Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Episode-by-episode: The ABC Murders

Series Four consisted exclusively of adaptations of novels. The first of these episodes was The ABC Murders, based on the noel that was first published in 1936. It was adapted for television by Clive Exton and directed by Andrew Grieve.

Script versus novel
David Suchet has frequently stated that this is his favourite Poirot novel and possibly favourite adaptation, too. Having re-read the novel and compared it to the adaptation, I'm not surprised that the two are one and the same (favourite novel and favourite adaptation). Put simply, Exton's script is an admirable attempt at adapting a complex novel, with its mixture of first person and third person narratives, psychologically driven plot and challenging main characters. Obviously, some things have been cut, but that is more a result of time constraints than anything else. Still, the fact that these early feature-length adaptations had the luxury of over 100 minutes' runtime is quite evident. Some of the later adaptations would have almost fifteen minutes less to develop the plots and the characters, which would result in quite significant changes to the novels. Now, to list the most important changes: First, any references to Poirot's retirement, to just having moved in to Whitehaven Mansions and to Hastings's farm are obviously removed (since the series hadn't come that far in chronology terms yet). Instead, Hastings has supposedly been on a holiday for six months (in 1936 - which is such a big continuity error I won't even begin to explain it). Second, Exton has added a running joke concerning a cayman Hastings caught on his trip to the Amazon. Quite unnecessary, but it does sort of work, so I won't complain. Third, quite a few scenes are cut. These include the interviews with witnesses in Andover (in the neighbourhood) and Doncaster (in the cinema) and all the 'conference' chapters (although some of the discussions survive as dialogues between Hastings, Japp and Poirot). Still, these deleted scenes aren't sorely missed, which means that Exton probably made the right decision. Fourth, some minor characters are deleted, such as the Assistant Commissioner, dr. Thompson and Inspector Crome (whose lines are given to Japp instead), Miss Highley and the maid Lily and her boyfriend. This decision makes complete sense, since the conferences have already been removed and since the other minor characters serve no real purpose in the plot. Fifth, there's the ever-present chase scene as the culprit tries to escape (these are getting a bit tedious by now - luckily they almost disappear in later episodes). All in all, then, this is a near-perfect adaptation of  one of Christie's best novels. (MORE AFTER THE JUMP)

Directing, production design, locations, soundtrack
Andrew Grieve's direction is a joy to watch. He plays up the pace and speed of the investigation with several shots of moving trains, of newspaper reels, of the race course in Doncaster and similar moving objects. The opening scene is particularly well done, with a continuous shot that moves from a close-up of a row of ABC railway guides, to Poirot's walking stick adjusting these on the news stand, to his spats and then to his shadow emerging from the train smoke. Also, he makes use of sudden close-ups of letters representing the letter of that particular murder, e.g. the 'A' in the 'A. Ascher' sign and the 'B' in 'stawberry blonde'. Finally, there's a particularly well executed scene between Cust and Poirot in the prison, as they sit 'face to face' (a phrase used repeatedly by Hastings to describe the scene in the book). David Suchet discusses this scene in the Poirot & Me documentary.

The production design for this episode is equally impressive, with extravagant sets and beautifully dressed locations. These locations include Windsor Street in Uxbridge, Middlesex (used as the location of A. Ascher in Andover), the old Regal cinema in High Street, Uxbridge, Middlesex (used as the cinema in Doncaster), 'The Globe', London Bridge (used as the 'The Globe' that Cust stays at in Doncaster), the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex (wonderful building), the Royal Victoria Hotel and St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex (the hotel that Hastings and Poirot stay in).

The soundtrack for the episode is very memorable and wonderfully executed by Christopher Gunning. It's available on CD. In fact, the score makes use of the notes A, B, and C as its basis, and the announcement of each murder is accompanied by its note - A, B or C!

Actors and characters
The award for best actor in this one really has to go to Donald Sumpter (recently known to many as Maester Luwin in HBO's Game of Thrones!) who plays Alexander Bonaparte Cust. This is arguably one of Christie's most complex characters, and Sumpter makes it all look so easy, brilliantly balancing the war trauma, the epilepsy, the shyness, and the creepiness. What a performance!


  1. I enjoy your site and commentary most definitely.

  2. Jimmy Thompson12 July 2013 at 15:22

    Another great review Erick. It's the next episode I'm due to watch using your chronology so I'm very excited.

    Oh, and I bought the Peter Haining book last week on your recommendation. It's fascinating, so thanks very much for that.

    1. Thank you, Jimmy! Glad to hear it's useful as a supplement to the chronology, too! Haining's book is certainly a hidden treasure trove of small anecdotes on the first couple of series, glad you enjoy it :)

  3. Enjoyed your commentary thoroughly, especially since Poirot sets and locations are fantastic and I've been searching them up for the longest time, thank you so much :)

    1. Thank you! That was the whole idea behind these 'episode-by-episode' posts, that all the information about each episode could be found in one place :)

  4. If I hadn't seen The Double Clue first, and gotten excited about the (potential) romance with Rossakoff, I would say that Poirot and Hastings are such a married couple here, even doing domestic things together.

    And Hastings utter delight at being invited to stay with Poirot! Like it's a huge treat! And their embrace and exchange of kisses right at the beginning is quite mutual. (In the books, Poirot would do that and it would embarrass the HECK out of most of his English male friends, especially Hastings.) I guess it goes without saying that's more of a European thing than an English thing...and because Poirot is European, it doesn't mean he's gay.

    But I think they toned down the extremity of Hastings' English propriety (well, I think everybody's less stuffy and prim, in a way, than the books imply.)

  5. Suchet himself counts this one as among his favourites, if not the favourite. Elsewhere on the Internet I have seen the comment that the resolution of this case, with the resultant clearing of Cust's name, is "one of Poirot's greater triumphs," due to how cruelly Cust is used and how sympathetic his plight is...he is someone who really DESERVES Poirot's help.

    But, as far as it being one of "Poirot's greater triumphs" - it seems like Poirot bears some responsibility for steering the police toward Cust in the first place. At least, he picks up on the "stocking" motif. Can we assume that the real murderer would have led the police to Cust one way or another?

    1. "Can we assume that the real murderer would have led the police to Cust one way or another?"

      That's why he plants the knife on Cust in Doncaster. He only ever planned four murders. With the fourth, instead of killing someone on the customer list, he follows Cust to the cinema, kills a random person there (in the book the victim has the wrong initials) and plants the knife, knowing it will be enough to prompt Cust to turn himself in.

  6. My favourite book. Also second favourite adaptation, after End House. One might venture to say that ABC is Christie's only true psychopath (Norton could pass as one; also 4, although too caricaturesque for my taste).
    Yet, I couldn't help but ask myself whether one could pull a serial killing as in ABC in contemporary orwellian London. As I saw the episode in the light of nowadays CSI's and Sherlocks and whatnots, it made me laugh, as the criminal would have been identified via DNA and IP tracing from even before sending the actual first letter.

    Love the blog. Would love to hear your insights on the Monogram Murders.

    1. Certainly a lot of tricks that worked in Christie's time (and Doyle's, and all the other mystery writers of that era) would not work today, particularly the tricks designed to conceal the time of a death or the cause. There are stories where someone is poisoned and everyone but Poirot, Marple, or whoever the smart one is, think it's natural causes. Wouldn't fly today.

      But they're still making things like CSI, and Sherlock, and indeed, Sherlock has HAD a serial killer. So we have to assume science and technology haven't eliminated all mystery or uncertainty from criminal investigation. Indeed, it seems like with all the supposed surveillance, the real bad guys fall through the cracks.

      Remember the other day when someone tweated bomb threats against a plain? The news said they had to get a warrant to find out who was behind that Twitter handle...and I admit, I reacted, "wait, I thought the government knew that already."

    2. There are still real serial killers, never mind fictional ones, as well as lots of unsolved and undetected murders and other crimes. There probably wouldn't be any DNA evidence of the real killer at the sites of the ABC murders (gloves cover up lots), and while there would be DNA evidence of Cust, he wouldn't be on any database, so it wouldn't be any use until he'd actually been identified. IP addresses can be masked, and people do still use old fashioned paper (which could still have been used to implicate Cust, as modern printers can be traced). And it's certainly possible to conceal time of death, as it's very much a broad estimate based mainly on temperature.

  7. My favourite book too, and the adaptation does it justice. I agree about Donald Sumpter's excellent performance.

    For those interested in this sort of thing, the film he's watching in his first scene is Black Limelight (1939) aka Footsteps in the Sand, with Joan Marrion and Walter Hudd. The one he watches in Doncaster is Alfred Hitchcock's Number 17 (1932). (Of course, the first film represents a continuity error as it wasn't made until after this story is set.)

  8. Anyone know where the house was that was used as Clarke's house?

  9. Fascinating blog great detail on this episode. It gets interesting each series episode with everyone's comment.

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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, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)