We’re just about emerging from what has become known variously as “the Fallow”, “Twixtmas” and, one I picked up on this year and would prefer not enter the otherwise fittingly ethereal sounding lexicon, “The Chrimbo Limbo”. If you have a word for it or even if you don’t, you’ll know what I mean – it’s the time beginning around Christmas Eve or even before depending on the day it lands, reaching its peak a day or two after St. Stephen’s Day and finally petering out about the time that the school schedules have returned to normal. It’s that feeling of not having a clue what actual day it is around the Christmas period, thanks to friends and relatives being around that wouldn’t usually be, interrupted work and school schedules, meals often entirely consisting of snack boxes washed down with Bailey’s hot chocolate, and TV schedules boasting specials, round-ups and traditional family entertainment galore.
Before BBC took up the mantle of showing an annual Agatha Christie mystery ITV had the honour. We were used to David Suchet and his dinky little moustache and funny, foreign ways outwitting upper class murderers in exotic or luxurious locations. There was always the promise of a well-known cast, with at least one soap star popping up in an unfamiliar role, adding, I think, to the Twixtmas feel of things being that bit upside down while also being cosy and comfortable; adding fuel to The Fallow, if you will. Not so much with this latest iteration; Poirot is back after a couple of years’ absence, but not as we know him. For one thing he is no longer compact, proper little David Suchet! He is a brooding and strangely accented John Malkovich, whose Poirot is humiliated in the opening scenes when his dyed goatee (yes – goatee) begins to run down his face in front of an irate Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame, here playing a detective inspector and also sporting strange and unusual facial hair – mon Dieu!)
Shown over three consecutive nights The ABC Murders was slow and dark, with pointed references to anti-immigration sentiment rearing its bigoted head in early 1930s England. Poirot has been put out to pasture, his glory days gone, his reputation as a courter of the aristocracy sniggered at quite openly by police officers tired of his glory. He’s haunted now, as an immigrant himself, by this rise in hatred and secrets never before known are being unfurled along with the more pertinent main plot, to which he discovers he’s inextricably tied. Someone is sending him letters to warn him of impending murders they’re about to commit, leading him first to a town beginning with A and a victim with the initials A.A. It takes until poor C.C. in C’s demise to cotton on, and D.D. in D’s fate, in perhaps the only comical bit in the three parter, is taken on a different path than intended thanks to a ventriloquist’s dummy and a clown with a penchant for pranks.
Right from the get go the audience was persuaded of the killer’s identity, a travelling stockings salesman with lodgings in the worst guesthouse in London and a strange sexual kink (wouldn’t have seen that stomach-churning scene on the ITV) – it appeared that the point of the plot was to stop him before he killed again, while Poirot regained the respect of his peers and public. But in a brilliant twist it was revealed that the poor soul we were led to believe was the criminal mastermind was an unknowing, unwitting pawn who had been caught by the real killer’s trap (a toff, of course!) when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The viewing audience had also been duped, and duped good.
There were some elements of the old Poirot when a menagerie of victims’ relatives was questioned by the Detective Inspector Weasley and Poirot, but alas, no drawing room murderer reveal scene. Instead the real killer was quite elegantly unmasked by an unspooling of clues, and the ending was wrapped up with a nice feeling of closure. While decidedly a new Poirot, with a new backstory (Poirot was once Pere Hercule, who knew?), it was solid television, well-paced despite its reluctance to reveal too much at once, great characters well-matched by the actors who played them. Let’s just leave Miss. Marple out of the gritty re-booting trend shall we? St. Mary Mead couldn’t cope with a septuagenarian sleuth with a chip on her shoulder, and neither, I should say, could we, at Txistmas time.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on New Year’s Day, 2019