Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Dame Agatha

Years ago I had the rather daunting good fortune to meet Sherlock Holmes.
Well actually, to be honest, it was the late British actor, Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal of Mr. Holmes is considered to be both brilliant and definitive. I recall being a bit shocked to discover that Mr. Brett was wearing a turtleneck sweater. What, no houndstooth coat? No deerstalker hat? So completely did he inhabit the great detective, it was a bit jarring to find him to be a regular 20th century person.

I have often wondered how I would feel if I ever had the equal luck of an encounter with David Suchet, the actor who currently defines Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot - he of the egg-shaped head, flamboyantly tended moustache and multitudes of razor sharp “little gray cells”. Would I expect him to be fussy and imperious, nattily attired, with a strong dislike for the country? Like Jeremy Brett before him as Holmes, Mr. Suchet is the quintessential Poirot, and never more so than in the two new versions just out on DVD. I have sorely missed Poirot in recent years and these new, just released interpretations are beautifully done , chock full of wonderful actors....Zoe Wanamaker as mystery writer Ariadne is especially divine....and photographed with painterly detail. Watching them in high definition is truly delicious eye candy. And David Suchet has never been better. His Poirot is never silly, never comic... he is ingenious and eccentric, just as he should be.

And happily, the Christie canon continues with a brand new Miss Marple. Like Brett and Suchet before her, Joan Hickson has always been considered the gold standard Miss Marple, but I always found her a bit chilly. I could never imagine giving up my secrets to someone with such a dour expression. However, Julia McKenzie, as the new Miss Marple, is quite another story altogether. Her Miss Marple is warm, pleasant, and empathetic, all the while maintaining that familiar cat-like focus on the clues others are overlooking. And yes, she knits, she drinks tea and she wears tweed suits.... just like she should.

There are four new Miss Marple stories just out and they are a sure recipe for a wonderfully cozy night in front of the television. Pocketful of Rye was especially enjoyable, in part because it adheres closer to the book, while the other three retain little more than the names of the original characters. While I enjoyed them as well, I had to wonder at the need for the wholesale alteration of their plot lines. For those Christie purists among us, this can be a bit disconcerting. Rather like having Ratty and Mole poking around Oz. Or perhaps, summoning Othello over to Denmark to advise Hamlet on his grand dilemma. While Dame Agatha may not look down on the literary world from as lofty a perch as Sir William, one still has to be amazed at the cheek it takes to cuisinart her plotlines so thoroughly. I had to chuckle when Mrs. Marple made her appearance in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, a book from which she is totally absent, but then I thought, ah well, perhaps she just wandered over from her cottage in St. Mary Mead or from her holiday at Bertram’s Hotel. Rather like the characters in the paintings that hang on the wall at Hogwarts, perhaps the Christie characters visit each other occasionally. Although I must say, given that Mrs. Christie is the best selling mystery writer in history, one could reasonably assume the plots of her stories would be quite satisfactory on their own, so these indiscriminate changes seem unnecessary at best, hubristic at worst.

But a little Christie is better than no Christie at all, and these productions are ones I know I shall watch again and again, for they have all the essential elements for a perfect night.... old English country houses, murders in the conservatory, mysterious characters, deliciously lavish sets and copious amounts of tea and knitting.