Category: Hercule Poirot

What Makes Death on the Nile a Masterpiece

There are many good pieces of detective fiction out there. You read the book, you watch the movie, and it’s a good time.

Then there are stories that are a cut above. You read the book, and you want to watch the adaptations or vice versa. The story’s so enchanting, the characters so compelling, the themes so powerful that you just can’t get enough of it.

One such story for me is, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I watched the two filmed adaptations, I listened to the audio drama by the BBC, and then I read the book.

Knowing the ending and who did it didn’t “spoil the novel,” it allowed me to read it in a different way. Rather than focusing on whodunit, I could look for the subtle hints in structure and plot that pointed to the murder, and enjoy the atmosphere and find the themes that really make the book special and why it’s a masterpiece by the mistress of the genre, Agatha Christie.

Fair warning. I will be discussing the ending, so if you don’t know how it ends, I would recommend not reading any further until you’ve experienced the story. If you don’t want to read the novel, I’d recommend checking out the BBC Radio 4 version for accuracy or for pure entertainment value, the 1978 film version with Peter Ustinov is a delight.

1) The Mystery is Brilliantly Conceived and Executed

A detective novel can be more than a good mystery, but it also has to be a good mystery to be a good novel. Otherwise, it’s a bait and switch.

Death on Nile is definitely a brilliantly plotted story. There are plenty of clues as well as red herrings. The actual solution is one that is easily missed because Poirot makes a statement that seems to rule out the actual solution. But both Poirot and the reader make a mistaken assumption of something we didn’t actually see.

The book can trick readers, but it still plays fair in doing so. The solution really only surprises the reader (and to a degree Poirot) because of an incorrect but understandable conclusion. It’s a wonderfully written chase.

2) Lynette Ridgeway Doyle is a complicated tragic character:

Every murder mystery requires a corpse. In some stories, that’s pretty much all the victim is. However, the main victim is Lynette Ridgeway Doyle –and later Doyle is far more than that.

One big advantage of reading the book over adaptations of it is that you get a better sense of who Lynette Ridgeway Doyle is. It’s easy to define her as simply being a rich woman who could have married any man she wanted but instead stole the fiancé of her good friend Jacqueline Belfour.

Yet, if you read the book, you get a sense that while this was something she did, it wasn’t the totality of who she was. She was diligent in business, and responsible in the way she took care of and tried to help those who were dependent on her. Her friend describes her as a “beneficent tyrant.” She was very much like the best of the gentry of a prior era..

However, she’s fundamentally destroyed by her own pride, even before she makes the decision to snatch Simon Doyle away from her poorer friend Jacqueline. She’s wooed by the Lord Windlesham who really was fond of her. However, she rejects his advances because they both have country places. His having been in the family for centuries and hers she built herself. She feared going from being Queen to being Queen consort. She never alleges Lord Windlesham doesn’t love her. Part of her attraction to Simon Doyle is not only his looks, but the fact he was poor and that she could dominate the relationship easily.

Her decisions to go specifically after her good friend’s beau despite knowing how little she had and how much he meant to her was her truly selfish moment. Poirot condemns it, drawing the parallel between her decision and that of King David’s decision to sleep with Bathsheba in the book of biblical book of 2nd Samuel and the parable the prophet Nathan spoke to David. Poirot refuses to work for her but he does try to stop what’s coming by approaching Jacqueline Belfour.

As the book’s events unfold, Lynette pays the price for her actions. Her ex-friend stalks her and her husband, reminding of her guilt, and on her final voyage she finds herself “surrounded by enemies” as she puts it. As we learn later, while her husband Simon pretends to adore her, it’s all a rouse. He resented her and only married her so he could murder her and take her money. In the end, she’s killed while she sleeps by the man who she thought loved her. At the end of her book, her murder is the talk of the town at the ship’s port of call, but then is subsumed in other news and gossip of the day as she’s quickly forgotten along with her wealth, charm, and beauty.

3) Poirot Tries to Use His Powers to Prevent a Murder

This book raises a fair question for Poirot. If your powers of deduction and observation are so great, why do you only use them to catch murderers rather than preventing murders? The nature of Poirot’s adventures is that he’s usually already present when the murder occurs. Aren’t there warning signs?

Yes, there are and Poirot spots them and tries to head off the murder before it happens. His plea to Jacqueline De Bellefort to turn back and not let evil enter her heart is truly a memorable moment where Poirot makes every effort to dissuade the young woman from the path he sees her on but to no avail.

The book shows that Poirot’s gift and experience may give him an inkling that something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make him psychic so he knows every detail of a person’s life and what’s already been planned. Nero Wolfe often said that there was no way he could prevent murder, and this book shows why he made that assertion. Poirot had no clue the degree to which the conspiracy had already been developed, nor how it would be carried out. He only saw the public face. He tried to intervene. He did all he could, but he wasn’t enough.

4. The Book Explores the Perils of Love

Romantic love is exalted throughout literature. It’s a virtue in and of itself. This make’s Hercule Poirot’s statement when he sees Simon and Jacqueline out before Simon goes over to Linnet and he observed that she cared too much for Simon and that it was “not safe.”

At first, this comes out in what appears to be her obsessive following of Simon and Linnet around during their honeymoon, but at the end of the story it’s revealed that when Linnet became interested in him, while Simon was irritated by her efforts, he thought of the idea of marrying Linnet, murdering her within the year, and then marrying Jacqueline and living off her money. Jacqueline goes along with the scheme because she knows Simon will get caught if he tries to attempt the murder on his own because he doesn’t have the brains for it.

This shows Jacqueline cared more for Simon than he did for her because he came up with and was prepared to pursue such an unnatural scheme. It also shows Simon wasn’t worth that level of devotion. I’m not sure whether Christie was going for this, but Simon becomes the male answer to the Femme Fatale: a good-looking guy who attracts the ladies and leads them to ruin.

It also shows the dangers of love when it overrides everything. When it’s freed from ethics, morals, and even self-respect, romantic love can become poisonous.

In Jacqueline’s case, she killed three people (including Simon to save him from facing prosecution in a third world country) before killing herself.

Christie tries to balance the scales in a very unusual way on the whole issue of love. The most bizarre part of Death on the Nile is that two couples get together and get engaged. The Karnak, a ship that has three murders occur on board, becomes a love boat.

The romances, while not particularly realistic, serve as a counterbalance to the unhealthy main relationships as they have a redemptive quality to them. Tim Allerton forsakes his thieving ways to marry Rosalie, whose alcoholic mother was the victim of one of the murders. The other romance is surprising. Ferguson has been trying to court Cornelia Robson, an honest and straightforward woman, in the most obnoxious way possible. He’s a self-styled communist and social radical, which her wealthy cousin whom she’s travelling with would not approve of. Poirot discovers that Ferguson is actually a wealthy aristocrat who her cousin would approve of. With Ferguson’s true identity revealed, Cornelia agrees to marry Dr. Besner instead because she likes him and finds his profession interesting. It’s such a wonderful twist that Cornelia remains true to her character as an honest and forthright person who pursues what she wants rather than falling for the wealthy guy who she thought was a low-born vulgar man just because he turned out to be a wealthy vulgar man.

Sadly, the screen adaptations have messed with these romances, including eliminating Cornelia’s character entirely from the 1978 film.

Overall, Death on the Nile can be enjoyed as just as the great mystery novel it is, but there are also some great depths to the story for those who want to find them.

 

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TV Episode Review: Poirot: Theft of the Royal Ruby

With his friends otherwise occupied, Poirot is ready to settle in for a Christmas alone with good food and good books to keep him company when he’s called in to investigate the theft of a ruby from a spoiled and immature teenage prince whose country is key to British interests. Poirot has to recover the ruby and that will involve spending Christmas with the wealthy Lacey family the government suspects are key to the whole affair.

Overall, this episode was Poirot was delightful and from start to finish. The mystery is well-written with its fair share of suspects and false clues, but also manages to portray a 1930s British in a truly charming and warm-hearted way, while also having a nice bit of romance thrown in.

If you’re looking for a light and well-told mystery for Christmastime, this Series 3 episode of Poirot is sure to hit the spot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Note: This episode is available on DVD or for free Streaming through Netflix

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Book Review: Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories


This  book collects every Hercule Poirot short story. Most of these are under twenty pages, and could be read in a few spare moments but there are four or five that could be considered novellas.

Polirot’s career in short fiction was far shorter than in novel-length works, with most of the short stories completed in a stretch from 1923-1940. The stories show progress the evolution of Poirot as a character and Christie as a writer.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a bad story in this collection. However, the earliest stories are fun, diverting and very well-done puzzle mysteries reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes with Captain Hastings filling the role of Poirot’s Watson. Twelve of the final thirteen stories comprise The Labours of Hercules which manages to mix some delightful comedy, social commentary, and some warmth (such as the delightful “The Arcardian Deer”) as Poirot tries to perform his own twelve labors just as the original Hercules did.

In addition, I adored “The Theft of the Royal Ruby,” a wonderful Poirot mystery set at Christmastime. It has superb atmosphere throughout.  The final tale in the boook, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” is a brilliantly crafted mystery with a very surprising conclusion.

The only criticism I have is that this only includes the published short stories. Two unpublished Christie shorts were found in 2004 and given an audiobook release a few years back and it would have been nice to see them in this book.

Still, even with just the published stories, this book is an absolute treasure, collecting fifty adventures of one of fiction’s greatest detectives in a single volume.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Poirot’s Finest Cases

Poirot’s Finest Cases collects eight different BBC audiodramas starring the late John Moffat as Poirot and dramatizing eight memorable Agatha Christie Stories.

1) The ABC Murders-Classic case as Poirot receives notices of murders in advance of  seemingly random people tied to the first letter of their last name, and the city they live in with an ABC railroad schedule left behind. A brilliant plot that is very well-adapted. Grade: A

2) After the Funeral: The death of a wealthy man appears to be natural causes, but then his sister suggests it was murder and she is soon found dead herself. A good case, and a solid adaptation. Only weak spot was Poirot as narrator narrating about obvious reasons for why certain people should be suspected. Grade: B+

3) Death on the Nile: This is my favorite Poirot story and this adaptation is simply marvelous. While it lacks the flair of the Ustinov version, this captures the essence of the story. If you wanted complain about Death on the Nile, I suppose you could point out the almost absurd number of romances that spring up on this boat. But, I think that serves to balance out the unhappiness that dominates the “A” plot. Overall, this is a great portrait of Poirot as a character and an absolutely brilliant adaptation. Grade: A+

4) The Murder of Roger Akroyd: One of Christie’s most controversial tales because of the identity of the murderer. I thought the TV adaptation was only “so so,” but BBC Radio 4 manages to do the story justice. It really is a clever and remarkable tale and manages to outperform the 1930s adaptation for the Mercury Playhouse with Orson Welles. Grade: A-

5) Murder on the Orient Express: Perhaps, the most iconic of Christie mysteries. It’s perfectly executed over radio. This requires multiple accents (including several Americans) and they’re all performed quite well. Grade: A

6) The Mysterious Affair at Stiles: The first ever Poirot story in which he solves the murder of a wealthy woman. I really enjoyed this adaptation. With all the great stories that followed, it’s easy to forget how good this one was. It establishes so much about Poirot in terms of mannerism, but is different as Poirot is closer to Sherlock Holmes in his first story. Still, this is incredibly enjoyable. Grade: A

7) Peril at End House: Another somewhat underrated story. It’s the classic tale of misdirection and of Poirot being pulled out of retirement. It’s incredibly and involved tale. I love how Moffat plays the beginning where he’s claiming to be content in retirement but his voice tone betrays it. Grade: A

8) Three Act Tragedy: This is probably the most questionable title in the set. Given that’s it’s Poirot’s Finest Cases, it’s odd to feature a case where Poirot is out of action for so much of it. This, like the other stories, were originally broadcast in five parts. Poirot’s role in the first three parts could be considered middling as he doesn’t actually actively join the investigation until the end of episode three and doesn’t take charge until the end of episode four. Most of the investigation is carried by amateur detectives. The story’s certainly good, but doesn’t really have the material to rise to the top echelon of Poirot stories, even with laying aside the issue of how much Poirot’s in it. I will say that I enjoyed the character moment in episode 2 when Poirot reflected on his life. Grade: B

Throughout all these stories, John Moffat makes a great Poirot. While David Suchet is the definitive Poirot on television, Moffat had a parallel run over radio lasting from 1987-2012 where he adapted most major Poirot novels and he was Suchet’s equal in many ways. Moffat was great in every story here.

As for the rest of the cast, Simon Williams (Counter Measures) appears as Captain Hastings and Philip Jackson (who played Inspector Japp on television) appears as Japp in The ABC Murders and The Mysterious Affair at Stiles. The cast of the rest stories are very good, bringing the type of talent you expect from BBC Radio 4.

The sound design is good, particularly on Murder on the Orient Express. 

However, the theme music for the majority of the episodes seems to have been chosen without much thought. It could best be described as, “This is the 30s” music. It’s very generic and sometimes doesn’t fit Poirot or a mystery story at all.

It also seems they could have done a little more with the way the episodes are presented. Essentially, each story is five episodes long and is divided into two chapters with two and a half (or so) episodes per chapter as you’re listening to it. It seems they could have combined each story completely or at the very least had each episode as its own separate chapter which would have made things more neat and symmetrical-which Poirot would appreciate.

If I’d been making the set, I would have substituted Five Little Pigs and Cards on the Table for After the Funeral and Three Act Tragedy. 

But these are extremely minor points. The mysteries themselves are superb and more than justify the minor annoyances over presentation. Given that the set sells for less than $20 for the general public and less than $14 for Audible members, this is an item I highly recommend for any mystery fan.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Telefilm Review: Curtain


Curtain is a story many don’t want to read and don’t want to see. It’s Poirot’s last tale, the story in which Poirot meets his final end.

Poirot returns to Styles, where he solved his first great English case decades before. This is a different Poirot as far as we can tell, an invalid with a new valet whose days are numbered. Yet, he’s got one more case to solve and he turns (with reluctance) to his oldest and dearest friend, Captain Hastings.

David Suchet turns in a superb performance as this much older, ailing, and far less sunny Poirot. He’s more grumpy and snaps at Captain Hastings, who he has no choice but to depend on. Despite his inability to observe as he once did, it’s clear the little gray cells are still working.

Hugh Frasier delivers a great performance as Captain Hastings, no longer the dim-witted sidekick, he’s charged with grief over the death of his wife, with concern for Poirot, and with his daughter’s coldness and involvement with an amoral man. Hasting is driven to his limit and Frasier plays this beautifully, taking advantage of a script that makes Hastings a far juicier part than the typical comic sidekick.

The mystery itself is unusual. It’s hard to follow or to even figure out if there’s a pattern to what’s going on until we get the solution. Then the nature of the evil Poirot faces is exposed, and we’re brought face to face with the shocking choice to make at the end of his days.

Poirot’s final scene is beautifully done, as he’s a man dying hoping only for forgiveness. It’s only later that we learn what for.

Curtain is a solid production, and probably the best of the season.

I’ve enjoyed the entire series, and mystery fans own a large debt of gratitude to David Suchet, who didn’t come to Poirot of remaking him, rather Suchet has said that he understood his job as an actor was to serve the writer (and in the case of the Poirot stories, his creator) by bringing the character to life as they intended it. His job was to truly to be Agatha Christie’s Poirot. While there are quite a few adaptations (particularly in Series 9 and 10) where the story was often very different from Christie’s vision, in all of these tales, Suchet remained superb and succeeded in being Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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