This was one of those wonderful moments that are so rare. It was a surprise review that I saw on Twitter and it’s on an amazing blog where fantastic murder mystery novels are reviewed. This guy really loves the genre and is incredibly knowledgeable about it. That’s why it meant so much – to come from a fellow fan of Golden Age Detection this was a truly heart stopping moment. The fact that someone such as this likes the book and gets what I was trying to do, is what it’s all about. Thank you. I can die happy. If you’re a fan of classic murder mysteries, I heartily recommend this blog. It is fabulous! Here’s a link. I shall be visiting there often and not just to re-read the review of my book! https://classicmystery.blog/2020/07/24/the-smart-womans-guide-to-murder-2020-by-victoria-dowd/
So far I’ve looked at adaptations of a Poirot novel and a standalone. By natural progression therefore it really had to be a Miss Marple next. Everyone has a favourite Marple novel but I wouldn’t say this was mine. Similarly, everyone has a favourite actress who has played Marple. Although it’s widely stated that Agatha Christie was disappointed with Margaret Rutherford’s films of Miss Marple, this book is in fact dedicated to her.
I’ll put my hand up from the very beginning and say my favourite Miss Marple is Geraldine McEwan and to my knowledge she never acted in an adaptation of this book. So it might seem like a strange choice for my first foray into Marple books – not my favourite book and Miss Marple not played by my favourite actor. However, this novel seems very relevant to now. The plot is not as ingenious as many of Agatha Christie’s other novels. For those of you who haven’t noticed the announcement at the top, there are now going to be huge spoilers and I really would advise you to stop reading now if you’ve not read the novel.
An ageing film star, Marina Gregg, moves in to Gossington Hall, a house which had appeared in an earlier novel The Body in the Library. Dolly Bantry has been forced to sell and move out . Marina Gregg hosts a party for all the locals and spends time meeting and greeting the star struck guests, one of whom is Heather Badcock. She is a huge fan of Marina’s and, whilst the party goes on around her, she tells Marina in passing that they’ve met before, in Bermuda when Heather Badcock dragged herself from her sick bed to meet her heroine. Marina Gregg is suddenly very distracted and photographed with the most unusual look on her face – described as being like that of the Lady of Shalot:
‘The mirror crack’d from side to side:
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.’
Miss Badcock spills her cocktail on Marina and Marina then passes her own to the woman. Miss Badcock drinks it and dies almost immediately. It’s later found to have large amounts of the substance Calmo in it. Most of the American’s surrounding the star are taking it. It is assumed Marina was the intended victim as she, being a famous movie star, has built up quite an army of jealous enemies. Her ex-husband is at the party with his new partner Lola Brewster. Lola’s interplay with Marina is part of the joy of this novel and its adaptations – how two movie stars spar with each other. The photographer who caught the cursed look turns out to be a child Marina adopted then later abandoned when she discovered she was pregnant with her own child – a child that is later born with terrible birth defects. Marina was broken by this and is attempting to make a come back after a nervous breakdown that she still appears to be suffering from. Further attempts are seemingly made on Marina’s life and two more people are also murdered. The reason for this fairly detailed description of the plot is that it is the motive for the murder which is the most relevant thing here. Heather Badcock is in fact murdered by Marina Gregg because of the woman’s throwaway tale of how she met Marina once before, how she’d dragged herself from her sickbed suffering from German measles to meet her idol the movie star. In that moment, Marina realized that she was pregnant at the time and it was Heather Badcock who had passed the disease to her unborn child that caused the severe disabilities. For that, she murdered the woman.
When I first read this book, I thought what an innocent victim poor Heather Badcock was. She is universally seen as a kind and caring, if slightly fussy woman. She’s never knowingly hurt a soul in her life. She could not have known what she did so many years ago. How could she be held responsible for that? It could perhaps be seen as little more than an unwitting mistake, a terrible twist of fate. Times have changed. Here is a woman who knows she is ill, perhaps with something that isn’t life threatening for her. But she has the symptoms and goes out in public with no regard for the woman she professes to adore, or indeed for anyone else. When Miss Marple first meets Heather Badcock, she compares her to a woman she once knew, Alison Wilde, a woman she says was very nice indeed, ‘kind, healthy, full of life.’ But she ‘always saw her own point of view so clearly that she didn’t always see how things might appear to, or affect, other people.’ Miss Marple, as usual, has the measure of the woman within moments of meeting her. Now, in the current climate, what Heather Badcock does, going out spreading a terrible illness that can have awful effects on some people is an unforgiveable act. Re-reading this book forty years on from my first reading, I found myself sympathising with the murderer and almost (I stress almost) thinking Heather Badcock deserved her punishment! Her selfish behaviour, her need to go out and take her illness to others, had led to the most dire consequences which she never stopped to imagine and never took a moment to consider. As Miss Marple says of Heather Badcock at the denouement to Jason Rudd, ‘She never did mean harm but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock (and like my old friend Alison Wilde), are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.’ She never thought of the person she was meeting, the people she would meet accidentally at what must have been a well populated gathering. She had happily gone on living her life for years without a second thought for the devastation she had brought to other people’s lives. As ever, Agatha Christie stays very relevant and each new age brings a different interpretation and fresh eyes to her work. I thought this would be a very pertinent novel to look at this time.
As with the other novels I have looked at and like so many Agatha Christie stories, there are a large number of adaptations of varying quality. There are some recent Japanese versions adapted by TV Asahi and numerous theatre adaptions, Rachel Wagstaff’s production for Wiltshire Creative at the Salisbury Playhouse being the most significant of recent years and gathering a mixed set of reviews. There’s a very fun, modern trailer for this on YouTube https://youtu.be/sVMIEuB-e9E There are of course the video games and audio books as well. In fact, as always there are far too many to analyse every version so I’m going to stick to the three main adaptations.
Arguably the most famous is the 1980 version directed by Guy Hamilton. It has the usual star studded cast but this transcends the normal tour of famous faces by having the Hollywood movie star, Marina Gregg, played by one of the most famous film stars of all time – Elizabeth Taylor. She steals every scene she is in and radiates the film star glow that Agatha Christie gave Marina. When Agatha Christie describes Marina in the book as ‘suddenly the turn of the head, the movement of the hands, the sudden smile and the magic was there,’ she could have been describing Elizabeth Taylor. Later, Ella Zielinsky (the secretary) describes Marina as having, ‘Temperament. They’ve all got it, more or less, but Maria Gregg has got it more than most people.’ A sentiment often expressed about Elizabeth Taylor. It being filmed in 1980, Elizabeth Taylor just like Marina Gregg was not perhaps in her prime, she was 48 when this was filmed and her movie career had also gone into some decline. Elizabeth Taylor had been in semi-retirement before this film. Her personal life was complicated, she was married seven times and lived constantly under the glare of the media. Just like the Lady of Shalot, Elizabeth Taylor as Marina weaves her magic web around everyone and everything. But she too is ‘half-sick of shadows.’ The gleam is becoming tarnished for her. She’s suffered a terrible tragedy and a long-term breakdown. She repeatedly says Gossington is her home, ‘I’ve come home at last.’ She’s found home in the bucolic English countryside, a place to be quiet. She doesn’t want this strange reflection of a life anymore, she wants to see real life. Sadly, when she sees it, just like the Lady of Shalot, she is cursed. She cannot live a real life and she no longer wants her fantasy life. This film is very good at focusing in on the price of fame and the sacrifices she has had to make. That comes at a price for the film as well though. Elizabeth Taylor as Marina Greg becomes the true focus of this film, she is the star and therefore the difficulty is, it is not Miss Marple.
Miss Marple appeared in twelve books and twenty short stories. Many ladies have played her and there has recently been an announcement that the Big Little Lies producer, Bruna Papandrea is developing a new Marple with the consent of James Prichard, Agatha Christie’s great grandson. Although the rumours are it will follow a much younger version of Miss Marple and will only be loosely based on the books. Still, the question of who was the best Marple will rage forever. However, in this 1980s version Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple is not many people’s favourite and I’m afraid not mine. She is overshadowed by Elizabeth Taylor’s magnificent portrayal of Marina Gregg which is of course no fault of her own. But there is also a contrived nature to this Miss Marple. She is overly made up to look old, she is very clipped and stiff and the addition of the smoking serves no real purpose. I know there will be some who disagree, but Angela Lansbury is not at her best as Miss Marple and her talent is quite underused in this film. The focus is very much on the world of Hollywood and its ‘stars.’
The 1992 Joan Hickson version is the next significant production of this novel and, for many, she is the ultimate Miss Marple. Shrewd, kind, yet never overly emotional. There is just a little element of detachment about her. For many, she is the very essence of Miss Marple. When Agatha Christie saw her on stage in Appointment with Death, she sent her a note saying, ‘I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.’ And so she did, from 1984 to 1992 and for many her performance has never been surpassed.
Time and again Joan Hickson features as the best Miss Marple of all time.
The Mirror Crack’d was to be her last TV outing as Jane Marple. She is thoughtful, gracious and always courteous even when she’s telling someone she suspects they committed a murder. She’s Marple at her most intelligent and shrewd. You know you’re in good hands from the moment she speaks and, as the viewer, you know she will see everything and there is no doubt in your mind that she’ll solve the mystery. She carries the entire production. Claire Bloom is an adequate Marina Gregg, more quietly fragile than Elizabeth Taylor’s version. The brash edges have gone but so has the humour, particularly with the interplay between her and her younger rival, Lola Brewster. In this version it is a young Glynis Barber who is a pale reflection of the marvellous Kim Novak in the 1980 version.
A large part of the joy of this book is the mutual dislike these two Hollywood actresses have for one another. Lola is the new starlet, Marina the fading star. The fantastic sparring between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 version is sharp and at times seems all too realistic! Two great movie stars, one ageing, one launching her career, snipe and jibe at one another so beautifully. Here are a few of the wonderful lines Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak deliver to one another.
‘In that wig you could play Lassie.’
‘I’m so glad to see you not only kept your gorgeous figure but you’ve added so much to it.’
‘Love your outfit, darling. What are you supposed to be, a birthday cake? Too bad everybody’s had a piece.’
‘Chin up, darling. Both of them.’
None of the other adaptations, including the Joan Hickson version, come close to the fabulous rendition of this movie star rivalry between Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak.
In the final notable version of this novel, that sparring is again lost. This is the Agatha Christie’s Marple series episode of 2010 of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (using the full title of the novel) directed by Tom Shankland. Lindsay Duncan is a good Marina Gregg but Hannah Waddingham’s Lola Brewster is a little weak. Sadly, there is very little humour in their animosity. This version sees Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, who took over from Geraldine McEwan in series 4. Julia McKenzie played the role from 2009-2011 and was in some very notable episodes. There was a lot of controversy over this series as there were so many changes to the original novels and some of the stories had not originally even featured Miss Marple. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was, however, largely quite faithful to the original story. Julia McKenzie is well-liked as Miss Marple, or Marple as she is known in these adaptations to match up with Agatha Christie’s Poirot. For me however, particularly in this version, I find that she is so very stricken with worry about everything that doubt begins to slip in. I don’t feel like I’m in safe hands. There is none of the cool composure of Joan Hickson. This Miss Marple is so deeply concerned and distracted by everything that it starts to become an issue for the viewer that she may not, this time, solve the crime.
Julia McKenzie said of the role, ‘It’s difficult because Agatha Christie wrote her in two ways… First, very much what Geraldine McEwan played: a slight, rather Victorian creature. Then, a little sturdier and tweedier. I chose the latter. A lot of people say they don’t like the tweedier version. But they’re both genuine.’ She also said, which I think is very much worth remembering, ‘Just about everybody in the world knows about Miss Marple and has an opinion of what she should look like, so I’m under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.’ This is a very fair comment but although she says she has gone for the sturdier, Margaret Rutherford style version, there are definite times of doubt with this version. Although not as physically frail as Geraldine McEwan may have appeared, there is an inherent, worrying seam of weakness in Julia McKenzie’s version.
I think another problem I have with this Miss Marple is that it’s also worth remembering, that The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was written in 1962. Miss Marple had first appeared in 1930 and this novel is one of the last few Miss Marple books. She is old in this book. Julia McKenzie was only sixty-nine when she was in this version. Age and a changing world is a very strong theme in this book – for the movie star who is fading, for an England that is now journeying into the ‘60s and the modern age, not the pre-war years Miss Marple inhabited when we first met her at Gossington Hall in The Body in the Library. This is a new Gossington with new, American owners. The old owner, Dolly Bantry, is in the small gate house.
Joanna Lumley as the previous owner of Gossington is for me the stand-out star of this 2010 version. Here she is with Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple and a wonderful Will Young as the Pharaoh playing opposite Marina Gregg in the movie they are making. Joanna Lumley is a marvellous Dolly Bantry, just as she was in The Body in the Library. It’s quite ironic to see her commentary on the nature of fame. Her wide eyed, star-struck persona when she meets Marina is so realistic, it seems as though it might very well be based on the fans she herself has presumably been presented with on many occasions. In the book, Dolly Bantry imagines how awful it must be to be constantly bothered by fans and unable to say, ‘Oh, for the Lord’s sake stop bothering me,’ a position Joanna Lumley must no doubt have been in countless times. Joanna Lumley provides that wonderful Agatha Christie wit and humour in this version with such marvellous lines as, ‘Arthur always used to get a little frisky after a canter.’ She too is the character who drives home the very important theme of motherhood when she tells Marina that the most important thing for her now is not Gossington but seeing her many children and grandchildren.
Unfortunately, for all its fun and beautifully scripted characters and sets, I think my problem with this 2010 version and this particular Miss Marple stems from the fact that this novel begins with Miss Marple ruing the arrival of the modern age. This is primarily a novel about ageing and the arrival of the new world that leaves so much of the old behind – be they movie stars or St Mary Mead’s old lady sleuth. None of this seems to come through in the 2010 version and I find myself longing for the older, slight Victorian creature Julia McKenzie spoke of when she characterised Geraldine McEwan’s version. This is a Miss Marple who hates seeing herself become old and frail. She is ill when we meet her, being cared for by a patronising carer – ‘Another of those things that elderly ladies have to bear.’ Miss Knight glances back at ‘the frail old lady resting.’ Miss Marple visualises Miss Knight’s description of her as ‘Failing a little now, it’s only to be expected – their faculties get dimmed.’ Miss Marple dehumanises herself in this imagining. She uses the term ‘Their faculties,’ as if they are somehow other, she is one of them now. It’s a surprise for us, the loyal reader, that someone sees our heroine like this or that Miss Marple imagines they would. Miss Marple is irritated that her aged appearance brings no respect for her still razor-sharp intellect. All people see is a very old, frail lady, not a brilliant mind. I’m afraid, for me, the decision of Julia Mckenzie to play her as a much sturdier Miss Marple seems at odds with this. The Miss Marple of the book feels, like many in her position, as if old is the first thing people see – as if that defines her. She longs for a different world and cannot understand the new with its supermarkets where ‘you’re expected to take a basket yourself and go round looking for things… and then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out.’ She travels to ‘the Development’ as if she’s journeying to a whole other world – ‘she was here, observing the brave new world that was springing up.’ And this is where she meets the selfish Heather Badcock.
None of this doubt, this frailty of existence and Miss Marple’s concern for her age comes through in the 2010 version, nor would it since Julia McKenzie was still only sixty-nine. Only Joan Hickson comes close to this feeling but still there is very little wavering, very little room for self-doubt in this incarnation. In the book, Miss Marple is doubting herself as an aging woman, just as Marina Gregg does. This is Agatha Christie, aged seventy-two, faced with the dawning of the 1960s and writing a book starring a character she began in 1930 and trying to make her relevant. She’s stood the test of time, but that’s not to say Miss Marple did not have her moments of reflection. I would have loved to have seen Geraldine McEwan in The Mirror Crack’d but sadly it was not to be. Now rumours abound as to who will play Miss Marple next. I, for one, cannot wait!
Next time I’ll be looking at Witness for the Prosecution and if you’d like a small reminder when it’s out, please do subscribe (button on welcome page.) Thank you so much for reading and, if you’d like to, let me know your favourite Miss Marple by leaving a comment.
Here’s a copy of the interview I did with the wonderful Anne Coates over on her website annecoatesauthor. com – What could be better than chatting about books and drinking cocktails?
Victoria Dowd was a criminal law barrister for many years, until she finally hung up her wig in favour of more fictional crimes. An award winning short story writer, Victoria’s début novel, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder, was published by Joffe Books in May this year and is the first in a series featuring the Smart women.
Hi Victoria how lovely to see you in my virtual cocktail lounge. What can I get you at the bar?
V: Hello! I’d like a Guilty 12 please, the cocktail invented on The Orient Express in homage to Agatha Christie. The 12 mystery ingredients represent each of the suspects. Sounds pretty lethal to me!
Deadly but I’ll join you – probably keeps all viruses at bay! So I don’t think we’ve actually met in real life, have we?
V: Sadly not but after lockdown ends I’ve made a promise to myself to meet all the wonderful authors, bloggers and reviewers I’ve met online as a result of my book being published. I’m going to be very busy!
But happily busy, I hope. Apart from both being authors what else do you think we have in common?
V: I absolutely love the Cocktail Lounge! Cocktails and books – two of my favourite things. And crime, of course.
Of course. Tell me about your début.
V: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder was published by Joffe Books last month. It’s a crime novel in the tradition of the Golden Age of crime fiction. Members of a book club stay at an isolated country house and when they are snowed in the murders begin. There’s a lot of dark humour between the guests, particularly the mother, daughter and aunt. The atmosphere is very far from cosy! To survive, they will, of course, need to work out “whodunit”.
Another one for my TBR pile. What are you working on now?
V: I’m hard at work on the follow up book in the series. It’s called The Smart Woman’s Guide to Survival since the women who survive the first book decide they need to get better at surviving so they go on a Bear Grylls style survival course. They’re not well-suited to this kind of environment. When they find themselves on an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides and people start being murdered, it’s either one of them or someone else is on the island with them. I’m loving writing this novel. It’s based on an actual island in the Outer Hebrides which has one large Manor House and a very small chapel. I first saw it in photographs taken by John Maher and got in touch with him. It turned out he was the drummer in the punk band the Buzzcocks. The island is uninhabited but I managed to speak to the owner who is absolutely wonderful and agreed to take me over there. There’s no electricity and, of course, no phone reception or WiFi – perfect for a murder mystery so it’s all very exciting, if a little scary. I’m hoping to get over there later in the year or next year maybe – who knows?
What would be your dream panel (at any event) – subject, fellow panelists or a Q&A with someone you have met or would love to meet?
V: I’d love to be interviewed by Caitlin Moran at a literary festival such as Hay. I’ve seen her in conversation a few times and love her books. Because it’s a “dream” panel, I’m going to have to say Agatha Christie. She is my heroine and I utterly adore her work. Alongside her, I’d go for Sophie Hannah (because she writes the new Poirot so beautifully), Susan Hill (as I adore everything she writes and love her gothic novels such as The Woman in Black), Hilary Mantel (for sheer genius and eccentricity) and crime writer Margaret Murphy. Margaret gave up so much of her time just before my book was published to speak to me on the phone and email to give me so much advice and support. I couldn’t believe a best selling crime writer would be so interested and helpful to a new crime writer. She really made such a huge difference and is an amazing author. And finally, I’d have to have Helena Kennedy QC. When I had my first case in the Old Bailey, I remember sitting in the loo just saying to myself, “I can’t do this!” There was a knock on the loo door, I opened it and there was Helena Kennedy who simply said, “Yes, you bloody can. Now get out there!” She is the very epitome of yes, you bloody can and a strong, incredibly intelligent woman who, no matter what the case, crusades for justice. I think that’s a wonderful panel of Smart women to dream about sitting alongside.
An amazing array of smart women – a real dream panel. And what a lovely tribute to Margaret Murphy and Helena Kennedy. In the meantime, what are you most looking forward to when lockdown is finally lifted?
V: Having a hug with my sister and having a launch party for my book – which I’m hoping to combine. It’s been a little weird having a launch during lockdown but it has been very special and unique. The wonderful authors at Joffe Books and Books ‘n’ all Promotions came together for a Facebook launch that involved virtual drinks, food and quizzes with real prizes to celebrate the launch of The Smart Woman’s Guide. One of the lovely ladies even made prizes for the quiz of key rings of my book and fridge magnets. I was just so incredibly touched by the effort that went into this for a first time author that none of them had ever met. I also had a zoom party with close friends who all appeared on the screen in various forms of fancy dress. There were quite a few cocktails drunk that night. People have been absolutely wonderful and, in some ways, it has been so different that it’s made it something I will always cherish the memory of. Having said that, I think I can still have a real party too. As I’m sitting in the garden for this interview, my lovely neighbours who are part of a jazz band called Kalamazoo are rehearsing, I’m having a cocktail in the sun and talking about books. What could be more perfect?
What indeed? Is there anything lockdown has made you think about/want to do?
V: It’s really made me think how important independent bookshops are and libraries. I used to spend a lot of time grabbing a coffee and wandering around my local bookshop browsing and chatting to the owner and all the people who work there. I miss that a lot and hope that when we surface, those shops are still intact and can thrive again. Local based businesses have been so important over the last few months. Not just for books, but round us the farmers, dairies and local farm produce shops have been utterly invaluable. It used to be so easy just to click on a supermarket website for whatever we wanted but I’m never going back! I love the local farm shop and the tiny dairy who have never failed to deliver milk and fresh eggs. I think it has really hit the re-set button for me and I’m going to hold my family and friends so close and value all the small, irreplaceable things in life.
It’s been lovely to chat with you Victoria and I’m really looking forward to celebrating with you in the real world!
Your can find out more about Victoria Down here and follow her on Twitter @victoria_dowd
One thing I absolutely love about murder mysteries is the setting. The intricate nature of the room layout in fantastic old manor houses gives a novel that glorious Cluedo feel. The detailed analysis of where items are placed in a room fascinates me and in novels such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage we are lucky enough to have a map of a certain room.
With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to share with you the two drawings I used whilst writing The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder. Filing away the piles of notebooks and research for this book, feels a little like putting it to bed. Looking at these now, I was reminded how important the drawings were and how the exact placing of every person at every point of the book was essential. The tiniest of movements in an object can be key in any murder mystery so they had to be meticulously placed.
The first plan is of the downstairs of Ambergris Towers. You can see the lay out of the rooms but also the importance of the chairs the characters occupied from day 1 and how much they would have been able to see from their positions. Each character had their own unique point of view on the action.
Plan of ground floor of Ambergris Towers
The second plan I loved doing! I played around a lot with who occupied which bedrooms and finally came up with this. I think this may well have been the tenth version! Throughout I had this image of the grand staircase that separated the two wings and created that division in the house. The light from the stained glass was very important too and how it subtly changed people’s perceptions and the atmosphere.
Plan of first floor of Ambergris Towers
And finally, I also created the crest of the family at Ambergris Towers which was great fun to play around with. But perhaps it gives just a little too much away though… I won’t explain it but I’ll just leave you to work out the various parts and why they were important.
Crest at Ambergris Towers
It’s been great fun to go through these and I wanted to keep a record of them here. I’d love to know if they match with your reading of the book. I’m deep amongst the planning and writing of the second, follow up book. That one has required an entire pin board and a lot of maps! More of that to follow soon…
Here’s a copy of the article I wrote for Red Herrrings that was originally published by https://thecwa.co.uk. Surprisingly, it’s all about my love of the Golden Age of fiction and Agatha Christie! I hope you enjoy it and have a lovely day.
Welcome to the second instalment of my blog series on adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and today I’m going to be looking at And Then There Were None. As you’ll see from my photographs here, this was based on Burgh Island off the Devon coast and very close to where I am. The causeway floods with the tide meaning you cannot walk on or off the island at certain times and Agatha Christie was inspired by this place to write And Then There Were None. Sadly, it wouldn’t really have proved adequate isolation for the purposes of this book as it isn’t flooded for very long so the guests could have walked off and, unlike in the novel where the island is said to be a mile off the coast, it is very easy to swim from the island back to the mainland. There’s even a water taxi which is an elevated platform raised up on a tractor that can take you to and fro when the tide is in and a very excellent pub, The Pilchard, where you can wait for the tractor or stay there and have a drink until the tide goes out. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place and I go there very often, not just to The Pilchard. It provided inspiration for this novel and Evil Under the Sun. Agatha Christie even had her own writing place there and bedrooms at the Burgh Island Hotel celebrate the author. It is all very evocative of the era. There is an excellent book all about the hotel and Burgh Island called The Great White Palace by Tony Porter, a previous owner who was responsible for bringing it back to all its art deco glory.
This is possibly Agatha Christie’s most famous book and is the greatest selling mystery novel of all time. It’s no surprise then that it is the novel with the most adaptations of it. However, I mentioned in my last post, which was noted by an eagle-eyed reader, that Murder on the Orient Express has the most ‘notable’ adaptations. There have certainly been more adaptations of And Then There Were None but sadly many of these are very far from notable. To include them all here would make this a very long post indeed and would involve a considerable number of unusual and not terribly good productions. So, I’m going to focus on the most notable and interesting adaptations of this book but do please let me know of any obscure ones or well-loved ones. After the last post, I had some wonderful messages telling me about French re-workings, spin-offs and gorgeous books all related to the original. I’m hoping to be sent many more!
I’d also like to add that, as a murder mystery writer myself, one of my least favourite things is of course spoilers. Sometimes unfortunately these are inevitable and I’m afraid this has been one of those occasions. I’ve found that the various interpretations of plotting, particularly approaches to the ending, have meant that it really is impossible to talk about this book and how it’s been filmed or staged over the years without mentioning key aspects of the plot and spoilers. I did think though that not many people would read a post about this book without having read it or at least having seen one of the adaptations. If you haven’t, I would advise you to stop reading now as it is one of, if not the most, ingenious endings of all time. Please read it. You won’t be disappointed!
At the very end of the novel in an epilogue that never sees the light of day other than in the book, Judge Wargrave writes the denouement in a message in a bottle that is later discovered after the police cannot solve the crimes. In that he says, ‘It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.’ And that is exactly right. This is the ultimate murder mystery and yet there is no detective, everyone dies and it is entirely ambiguous as to who the ‘bad’ guy really is. It is not just a ‘whodunnit’ but an examination of the nature of justice itself, an examination of the darker sides of humanity. It is the story of a man who lures various people to an island and kills them one by one. They have all done bad deeds that have led to the deaths of others. In the last post, I discussed Poirot’s motivations and his inner conflict which is portrayed in very different ways in the various adaptations. Justice and whether it is seen to be done is a strong theme here too, particularly that moral, higher form of justice that often stands outside the law, which is sometimes untouchable by our legal systems. The judge himself tells us in his message in a bottle ‘confession’ that he began secretly collecting victims who had all committed some form of deliberate act that led to death but were ‘all quite untouchable by the law.’ In some respects, Judge Wargrave is the crusading moral avenger but this book is a much darker analysis of his motivations than that. Just as Poirot has been interpreted as being torn by the need to observe the law yet admit that the law can sometimes fail, the Judge appoints himself as the court, jury and executioner of these people who sit in the grey area of culpability. However, unlike Poirot, this judge relishes the role. As a judge he enjoyed watching people slowly approach their doom ‘suffering the tortures of the damned.’ He tells us, ‘I have a definite sadistic delight in seeing or causing death.’ And there is a sadistic pleasure he takes from this new cat and mouse game. If not, then why the game at all? It is entirely within his gift once they are on the island, to simply kill each person one by one without the need for poems and elaborate deaths that fit the wording of each line. He tells us, ‘I have wanted – let me admit it frankly – to commit a murder myself.’ He is torn, just as Poirot is, but in an entirely different way. He is hampered by his ‘strong sense of justice’ too but only that ‘The innocent must not suffer.’ In the book, we are even told that each death forms part of a detailed hierarchy of guilt. ‘Those whose guilt was the lightest should, I decided, pass out first.’ This is a careful structure that observes every detail. One aspect of which is often avoided. The judge himself, under his new warped moral system of guilt, is in fact an innocent as far as Edward Seton is concerned. If we believe that Seton was as guilty of heinous crimes as the judge tells us, that the judge influenced the jury for the reason that this man should be punished for his crimes, just as those on the island should, then the judge cannot be the tenth victim and his scheme is flawed. There must be ten victims. The book deals with this in that Isaac Morris is killed. This shady character is often excluded from adaptations and is not on the island. He in fact organises the secret purchase of the island and the administrative matters. He meets with Lombard to pay him to go. He is a drug dealer and was responsible for inducing a daughter of the judge’s friends to take drugs which led to her suicide. Again, a death for which this man could not be prosecuted but the judge hunts him down and kills him. Even Lombard says it in the book, ‘There are crimes that cannot be brought home to their perpetrators.’ The focus on the judge and his enactment of a justice that our system does not allow for is the very centre of this book but is so rarely at the core of the adaptations.
This is partly due to the fact that there are two forms of the story, both of which were written by Agatha Christie. The first is, of course, the book with it’s many layers of the nature of justice and guilt. The second is the stage play. When she was approached by people who wanted to adapt it, Agatha Christie insisted on writing it herself and took two years to do so. What she decided upon, however, was to change the ending and allow Vera Claythorne and Phillip Lombard to escape together and fall in love. She, and those staging the play, didn’t think audiences would be very attracted to a play that is so dark and in which every character dies. So we have two versions of this story and hence a multitude of adaptations springing from those.
The play version she wrote was first staged in 1943 and was noted for having a scary atmosphere, particularly with the storm raging around it. This was perhaps added to by the fact that the theatre it was staged in, St James’s, was bombed and it had to be moved. This play about isolation which heavily references the army and war was staged during the second world war with all the fear, isolation and suspicion of others that dominated England. An inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp wrote to Agatha Christie after the war to say they staged the play whilst in the camp and it ‘sustained them.’ The book itself was published at the outset of the war (1939) and remains a very strong theme throughout. Almost all the characters have some link to the military theme. The Judge himself is Justice Wargrave; Lombard is a Captain, of sorts; General Macarthur is an army man and, indeed his crime is to send a man out to death in battle; Emily Brent’s father was a colonel of the old school who knew Macarthur; Blore even considers being a colonel as his alternate persona; Mr U.N. Owen is referred to as ‘The Unknown Soldier’ in the book. These are characters who have been through one war and are being thrown into another. This is a world where death has been commonplace and so many lives have been lost that individual deaths have fallen through the cracks. Judge Wargrave is attempting to redress that. He is in some ways an avenging angel or demon. When Vera and Lombard are talking towards the end of the book, Vera says, ‘I read a story once – about two judges that came to a small American town – from the Supreme Court. They administered justice – Absolute justice. Because – they didn’t come from this world at all…’ Lombard replies to her, ‘Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.’ Judge Wargrave would agree. When Emily Brent says Mrs Rogers’ death could be an Act of God, he replies, ‘Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals.’
The most recent high profile stage adaptation of the novel was the Kevin Elyot version directed by Steven Pimlott in 2005 at the Gielgud Theatre, London and I was fortunate enough to see it. This version restored the book ending in which no one escapes and also decided that audiences could take a much higher degree of gore alongside that. Tara Fitzgerald was notably an excellent Vera, both glamorous and flawed. It was also a very classic stage set echoing the era. Sadly, it did not have a long run.
The first film version is also very evocative of a stage set, the interiors of the house having a distinct Mousetrap feel to them. This 1945 Rene Clair film used the play version with its alternative, rather more upbeat ending. The Dudley Nichols screenplay is overall a much more playful version of the story than the novel. Rather than being frightening or dark, this film is somewhat tongue in cheek at times. There is no real search for perfect human justice or the analysis of that. In fact, at times it has almost an element of farce to it, with the country house setting and the comedic fluting music. Rogers, the butler, gives a bizarre turn when he decides to get drunk and stumbles around serving dinner to the bemused guests before announcing he’s going to sleep in the woodshed. The cast is a good one with the wonderful Judith Anderson (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) playing Emily Brent but even she has to deliver lines such as, ‘Very silly to kill the only servant. Now we don’t even know where the marmalade is.’ In this version it is her nephew who has died after she orchestrated him being sent to a reform school where he hanged himself. Barry Fitzgerald is a very soft, homely Judge Francis J. Quinncannon who dies with the words ‘Never trust a woman’. And Walter Huston is a stiff Dr Edward G. Armstrong. General Macarthur is renamed as he was for the original play, given that there was in fact a very famous namesake in America at the time, and is now called General Mandrake (played by C. Aubrey Smith). There are a multitude of deviations from the plot, including a secret ballot, snooker used as a metaphor and Blore being killed by a falling bit of the house. Perhaps the most astounding character is Prince Nikita who replaces the role of Marston. He is played by the Russian actor Mischa Auer who puts in a remarkable performance that borders on music hall. He staggers around shouting and dramatically plays the piano before he collapses dead. I personally find this film, even allowing for the fact that it was made towards the end of the war on a tight budget, very far from the book and a bit of a bizarre version. However, for many it is iconic. Reading through reviews, many say how wonderful it is, that it evokes an old school Hollywood glamour of yesteryear and it is many people’s favourite movie. One review I read said it was heaven and changed his life! I suppose there is a version of And Then There Were None for everyone out there.
There have certainly been a huge number of TV, film and audio adaptations that have taken the story in all manner of directions since that first film. The most recent audio version is a full dramatization in which Cyril (the dead boy who drowns as a result of Vera) introduces a number of the characters from beyond the grave. Geoffrey Whitehead is the stand-out character in this, playing the retired judge with just the right amount of gravitas and cruelty (not his first outing as a retired judge having played a wonderful one in The Worst Week of My Life.)
There have been a multitude of films made in different locations that not only play with setting but the storyline as well. Harry Alan Towers oversaw the production of three different versions in 1965, 1974 and finally in 1989. The first, in 1965 which was directed by George Pollock saw Shirley Eaton and Leo Genn amongst the cast marooned on a snowy mountain with the voice of Christopher Lee telling them of their fates.
The second outing in 1974, Towers set in the deserts of Iran at an abandoned hotel. This had an all-star cast including Oliver Reed as Lombard who supposedly killed a young woman pregnant with his child; Richard Attenborough as Judge Cannon; Elke Sommer as Vera; and Herbert Lom as the doctor. Charles Aznavour is Michel Raven an entertainer who was responsible for killing people when he was drink driving.
The final setting for these Towers’ films is a safari version in 1989 which saw Herbert Lom star again but this time as General Romensky. This film also follows the play version with the two escaping. Donald Pleasance makes an excellent judge in this version.
Over the years, there have been so many adaptations in all sorts of locations and all manner of new characters and plot twists. There have been video games, a wii version and graphic novels. Interestingly, the first film adaptation to keep the novel’s ending was a Russian version as late as 1987. However, the most notable adaptation of recent years has, of course, been the 2015 mini-series written by Sarah Phelps. This was not without its controversy.
It was shown over three separate episodes to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth and gained six million viewers. This version followed the book’s ending up to the point of all the characters being killed but it did not show the epilogue of the book with the police officers going through the dead people’s diaries and notebooks trying to work it out and the later finding of the message in the bottle from Judge Wargrave explaining what he’d done and how he’d gathered the victims. Instead, the judge sets it all out to Vera as she stands with her head in the noose.
Charles Dance gives a magnificent portrayal of Judge Wargrave with the perfect mixture of authority, dignity and threat. He has the ‘reptilian smile’ Agatha Christie gave him in the book. He is that ‘playful beast’ of the book, patiently watching and analysing their fear, ‘quite passionless and inhuman.’ ‘God Almighty’ as Lombard calls him. He sits in judgement and the room becomes his court room, just as it does in the book. He has, as Agatha Christie says, ‘the dispassionate stare of a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance.’ (Something that resonates for me and that I have seen many times as a criminal barrister.) Incidentally, when interviewed Charles Dance said he rarely reads the book before appearing in an adaptation as it’s very unhelpful and counter-productive when an actor comes on set with his well-thumbed copy of the book and all his ideas of what the adaptation’s character should look like.
It is a stellar cast for this production. Toby Stephens is a magnificent Dr Armstrong, with his erratic, nervous energy and guilt-ridden dreams. He is as Agatha Christie describes him in the book, ‘in a pitiable condition of nerves. He twitched and his hands shook.’ Also, ‘Every now and then he broke out into a torrent of nervous speech.’
Miranda Richardson is wonderful as the sanctimonious, religious Emily Brent and ‘thinks she’s God’s instrument.’ Her scene with Mrs Rogers, played wonderfully by Anna Maxwell Martin, is so painfully excruciating and awkward it echoes her vicious dealings with the girl whose death she caused. Again, as a character she is very quick to point out the reason for the girl’s death was ‘her own sin.’ This sticks fairly faithfully to the book. The girl drowns herself in the book rather than being hit by a train. It is undoubtedly Emily Brent’s fault but could she be prosecuted and found guilty? No. This fits the template for Wargrave’s actions in the book. However, that is not the case for all the characters.
Herein lies the problem with a number of characters in Sarah Phelps’s version. There crimes have been somewhat changed. For instance, the excellent Sam Neill takes on the part of General Macarthur (his name restored to the original). He plays it wonderfully and with the detached resignation that they will never get off the island. However, rather than send his wife’s lover to certain death in battle, he shoots him in the head. This is obviously a direct action for which he could be tried by a court and, at that time, hanged. This does not fit with the idea of the book that there are some crimes which lead to death and go unpunished because they are too much in a grey area or beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps it could not be proved but that is a stretch. In the book, the Judge finds out about the incident from two old military men in his Club. It was known about.
It is not just that character whose crimes are pushed up a level and therefore may not fit with the Judge’s scheme. Mr and Mrs Rogers in the book negligently don’t give medicine to the sick lady in their care because they stand to inherit some money from her. Mr Rogers goes for the doctor but it is too late. It is this doctor who puts the seed of the idea in Judge Wargrave’s head by casually mentioning the case of the old lady where he was convinced the restorative drug had been withheld but that it must happen often that ‘murder must be committed which the law was unable to touch.’ In the Sarah Phelps’s version there is the distressing scene of Mr Rogers smothering the old lady with a pillow and a great deal of vicious force. This is murder, pure and simple. There is no grey area for Justice Wargrave to mop up. They could very easily be prosecuted for her murder.
Blore’s crime in this version is perhaps the most vile. As a police officer, he viciously attacks and beats a young man who is gay until the man is dead in a custody cell. Blore at one point breaks down admitting that he turned the boy’s head to pulp by stamping on it. The viewer, for these purposes is the jury in Wargrave’s court or at least the public gallery and it is presented to us vividly. In the book, Blore commits an act of perjury which leads to Landor being sent to Dartmouth Prison where he later dies. It is undoubtedly, morally Blore’s fault but no jury in the land could convict him of the man’s murder. That is why Wargrave acts. Again, perhaps we can almost give the benefit of the doubt. In those days, would an officer have been able to get away with beating a man to death in the cells? That’s what we’re being asked but perhaps we are asked too many times with too many characters to stretch that thought – that these people would never be able to be punished in the normal manner. Blore’s punishment is to be killed by the polar bear rug, presumably covering the killer, instead of a clock falling on his head which is shaped like a bear.
Finally, there is of course Aidan Turner playing Lombard. In the book, he left people to die who undoubtedly starved to death. However, in this version he is seen prowling a village covered in blood having slaughtered them all. Again, we are asked to think this man indirectly committed a base act that the law does not provide for. Perhaps, given that he is a mercenary this would have been difficult to prosecute him for, but again it stretches our idea of what is ambiguous for the law.
Clearly, this is a much darker version than any that have gone before. The most controversial scene is the party scene in which Lombard, Vera, Dr Armstrong and Blore decide to get very drunk and take Marston’s cocaine. It’s a drug fuelled dance shot in a disorientating manner that sees them morph into laughing, vile caricatures. This was the BBC Christmas Christie showing close ups of the drugs being inhaled and a lot of people said it was very out of character for an Agatha Christie adaptation. In an interview, Sarah Phelps did note some points of disquiet that the BBC had where she had to back down, in particular one executive said a certain word was too far even for this dark version saying, ‘You cannot have c**t at Christmas.’
But does it go to far? That’s the question. I think not. It is all there in the book and this is a very dark book indeed. No one starts out as an innocent. No one survives. Agatha Christie very carefully sends them spiralling down into instinctive, selfish creatures with each fresh horror. Again and again they are referred to as animals. She says, ‘They were reverting to more bestial types.’ There is no shortage of alcohol swilling around, at least two of the crimes have been committed directly as a result of drunkenness. Drugs are openly referred to as leading to the death of more than one character (Isaac Morris and the daughter of the judge’s friends). At one point in the book when death is all around, Vera says, ‘We’re the zoo… Last night, we were hardly human any more. We’re the zoo…’
Indeed, many of the characters are in fact referred to as being animalistic in nature. Lombard in particular is more than once referred to as wolf-like with his long teeth. At the end, Vera says he has a wolf’s face with those terrible teeth. Previously, he is referred to as being like a panther. Aidan Turner plays it perfectly, that mixture of a laid back, laconic man who is ready to attack at any moment and won’t hesitate to kill. Again, his character’s relationship with Vera has been criticised but let’s not forget that Agatha Christie re-wrote the original book to be staged in a version where they fell in love and got away together. It is definitely an aspect of the book, as is the much talked about towel scene where they all strip down to have their rooms searched. Many viewers found this too gratuitous but it is most definitely there in the book. The men all strip in the book and their rooms are systematically searched. Vera is also required to wear only her red bathing suit whilst her room is searched.
Although there are some obvious deviations from the book, this is a meticulously put together version. The sets are beautifully designed and echo not only the time but the foreboding and isolation. For instance, the paintings hanging in the rooms are Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where we only see the skull at a certain angle and which heavily influenced the colour scheme for the library, and Merry-Go-Round by Gertler, showing the unnerving game of it all. The poems in each of the rooms are designed with a Whistler style edging that references the characters in the house. Each of the marvellous small, green figurines, reminiscent of Matisse, was commissioned and sculpted to represent each of the characters, so Marston is vanity, Wargrave’s is judgemental. Sadly, it wasn’t filmed on Burgh Island but then they would just have been able to swim to shore. It is set in Cornwall (Poldark country of course) and Harefield House in Hillingdon where beautiful art deco features such as the clock where made especially for the filming.
But primarily, in spite of some of the plot changes, I believe, it is faithful to the underlying feel of the book more than any other version. It is the only adaptation I have ever seen that is frightening and disorientating in the way the book achieves that feeling of desperation and isolation. As with the book, you are drawn into their prison like world and you are scared. Just like them, you feel that sense of nervous claustrophobia. Even if you know what’s coming next, it still shocks. You delve down to the bottom of these people’s moral condition, the kind of people who admit to these terrible, cruel crimes. But most of all you know that when the General says no one is getting off this island, he is right. That abandonment with nothing but death all around you, no heroes and no way out is very beautifully and perfectly captured.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the adaptations of And Then There Were None. I’d love to know what you think. I very much enjoyed the various discussions last week and it’s fantastic to know everyone else’s opinion on the adaptations. So far, we’ve had a Poirot and a standalone, so I thought next week we really must visit St Mary Mead for one of my very favourite Miss Marple books – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. You can subscribe to an email alert from me when each one arrives by using the button on the front of my website if you would like to. Have a lovely week and thank you for reading.