Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Marathon

Agatha Christie celebrates her 130th birthday today.

The legendary British author has an enduring legacy in crime fiction and her expansive body of work continues to be adapted for the screen. Two of her Hercule Poirot novels are getting the big Hollywood film treatment, with Kenneth Branagh playing the iconic detective: 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and the upcoming Death on the Nile. The more popular television adaptations of Christie canon are the long-running Poirot and Miss Marple series (and there’s even an anime series that’s fairly faithful.)

But if you’re looking for a modern Agatha Christie fix, then I would recommend the Phelps Quintet. Sarah Phelps has spent the last five years adapting an Agatha Christie piece for television every Christmas and each miniseries is notably darker and more complex than the source material. Each adaptation boasts of an all-star cast of British talent along with sumptuous production values. And Phelps notoriously makes some major changes with each series, some working better than others. And as a way of celebrating the legendary author’s birthday, I would recommend checking out some if not all five Phelps adaptations, if you’re in the mood for a dark murder mystery marathon.

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None 2015 Agatha ChristieTen strangers gather on Soldier’s Island, an isolated island off the coast of Devon, at the invitation of the mysterious “U.N. Owen.” Once settled in the mansion of their host, the guests notice a strange centerpiece, ten abstract Art Deco jade figurines supposedly representing ten soldiers in a circle. There is also a poem posted on each one’s bedroom door that talks about “Ten Little Soldiers” and the grisly ways each one dies.

During dinner a gramophone recording plays accusing every guest of murder. And one by one, each stranger is killed, all according to the methods detailed on the morbid poem. None of them knows why they were summoned to the island and how the killer knows their deepest, darkest secrets.

Who is this mysterious killer and why have they targeted these ten individuals? Is the killer among them? And will anyone leave the island alive?

The ten strangers are played by a stellar cast: Anthony James Marston (Douglas Booth), Justice Lawrence John Wargrave (Charles Dance), Vera Elizabeth Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), Detective Sergeant William Henry Blore (Burn Gorman), Ethel Rogers (Anna Maxwell Martin), General John Gordon Macarthur (Sam Neill), Emily Caroline Brent (Miranda Richardson), Doctor Edward George Armstrong (Toby Stephens), Thomas Rogers (Noah Taylor), and Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner).

And Then There Were None is the first Agatha Christie work to be adapted by Sarah Phelps and is by far the most faithful to the source material. The three-episode miniseries captures the tremendous tension and high stakes of the story as each character begins to turn on the other out of fear or desperation. The adaptation also benefits from the breathtaking location and cinematography, showing the island’s own topography as a wild and sinister trap for all its inhabitants.

Phelps already adds her signature gritty realism to this first adaptation, including elements that are not usually seen in the treacherous but nevertheless somehow genteel and civilized world of Agatha Christie. And Then There Were None contains drugs, violence, and swearing but these do not seem out of place given the nature of the characters themselves. Their individual backstories are better fleshed out and given even darker undertones. The result is a bold and exciting adventure, each moment thrilling even to those familiar with the book.

This macabre adaptation makes one realize that as “cozy” as Agatha Christie’s novels usually are, they are ultimately still about crime and the human capacity for evil. None of these ten strangers are sympathetic and all are almost undoubtedly guilty of the crimes they are accused of. Their behavior on the island does little to redeem them because the story isn’t so much about nor is it about some twisted sense of justice. This is, plain and simple, a gripping tale of human frailty, the lengths some people will go to save their own skin, and how all are doomed to face the consequences of their actions.

The Witness for the Prosecution

The Witness for the Prosecution 2016 Agatha ChristieWhen wealthy socialite Emily French (Kim Cattrall) is found bludgeoned to death in her home, all suspicion falls on her latest lover, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), who was seen leaving the house late at night by the lady’s watchful housekeeper, Janet (Monica Dolan.) John Mayhew (Toby Jones) is the lawyer assigned to the case and is convinced of Vole’s innocence.

Vole’s girlfriend, Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough), claims she can provide an alibi for Leonard but when she discovers his involvement with the victim, she changes her tune and becomes the titular witness for the prosecution. But Romaine also proves to be an unreliable witness and Leonard is acquitted while Janet is convicted for the murder. When Mayhew later encounters the happy couple of Leonard and Romaine, he begins to question everything he thought he understood about the case.

The Witness for the Prosecution is based on the short story by Agatha Christie and follows the original ending. But Phelps took some liberties with the adaptation, expanding the backstory of the characters and also adding some grimmer elements to the story. All members of the cast deliver compelling performances, aided by the more nuanced characterizations in the script.

A particularly effective aspect of the adaptation is the integration of the toll of the First World War on the story. All the characters have been burdened by this crisis and the various degrees of pain and grief pervade each of their actions and better explain their motivations in the story. Vole is a shell-shocked soldier still dealing with PTSD, Romaine is a foreign refugee who has to contend with discrimination and derision, and Mayhew himself is mourning the loss of his son.

This collective trauma gives the sense of a doomed world where nothing is certain and people can be capable of great darkness. The gravity of the piece contrasts slightly with the original Agatha Christie material but it is changes like these that make the adaptation more affecting.

Ordeal by Innocence

REVIEW: Ordeal by InnocenceOrdeal by Innocence begins many months after the murder of wealthy heiress Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor). One of her adopted sons, Jack (Anthony Boyle), had been convicted of the crime though he insisted that he was innocent, saying he had an alibi – he hitchhiked with a stranger on the night of the murder. Jack’s alibi, Dr. Arthur Calgary (Luke Treadaway), suddenly arrives at the family home on the eve of Leo Argyll’s (Rachel’s widower, played by Bill Nighy) wedding to his former secretary, Gwenda Vaughn (Alice Eve.)

Unfortunately, he has come too late as Jack had already died in prison. But now that his story proves true, suspicion must fall on everyone else who had been in the house on the night of the murder, including the other adopted Argylls: Mary Durrant (Eleanor Tomlinson), Mickey (Christian Cooke), Tina (Crystal Clarke), and Hester (Ella Purnell). Mary’s paralyzed husband, Phillip (Matthew Goode), can be excluded but not the loyal housekeeper, Kirsten Lindstrom (Morven Christie.)

Phelps took many creative liberties with the plot of Ordeal, drastically changing the ending including the culprit and the motive for the murder. Most of the characters are also very different from their book versions, with some changes working to their favor while others were not so successful. There is also an air of greater tension and mystery to Ordeal by Innocence because of the time period (1956), the changed setting (Scotland), and the more complex back stories of the characters.

Whether or not you agree with the changes made to the plot and characterization, you have to admit that Ordeal by Innocence is still a fantastic piece of television. All three episodes are filled with atmospheric scenes, masterful performances, and a truly gripping story. The tension never lets up and since we knew going in that the ending had been changed, even book readers were not sure how the story would end.

Ordeal by Innocence is essentially the story of a fractured family, full of dark secrets, and repressed desires. With so much tension around them, someone was bound to snap. But after reaching breaking point, and with their painful history exposed, they have faced the truth in all its complexity, and they can now finally start to heal.

Read the full review HERE.

The A.B.C. Murders

The ABC MurdersThe 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?

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. And the most significant change is made to Poirot himself. 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 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. 

Read the full review HERE.

The Pale Horse

The Pale Horse 2020 Agatha ChristieThe Pale Horse follows a man named Mark Easterbrook who finds himself inexplicably linked to a series of murders which may or may not have some supernatural significance. Easterbrook (played by Rufus Sewell) is a simple antiques dealer. But when his name appears in a mysterious list in a dead woman’s shoe and with the other names before him already dead, he becomes embroiled in a convoluted case of seemingly supernatural revenge. His current wife, Hermia, has her suspicions about him and struggles to contain her intense emotions while maintaining the veneer of the perfect 1960s housewife.

In the course of the story, the protagonist also needs to deal with the intrepid Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee), who is suspicious of Easterbrook from the get-go and the paranoid Zachariah Osbourne (Bertie Carvel), whose name is also on the list and who fears for his life. And then, there are the ghosts of Easterbrook’s past, particularly that of his late wife, Delphine (Georgina Campbell.)

Phelps says she took the greatest liberties with her adaptation of The Pale Horse. She made the most drastic changes to the main character himself. In the book, Mark Easterbrook is a relatively benevolent character whose involvement in the series of murders is purely incidental. He undertakes to investigate it more out of curiosity than anything else and his romantic affairs are dull and unproblematic. The book itself, in Agatha Christie fashion, does not lean too heavily into the supernatural suspicions and the plot is resolved quickly and neatly.

The decision to better integrate Easterbrook into the series of crimes by having him involved with several of the names on the list made the story more engaging and justified his determination to solve the mystery. There is a more compelling reason for viewers to accompany him on this journey of revelation and even when the true culprit of the crime is revealed, Easterbrook remains the focus.

The Pale Horse is a uniquely macabre adaptation of the source material and an interesting final piece to an ambitious quintet. While it isn’t as striking or memorable as previous adaptations, it can stand on its own because of its distinctively eerie tone and impressive performances from the stellar cast.

Read the full review HERE.