First things first. When it comes to Hercule Poirot, I have always considered myself a self-confessed David Suchet purist. For me, his was the quintessential portrayal of the moustachioed Belgian detective with his infamous love of precision and square crumpets. Nonetheless, Suchet’s time as Poirot had long since come to an end, and so it was that over the festive period I found myself watching a rather different adaptation of a classic Poirot story, The ABC Murders.
At its core, the actual murder mystery is much the same as it was in the book, in which our murderer works through an A-Z of UK rail locations, killing an appropriately (and alliteratively) name victim in each town, and taunting Poirot with warning letters along the way. Beyond that, however, this is a fresh take on the story. John Malkovitch brings us a darker and different Poirot, a Belgian refugee who made a name for himself in England by hosting murder mystery parties, whilst all the while remaining evasive about his own past. Certain that he is the key to tracking down the ABC murderer, Poirot tries to work with the police, but the death of his good friend Inspector Japp leaves him dealing with Japp’s successor Crome instead. Taking Poirot seriously cost Japp his reputation in the police force, and Crome is unwilling to make the same mistake, making for a fractious relationship on both sides.
What’s so brilliant about this new version of Poirot is how it seems so different to what we’re used to, but, when you look closely, there are elements from the original novels very much in evidence. The denouements where Poirot would finally uncover the murderer have now become celebrated murder mystery parties. Poirot’s tendency to lie and be evasive about his past was always present, but this time it’s made explicitly clear that he’s covering up some dark memories. Even Poirot’s trademark vanity – which, in the books, led him to dye his moustache for years – backfires here, when his cheap dye runs down his chin during a meeting with the police. All of these elements were here before, but where they previously made a wily and jocund detective with a characteristic sparkle in his eyes, now these same threads have been woven into a new pattern.
No Poirot story would be complete without an extensive supporting cast, and The ABC Murders is no exception. There may be no place for Captain Hastings in this adaptation, but all the other characters are deftly brought to life through some excellent acting. Praise must go in particular to Shirley Henderson for her portrayal of Rose Marbury, a boarding house proprietress whose cutting remarks take no prisoners, and who isn’t above pimping out her own daughter in order to make some extra cash. Of course, with so many characters to keep track of, I can’t say I would have followed the story entirely if I hadn’t refreshed my memory of the original plot with a trip to Wikipedia, but it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless.
This new adaptation of The ABC Murders may be very different to the amiable and genteel David Suchet years, but that’s exactly what makes it worth watching. There would have been no valuing in remaking word for word what we’ve already seen, but by giving this classic story a fresh new twist, it becomes new and compelling again.