Powered by the will of a promise he’s made to those he’s lost, a man reinvents himself as a detective, and a famous one at that. Upon a chance acquaintance with this detective, a man for whom too many excuses have been made pushes himself a step further, becoming a deranged killer with an overwhelming thematic obsession: the alphabet.
The ABC Murders
Alex Gabassi (director), Sarah Phelps (writer)
Andrew Buchan, Anya Chalotra, Eamon Farren, Rupert Grint, Shirley Henderson, Bronwyn James, John Malkovich, Freya Mavor (cast)
Based on The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie
This is, surprisingly, not a Batman tale. Instead it’s the central mystery of the Agatha Christie classic The ABC Murders, adapted for the BBC and later streaming on Amazon Prime as a three-part miniseries starring John Malkovich and Rupert Grint. Malkovich plays Detective Hercule Poirot, and Grint as Inspector Crome heading up the police with which Poirot works. The comparison to the Dark Knight Detective is probably not a new one; murder mysteries are often lurid and carry a certain flamboyancy and drama to them, something they certainly share with comics. The killer’s penchant for a theme in this case is markedly similar to a sizable portion of Batman’s rogues gallery, though I think most significantly to Calendar Man, with his penchant for specific calendar dates when planning crimes.
In The ABC Murders, the killer in question commits a series of murders in various towns throughout England, specifically along a train route that touts a guidebook known as the ABC Railway Guide. This killer spends the series mailing Poirot hand-typed notes with aggressive taunting and hints as to who and where his next killing will be, and he signs these notes “A.B.C.” Honestly, if Poirot himself had donned a rodent costume and crashed in through a skylight to fight the killer in the final act, I would not have been surprised.
Those themes are if anything stronger in this adaptation, which adds a new wrinkle: in this version, Poirot was not a detective in France, but was in fact a priest, whose entire congregation was murdered by invading Nazi forces. This positions him significantly more tragically, and gives him the gravitas of an oath to that congregation, much in the way a young Bruce Wayne dedicated his entire life to fighting crime.
The book also diverges in that Poirot’s traditional friend in the police, Inspector James Japp, dies in the beginning of the tale, leaving Poirot to deal with his replacement, the much younger Inspector Crome (no first name given). It’s easy to theorize that this change was made due to the unfortunate connotations of the term — but if that’s the case, why include him at all? It’s a thorny subject already; as a novelist Christie was known for her casual racism in regard to…basically anyone who wasn’t white. Perhaps the elderly inspector’s name was more common back then, but even that excuse doesn’t really fly—in the first, people always knew better, and in the second, Christie’s own track record speaks against her. It’s a weird, uncomfortable step in a series that is already entirely too white.
As it is, he’s given one entire scene before Poirot and Crome are left alone with one another, creating an intensely charged dynamic right away. In the casting of Grint, Crome ends up looking not unlike a young James Gordon; redheaded, with a moustache and a no-nonsense manner. He does not trust Poirot originally, and indeed instructs him to stay out of police matters, but must soon rely on the old detective’s help, in the exact same way that Gordon must rely on the Batman.
The adaptation was penned by Sarah Phelps, and I confess I’m not overly familiar with her background, but frankly, if she has not written comics, she might well consider giving it a try! The ABC Murders might as well be an application for a writing gig at DC Comics, although knowing what comics pays…Ms. Phelps, you may well wish to stay in television.
In truth, I should be making these comparisons the other way around; Hercule Poirot predates Batman by over two decades! In that way they are indeed contemporaries; in fact now that I’m on this idea I confess I’d like to see a book featuring the pair. Poirot’s creator was known after all for the grimness of her fictional worlds, and I can think of no setting more fitting for that than Gotham.
But I’ve spent so much time investigating this comparison though that I haven’t told you how the adaptation is! Well…it’s fine. It’s well-paced, featuring strong and memorable characters (Malkovich even attempts something of an accent, which is certainly more than…the last time he famously played a Frenchman). Phelps’ adaptation features significant roles for women, although perhaps not as many as I’d have liked, and the range in which they’re displayed is somewhat lacking. Shirley Henderson joins her Harry Potter alum, this time as landlady Rose Marbury, who is a truly wretched character, the kind of scene-chewing monster you love to hate. Playing her daughter is Anya Chalotra (Yennefer in The Witcher), who I really liked in comparison; it was easy to empathize with this girl, putting up with an abusive parent and trying her best to be good to those around her. Freya Mavor plays the ingenue Thora Grey, who schemes and plots her way through every scene she’s in without coming off as cold or conniving; she is driven and determined to make the best of her life in a time when that is not easy for a woman to do, and I won’t fault her for this. Rounding out the truly memorable performances is Bronwyn James as Megan Barnard, sibling of one of the ABC Killer’s victims, and a true study in the complicated role of grief in a dysfunctional relationship.
There are several other women as well, but the majority of the rest play murder victims, and in one significant departure a dying wife upon whose life Thora Grey is intruding. I list these four women specifically because their roles were absolute standouts; I have not historically been given to a life of writing transformative fan works but in this case, I cannot help but think about what these women’s lives might be like without the intrusion of Poirot as a central figure in the narrative. What might the story be like, for instance, if Grey, Barnard, and the young Miss Marbury instead banded together to solve the crime under Poirot and Crome’s very noses? They certainly carry the gumption to do so throughout the story, although they’re far more focused on their own issues. Then again, without Poirot, the crime wouldn’t have happened in the first place—there’s that Batman link again.
All in all, I can…mostly recommend The ABC Murders, just not for the reasons folks might think. Malkovich’s Poirot is fine, and Grint’s Crome is a delightful stretch for an actor who is typically known for his goofy good-naturedness, but in this story, it’s the women who truly leave a lasting impression. I care more about each one of them and their roles as vigilantes in the upcoming Hercule Poirot Extended Universe than I do about Poirot himself.