The holidays beckon, but this stalwart member of the Tuesday Night Bloggers keeps on a’bloggin’! All through December, we are tackling the topic of “Foreign Crimes” in however fashion that subject floats our ocean liner! Last week, I discussed Agatha Christie’s foreign-set mysteries, and the week before that I focused on the English village as channeled through the sensibilities of American author John Dickson Carr and French author Paul Halter. (Can we call this “English Channeling”?!?) You can read the piece more closely here if you wish, but, to sum up, I have difficulties with Halter’s take on the British mystery experience. Happily, I received some wonderful from writer Xavier Lechard on the difference between the Gallic and the British sensibilities as they pertain to the classic mystery:
“French crime writers, even the most “orthodox” ones, have no interest in the kind of foolproof, solidly constructed plots so prized in the Anglosphere, which they find dry and dull. They prize imagination over reason and their books must be judged accordingly. Halter’s plots make little sense from a purely rational viewpoint but that has never been his aim anyway. His books must be read like fantasies, not treatises in detection.
“Another peculiarity of French crime fiction that sets it apart from the English-language variant is the relatively minor importance of the “Who”, the focus most often being on the “Why” and the “How”. French crime writers don’t aim for Christie-like shock revelations; there is usually a very limited pool of suspects and the culprit is often obvious for anyone paying attention. What matters to them is rather to create an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary problem and then come up with an imaginative, if not always plausible, solution.”
Xavier uses this as a rationale for the French preference for the impossible crime story and the popularity of authors like Carr and Halter. Naturally, I had to wonder how this reasoning relates to Agatha Christie, the most translated author in the world and yet one well known for her “foolproof, solidly constructed plots” and for whom the question of whodunit is paramount.
I confess that I am not up to the research required to come up with a reasonable post about her books in translation. I would be fascinated to hear from those who read this post who hail from, and/or reside in, other nations and read Christie in Japanese or French or Spanish, as well as English, who could offer an opinion about how she fares in a different culture. What I can speak about today is how she looks on French TV. Back in September, I reviewed the first U.S. release of episodes of the French series, Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie). Here is that post, and I think it’s clear that I held these adaptations in low esteem. So why I went ahead and bought the sequel I’ll never know! But you know what? Now I’m glad I did, for it gives me a chance to apply what Xavier told said above to this new set and see if I feel any differently about the series. Here, then, is my take on each of the five episodes included in this set, all from Season 1 of the series which did away with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and replaced them with the wholly original – and mostly irritating Commissaire Jean Larosière and his assistant Émile Lampion. Larosière is pompous, a ladies man who only recently discovered he had fathered a daughter 17 years earlier, and a tyrant to Lampion, a sweet, Chaplinesque, and openly gay man who often outwits his boss in interpreting the clues. The relationship is usually played for laughs, the level of humor depending on the particular story. The violence is often ramped up, and there is a great deal of sex, both gay and straight, again depending on the story being told.
Episode One: La plume empoisonnée (The Poison Pen, loosely based on The Moving Finger)
The Moving Finger, the third novel to feature Miss Marple, is one of the best village mysteries of her career. The character of village life, especially the secrets that hide in the cracks, is such a vital part of this story that Miss Marple doesn’t appear until the last few chapters in order to sort the mess that has sprung from a series of vicious anonymous letters that seem to be related to at least two deaths. The true center of the novel is Jerry Burton, a pilot recovering from a major crack-up who, with his sister Joanna, lets out a house in the charming village of Lymstock and gets involved in the mysterious events that follow. It’s one of the best poison pen stories out there, and it resolves itself quite nicely even if Miss Marple does seem to be a bit extraneous as the deus ex machina.
Since the book is very much a “tightly constructed” rather complex tale that weaves many plot strands and characters together, I would imagine that the French would have a field day loosening this one up, and I would be right. The Burtons, fils et fille, are eliminated, and thus it becomes necessary to figure out a way to get Larosière and Lampion onto the village scene. They do this by having Lampion get shot in the line of duty and a conscience-stricken Larosière deciding to send his assistant to a small French village to recover. Lampion stays in the house of a spinster lady and her servant, which corresponds to Emily Barton and the formidable Partridge from the novel. Except here, for some reason, the old woman and her servant are engaged in a weird lesbian relationship that is played for laughs, and it all results in Lampion being terrorized by the man-hating servant for reasons he cannot fathom. Hilarity does not ensue.
Meanwhile, there are threads of story that are recognizable from the source material, particularly that involving the lawyer’s family, including his awkward daughter whose presence intrudes on the rest of the family. There are also several characters here who do not appear in the novel, as well as one or two who have very different personalities and motivations from the way they were written. Add to this a totally made up back story about a long-ago disappearance that may have been murder. It adds up to about five times as many murders in the present day as were found in the book and a totally different solution. I assume that this is what Xavier meant by describing the sort of plot that the French would find dry and dull. Frankly, I got a little bored from all the seemingly random killings, and I found the new solution so far-fetched that I’m sure Christie herself would have rejected such an over-the-top ploy. But it certainly raises the loony level and perhaps sweeps away the cobwebs from an original plot that had the misfortune to be solidly put together.
Episode Two: Cinq petits cochons (adapted from Five Little Pigs)
If there were ever a Christie novel that I predicted would suffer greatly from the foolish comedy manifested between Larosière and Lampion, it would be Five Little Pigs. And voila! The writers seemed to think so, too, for they pretty much play this one straight. The opening takes pains to establish how haunted the Carla Crale character is over the long ago murder of her father, ostensibly by her mother. The biggest difference here is that the Caroline Crale figure is not dead at all but still languishing in prison for a crime she has told her daughter she did not commit. The daughter asks Larosière to prove her mother innocent. Since she is not dead, the mother assumes the role of one of the pigs, replacing Philip Blake, who is not present in this adaptation. Also, the rhyme itself is different, so we get none of the “stayed home” or “ate roast beef” elements forced upon the characters.
So far, so good. I like the presentation of the Elsa character as very much the young libertine. The use of flashbacks, so necessary to visualize a murder in retrospect, are all good. The clueing is looser, as befitting an easing up of construction. But all in all it hangs together well, and while the idea that Carla in the book can never be reunited with her mother is lost, there is a strong emotional kick in the pants at the end of the story. Larosière is far less bumbling here, but that makes Lampion a bit extraneous. I think this may be my favorite adaptation of the series so far.
Episode Three: Le flux et le reflux (The Ebb and the Flow, adapted from Taken at the Flood.)
Much of this tale is quite faithful to the original, right down to the complex solution. Larosière is a much more serious presence because of the way he is brought into this story: the Gordon Cloade character is now Larosière’s former army commander, and when he dies Larosière is convinced that the man was murdered right under his nose. Larosière sulks mightily and proceeds with the investigation, despite a conflict of interest and deep depression that make his detective skills almost worthless . . . at least until Lampion snaps him out of it.
There are fewer members of the Cloade family to consider: Aunt Kathie and her husband Lionel are out, and Kathie’s dabbling into spiritualism is given to Lynn’s mother Adela (all the names are from the English source; everyone is given a French name in the show). As in the original, all the family members are upset at the presence of Gordon’s young widow. In the show, much insipid humor is wrung out of each family member’s fantasy about how he or she would like to murder Rosalind. The biggest problem is that so much of the ninety minute time frame is taken up with Larosière’s guilt and suffering that the complex plot of the original feels crammed and rushed as it plays out. In addition, Taken at the Flood is one Christie that really benefits from its immersion in real life (post WWII) history; all of that is taken away here, and what we are left with is a rather insipid family mystery with all the flaws of the overly complicated original solution more clearly marked.
Episode Four: Le couteau sur la nuque (The Knife on the Neck, adapted from Lord Edgware Dies)
What a title – The Knife on the Neck – and there’s nothing metaphorical about it as the Edgware character, here a famed but over-the-hill, alcoholic actor, is butchered with the same vehemence as Mother dispatches the insurance investigator in Psycho.
This is far from being my favorite Christie novel: its conceit is so obvious that the whole mystery strikes me as rather thin, so I would expect that the French writers would fiddle with this one. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise when the original plot is sandwiched in as the “B” story to Larosière’s search for a serial killer of young women. There is no mystery as to that killer’s identity since we see him commit his crimes. He’s suitably creepy, and the scenes where he toys with potential victims who are unaware of his guilt (he works in the theatre that forms the main setting of this adaptation) are mildly suspenseful. It doesn’t feel in any way like a Christie story, more like an episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, but who am I to quibble? As a result of this added character, the murder count is extremely high. Even so, with the serial killer, the whole Edgware plot and a lengthy subplot about Larosière’s complicated relationship with his teenage daughter, the whole thing feels much thinner than most episodes (or even than the book). The writers try to include variations on the original clues from the novel, but all of them are pale imitations of the original so I don’t know why they even bothered. There are two denouements to this story: the end of the serial killer’s tale is very much in the mold of a modern TV series, but the final reveal of the book’s killer is actually kind of fun as it plays out in a crowded theatre in front of an audience as Larosière’s long cherished desire to be a stage actor merges with his egotistical love of unmasking a killer.
Episode Five: Un meurtre en sommeil (adapted from Sleeping Murder)
Since this is the last episode of the set – and possibly the last episode I will watch for a long time . . . or even ever! – I thought I would use it as a kind of test. As I write this, I haven’t watched it yet, and I thought I would use Sleeping Murder as a kind of test of my newfound understanding of the French creative spirit, at least as they apply it to Agatha Christie. So here’s my prediction:
I figure this one will be changed a lot, the same way The Moving Finger was altered. Replacing Miss Marple with Larosière and Lampion will require a bizarre new backstory. It’s a toss of the coin whether or not there will be an elderly gay character to embarrass Lampion (or the occasional young and good-looking guy to titillate him.) Unless they really push the boundaries, there will be no ripe, middle-aged woman for Larosière to dawdle with. The book is rather sedate, since it involves a crime in retrospect. Yet I expect that the series writers will play up the supernatural aspect of Gwenda’s visions, as well as the hints of incest that permeate the story. Remember that the ITV production added a whole ridiculous subplot about a traveling acting troupe to liven up the proceedings and add some suspects. People like to tamper with Sleeping Murder, and I’ll bet this one is no exception.
Okay, watching now . . .
Just finished watching, and I’m proud to say that I am advancing on my comprehension of the French take on classic mysteries. If any of you have read the book, it opens with Gwenda Reed, a young attractive woman who was raised in New Zealand, coming back to England to get married, buying a new home, and suffering from the supposed delusion that not only has she been to this house before but that she witnessed a murder there!
This version of Sleeping Murder opens in an insane asylum, where the Gwenda character – here called Sacha Poliakof – is a hollow-eyed, lank-haired inmate who likes to bang senselessly on the piano until doctors drag her to the “new machine” which leads to a gross session of electroshock therapy. Despite the treatment, Sacha stays together long enough to clobber her nurse and escape in disguise. But as she hitchhikes to Lille, she passes a house that seems very familiar . . .
The rest of the story plays out much like the novel . . . except there are four murders instead of one, Larosière has a torrid sexual affair with a psychoanalyst, and the hints of incest found in the book become so rampant they would make Oedipus blush. Larosière and Lampion are at odds here because of Sacha, whom Larosière suspects of every crime and in whose innocence Lampion places his faith, even going so far as to share his bed with her and bestow upon her the compliment that if he did sleep with women, she would be just his type!
After applying what I learned from Xavier to this second set of programs, I feel I understand a lot better why the writers “adapted” Christie the way they did. I still don’t like the show, but I do think it offers a fascinating insight into the iconic image of one culture – the British murder mystery – filtered through the lens of a very different culture. And, at least this month for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, that’s what this is all about!