Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Countess Vera Rossakoff

 Since it is looking increasingly likely that we will see the return of Countess Vera Rossakoff in the final series (Labours of Hercules) I thought I might write down some thoughts on that particular character, the actress who portrayed her in The Double Clue and the rumours of a new actress in the role for Labours.

In Christie's stories - and in the TV series - Poirot first met the Countess in 'The Double Clue', a short story published in the early 1920s. A member of the ancien régime of Russia, she is described by Hastings as a 'whirlwind in human form' (Hart 233), and later as 'big' and 'flamboyant' (Hart 234). By the end of the jewel-robbery case, Poirot is completely enthralled by her:
'What a woman!' cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. 'Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument - of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that - with a careless smile - will go far!' (Hart 234)
In later references, Poirot describes her as 'A woman in a thousand - in a million!' (Hart 234), further enhancing our impression that this truly is Poirot's Irene Adler. The two met again in the novel The Big Four (apparently not in the adaptation that was filmed recently). This time around, the Countess was backed by some of Poirot's toughest opponents yet. In the end, she helps Poirot and Hastings escape a certain death, on the terms that Poirot would reunite her with her long lost son. Then, for the third and final time, they met on the escalators of the London Underground in the 1930s, and in the nightclub called 'Hell':
'Though it was something like twenty years since he had seen her last the magic still held. Granted that her make-up now resembled a scene-painter's sunset, with the woman under the make-up well hidden from sight, to Hercule Poirot she still represented the sumptuous and the alluring.' (Hart 237)
After 'The Capture of Cerberus', they were never to see each other again, but in Christie's words, Rossakoff remained 'the flamboyant creature of his fantasy'. 



On television, Countess Rossakoff was portrayed by Kika Markham in the 1991 episode The Double Clue. Though the adaptation differs significantly from its source material (I will probably come back to this in greater detail in my 'episode-by-episode' series), I would still count it as one of my favourites - in terms of characterisation and character development. Markham and Suchet are both given much more to play with in terms of the 'relationship' between the characters, with walks in the park, visits to museums and picnics in the countryside. Also, the final scene at the train station has remained iconic. Markham was lovely in the part.

(Rossakoff was also an added plot line in the adaptation of Murder in Mesopotamia, which didn't really make sense to me. I mean, Poirot travelling all the way to Mesopotamia because she has sent him a cryptic message asking for his help? Oh well, I guess it was a nice touch and a way of showcasing his affection for her).

Now, rumour has it, based on this interview, that actress Orla Brady will be playing Countess Rossakoff in Labours. At first, I was slightly taken aback by this. (Not by Brady - she's an excellent actress - but by the recasting). Sure, Markham is older now (72-73, according to Wikipedia, cf. 50 when the episode was shot), but so is Suchet (67 now, 44 then). However, having looked at some recent photos of Orla Brady and compared them to screenshots from The Double Clue, I'm now convinced that this was, if not the right choice, then at least a right choice. As has been mentioned on the IMDb forum recently, Brady is closer in age to what the character would be in chronology terms (if we rely on my chronology, The Double Clue is set in the mid-30s and Labours will hopefully be set just before WW2). Also, she looks remarkably similar to Markham in 1990! In other words, the recasting will somewhat ease the chronology issues, and the two actresses are sufficiently similar not to annoy viewers. (As an aside, I remember when they recast the role of Helen Lynley in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. That was... Well, they didn't even look remotely similar....).

All in all, I am just happy to see the return of Countess Rossakoff (if indeed that is the case). As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think her presence in one of the remaining episodes is absolutely necessary to close one of the important chapters of Poirot's life (what I have nicknamed 'Poirot's-lamentation-on-love' storyline). 

(Picture copyright ITV, quotations from Anne Hart's The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot)

26 comments:

  1. 'The Double Clue' is one of my favorite episodes and the Countess (Kika Markham)is a wonderful delight to the eye, absolutely believable as the Russian aristocrat exuding an aura of mystery and romance. Impossible not to watch and hang on her every word, and how Poirot twinkles around her.

    At the end I am always left wishing that Poirot would have hopped on that train with her before it chugs out of view and remain with the woman of his dreams, as she no doubt is, and that we could then have had a whole new series of episodes of 'Poirot and the Countess'.

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    1. I agree. 'The Double Clue' is one of the best episodes of the series. They captured 'The Woman' (to borrow from SH) perfectly. Will be interesting to see how (or indeed if) she returns in 'The Labours of Hercules'.

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    2. I went back and re-visited the original story, and I have come to much the same conclusion as with Big Four: the story is one of Christie's weaker, and the adaptation improves on it. The Countess in the story does nothing but steal the jewels and then come to Poirot bleating for mercy on behalf of another suspect...I don't know, somehow neither she nor the story are very impressive. And Poirot's admiration is based on her admitting defeat!?

      When I first saw the Suchet adaptation, I was disappointed because, at that time, I liked reading or watching Christie adaptations for the puzzle process, which this version kind of does away with. But later I came to be moved by the relationship and their sadness when they part. And now, the romance is a refreshing change from both the crude approach to sexual relationships in modern US television, and the cliche of fictional couples who can't express their feelings. Poirot and the Countess behave with propriety (though she uses his first name, which seems to be a big deal) and yet...somehow, they allow their emotions to come through. (Well, "proper" for them is a little different than it would be for two British people, even in the same era, since neither really IS British.)

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    3. The VERY first time I saw this episode, I was annoyed because they had departed from the usual formula of working through the puzzle (which was what I liked about Christie in the first place.) But several years later I saw it again, and found myself totally rooting for Poirot and the Countess to run away together, jewels and all. It actually was partly because I read this book, which is written as a biography of Poirot and discusses the Countess a surprising amount: http://www.amazon.com/Agatha-Christies-Poirot-Times-Hercule/dp/0006499570

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    4. I can't say, though, that I really understand what makes the Countess stand out in terms of cleverness as a criminal (when you think of some of the others Poirot has encountered...they are more ruthless and less likeable but their schemes are just as clever and perhaps deceive Poirot for longer.) She gets away with things, certainly, but that has a lot to do with Poirot helping her, and he seems to be onto her early on in The Double Clue (both story and adaptation.)

      And while I don't know that she's "reformed" as of Labours - she might have been aware that the nightclub might be used for something shady - she appears not to have been in on the drug scheme.

      My understanding of her backstory, at least in the adaptation, is that, because her original family was aristocratic, Russian revolutionaries seized their property and threw them out? Although I don't quite understand why the Countess says she went from having a house to having a wing in the same house, etc. Seems weird that the revolutionaries would keep her in the house as a boarder.

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  2. It was interesting how they gave Poirot and the Countess more of a relationship while at the same time completely eliminating the characteristics that attracted Poirot in the book: Markham's character was hardly "flamboyant" or "a whirlwind in human form." I thought it a little odd that Poirot was so enamoured of her for admitting defeat...that doesn't seem so impressive...so I figure it had to be at least partly her physical presence for him. He has met other daring and adventurous women, and doesn't fall in love with, say, Amy Carnaby (who would be just as good of a match for him, let's face it.)

    Points to the writers and makers for not casting a bombshell young enough to be Poirot's daughter (as they did in the 2002 adaptation of Orient Express.) This Rossokoff (Markham) is extremely sad and subdued and seems to be motivated in much of what she does by the loss of her life in Russia. She is also not, at least in my opinion "a femme fatale." Obviously, she is a nod to Irene Adler, but where Sherlock and Irene "played" each other and yet also started to "fall" for real, Harlequinn-romance style, in Sherlock, I feel like this Countess genuinely likes Poirot - I don't have a sense of her calculating, "I'll get him infatuated with me so I can get away with this theft." On the other hand, there is a strong implication that he has her pegged as the thief right from the start. Certainly he never has an angry "I liked you and you tricked me" moment like he does with Lady Edgware.

    The ending of Mesopotamia, on the other hand, makes the Countess seem like more of a "user."

    I never really believed that Sherlock Holmes was in love with Irene Adler in the original stories...I think Watson was the closest thing Holmes had to a "love of his life." And Watson is married during the Adler story, yet sleeps over at Baker Street! I didn't like the way Sherlock implied that Sherlock really had feelings for Irene that could compete with those for John (and lead to his putting John at risk.) Also, I didn't see how he could feel disgust for one blackmailer (Magnussen) and be hot for another (Adler). Not an issue in the original story since that Adler is NOT a blackmailer.

    But I'm more in favor of the Poirot-Rossokoff "ship." Now, of course Hastings is a nod to the Watson-and-Holmes dynamic, but I don't see "slash" there, so much. Partly because he and Poirot don't seem as totally interdependent...they have more lives and friends separate from each other, and both seem to notice attractive women. And partly because Hastings seems too buffoonish. And because I find Poirot's reaction to the Countess, as narrated by Christie, to be more charged with actual attraction. Not so much in Double Clue, there are several books where he kind of dreams about her, though she does not appear. And in the Labours story, he is definitely, well, excited, to see her.

    In the Double Clue TV adaptation, BOTH Hastings AND Miss Lemon are acting like they are in love with Poirot and have been rejected. You would think, if Poirot is in love with the Countess, and Hastings is his best male friend, one does not replace the other. But Hastings is afraid if Poirot were to marry, it would mean an end to their adventures. On the other hand, Poirot is willing to get his "cher ami" injured to protect the Countess!

    You mention the Labours story as the last time they meet...I have not seen Suchet's adaptation yet...but I always thought there was something ambiguous about the ending of the final Labours story: did the police raid mean the shutdown of the club, Hell? Poirot sent flowers there later...which implied the Countess was still there, at least for a while...some people seem to think the ending implies she left the country again but I'm not sure the story really says that.

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  3. In the books there was at least some suggestion of the possibility that both the title Countess and the nationality were part of her con...I didn't feel like that was a possibility with Markham's character...but Hastings does say, in Mesopotamia, "she SAID she was a Russian Countess." How often does Hastings NOT take anything at face value? A bit of spite there on his part, perhaps?

    The stories where she appears actually don't hang together that well...she and Poirot really don't see much of each other in Double Clue, but in Labours the dialogue implies a relationship more like they have in Suchet's adaptation.

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  4. I bought the initial set-up of Mesopotamia because I thought that Poirot would both be intrigued to see the Countess again, and think from her telegram she might have an interesting case or problem for him. Also, it seemed to coincide with Hastings being in that part of the world.

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  5. Recall the end of the Labours story where the Countess comes to Poirot's apartment and he denounces the real drug smuggler, she kisses him, and then she retreats into "the other room" when Japp and others knock at the door. I find myself wondering "what other room...Poirot's bedroom?" And how long was she there? She even mentions that it would be "compromising" if they weren't old!? But I know most Poirot fans are going to say, hard to imagine him actually...doing that, and really, I would agree.

    I am recalling a line from a completely different mystery, written by another British author, Dorothy Simpson. The police inspector visits a suspect at home, and meets the suspect's wife, who is a fastidious housekeeper. He notes a sheepskin rug by the fireplace, but he can't imagine this woman "using it for anything as untidy" as sex. Can you see why that reminds me of Poirot? Not to mention that he's supposed to be Catholic. Although there is that reference to his "pleasurable excitement" when he first meets the Countess in the Underground.

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  6. I recall that in the original Evil Under the Sun novel, Poirot is very appreciative of Rosamund Darnley's appearance and charm, in a way that suggests he is...well, not so asexual, even if he doesn't act on feelings. Another Christie fan I have corresponded with said his appreciation for Rosamond is of a degree that would "put Vera's Russian nose out of joint." However, Rosamund seems far less likely to be interested in Poirot. (I wonder if it will bother the Countess at all to learn that Poirot spent so much time with Ariadne Oliver in his later years.)

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  7. You know how people combine the names of characters being shipped? This person drawing fanart suggests
    http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/artists/428347039?view_mode=2
    "Poirakoff." I like "Poirossakoff" myself.

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  8. The final lines of the original novel The Big Four somewhat imply that Poirot is contemplating proposing to the Countess! And it's pretty bizarre, actually, in that context, because she pretty much has just tried to kill him, several times. She was instrumental in their escape, admittedly, but only at a price. She certainly was willing to go along with all of the Big Four's schemes (up to and including dying in the explosion so they wouldn't be caught) until she discovered Poirot could reunite her with her child. I really would like her to have been working undercover!

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  9. Most of the passages in the books where Poirot talks about the Countess imply that he's turned on by her thieving. In Cerberus, he seems to veer (pun, I guess) between finding it exciting and being disappointed in her - particularly when he realizes that the real drug dealers are setting her up, and she is playing into their hands. They used her as a fall-person, it is is implied, because she is known as a thief...but how could that be when Poirot covered up her theft in Double Clue?

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  10. Although many Sherlock Holmes movies and series make Irene Adler an important character, she in fact appears in only one story by Doyle and is really never mentioned again. Whereas we have three Poirot stories/books featuring the Countess and some hints that they may have met on other occasions. See my comments here where I point out that some time she found time to tell him her back-story: http://investigatingpoirot.blogspot.com/2013/10/first-promotional-photos-from-labours.html

    And there are three stories/ books where she doesn't appear but is in Poirot's thoughts: Patriotic Murders, Hickory, and The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (the longer version in the Harlequin Tea Set collection.)

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  11. I can't find it now, but I once read another forum where fans were speculating about Poirot and the Countess and someone said, "Can you imagine what Poirot's apartment would look like after she moved in?" They got a picture, from the "whirlwind in human form" image of the books, that she would be untidy about leaving clothes around, etc.

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  12. I gather you see the Countess as fairly strong and independent? I guess it depends on 1) how much you consider her stealing to be an act of desperation (and Christie has female criminals who say or imply that crime is about the only way for them to BE independent) and 2) how much you think she seeks purposely to manipulate Poirot into "saving" her.

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  13. Notice how they Countess is always glad to see Poirot and goes out of her way to interact with him. She was all smiles when they were introduced, with no sense of fear of him finding her out. And in Labours, she rushes back to the resort upon seeing him and cultivates his company...does that mean she doesn't fear him because she doesn't really she's SPOILER Marrasaud's mother and travelling companion - or that she's hoping to play on his emotions again to get the Great Detective on Marrascaud's side?

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    1. I meant "does she not fear Poirot because she doesn't REALIZE..."

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    2. I meant "does she not fear Poirot because she doesn't REALIZE..."

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    3. There is a big difference in Poirot's attitude toward the Countess in Labours compared with The Double Clue, not just after the denouement but all along. It is obviously significant to him that she is there, and it is a distraction, but much less so than in The Double Clue. He is far more focused on the case, and far less overtly romantic and courtly.

      She is a little more direct in trying to "woo" him - touching him, using terms of endearment, and giving him gifts, all the while trying to reassure him that "[her] life of crime is largely over" - while still teasing him about it. There is a forward-ness that was not there in the Double Clue, but on the other hand during the scenes of real danger she becomes rather hysterical and slides into "damsel in distress" territory - usually bringing Poirot running to her side (the attack on Alice and the standoff.)

      This reviewer sees a parallel between Nita/Ted and Poirot/Rossakoff, and said that Poirot gets his happy ending vicariously through Ted and Nita who "overcome their status and roles in life." http://opionator.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/agatha-christies-poirot-the-labours-of-hercules-2013/ I am not sure there is a real parallel, though, in that I don't think social class, as such, is what's coming between Poirot and the Countess (even if she is really a Countess - no doubt some titled women, especially from England, would shy away from having a relationship with someone in Poirot's position but I don't think it was an issue for the Countess.)

      Reviewers such as this one seem to feel that Poirot's two opposite decisions - the letting the Countess escape justice, yet sending her away in The Double Clue, and taking a hard-nosed approach to justice that leads to her arrest in Labours - are equally wrong and unsatisfactory choices that served to part the two, and that the letting her get away the first time contributed to her becoming a worse criminal.

      Were there other options? Are they implying that if Poirot had declared his love, proposed, or somehow taken the next step in the relationship, whatever that was, she would have reformed?

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  14. After watching Labours, I found myself with the sensation that Poirot has now encountered two enigmatic Russia women who both call themselves Countess Rossakoff. I just struggled to think of them as the same woman. The physical resemblance between the actresses is passable, and I'm not criticizing either's performance...it just seems to me that the characterization was written differently. Part of my larger sense that the early set and these later sets are practically two different series, or two different "verses" what with the differences in tone, issues, and characterization.

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  15. Words like "wild", "flamboyant" and "full-blooded enjoyment of life" are associated with Countess Rossakoff in the books. Those don't fit Markham's interpretation, and even Orla Brady played them down. This series' Salome Otterbourne, who practically comes on to Poirot, in Nile, was closer to how I would have seen Vera Rossakoff based on the books: Salome is not quite as attractive, but she is flamboyantly dressed; boisterous; and rather...forward. Not entirely ladylike. But in the case of Salome, it seemed to make Poirot uncomfortable. No suggestion that he likes that flamboyance.

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  16. I read one review / blog where it was suggested that in The Double Clue, the Countess deliberately leaves her clues in such a way that Poirot can find her. Now, we've seen something like that in the world of Poirot (namely, Celia in Hickory). And I can sort of believe in the Countess using that method to get someone's attention, but she didn't know Poirot when she first started her crime spree in London...and really didn't do any more robberies once they met.

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    1. Both their behavior on their outings is consistent with this, in a way: they almost seem to be using the crime / investigation as an excuse to see each other, and to flirt.

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  17. Suchet has used the word "asexual" to describe Poirot:

    "For women, he has no ulterior motive… if a young lady was drunk in the street at two o'clock in the morning and he found her, she would feel perfectly safe, he would be totally honourable. He is asexual."

    I don't know if Suchet is making a distinction between romance and sexual attraction, and sees Poirot's feelings for the Countess as the former without the latter...to me, there had to be an element of sexual attraction, especially given that his feelings really seem to develop the moment he sees her, in The Double Clue. And she doesn't actually "vamp" him to manipulate him into letting her get away, but the fact that he does that calls to mind that cliche - the temptress who affects a man's judgment. It actually happens to Poirot a couple of other times, like with Jane Wilkinson.

    And if you read Christie's works where Poirot meets the Countess, she does convey a sense that he is, well...turned on.

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  18. Suchet says Poirot dislikes the upper-class - I think Christie was at best inconsistent on that point of characterization. But if you accept Suchet's interpretation, it sheds some light on his feelings about the Countess: he isn't morally repulsed by her stealing, because he doesn't really think those she took the jewels from have any particular right to own them either!

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About Me

I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at poirotchronology@gmail.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)