Before I watched “The Clocks,” this week’s installment of Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery, I decided to read the book. (Well, it was supposed to be before; I wound up finishing the book after. The best-laid plans and all that…)
I’ll admit I haven’t done this before. I usually let the series stand alone, and it never disappoints, even when I know it’s “based on”—and not a faithful dramatization of—the novel. It turns out that The Clocks was an interesting book to choose for this experiment because it differs quite dramatically from the TV episode. In fact—has this ever happened to you?—from the first frame of the opening scene I was convinced I’d been reading the wrong book!
The entire pre-World War II German espionage plot that occupies a substantial part of the TV episode simply doesn’t exist in the novel. And with good reason: Agatha Christie wrote The Clocks in the 1960s and it was set in the present day, which meant that if people in the book were preoccupied with espionage of any kind (and they were) it was bound to involve Communists and not Nazis.
For the TV series to maintain its Art Deco ambience, however, the story had to take place in the 1930s. For the threat of war with Germany to be imminent, the late 1930s would be the appropriate time. And for the character of Colin Race to be working in naval intelligence and stationed in the incredible underground tunnel network beneath Dover Castle, 1938 would be the right year. In fact, the opening scene of the episode, set in those tunnels was a revelation. Their history is mentioned in the show and, a few clicks later, I learned that the wartime tunnels beneath Dover Castle are open to visitors. (Way to go, English Heritage!)
But Dover Castle? That didn’t figure into the book at all.
It was at this point that I realized comparing the book and the TV episode would be fruitless. For each to be true to its time, it had to be distinctive. And so I now had not one but two mysteries to pursue, and each has its advantages.
Both center on a typist who discovers the body of a dead man in the sitting room of a blind woman’s house. The typist is Sheila Webb. The blind woman is Miss Pebmarsh. And the dead man is… well, that’s part of the mystery and we’ll have no spoilers here.
Poirot plays a notably larger role in the show than in the book. No surprise there, David Suchet is a national treasure and now he has the CBE to prove it.
On the other hand, the book is filled with Poirot’s wonderful commentary and opinions on the works of crime novelists from Arthur Conan Doyle to John Dickson Carr to Christie’s fictional alter ego Ariadne Oliver. It also has a delectable homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, and it’s infused with Christie’s sly humor (both absent from the TV episode).
With all due respect to Dame Agatha, the TV episode ties up some plot points in a way that is more definitive and easier to understand than the book does. Yet the final twist in the book (not in the TV show) was one of my favorite parts of the story, not least because I felt extremely clever for predicting it earlier on.
Then, there were the differences that seemed arbitrary. Why, for instance, was the typist who notices an inconsistency in the account of the murder named Edna in the book and Nora in the TV show? And why is Colin’s name changed from Lamb in the book to Race on TV? More mystery perhaps.
The greatest mystery, however, is the fact that Poirot never ages. He’d reached retirement in Three Act Tragedy, which was published in 1934 and dramatized on Masterpiece Mystery last week. By 1963, when The Clocks was published, Hercule Poirot would have been edging toward ninety years old and he still had plenty more mysteries to solve—including the source of next week’s episode, Hallowe’en Party, published in 1969.
Yet, Poirot is timeless, and that is his allure. Leave him in the 1960s or take him back to the 1930s, he remains the world’s greatest detective, and I’ll follow him wherever he chooses to lead, even through time.
Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.