Monday, July 28, 2014

Murder Mystery Monday #8

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...Readers, lend me your eyeballs! These intros were starting to get a little monotonous, so I decided to mix it up. Anyway, welcome to another edition of Murder Mystery Monday. At the tail end of my last post I brought up the return of Agatha Christie's Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery, which premiered yesterday night for those unlucky enough to live in the United States. (Everybody else has seen it months ago). I promised that I might ramble on a bit about the movie and the book it was adapted from, so here I am on this auspicious Monday.

The movie featured in this episode was The Big Four, which is based on one of the Christie books that I've read fairly recently. I distinctly remember The Big Four because it was unlike any Agatha Christie I'd ever read before. For that reason I decided after finishing it that I could never feature it in a Murder Mystery Monday on its own. While it technically is a mystery and there are a number of murders that take place, I hesitate to place this book in the murder mystery genre. If anything it reads more like a spy novel full of adventure and international intrigue. I really should have known there was trouble afoot when I read the synopsis for my admittedly old edition of the book:

"Hercule Poirot was no James Bond, but now the greatest sleuth of them all found himself in a situation that would have staggered even the fabulous 007. 

A gigantic global conspiracy was tightening its net of terror around the forces of law and order wherever they might be - and the governments of the world were helpless to defend themselves.

But then this fearsome juggernaut of doom made one mistake. It decided to use naked force on the smiling, gentile Poirot.

And for the first time in his amazing career, the one and only Hercule Poirot began to get very angry - with results that surprised even himself...

Yeah, that doesn't sound much like the Agatha Christie I know and love. Not to mention this description makes Poirot simultaneously seem like a docile grandfather and a raging Hulk. Nevertheless, there are some important background details that have to be mentioned, which help to explain why The Big Four is such a weird book.

The most important fact about this book is that it actually started out as a series of short stories not intended to form a cohesive novel. It is purported in one of her biographies that in 1926 Agatha Christie was experiencing some rather hefty emotional strain. Her mother recently died and her marriage with Archie Christie was falling apart. Rather than attempt to write a completely new novel, Christie was encouraged to take these short stories and edit them a little to form this book.

As much as I really don't want to critique this novel because I feel so sympathetic towards her, I'm here to write about why the book and even the movie just doesn't work. As far as the format of the book is concerned it definitely reads like a series of short stories that really doesn't genuinely fit together. In fact each story has its own murder and its own cast of characters which makes the novel a bit confusing to keep track of. Interestingly enough if you take each chapter/short story on its own they all for the most part remind me of the Poirot that I know and love. The chapter that comes to mind is The Importance of a Leg of Mutton. It is a rather simple episode where someone is found dead and the police immediately suspect a manservant because a bloody footprint matches his shoes. Poirot subsequently uses his gray cells to discover the real murderer.

The book seems to take a turn for the worse near the end. Readers lose that iconic murder mystery story for a completely unbelievable espionage thriller. Poirot rather than standing back and using his little gray cells, is actively involved in thwarting this four person team of super-villains whose headquarters are...I kid you not..inside a mountain. The only positive comment you can make about this book is that it's pretty memorable.

Now onto the movie adaption of The Big Four

I'll be honest and say I was really very skeptical about the production of this movie. I couldn't even begin to think about how to adapt the book for the film and thankfully a significant amount of edits were made to the story to make it into a more cohesive narrative. Apart from a few similar episodes taken from the book, the movie's plot and progression are completely changed. The tenor of the film is much closer to the Poirot stories everyone is used to. There is no longer a ridiculous spy thriller ending, but still I find that the movie falls flat.

First and foremost, the movie intros with the supposed death of Poirot. Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp all sorrowfully attend his burial while commenting how the world has lost a great man. For those of us unhappily awaiting the movie version of Curtain, those scenes were a punch right in the feels:( I think the creators of the series wanted to give audiences just a taste of how sad it's going to be when Poirot reaches his end.

Also I don't know if this was just me or was anybody else struck by how old the actors are now? It was seriously only a few days ago that I was watching a rerun of The Cornish Mystery where the actors seemed youthful and I think that's what caused the majority of my shock. It just sort of drove home the notion that one of my favorite tv series is sadly coming to an end.

Now back to the actual content of the movie. Despite the extensive edits, the movie still feels like it was adapted from a series of short stories. The film doesn't really have distinct scenes so much as a couple of vignettes that form a disjointed whole. As a result, the audience doesn't get to spend nearly enough time with the admittedly smaller cast of characters. I know I had trouble keeping track of which actor played which character, so there was no way I could even begin to suspect one of them as the ring leader in this mess of a story.

For those wondering, the movie does stick with the concept of the big four, an organization of four people determined to start another war and profit heavily from the results. The mystery element to this film is determining whether the big four is an actual organization or the result of a lot of media sensationalism. There is even some talk of a peace party, which many of the characters participate in. Needless to say the story has a slight undercurrent of political intrigue. The only problem is that the ending in no way matches up with the grandiose nature of the rest of the movie. (This next sentence is a spoiler, so if you haven't seen the movie...beware.) Instead everything boils down to one man's desperate need to impress an actress who dismissed his love years ago. That doesn't make much more sense than the original book ending.

All I can say is while I applaud the efforts of those involved in the show for having the sense to rework the original story, I feel like The Big Four is one of those books that really should never have been adapted for the screen in the first place. It's just a misstep in a long line of fabulous murder mysteries and I think I'm quite ready to move on to something a whole lot better. I know I'm excited to watch the premiere of Dead Man's Folly and I just might have to feature that in another Murder Mystery Monday post. I hope you enjoyed this Agatha Christie centered discussion and until next time, Best Wishes!!