Christie should be smiling – she still outsells the Bible
If you’re a fan of probably the most popular murder-mystery author of the 20th century, welcome to the motherlode. Sort of.
The Agatha Christie Megaset is stuffed to the breaking point with 13 full-length (give or take a few minutes) cinematic versions of some of Christie’s most famous works — including Evil Under the Sun, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side — all pressed neatly into nine DVDs. Although the collection is more heavily weighted toward the Miss Marple series that aired on BBC during the 1980s — the spinster sleuth gets nine cases to Hercule Poirot’s four — David Suchet’s 1990s Poirot does eventually get his time in the suspense spotlight.
To be frank, A&E has pulled a clever marketing maneuver by splitting this megaset between Poirot and Miss Marple. In marketspeak, it’s a hefty collection of Christie’s work for the fan and collector alike. In the real world, it’s a content dump.
In other words, rather than collate the Poirot works together and give Marple the same treatment and let god — or interested consumers — sort them out, as the saying goes, A&E has decided that the money issues are better solved by mashing them together in a clumsy box. It’s a tried-and-true practice in the mediasphere, and I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a cheat — it works, after all. But let’s just be clear from the outset on what this megaset is all about.
Although the Hercule Poirot series had a successful seven-year run on the BBC roughly from 1989 to 1996 (and sporadically onward) and the Miss Marple films starring Christie’s personal favorite, Joan Hickson, from 1985 to 1992 ran through all 12 of the Marple novels, so far it’s Suchet’s Poirot that has seemingly outshined his megaset counterpart in crime solving. Of course, this is close to one of those blanket generalizations that can infuriate Christie fans, but I’m not trying to be critical of Hickson’s excellent performances (which translate Christie’s conception of Marple much more capably than the lightweight and too-young Angela Lansbury). It’s just that Poirot, as a literary and cinematic figure with no small number of quirks and moments of brilliance, is simply much more compelling. Don’t kill the messenger.
The bummer here, however, is that Suchet (right) is but a shadow of Albert Finney’s peerless Poirot from Sidney Lumet’s amazing Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Finney expressed more capably than anyone — whether you’re talking Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Austin Trevor, Zero Mostel, or even, bizarrely enough, Tony Randall (yes, that Tony Randall, who played the Belgian sleuth in Frank Tashlin’s riotous 1966 film version of The Alphabet Murders) — Poirot’s hilarious idiosyncracies, laborious rituals, and masterful power plays. It’s those latter qualities that ultimately separated him from so many other run-of-the-mill detectives (save perhaps Sherlock Holmes, especially the heroin-addicted one in Herbert Ross’ The Seven Percent Solution) who simply showed up and had everything figured out ahead of time. (For more on this banal detective trend, stop reading this and rent Robert Moore’s film version of Neil Simon’s unbearably funny Murder by Death immediately. James Coco’s Poirot, here called Milo Perrier, is probably better than Mostel, Ustinov, and Randall’s combined).
Which is not to say that Suchet’s Poirot is a bore; on the contrary, his popularity was powerful enough to give the BBC several years’ worth of programming. His calculated cool at the center of a multi-layered melodrama on an isolated resort in Evil Under the Sun and his grace under international pressure while in the Middle East in Murder in Mesopotamia — both included in the megaset, along with Lord Edgeware Dies and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd — is passably entertaining. But unlike Finney’s detective on Murder on the Orient Express, Suchet’s Poirot seems to wander right into all the evidence he needs; I solved the whodunit about a half-hour into the film. That may perhaps be more Christie’s problem than Suchet’s — indeed, Orient Express‘s extended interrogation scenes are twice as gripping as Suchet’s open-eared wanderings around the high-end health getaway on the Devon Coast. Where Finney’s Poirot only bothered with familial intrigue and murder on his snowbound train when he had no other choice, it feels like Suchet’s Poirot can’t wait to get his hands dirty.
Which brings us to the Marple contributions to the megaset, which include A Caribbean Mystery, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Sleeping Murder, 4:50 From Paddington, The Moving Finger, At Bertram’s Hotel, Murder at the Vicarage, Nemesis, and They Do It with Mirrors. Christie herself tabbed Joan Hickson (right) as her quintessential Marple in 1962, far before the actress was even old enough for the part. Which makes complete sense, since it has long been a literary trend to assert that Marple is Christie’s fictional counterpart; most of the Marple books were written after 1950, when the author was well into her sixties (she died at the age of 86 in 1976). In other words, Agatha Christie knew better than anyone who could best flesh out — literally — her senior citizen sleuth.
Hickson’s staid demeanor and seemingly effortless grace are well used in the BBC’s Marple mysteries, but by the time Christie had achieved the Marple books, the world was not what it was when she put together the far more threatening Poirot mysteries, or other fascinating novels like And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Things were much calmer for England after two world wars, and the Marple mysteries express that reality by cycling through armchair crimes like poisoning (1953’s A Pocketful of Rye and 1962’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side), haunted houses (1976’s Sleeping Murder), and the occasional shooting (1965’s At Bertram’s Hotel). To be fair, Sleeping Murder was written during the war, but it was in a vault and didn’t see the light of the day until 30 years later. The point is that Miss Marple, as much as fans have come to love her over the last century, is an armchair detective for armchair crimes. Christie’s other work is far more riddled with threat, intrigue, and conspiracy, and it is that work that has withstood the test of time, and will probably continue to.
Christie’s bread and butter is Poirot, that much has already been established; the political intrigue swirling in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s demanded some kind of archetypal sleuth to set things straight, and the Belgian mastermind fit the bill perfectly. On the other hand, Miss Marple, although conceived earlier in Christie’s career, wasn’t truly distilled until the author was enjoying a comfortable retirement. But A&E hasn’t pulled a fast one; they’ve merely acknowledged the economic realities of today, which state that a lesser work will most likely sell much better if it’s paired up with a greater one.
Just make sure you know that going in when you decide to drop a whopping $140 for what, all issues aside, remain four moderately entertaining Poirot installments squeezed in between a handful of quickly aging Marple whodunits.