This review contains spoilers.
“I don’t want to be a monster,” said Cust, and it didn’t take this episode long to persuade us that he was speaking the truth.
All those small hints and clues that didn’t add up began to come together; the discovery that the stocking factory had never employed an Alexander Bonaparte Cust led us to look more closely at the bright red bobbed haircut of ambitious secretary Thora Grey (played with a brittle charm by Freya Mavor). Poirot’s musing on the gender of the letter-writer in episode two, and the way the camera lingered on Thora, threw suspicion upon her – but of course there was one final twist to go.
So the ABC murders were solved, but I’m not certain the last third lived up to the promise of the earlier episodes. It all started so well, and simply: letters on a doormat, and the old man who receives them trying to reconnect with his ability to stop terrible crimes from happening. John Malkovich’s performance concentrated on these strengths, as did Rupert Grint’s. There were some strong moments between them in this episode too, including a great scene in which Poirot examined a newspaper article praising the Inspector for being a ‘talented hope in a new and cruel age’. “Such vapid nostalgia,” said Poirot. “Cruelty is not new.” I could easily have watched more of them together as policeman and detective, learning to appreciate each others’ strengths.
Flashbacks to Poirot’s own past confirmed that cruelty is indeed far from new, but an extended sequence in which we learned a little more about who he was before he became a detective didn’t persuade me; it felt too staged, skating over the surface of reality, to have much of an effect. And delving into Poirot’s past is a risky business; even Christie herself left it as vague as possible, and understandably so. He’s a character who wears his own extravagances and foibles as a disguise. He carries an air of mystery with him, and part of his appeal surely springs from that. It would be such a shame to ever decipher him.
Even if the flashbacks didn’t quite work the 1930s scenes remained beautifully well shot throughout, continuing the use of red and yellow as key colours and also concentrating on the motifs of typeface and the clear black lines of the railway tracks. Director Alex Gabassi cut between the seediness of Cust’s rented room and the luxury of the hotel where Thora bided her time, and these extremes felt like examinations of the inequalities of 1930s Britain. It turned out that both Thora and Cust were dupes of the same man – Franklin Clarke, a member of the upper class who wanted to get just that little bit richer and claim a title for himself. I ended up feeling a large amount of sympathy for his still-living victims, and for all the characters who were at the mercy of those who used them for their own ends. By the end of the series we were told that Cust’s brain tumour would kill him shortly; Thora walked away with nothing, and we last saw her at a different railway station, her brittle smile in place once more, hoping to attract a rich suitor with her good looks.
Just like Thora, it’s a dangerous business when a murder mystery relies on good looks alone. The plot needs to tie up, and the big question remains in regard to The ABC Murders: did the identity of the murderer make sense all along? Possibly not – and I’m reminded of one of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. The big coincidence hinged on Embsay railway station. Cust had a seizure caused by his brain tumour and therefore could be very conveniently framed for murder, bloody knife and all. It was a complicated business that didn’t feel rewarding. In that respect, it’s rather like the stylistic elements to the script itself that began to detract from the mystery.
For instance, alliteration abounded. From the Twinkle Toes brand of stockings to the casual newspaper headline reading Gilbert’s Gossip, there were far too many examples to count. Was it overkill, or a distraction? I found it to be both, particularly in the final scene where Franklin and Poirot had a heart-to-heart chat. Franklin felt he had saved Poirot from ignominy. “You were disgraced, derided, defiled,” he said. But nothing Franklin said seemed very believable to me by this point. In part I suspect this is down to the performance; Andrew Buchan created an amiable brother-in-law but seemed to be straining to persuade us he could be a cold-blooded killer. Perhaps that final speech simply tried too hard to include tongue-tying verbal tricks; by the time Poirot had also been called ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ I could understand why he felt no compunction to stay and reveal any of his past to the murderer.
For a story that made so much use of the railways, perhaps it’s appropriate that the journey was so much more fun than the destination. The mystery itself was a brilliant one, scattering clues and bringing together unlikely allies in a bid to stop a grisly series of murders. Malkovich made for an intriguing Poirot, and Grint for a strong sidekick. If The ABC Murders didn’t end as well as it began then I’ll choose to remember the parts of it that I loved. As for the unsuccessful elements in the final third, I’ll follow Poirot’s example when asked about his own past, and say no more about it.
The ABC Murders is now available to stream on Amazon Prime in the US.