The One With Featuring Whitehall

Delia Sherman and the Little Grey Cells

So here’s my terrible secret:  I don’t watch much television.  I need a lot of sleep and I like to read and writing is time-consuming and we go to a lot of plays and living in New York is like living in an endless writing conference, so something has to give, right?  But when I had surgery last year, I was pretty much tied to the apartment and a little loopy on painkillers and I watched a lot of TV, mostly period mysteries because I like the clothes.  Which Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries wins on, hands-down.  But Poirot has good clothes, too.  And Poirot not only has David Suchet (whom I love and adore and would pay money to hear read the phone book), but also contains one of the best episodes of a series I can remember seeing since “Band Candy” on Buffy.

That would be “Murder on the Orient Express.”

First of all, it’s surprising.  Not for the mystery, of course:  Anybody who watches old (or even oldish) movies or has read practically any Agatha Christie at all knows exactly whodunit.  The usual selection of screaming red, scarlet, crimson, deep pink, and blush herrings squirm, stonewall, defy, and are driven to confess to some degree of connection with the victim, who is very much in the running for Jerk of the Century.  The plot creaks like an old shoe, but the writing and the actors (including the utterly convincing Eileen Atkins) are accomplished enough to persuade us (or at least me) that their characters are more complex than the bare two dimensions the plot allows them.  But that’s not why I love this episode.

It was Poirot.

In the early seasons of the 13 that make up Poirot, the character of the little Belgian detective was distinctly comic.  In mystery after mystery, David Suchet wrings subtle comedy out of the character’s vanity, pride, confidence, compulsive tics, and “little grey cells.”  As the series progresses, however, he brings out the character’s humanity, piety, and moral conviction, shading it from time to time with world-weariness, moral absolutism, and self-satisfaction.  In “Murder on the Orient Express,” those not-very-funny traits are well to the fore. This is not a cuddly Poirot, a clownish Poirot, but a Poirot who is sick to his back teeth of people who think they’ve got the right to lie and take the law into their own hands and do murder, even in the name of justice.  For him, there is no good reason for murder or any other act that goes against the rule of law.

All this is established in a prologue that upset a number of Amazon reviewers considerably.  It upset me, too, but not because it wasn’t in the book and flew in the face of everything I knew about Poirot.  It upset me because it was upsetting to see how compassion can be lost in the pursuit of justice and how the right thing to do isn’t always the best thing to do.  The passengers on the Orient Express (and the Poirot of the prologue) choose the former.  The Poirot of the end of the episode chooses the latter.  And Suchet (and the writer and director) makes every step of that journey absolutely real.

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