'The ABC Murders' Gives Us A Poirot For The 21st Century

(Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Ltd.)

Agatha Christie stands as England's best selling author of all time, with a library of 66 detective novels written over her lifetime. Of all her characters, none stands quite so tall in the public imagination as Hercule Poirot, the detective of little grey cells fame. For 25 years, this role was dominated by David Suchet, who played the title character in ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot. His name became synonymous with the character. For an entire generation of mystery lovers, including myself, he is the definitive Poirot.

Suchet retired his mustaches in 2013. And it took a couple of years before the BBC began to test the waters with new Christie adaptations from writer Sarah Phelps. Her first adaptation, And Then There Were None, starring Poldark's Aidan Turner and Game of Thrones' Charles Dance, was a smash hit. The BBC then followed by commissioning a slew of others, including The Witness For The Prosecution, which aired in 2018, and now The ABC Murders.

Phelps' first two adaptations had the benefit of being one-off mysteries, with none of Christie's regular detectives at the helm. The ABC Murders, on the other hand, is a Poirot story, the first one this new series of adaptations has tackled, and as it is considered one of Christie's most perplexing puzzles, it arrives with big shoes to fill.

 

It does so by making what some fans would consider radical adjustments. For one thing, there is no Captain Hastings at all, even though the novel was initially told from his point of view. They kill off Inspector Japp before the story gets started. The plot vaguely resembles the one in the books, with each victim in alphabetical order, but the killer gets farther down the list than usual. Even Poirot's pre-World War I backstory is altered from a policeman to a priest. Bereft of his regularly scheduled companions and saddled with religion, this Poirot, played by the legendary John Malkovich with an accent of indeterminable origin, is a detective very much alone.

The ABC Murders, published in 1936, is part of Christie's mid-period works, and opens with Poirot and Hastings getting back together after years apart. Poirot is older now, 16 years away from when Christie first introduced him in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the fact that everyone is aging is a bit of a subplot. The BBC takes this as license to make Poirot very old, a has-been. He's someone who is living through the backlash part of his career, struggling to be respected by a younger generation of coppers, like Inspector Cole (Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame), who find his 1930s-era version of Just-For-Men gel hilarious.

But while these choices may, from first blush, feel like the most non-Poirot mystery starring the world famous detective ever committed to screen, by doing this all comparisons to other adaptations fall away, including Suchet's turn at doing this story in 1992. This is not your mother's Hercule. This is Poirot by way of True Detective, with a leading man who could easily stand beside Matthew McConaughey's Ruste Cohle or Mahershala Ali's Wayne Hays, filled with a lifetime of regret.

Poirot purits will undoubtedly hate it with the power of a thousand suns.

But, despite being a Suchet fan myself, I thought this was the most compelling take on the character I've ever seen. Malkovich's performance is revelatory, a completely different spin on all familiar aspects of Poirot, but one that still feels true to the fastidious little man Christie created. In most versions, this fussiness is played for laughs, when the entire character isn't turned into a joke. (Kenneth Branagh, I'm looking at you.) Here it is not funny, but sad, a man whose vanity drives him, even in his old age, to still blacken and wax his mustaches before leaving the house. His quirks are not played for the audience's enjoyment, they're signs of an immigrant who never acclimated, and who still to this day will not change to makes the English around him comfortable.

(Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Ltd.)

There's also, for the first time, a dangerous streak to Poirot, a silent rage that changes the calculations of why he does what he does. Whether pushing others to see their easy answers aren't the right ones, or doing the classic "J'accuse" to the murderer in front of a salon of artfully arranged suspects, Poirot is angry. He's incensed at the lives taken, at the laziness around him. He's indignant that everyone else in the room isn't as smart as he is, and demands that they recognize this fact.

It may not be the Poirot fans are expecting. But in 2019, in an era where chaos seems to be barely held back by the righteous anger of those who are ignored, it's the Poirot we deserve.

The ABC Murders are available for streaming for all Amazon Prime members starting Friday, February 1, 2019.