REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders

Warning: This review contains spoilers for all three episodes of The ABC Murders.

The ABC Murders features an aged Hercule Poirot as he pursues a serial killer who murders his victims alphabetically.

Poirot (John Malkovich) is disturbed by a series of letters he receives from an anonymous writer called A.B.C. who informs the old detective that he means to murder individuals whose initials coincide with the letters of the alphabet and who live in places that also follow the alphabet. So the first victim is Alice Ascher from Andover, the second is Betty Barnard from Bexhill, and the third is Sir Carmichael Clarke from Churston. 

As Poirot tries to find the culprit before they slay their next victim, he enlists the help of the police, led by the reluctant and skeptical Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), who is suspicious of Poirot’s origins and competence.

Meanwhile, a troubled young man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farren) struggles to make a living as a stocking salesman while being plagued by past horrors. He travels the country, following the ABC railway guide and crosses paths with all of the victims but is he the killer? Or is it someone else connected to one of the victims?

“Spectacularly grisly”

This is the latest of the Sarah Phelps-helmed Agatha Christie adaptations and the one that takes the most liberties with the source material. While The ABC Murders still follows the basic structure and plot of the novel, Phelps adds her signature grimness and complexity to the characters. There’s also significantly more blood, gore, and squalor than the average murder mystery. Phelps adaptations are never for the faint-hearted.

Some notable changes, other than that of Poirot (which I will get to later), include the removal of Poirot’s companion Hastings, who narrates the novel, and the early death of Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally). Poirot spends the miniseries butting heads with the younger detective assigned to the case, Inspector Crome (Grint), who is none too pleased to work with the veteran investigator. While Crome existed in the novel, he did not display such hostility towards Poirot.

The ABC Murders, like past Phelps adaptations, boasts of an all-star cast, and the series tries to make the most of them. Thus, certain characters who were fairly harmless in the book suddenly get a sinister side while those who were already disturbing are given more layers of villainy.

Mrs. Marbury (Shirley Henderson) was a simple landlady in the book but in the series is one who pimps her daughter, Lily (Anya Chalotra), to the other lodgers. Donald Fraser (Jack Farthing) proves to be a terrible boyfriend to Megan Barnard (Bronwyn James). Thora Grey (Freya Mavor) is a stereotypical ambitious secretary who tries to seduce her boss while Lady Carmichael (Tara Fitzgerald) suffers from a debilitating illness that causes her to vomit copious amounts of blood.

Even Alexander Bonaparte Cust is suffering from a brain tumor and deals with it through some strange kinks that Lily Marbury helps him with. It’s interesting to note that both Farren and Chalotra have been cast in the upcoming Netflix adaptation of The Witcher.

Franklin Clarke (Andrew Buchan) is not just as sinister as one expects him to be but he also has an unhealthy obsession with Poirot. Where his letters in the book had been more for convenience than any fascination with the Belgian sleuth, Clarke in the series is determined to express the latter with his criminal prowess.

But beyond these nuances, the boldest choice Phelps makes is by re-imagining one of the most iconic literary detectives of all time.

Dolorous detective

This is Poirot as you have never seen him before.

The ABC Murders PoirotHe isn’t the twinkly-eyed incarnation of David Suchet, beloved by millions nor the modern, obsessive-compulsive genius played by Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. This Poirot is another unique Malkovich performance, his manner slow and careful, his accent slight but still distinguishable, and his overall demeanor one of sorrowful fatigue.

While previous Phelps adaptations, such as And Then There Were None and Ordeal by Innocence, were ensemble pieces, The ABC Murders feels truly focused on Poirot’s journey. While the stellar supporting cast get their screen time, the other characters are not as developed as the Belgian veteran. We get glimpses of the backstories of the victims but we don’t spend enough time with them to be invested whereas the three episodes truly display the trials and tribulations of the man trying to find the the truth.

He is a refugee who arrived in England after the invasion of Belgium and his past is shrouded in melancholy mystery. Creating this tragic backstory for the iconic detective allows Phelps to weave in themes of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment into the story, from the hate mail Poirot receives to the racist comments directed at him by civilians, despite all the years he has lived in England. One letter reads:

“You’re not better than us! Piss off, froggy!”

To which Poirot wearily remarks:

“Nineteen years I’ve lived here and still people think I’m French.”

When he eventually catches the culprit, the mood is not of triumph but of relief. There is no twinkle in his eye or twitch in his mustache, only a subtle, intense realization of the truth.

This is a new layer to the character, one that Malkovich expertly explores. He can convey so much with the intensity of his eyes or the softness of his voice. He portrays Poirot with the right balance of pathos and gravitas, as a man who has witnessed firsthand the unspeakable horrors of a harsh world.

As he remarks to Inspector Crome later in the series when he notices the newspaper article about the detective:

“That’s a foolish headline. ‘Of a new and cruel age.’ Such vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new.”

A man restored

The flashbacks to wartime Belgium eventually reveal Poirot’s past life and the reason for his disillusionment with religion and with humanity. His traumatic experience also prompts him to withhold information about his past occupation when he arrives in England.

But despite his painful memories, Poirot still devotes himself to serving mankind, in his own way, by solving crimes and catching murderers. This latest success does not feed his ego but simply confirms that this is the path he must continue on.

While many fans are undoubtedly incensed by this unorthodox portrayal of such a beloved character, it is this vision of Poirot that distinguishes The ABC Murders from other Agatha Christine adaptations. This is not so much about the murder mystery but about the man destined to solve it.

Here is a man who, despite his tragic past, is still determined to find justice for the innocent. Aged, exhausted, and so profoundly sad, he understands that he has a moral obligation to use his intelligence and experience to somehow lessen the cruelty of the world. This is Poirot at his most human, and thus, a Poirot to whom the audience can truly relate.