With Sarah Phelps at the helm, it’s now clear that the BBC’s Agatha Christie adaptations are entering their Zack Snyder–DC–Universe era. Everything is gray. Everyone is agonized. Phelps has taken the grande dame of drawing-room detective fiction and made her stories so grotesque, so deranged, that they’re almost comical. The low point for me in The ABC Murders, Phelps’s newest three-part series to land on Amazon, was the focus on a yellow, pus-filled boil on the back of a man’s neck—so swollen, it seemed almost to vibrate on camera—as another man grimly spears open the yolk of his fried egg. In another scene, the actor Shirley Henderson’s character, lipstick smeared all over her face, berates the daughter she rents out to men for a shilling, screeching, “I wish I’d used a knitting needle on you.”
These moments are, to be clear, not in Christie’s original text. Nor are the scenes Phelps has dreamed up featuring the use of high heels and silk stockings in sexualized torture rituals, or a burgeoning nativist movement clumsily intended to comment on Brexit. It might seem unimaginable to take Christie’s genteel but biting stories and insert, say, a visual of an overflowing receptacle of urine. Not for Phelps, though, who’s now used this motif twice, in The ABC Murders as well as in the grimly vicious Ordeal by Innocence.
It’s tempting to pity John Malkovich, who makes his debut in The ABC Murders playing Hercule Poirot, Christie’s fastidious, preening, and entirely endearing Belgian supersleuth. Malkovich signed on to play a detective best known for a calligraphic mustache and a weakness for luxury, and what he got was a character who’s left wading through a fetid swamp of human folly, oozing cholesterol, and unsightly excrescences. The story is set in 1933 Britain, which is facing two new evils: a rising fascist and anti-immigrant movement (“We must stem the alien tide: March for your country and your blood,” its posters exhort), and a serial killer using a railway guide as an alphabetical almanac.
Curiously, given that a star of Malkovich’s caliber has been persuaded to sign on, The ABC Murders feels like an origin story and an end point for Phelps’s conception of Poirot, without a clear path forward. At the beginning of the series, he’s old and obsolete. His friends at Scotland Yard have left the force; an ambitious new investigator, Inspector Crome (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint), wants nothing to do with Poirot, having dug into his past and found some glaring inconsistencies. Poirot begins receiving letters from a person identifying himself as ABC, but is rudely rebuffed by Crome until random murders start occurring in alphabetical order: Alice Asher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston.
While everyone else is hamming it up playing monstrous psychopaths on an operatic scale, Malkovich wafts glumly from scene to scene, his facial expressions rarely more animated than someone trying to do long division in his head. He seems to have put sincere effort into Poirot’s Belgian accent, which I’m sure is brilliantly accurate, but it’s nevertheless excruciating (“A leest of your salespeople, pliz. In Lorndon”). Meanwhile, Henderson’s lunatic landlady is lurking around corners and frothing about foreigners, a loner named Alexander Bonaparte Cust is waking up in states of curiously bloody disorder, and random strangers are sharing details about their hemorrhoids with the increasingly world-weary Poirot.
It’s not that television writers shouldn’t imaginatively update canonical texts. The BBC’s contemporary Sherlock, before it careened wildly off the rails, proved how well classic detective stories can stand up to modern-day themes. Christie’s reputation as a chintz-and-cream-tea kind of writer is undermined by the actual darkness within her stories, which plenty of previous adaptations have teased out. But it’s difficult to imagine what Phelps is trying to achieve by making her series so viscerally icky, and so intent on stirring things—and people—up. She ends her adaptation by inventing a backstory for Poirot that’s entirely disproved by Christie’s books, and that seems to end this incarnation of the pompous private investigator right in its tracks. Which, in the end, feels like no loss at all.
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