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ABC Murders: Hope and hot beverages

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose?...It must be murder – red-blooded murder – with trimmings of course.

ABC Murders, Agatha Christie



For many of us, Agatha Christie is the perfect murder mystery chef. Her crime dinners are a delightful mixture of surprising plot twists, suspense, and satisfyingly familiar motifs and caricatures. Despite the momentary threat of a corpse in the library or morphine-laced sandwiches, we know that the criminal will eventually be caught and order will be restored. I guess it’s a reassuring narrative for us. The chaos created by human evil, greed, crime and death is carefully contained within a formula. It’s also weirdly comforting to know that in the midst of all the death, the simple joys of domesticity are never far away, whether it’s a tisane sipped within the haven of Poirot’s symmetrically-pleasing flat, or a cup of cocoa enjoyed by Miss Marple before bed. For all the ‘red-blooded murder’ in these books and adaptations, Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries succeed in being cosy….

…Unless of course it’s an adaption by Sarah Phelps. Her Christie episodes may be fast becoming a boxing day TV tradition, but ‘cosy’ isn’t exactly how I’d describe her style. And depending on your taste, that may be a reason to celebrate or mourn.

‘The ABC Murders’ was aired this Christmas. With its close-up flashbacks, slow motion shots, low lighting and artistic cinematography, it sits comfortably alongside other contemporary, gritty crime dramas. Or perhaps I should say ‘uncomfortably’, for these dramas certainly tend to address some of the more depressing issues of life. Comforting, hot beverages are not on the menu. Or if they are, they don’t look particularly appetising (cue dramatic, slow motion shot of a cup of coffee overflowing with tragic significance. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen this adaptation of ABC.)

As an avid Christie reader and a David Suchet devotee, I had to overcome some initial feelings of distress at this new Poirot, so different from the one I’ve come to know and love… Malkovich’s Poirot has a goatee and his Belgian accent sounds suspiciously like Pascal Sauvage from Johnny English. And then there’s the whole ‘Poirot is a priest’ thing, which I found a little disorientating.

I decided the only way I could settle into this Christmas entertainment was to accept that this is Poirot in a parallel universe. This is a Poirot for our time. (Yep there’s a pretty obvious anti-brexit commentary with Phelps’s references to fascism and xenophobia.)

And whilst, if I’m being honest, I’d much prefer a bit of nostalgic teatime crime viewing, there is definitely something thought-provoking and powerful about this rather more disturbing version of Poirotvian entertainment. It’s interesting that Phelps hadn’t read Christie before she started making these adaptations, and perhaps that is why this mini-series is most definitely not an affectionate re-making of a classic Poirot story, but is actually more like a critique of a typical Christie mystery.

In this parallel universe, Poirot is a lonely, friendless, and (dare I say) pathetic old man. There’s no sign of Hastings, his naive companion, and Inspector Japp is quickly killed off. Poirot doesn’t enjoy the dignity of being a celebrated detective in his retirement as he does in the book; instead, he is branded as an intruding, foreign detective, with old-fashioned methods and a shady past. He still has a few adoring fans out there, but they only seem to be further evidence of how far he has fallen. The formerly world-renowned detective now participates in murder mystery parties held by his rich admirers, indulging their hunger for “spectacularly grisly” murders.

Unlike the book, which suggests there is something comedic about our strange appetite for 'red-blooded' crime, this adaptation focuses on the darker side of trivialising murder, and raises the question of Poirot’s own motivations for his detective work. Is he like the murderer who simply sees it as a game? Or is he driven by a deeper passion for justice?

As the story unravels and the mysterious flashbacks start to make sense, we find out that Poirot’s determination to catch criminals stems from his own traumatic experience of injustice and a vow he made to the innocent victims of war crimes he witnessed in Belgium. This Poirot is not the confident Catholic we’ve seen in the books, but a man who has suffered a crisis of faith. Throughout the series, he is shown fervently praying by his bedside, an image that is haunting rather than consoling.

Phelps’s adaptation depicts a very broken world. These characters are not your typical Christie caricatures, they are people with tragic backstories: we meet a girl bullied by her own sister and abandoned by a faithless lover, a young woman pimped out by her mother, and a man who is so broken by the war that he resorts to self-harm. The scenes in which he pays for a woman to trample on his back with stilettos are almost as grisly as the murders themselves.

And if you needed any further evidence that this adaptation is not attempting to charm its audience, the image of a church going up in flames acts as a strikingly bleak climax. It's an image that aptly represents our postmodern distrust of religion. This is a world in which there is no longer the security of faith or tradition. Can we believe in redemptive narratives, in a God of love and forgiveness, or in the concept of justice in a world of so much suffering and pain?

I appreciate the way Phelps challenges her viewers as she asks these big questions and probes the troubling relationship between murder, crime and entertainment.

However, for me, the addition of a tragic subplot overshadows the tragedy of the murders and distracts from the resolution. The ending actually left me a little unsatisfied, which isn't something I usually feel at the end of a Christie story. Yes, the murderer is brought to justice, but Poirot’s own doubts are not convincingly resolved and the ‘cruel’ world seems to carry on turning pretty much the same as before.

Phelps definitely offers an interesting take on Poirot, and yet I can’t help feeling that the beautiful optimism and humour in Christie’s books is lost in this bleak retelling of ABC. Christie may not be viewed as a high-brow author, but her writing is never vapid. She somehow manages to weave questions of justice, morality and human psychology seamlessly into her plots without any need for distracting back-stories. The older adaptations tend to stick closer to the optimistic spirit of her original material and although they may be lacking a certain artistic 'edge', they offer a sense of hope that is sadly missing from Phelps's version of ABC.

If I'm in the mood for a gritty crime drama, then perhaps I will find myself watching this adaptation again. But if I'm looking for a cosy evening on the sofa with a cup of cocoa (which I have to admit, is far more likely), it will be Christie's novels or Suchet’s episodes that will be my choice of entertainment.

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