses about Brexit and parade their ignorant scorn for the past.

In The ABC Murders, Phelps drove a coach and horses through the character of Poirot. I am not a purist when it comes to TV or film adaptations, but there are limits to what you can change about an Agatha Christie Poirot story before it ceases to become an Agatha Christie Poirot story in any meaningful sense, and just becomes a crime drama with a prestigious name attached, and a built-in audience for a TV adapter who might otherwise struggle to pull in a big crowd.

John Malkovich was much too tall, and Phelps' Poirot had no charm and warmth and playfulness. His eccentricities of dress and behaviour were barely alluded to. An important part of the plot of the TV adaptation hinges on his having organised murder games, but he notes on more than one occasion in the books that he loathes such games. It is mentioned, if I recall correctly, in The Hollow (1946) and The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding (1960). Nor was he given the traditional denouement speech, no doubt to avoid giving the traditional audience anything that they might enjoy.     

His flat was all wrong. Much is made in the books of Poirot’s love of modern furniture and fittings – clean lines, no clutter. I suppose it’s possible there was lots of lovely 1920s furniture in the place, but given that he inexplicably never turned the lights on it’s hard to tell. More seriously Phelps took a wrecking ball to his backstory, making out that he was a Belgian priest whose congregation was massacred by the invading Germans, and that he only pretended to be a policeman when he fled to England. But there is no suggestion anywhere in the canon that Poirot has been deceitful about his past. We know Poirot was a detective in Belgium before the war; there is a short story dealing with his pre-1914 life, The Chocolate Box (1923). Even if we decide to be smart and post-modern and disbelieve this story because it is told by Poirot himself, Japp makes reference in Lord Edgware Dies (1933) to having worked with him before the war. Hastings too talks of having met him before the war, during his police career, in The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1920). Hastings, predictably, does not appear in Phelps’ adaptation, presumably for fear that he might add a touch of lightness, or – heaven forfend – a sense of humour, to this self-consciously Dark adaptation.

Ah yes, the dark. One didn’t so much watch this series as peer hopefully into the gloom, occasionally catching a glimpse of someone’s face or the white of a starched collar. Police stations, smart London flats, seedy lodging houses, seaside cafes in springtime, were all full of people stumbling around in the shadows, pausing occasionally to snarl at someone before vanishing into the murk. Perhaps we are supposed to find this atmospheric. I found it ludicrous and artificial, like so much of the edginess.     

The constant darkness is of a piece with the obsession with grimness and corruption and threat. Police officers could barely manage a civil word to each other. Suspects were treated with violence and contempt. There was barely a single normal, friendly conversation in the entire 180 minutes. 

As a Good Modern Person, whose political and cultural views I suspect I could predict almost in their entirety, Phelps is obsessed with demonstrating that the past was a hideous, terrible place, and that any ideas we might have about the merits of Old Britain are mere silly nostalgia. She has tweeted that she has a “horror of heritage, hagiographic adaptations”, by which I think she means any adaptation which doesn’t dwell incessantly on the seedy underbelly of human life. There was a half-hearted motif about the rise of the BUF, clearly intended to allude to Britain’s Post-Brexit Descent Into Fascism. Poirot was given a preachy line about the awfulness of nostalgia (no other character is given a chance to respond, naturally). The inclusion of a joyless and narratively ridiculous sex scene, and references to abortion and prostitution, all had a strong feel of conscious, deliberate desecration, like an angsty teenager scribbling swearwords in a family Bible. Misery loves company. Those who cannot conceive of any artistic vision beyond the stark, grimy realism of modernity, obsessed with ambiguity and antagonism and the ugliness supposedly underlying everything, seek to deface the works of the past which propose something cleaner and more hopeful.

There was no positive artistic vision here, merely a determination to spoil and undermine and shock. This was not an interpretation of Christie’s novel but an anti-interpretation. I’m not actually that surprised by this as Phelps completely failed to understand the point of And Then There Were None. She tweeted in response to criticism of The ABC Murders that she believes that classic authors “need their bones rattling”. To me this sounds rather like a rationalisation for using the big name and clever plot ideas of illustrious predecessors to increase one’s own prominence and gain a ready-made platform for agitprop.

What particularly annoyed me about Phelps’ hectoring is that, for all her snide digs at nostalgia, she clearly just doesn’t know very much about what Britain was like in the early 1930s, how people thought and behaved and spoke.

A relentless and unbalanced focus on the horrors and faults of the past, well beyond the point of ridiculousness, has no more artistic integrity than the soft-focus chocolate box views of inter-war Britain that have sometimes been the background to Golden Age dramatisations. And in any case there is really nothing wrong with an element of “cosiness” – some of us like to sit down for a couple of hours without having grime and unpleasantness flung in our faces. The BBC is apparently going to have a Christie for Christmas every year now. In that case, why not alternate between Phelps and a more traditional adapter, and see which audiences genuinely prefer? One of the best things about the very good Poirot continuation novels written by Sophie Hannah is that, as well as having a genuine affection and respect for Agatha Christie and her work, she has no interest in tutting at the 1920s.

One of the great unremarked losses occasioned by Phelps’ Very Edgy approach is that families can no longer sit down together and watch these mysteries. I have very fond memories of watching Agatha Christie adaptations with my parents at Christmas and on Bank Holidays, from the age of ten or so onwards, but that would now be impossible given the gore and swearing and the unstinting nasty, antagonistic mood.  

One thing I found very peculiar about this adaptation was the way it traduced the female characters from the book. Phelps also did this with several of the women from Ordeal By Innocence, most notably Rachel Argyle. She took the book’s well-meaning but deeply flawed matriarch – in whom benevolence and self-righteousness and frustrated desire and thoughtless cruel insensitivity were all mingled together – and replaced her with a one-dimensional malevolent domestic tyrant.

In The ABC Murders, the murder victim Betty Barnard was transformed from a silly and naïve but harmless flirt into a vindictive sex-obsessed vamp (the scene between her and Cust in the café was one of the more utterly preposterous in the series). Her sister Megan, a level-headed and bright young woman in the book, was transformed into a stuttering schoolgirl – a badly underwritten part. At the end of the last episode she seemed to be about to be forced into an unwelcome marriage by her parents. Their reasons were obscure, nor was it clear why Megan would feel unable to refuse. It felt for all the world like a clunky plot device for Phelps to stress, yet again, that Things Were Bad Back Then, You Know.

Phelps’ version of Thora Grey was a much less interesting character than in the book. Christie’s Grey is a somewhat ambiguous figure, but in Phelps’ hands she was turned into a selfish and calculating murderer’s apprentice, a male fantasy of a sexually forward and available secretary. I must admit I laughed out loud when she smoked a cigarette in a Cruella de Vil-style long holder.     

Inspector Crome, too, was given a character transplant. In the adaptation Crome is just another Scotland Yard man, who grunts mulishly at his colleagues; in the book he is an enthusiast for psychology, who comes up with increasingly outlandish theories for the ABC crimes, and his interplay with Poirot is entertaining and illustrative of two contrasting characters. It seems odd to me that in 180 minutes, no room could be found for this aspect of the story - but then so much time was taken up with Mood and Atmosphere that mere plot had to take a back seat.

Critics of Phelps’ adaptations, even thoughtful and polite ones, are probably wasting their breath. She is quite impervious to any criticism, characterising it as “contrived” and “tabloid”. She said in a Tweet that people are “furious” with her for “bringing too much original thought” to her adaptation, which sounds a bit like saying that the stupid proles are too unenlightened to grasp her shining brilliance. I hope it will be clear from this post that I think quite the opposite; she has utterly failed to bring any originality to this adaptation, filling it instead with her own existing ideological preoccupations, her own misunderstandings of the past, and her own agenda of deconstruction.   

Chris Snowdon, another Christie fan, and a knowledgeable one, has written a perceptive critique of the adaptation at his blog, focusing in particular on the mess made of the plot.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. You have put into words, everything I was thinking.

  3. every so often one comes across something really penetrating - a critique written by someone able to stand outside the prejudices of their time and offer a truly critical perspective, like an adult in a room of children. This was such a time. Well-written and well-observed. Thank you.

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  5. Great review. I've never read any Christie; although i generally watch and like the TV dramatizations, but my wife is an insatiable fan of the books and was practically apoplectic as we sat watching this drawn out, visceral, and dull drama.

  6. Had been looking forward to this becoming available on Netflix here in the US; not any longer-- thank you for saving me from a waste of... well, half an hour, anyway.

  7. Your last line says it all: Phelps can only deconstruct what has been lovingly constructed.

    Very glad to avoid the disappointment myself. Thanks for taking one for the team.

  8. Niall - how right you are. If Phelps wants to write a psycho murder drama she should do so and not piggy back on Christie's name to get her second rate work made. Typical of the BBC execs to fall for this psycho babble. Actually the ITV David Suchet version is way better, truer to the plot and the character of Poirot and deals with 'blackshirt' issue much more effectively.

  9. Absolutely spot on. This dreary production felt wrong from the very beginning - just a dull projection of the adaptor's predictable and conventional prejudices, with a complete disregard for how people actually behaved in the 1930s. Visually unconvincing as well. It is grimly amusing that Phelps seems to regard herself as an original thinker.

  10. There's an interesting parallel with the David Suchet adaptations. All except the last few were done with a light touch, with beautiful and bright Art Deco sets. The most recent were dark and gothic in feeling, with a completely different sensibility: far less enjoyable unless you want to be made miserable.

  11. God it was awful, thanks for such a great summary of exactly why. I could not help contrasting the utterly irrelevant BUF subplot (if you can even call it that) with PG Wodehouse's treatment of the subject; oh for Roderick Spode to turn up in his footer bags, in fact there is a writer I would like to see Phelps take on, that really would be gruesome.