Saturday, June 17, 2017

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; Murder on the Orient Express; Appointment with Death; 13 at Dinner; The Tuesday Club Murders; What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!


Opening Passages: Just a selection of them. From The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:

Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September--a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o'clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.

From Appointment with Death:

"You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?"

The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness toward the Dead Sea.

From Murder on the Orient Express:

It was five o'clock on a winter's morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

Summary: The selection is quite diverse; there are four Hercule Poirot novels, two Miss Marple novels, and one independent work. They extend across the spectrum of possible gimmick puzzles -- all the possible suspects have been apparently murdered, all the possible suspects have means, motive, and opportunity, the murderer is someone who should not be a suspect, all the suspects have clear alibis, nobody knows who the suspects should be. They have a variety of obfuscations: witnesses lying to cover their role in the crime, witnesses lying for reasons having nothing to do with the crime, honest witnesses who are mistaken, misleading physical evidence, lack of evidence. They have a variety of forms of revelation: Poirot's proclamations, Miss Marple's anticipations, letters or journals from the murderer, confession. They show a variety of criminals: the professional criminal, the person with a past acting in fear, the wronged acting in revenge, the doctor, the actress, the judge, and more. But what they always have is a story of a causal inference that must be put together from materials that do not make it obvious.

One of the interesting things was reading multiple Poirot novels right in succession. I have never particularly been a fan of Poirot as a character, being very much in agreement with Christie's own judgment of him as a 'detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep'. He's particularly insufferable in the company of Hastings (as in 13 at Dinner, also known by the much better title of Lord Edgware Dies), and shows up in the best light, somewhat ironically, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where he is lonely for lack of him. He is also partly admirable in the occasional moments scattered throughout when he makes clear that he does not like murder. A real-life Poirot, however, in contrast to a real-life Miss Marple, would not generally be a good person. But reading several in a row makes it difficult to take Poirot to be quite an authority on himself -- he uses his pomposity at times deliberately as a way to provoke a reaction he wants, for instance; and despite his emphasis on method, at several points his success is due to a chance remark, one that does not always have to do with the case at all.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, benefits from being in many ways the opposite: she does not invite attention (and uses this at times to good effect), she has a rather fierce and old-fashioned moral code (firmly in favor of the death-penalty for purely moral reasons and insistent on the importance of duty), she does not put emphasis on method but on experience, and her age limits what she can actively do. All of these come together in What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! (also known as 4:50 from Paddington), to extraordinarily good effect; I think it is in many ways the best constructed of all of Christie's novels that focus on a particular detective. The one thing Miss Marple and Poirot have in common is that they are psychological detectives -- while physical facts matter, they are the effects of motives, and it is by focusing on motives that both Miss Marple and Poirot solve puzzles that are insoluble at the level of the available physical facts. This is, I think, one of the reasons for the success of both. Detective novels can get caught up in the clever physical means of killing, or in the cunning means by which the criminal obfuscates his or her guilt, but the psychological approach makes clear the true state of the case: a crime is an effect of human agency, and can only be fully understood in light of human agency, because in terms of a crime, everything other than the actual human mind is either an instrument or an occasion or an impediment for the mind, and nothing more.

Part of the experience of Christie's works is intimately connected with the adaptation of her stories to other media, and so I when through a number of adaptations as well as reading the books. I watched Desyat Negrityat, Stanislav Govorukhin's movie adaptation of And Then There Were None; I listened to Orson Welles's radio version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for Columbia Playhouse; and I watched the Agatha Christie's Poirot versions of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, Appointment with Death, and 13 at Dinner, starring David Suchet.

Adaptations are somewhat tricky because they are necessarily multi-dimensional, and any evaluation of them must also be multi-dimensional. Broadly speaking, an adaptation may work well in its medium or may work well as an adaptation; that is to say, it may work as a work of art, or it may work as a faithful representation of the story as a work of art. In moving from one medium to another, things inevitably must change. Novel-writing is a very expository thing; contrary to the common wisdom, a novel never shows, it only tells, and what people really mean when they say, 'Show, don't tell' is 'Tell in a way that doesn't tire the reader with the telling'. If you want to show rather than tell, you should be writing screenplays. No other medium can exposit so well as a popular novel, so things inevitably must be changed to suit the medium, and this is of considerable significance. This is especially the case with detective fiction. Almost all of Murder on the Orient Express consists of interviews with a large cast of characters in a confined space. Both airwave and screen would run immediately into the problem of making the interviews not seem tedious; the radio adapter would have to worry about differentiating the characters (a nontrivial issue when you can only rely on vocal differences), while the television adapter will puzzle over how to avoid visual monotony.

In addition, radio and television formats are structured by formal episodes. (The work closest to such a structure in this batch is The Tuesday Club Murders, which consists of two series of short stories and a concluding short story.) You have a specified time you must fill and which you must not overfill, to a precision of minutes, which is a limitation the original did not have. It is unsurprising, therefore, that a television episode of Murder on the Orient Express makes cuts to the cast, or that an adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which involves a lot of exposition and relatively little action as a number of things happen whose relation is only determined at the end, adds a few things not in the original; it would take extraordinary ingenuity to maintain faithfulness while still allowing the story to work in its new medium.

To add to the complications, one must consider differences in audiences. Television has a broader and more captive audience; it must often explain things to which the book can simply allude. Thus it is unsurprising that the screen adaptation of 13 at Dinner has to explain the Judgment of Paris despite the fact that doing so is on its own a problem for the story.

An adaptation may be quite faithful without being good in its own right. Likewise, an adaptation may be very excellent but not as an adaptation. A good example of the latter is the classic movie, Murder, She Said, with Margaret Rutherford. The movie, which is an adaptation of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! stands beautifully on its own, and Rutherford is splendid. But it's not great as re-telling of the Christie story, and Rutherford's Miss Marple is a Miss Marple only in name. Of the Poirot re-tellings, "Lord Edgware Dies" (an adaptation of 13 at Dinner) is easily the most faithful, although it inevitably simplifies major parts of the narrative; "Appointment with Death" is the least. The latter definitely is more interesting as a television episode than the former, but it is extraordinarily bad as an adaptation -- the test of which is that if you changed the title and the names of the character nobody would be able to guess that you were drawing from Christie's book at all. The characters are all changed; the archeological elements are all foreign to the book; the nature of the mystery is modified and the solution to the mystery is very different. It is an entirely different story; it is only an adaptation in the loosest sense of the word.

The adaptations of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express raise much more interesting questions. The former, I think, is an interesting failure, due to the writing and directing (it must be the writing and directing because the cast is easily the best cast, in terms of both casting and acting, of the adaptations that I saw). But the way narration works in the book is such an integral part of the story that tampering with it creates problems for faithfulness; the radio adaptation handles this fairly well, because it, like writing, is a natural medium for narration, but television is a different fish altogether, since it is a very difficult medium for narration. They made the best of it, creating a device that salvaged some of it, but were not, I think, bold enough about it -- although I don't know if a bolder approach would work much better. Murder on the Orient Express is more daring, since it uses the story to reflect on the issues of vigilante justice in ways that the book very definitely glosses over; it is not very faithful. But the handling of the ethical issues is so much of an improvement above the book, and is so well integrated into the final result, that I think it stands extremely well on its own.

(Incidentally, I have to remark on the most common criticism of the Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express, which is its emphasis on Poirot's Catholicism. Some of the criticisms can be dismissed immediately -- Poirot's Catholicism, as such, is not a foreign intrusion into the series, since it is a running background theme in the books overall as well. Poirot is described as born Catholic; he describes himself on at least two occasions as a good Catholic and at least once as a practicing Catholic; he crosses himself in 13 at Dinner while making a vow; he makes scattered comments about the good God and le bon Dieu that do not seem to be figurative; and once he even gets onto a case entirely because he stops to pray in a Catholic church. Christie doesn't do much with it, but it is undeniably there. One runs into this allergy to religion a lot these days; it may masquerade as a concern for artistic purity or faithfulness, but that concern is seen as a mask here. The fact of the matter is that the glossing over Poirot's condoning of vigilantism is one of the weakest parts of the book, both in itself and in how it relates to Poirot's usual insistence in any context of not liking murder, although perhaps it fits with the way Poirot goes out in Curtain. There might have been other ways of doing it, but Suchet himself was part of the motivation for the series starting to look more at how Poirot's religious background might affect his investigations, and in a series that depends entirely on David Suchet, it makes sense to write David Suchet's role in a way that David Suchet finds interesting. Certainly the handling of religion in this episode is infinitely superior to its handling in the "Appointment with Death" episode.)

Easily the most faithful adaptation that I looked into was Govorukhin's adaptation of And Then There Were None, and, astoundingly, it is also highly effective. This is a truly impressive achievement. The modifications for screen are minor and well chosen -- it is at every point more faithful than any adaptation of the book that has ever appeared in English -- but at the same time Govorukhin makes full use of the visual medium. The standard techniques of Russian cinema -- slow and quiet build, integration of the scenery into the story, subtle symbolic framings of abuses of power -- combine with a story ideally suited for them and a very good cast to make what I suspect will forever be the best cinematic version of the tale.

Favorite Passage: From The Tuesday Club Murders:

"You say crime goes unpunished; but does it? Unpunished by the law perhaps; but cause and effect work outside the law. To say that every crime brings its own punishment is by way of being a platitude, and yet in my opinion nothing can be truer."

"Perhaps, perhaps," said Colonel Bantry, "but that doesn't alter the seriousness--the--er---seriousness--" He paused, rather at a loss.

Sir Henry Clithering smiled.

"Ninety-nine people out of a hundred are doubtless of your way of thinking," he said. "But you know, it really isn't guilt that is important--it's innocence. That's the thing that nobody will realise." (p. 122)

Recommendation: All Recommended. Of the works this time, And Then There Were None and What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! are the best constructed; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express have the most ingenious solutions; and The Tuesday Club Murders has the most charm (and is my personal favorite).


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, HarperCollins (New York: 1991).

Appointment with Death, Berkley Books (New York: 1992).

Murder on the Orient Express, HarperCollins (New York: 1991).

The Tuesday Club Murders, Berkley Books (New York: 1986).

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