Saturday, 29 December 2018

The BBC murders the ABC Murders

This is a review of the BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders that concluded last night. It contains spoilers.

The ABC Murders is the fourth Agatha Christie story to be adapted for the BBC by Sarah Phelps. There have been irksome aspects of all of them, but the stories survived. This time, the story was overwhelmed. Phelps used to write Eastenders and it shows. She tries to bring the same gritty realism to detective fiction as Daniel Craig tries to bring to James Bond, with similar results. Everybody is troubled. Characters glower at one another in darkened rooms. They are haunted by the past, et cetera.

This is supposed to convey intensity and psychological depth. Actually, it is boring. For all the screenwriter's efforts at social realism, a story set in Britain in which every character is overtly miserable and aggressive is less realistic than one in which the characters are superficially polite and happy. This Eastenderisation is particularly unsuitable device for detective fiction in which one of the characters is going to be unmasked as a murderer. The emotional power of the denouement comes, in part, from the sudden realisation that the likeable chap is a vicious killer.

Nevertheless, I have enjoyed Phelps' previous adaptations. It is hard to go wrong when your source material is as strong as And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Her controversial decision to change the murderer in Ordeal by Innocence worked because the original denouement was not particularly strong. (Ordeal by Innocence could be the perfect book for the Phelps treatment. The plot is not top tier but it has the darkness and depth of character she strives for. If she's going to keep adapting Christie, she should focus on the author's later works, such as Endless Night and The Pale Horse.)

The ABC Murders is comfortably in the top ten of Christie titles. A brilliant idea executed masterfully when the author was at the top of her game in the 1930s. When the solution is explained, the reader sees that it could not have been any other way. It is a story so good that it is almost impossible to mess up, but Phelps managed it by making the crime incidental to some irrelevant hogwash about Poirot being a priest at the start of the First World War. In Phelps' reimagining, Poirot lied about being in the Belgian police force when he came to Britain as a refugee in 1914. His church was burned down by German soldiers (who Phelps seems to have mistaken for Nazis) and Poirot moves to England where he suddenly decides - despite being in his sixties - to become a very good detective. None of this is in the book, of course, and it adds nothing to the story. Too long at three hours, the BBC could have cut at least 30 minutes by editing out this silly subplot.

A further 30 minutes could have happily been lost if it got rid of the equally unnecessary references to Cust's landlady (a mad drunk who pimps out her daughter) and the British Union of Fascists (who have a poster on every wall and are strangely prejudiced against elderly Belgian Catholics). None of this is in the book, but the latter gives Phelps the chance to make some toe-curling allusions to Brexit.

This would be just about tolerable if the story reached a satisfactory conclusion, but when the murderer is unmasked half an hour before the end, Phelps seems barely interested in explaining the five murders that have gone before. (There are only four in the book and the fifth adds nothing to the plot.)

Not every viewer will have guessed the identity of the murderer, but few would have been surprised. I had not read or seen Witness for the Prosecution before I saw Phelps' adaptation a couple of years ago, but I guessed the murderer and method long before the end because there were so few characters that there was only one plausible suspect. The ABC Murders suffers from the same problem. The killings are so violent that they are quite obviously the work of a man. Once you realise that the murderer cannot be the person who has appeared to be the murderer from the start (because Christie wrote whodunits not psychological thrillers), there is really only one candidate. Sure enough, he dun it.

Phelps seems to be aware that a lack of suspects is a problem for a story which is essentially a parlour game. In an effort to broaden the pool of candidates she gets Poirot to insist early on that the letters he is being sent are probably written by a woman. There is nothing about the letters to suggest this and we never hear Poirot's reasoning. Once the killer is revealed to be a man, this inexplicable supposition from the world's greatest detective is quietly forgotten.

The murderer is identified not so much by following clues as by a basic process of elimination. Once Poirot has cleared the obvious suspect, it must be the less obvious suspect. It could not have been anyone else in the story although, crucially, it could easily have been someone else in the country. This is not a satisfying conclusion to three hours of television. There is no sense of loose ends being tied up, no reminders of clues that the viewer should have spotted.

One lingering question is why the murderer sent the letters to Poirot. In Phelps' version, the answer is that the murderer is 'obsessed' with the great detective. This is a lazy justification from a writer at the best of times and the specifics here are particularly weak (the murderer - a grown man - became obsessed with Poirot as a result of a murder mystery night).

In the book, the reason is quite different. He chooses Poirot because he needs to make sure that the letter warning about the all-important third murder is received after it has been committed. To do this, he intends to get the address slightly wrong, and this requires a residential address (as opposed to, say, Scotland Yard). It is a small but important detail and it speaks volumes about Phelps' tin ear for detective fiction that she removes it in favour of some psychological codswallop.

This is the problem with Phelps' adaptations. It is not that they are "gritty" or "dark" (they are murder stories, after all, and Christie was capable of giving her characters more depth than she is often given credit for). It is not even the desperate striving for political relevance and woke points (wince and move on). It is not that she adds unnecessary flourishes, but that she removes essential material in the process.

Take And Then There Were None, for example. Ten people on an island, all of whom have been in some way responsible for someone's death They get bumped off one by one. A perfect story with a perfect denouement, it is the fifth biggest selling book of all time. Phelps added some drugs and swearing to make it more gritty. Fine, whatever. But she also made a crucial change to one of the suspect's back story. He is a policeman who is on the island because he beat a gay man to death in a prison cell. This wasn't in the book and was only in the BBC adaptation because it fits two of Phelps' recurring themes, namely that all coppers are bastards and pre-war Britain was horribly bigoted.

Be that as it may, the whole point of the book is that the people on the island are not guilty of murder. They killed people as a result of accidents, carelessness, neglect and so on. They are people who would be convicted of manslaughter, at most, in a court of law. By adding a character who is unambiguously guilty of murder, Phelps destroys the moral ambiguity at the heart of the story. It strongly suggests that the screenwriter simply does not get the source material with which she is working. The ABC Murders confirmed it.

PS. Niall Gooch has written an excellent review of it here.

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