FILM: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Branagh MurderFirst there are the moustaches. They flow out of Brangh’s nose, sweep across his cheeks and end up about an inch from the lobes of his ears. They are described by Agatha Christie as ridiculous and these ones certainly are. There’s a rather worrying moment when we see the contraption that Poirot wears at night to keep his moustaches safe. It makes him look a bit like Hannibal Lecter. Close your eyes at that point.

This being Branagh. Poirot is Branagh-ed, Branagh is certainly not Poirot-ed. Branagh is incapable of playing him as ‘a ridiculous little man’ so there is longing in the gazing at a photo of Katherine and there is manly striding and Poirot does clever things with his stick. The beginning sequence is extremely bizarre. Poirot solving the Middle East crisis while measuring the height of his oeufs. I’m sorry if that line is obscure but you’ll just have to go and watch it to see what I mean. I suppose the purpose behind it is to inform us that Poirot is clever and odd and it certainly does that!

The plot is changed somewhat from the book, which is a relief because if it hadn’t been there would have been endless scenes of Poirot interviewing suspects and going. ‘Làlàprécisémentmon cher and eh bien mon ami…’  and  nothing much else. Fortunately, we have introduced here a stabbing, a shooting and a chase and this livens things up no end in comparison to the book. In one scene Poirot strides across the top of the snow-covered train and he keeps his footing. Phew!

The settings are all very beautiful. We have a lovely train, we have thrusting pistons, we have steam and we have snow-filled valleys, snow drifts and snow falls. Yes, there’s lots of lovely snow and the scene when the train steams out of Istanbul is particularly gorgeous. I love all that.

Now to the rest of the cast. I could have done with a great deal more of Olivia Colman, a woman who can do no wrong in my eyes. Here she gets to order the fish, play some cards with Judi Dench and utter a few lines in German. I could have done with more of Judi Dench as well, if it comes to that, although she does look very splendid in velvet and toque. Derek Jacobi gets to say more and is as always eminently watchable.  Johnny Depp plays a rotter perfectly well and can do this kind of thing standing on his head so can Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer. The ones who stand out are not the starry ones but more Josh Gad as Hector McQueen, Phil Dunster as Col. John Armstrong and Leslie Odom as Dr Arbuthnot.

I was looking forward to the product placement episode that I had been warned about in a review. If you have not heard of GODIVA CAKES you will certainly know about them at the end of this film. And Poirot does utter the immortal lines ‘I lerve theese leetle cecks.’ It is a startlingly stand-alone line. It’s not even as if he says, ‘The knife is hidden in these leetle cecks.’ or ‘Theese leetle cecks are filled with arsenic.’ No, it is apropos of nothing that he lerves them. I wonder how much money Godiva paid for the privilege of having Poirot utter this line. And I wonder if the  cecks will follow Poirot to the Nile. I worry the chocolate might melt in all that heat. Mind you, I worry that Branagh’s moustache might get a bit bedraggled as well. At the end of the film Poirot is summoned to Egypt so we know that’s where he’s heading next. I think Ken will look very nice in the linen suit and the panama which he is probably being measured for as I type.

Would I recommend it?  Well, I think your enjoyment will depend on two things. First your view of Kenneth Branagh, who is in my opinion a bit of a marmite actor. If you don’t mind lots of close ups of his big, angsty blue eyes, you’ll be fine, if not, it’ll be a long couple of hours. Second, if you’re someone who knows Agatha Christie’s writing very well and wants a film that reflects that, the depiction of Poirot may well infuriate you. Probably best to give this a miss and seeks out the DVD of David Suchet’s version or Albert Finney’s, both of whom are much closer to the original.

MoustachesFinally, if you would also like to experiment with your own moustaches here is a lovely box of moustaches I spied in Paperchase. You can get to choose between six moustache styles: traditional gent, cowboy, rusty brush, Italian plumber, oil baron and Abra-Kadabra! (I know, I know but I’m only writing down what’s on the packet). Poirot’s incidentally is closest to traditional gent. This being my own product placement. Paperchase, darling, if you happen to be reading, I’m a writer so how about notebooks for life. Oh, and pens I could do with some pens as well, especially those fancy ones you lock in the glass cabinets. Waiting to hear from you. Thanking  you ever so, as Marilyn might once have said.

Have you seen the film? What did you think of it and Branagh as Poirot?

THE MOUSTACHES HAVE LANDED

murder on orient

Couldn’t we at least have a train on the cover?

It has probably not escaped your notice (unless you are living in Antarctica with penguins) that there is a new film out of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It hasn’t escaped my notice because there are ads for it on the side of London buses and when the 22 stops in traffic outside my flat (which it has been doing a lot recently due to heavy plant activity – not triffids),  I have a very nice view of the cast. Kenneth Branagh, sporting luxuriant moustaches, is playing Poirot and directing it. In preparation for this wildly exciting event I read the book and here is my imagined dialogue between Agatha and an unnamed modern day literary agent after the agent has read it.

 

 


A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

Agent: Is this a first draft?

Agatha: Oh dear, well no I didn’t see it as such.

Agent: (sighs) But where are the descriptions? As it stands it might just as well be MURDER ON THE 7.15 CROYDON TRAM. You say the train is stuck in a snowdrift but where is the snow? There is no indication of the snow anywhere. Does it melt immediately? Does no one look out of a window and see it? Does no one scrunch a snowball or throw it?

Agatha: Oh dear you obviously don’t like it at all.

Agent: It’s not that I don’t like it but  there are no descriptions. I want to be able to see it. I want snow, I want lush interiors. I mean frankly you wouldn’t really know it was taking place on a train. What do the cabins look like? And if it comes to that what do the people look like.

Agatha: I do describe the people I think.

Agent: You describe Poirot a little bit – huge moustaches …egg-shaped head …ridiculous-looking but as for what’s her name … What is her name? The Countess …

Agatha: The Countess Andrenyi?

Agent: No.

Agatha: No?

Agent: She’s a drag queen or something.

Agatha: Oh you mean the Princess Dragomiroff.

Agent: Oh yes, that’s right – well simply telling us she’s ugly doesn’t tell us much. What kind of ugly?

Agatha: But there’s the yellow toad-like features and the toque.

Agent: The what?

Agatha: The toque, the toque, I describe her as wearing a toque.

Agent: What is that – some sort of otter?

Agatha: It’s a hat.

Agent: Oh. And there’s another thing. Poirot …

Agatha: Yes?

Agent: Well, can’t he fall in love with one of the suspects.

Agatha: No, that wouldn’t do at all he is a sexless individual with a large brain.

Agent: Whatever made you think that would be a good idea, darling?

Agatha: Well, my sales. So far Poirot has appeared in seven novels one play and one  short stories and he has always been the same. I can’t change him now. My fans wouldn’t like it.

Agent: Oh, you have fans do you? Hmm…

A long silence ensues …

Agatha: Are you still there?

Agent: Yes, I’m thinking.

Time passes …

Agatha (tentatively): What did you think of the plot?

Agent: The plot is OK as far as it goes although it sort of falls off the end of a cliff doesn’t it? Couldn’t we have a scene when they are all saying goodbye to each other on the platform, something to round it off. Now let  me see how can we salvage this … could we have longing perhaps … yes, that’s it, longing …

Agatha: For what?

Agent: For pretty much anything darling. Yes, that’s it longing… Now then I can’t hang on here sorting this out for you but basically it’s plot B+ and all the rest C-. Have another go at it and bung it back to me in a month.

Agatha looks down at the notebook in which she’s been making notes of the conversation and sees the following words: Lush Snow, Lush Interiors, Toque, Longing … Otter????? She picks up her pen and begins:

Poirot scrunched the lush snow into a ball and filled with longing threw it playfully at the Princess. It struck her toque and she laughed gaily galloping through the snow towards him. She might have been the ugliest woman in the world but to him her yellow toad-like features were the epitome of beauty … Suddenly, out of nowhere an otter appeared scything through the lush snow. It threw itself at his face. It latched onto his lush moustaches. Poirot screamed as it dawned on him too late – the otter had done it!

Agatha threw down her pen and went and poured herself a large gin …


So here’s the question. Are you a fan of Agatha, Poirot, the books the films? And what kind of Poirot do you think Ken will be. I can’t imagine him playing him as a sexless brain can you? After all, Ken is always the hero – so what’s going to happen? My guess is a bit of longing and some manly striding. Anyway, I’m off to see it tomorrow and I can’t wait. Apparently there is an outrageous piece of product placement which produces this piece of dialogue from Poirot: ‘Ah, lerve theeese leeetle cecks’. The cecks incidentally are of the Great British Bake Off variety. And so that you can excercise yeur leetle greh cells which I know you long to do, answer this. What was the title of the German version of the book?

 

 

 

 

GETTING RID OF CRIME BOOKS

A juicy eyeball from Agatha

I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it but I think a visit to your GP might be  in order.

It started to rain and a most rare and unusual thought entered my mind. Weed your books. I tried to ignore it, obviously. Usually this voice only occurs once every ten years after a Health and Safety incident. OK – let’s call that a big trip and I’m not talking safaris. Sometimes it can be brought on by the fact I can’t find a book I know I have because everything has gone TOO FAR. I stood up and went and looked at one of my bookcases. It was filled with crime.

It was a crime.

First my eye chanced to light on an author I am never going to give away: Kinky Friedman. Any man who titles a book Armadillos and Old Lace will remain on my bookshelves for ever. Then I seized all of Patricia Cornwell and all of Henning Mankell and marched them to the door. Why? Well, Patricia Cornwell irritated me with a book about a hairy man. I can’t remember which one now, and she got a bit grandiose or maybe that was Scarpetta and I vowed I’d never read another. Or maybe I just had ‘great room’ envy.

Don't touch that drink!

Don’t touch that drink!

Why Henning Mankell? I suppose because I  just know I’m never going to re-read them and those books are fat. I liked the Swedish TV series and the Kenneth Branagh one but re-reading is just not going to happen.

I decided to keep all of Ian Rankin and all of the following: George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Dominique Manotti, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Jake Arnott, C.J.Sansom, Donna Leon, PD James, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid’s Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon series.

What - not another eyeball!

What’s with the eyeballs!

I know Val’s other series is the big seller but I never got beyond a torture scene at the beginning of The Mermaids Singing which I have already disposed of. Wimp, you might say, Yes, I would reply. Torture scenes are not really my thing. Having said that I once wrote one in one of my own books, Bloodless Shadow, but I did it with my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la, so I’m not sure it counts.

There are a few there I’d forgotten about – Pernille Rygg for example. A Norwegian writer who wrote The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Section. I enjoyed those.

There are some that have such cool titles I’ve never dared read them: Ken Bruen’s Rilke on Black for example. I just feel I’m going to have to start drinking whiskey and turn into Nick Cave before I crack the spine of that one. Or at least get a hair cut like Tilda Swinton.

Murder isn't easy if it involves a spider that big

I’m sorry but murder can’t be  that easy if it involves a spider the size of a canary.

The author I’ve got most of is Ed McBain (21) but Christie (18)  Robert Parker (17) and Allingham (17) are close on his heels. The Fontana 3/6 versions of Christie are my favourites because of their camp schlocky covers, that’s why they are liberally scattered through this post. I love the covers in the same way I love the pictures in Ladybird books and Janet and John books. The images must have hit my visual cortex at about the same time and therefore fill me with drooling nostalgia. It’s probably why I became a crime writer.

So now you know if you want to stay on my shelves

  • don’t irritate me
  • don’t solve your crimes with hairy men
  • don’t have torture scenes
  • do have a camp/kitsch cover, preferably from the 60s
  • do have a good title
  • do be published by Fontana for 3/6
  • Oh, and make me laugh

And then you’ll be mine for ever. Sorry, that last bit sounds a bit sinister.

At Bertram's Hotel

Honey, I know you said it had 5* reviews on TripAdvisor  but have you seen the doorman?

Finally, I’ll end on my all-time favourite Agatha cover. Can you get camper than a violet cream, held elegantly against a non-sweating palm, a bullet (yes, that’s a bullet not a cigarette) and that nail varnish … a cover to die for!

“Death and mystery among the muffins (could be Caffè Nero) and the best Indian tea … set in a hotel patronised by dowagers and bishops … Miss Marple knits and listens (that’s me crouched over a cappuccino with the crochet).”

The book is dedicated to:

“Harry Smith because I appreciate the scientific way he reads my books.”

I wonder if Agatha would appreciate the scientific methods I use to weed my books?

How do you weed yours? Or don’t you?

A BOOKSHOP CLOSES

I’ve worked in a second-hand bookshop run by a charity for the last two and a half years and it’s closing down at the end of the month. I’m not going to go into the reasons why, nor am I going to name it, for reasons you can probably imagine. The shop has been in the dirty, litter-strewn, ugly end of a busy metropolitan street for over fifteen years. We’re the only decent bookshop in the area. Once we’re gone, other than the book sections of other charity shops, it’s W.H. Smiths in the shopping center. Tuesday was my penultimate day working there.

‘What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.’

NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS.

Our customers are devastated. Everyone I serve says how upset they are and how much they love the shop. Couldn’t something be done? I’m very upset too and I tell them I am. The manager is off sick. Sick at heart most likely.

Today I even feel affection for my most annoying customer. He is a small wiry man who charges into the shop shrieks Marrrrrrriiiiiiiia at the top of his voice, looks at me, giggles and then goes and slams books around in the art section. When he comes to the counter he says, ‘Maybe I will buy all the books in the shop.’ And I reply, ‘Oh yes?’ Over the years I have tried to handle my raging irritation at this man in a variety of ways and using the various different sections in the shop:

  • Psychology/Self-help – He is suffering from a combination of Tourette’s and mania and I should be sympathetic.  This does not work.
  • Film and Media – I seize him by the lapels and press him against the art section, hopefully a few heavy books will fall on his head and miss mine. Then in my best John Wayne’s sister’s voice I say ‘Do I look like Julie Andrews?’ and then I throw him out of the shop western style and he rolls around under the horses hooves. Horses? Too much Zane Grey as a child. This does work.

‘It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.’

AGATHA CHRISTIE – THE CLOCKS

There are lots of our regular book dealers in the shop. One makes me laugh by saying, ‘I’m devastated you’re closing but I love the fact your books are one pound.’ Another, in a fedora, accosts me as I am coming out of the back where we store our books.  ‘You are bringing books out from the back,’  he says softly. ‘Yes,’ I reply looking down at the armful of books my knees are buckling under. ‘Can I go in there?’  There are about four other dealers in the shop. Their heads all swivel in my direction in an eerily synchronized, robotic way. ‘No’ I reply. And their heads all swivel back to the bookshelves. For the next thirty minutes Mr Fedora puts me under the sort of strict surveillance that Jack Bauer would approve of, following me as I traipse back and forth putting out new books. My hand has only just thrust, Maurice Bowra: A Celebration, into the Literary Criticism section before it is stealthily removed by the man in the hat with an accompanying, ‘Ahhhhh.’

‘Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.’

HELENE HANFF – Q’s LEGACY

It begins to rain heavily and some of our customers, who have bought books and not wanted bags, come back into the shop to ask for them and for shelter and to repeat how devastated they are. Soon the shop is rammed with damp, devastated people standing shoulder to shoulder staring at the bookshelves. I give up trying to put out new books because I can’t physically get to the shelves anymore. A man comes to the till with a huge pile of books and says, ‘If I take all these home I will get into trouble.’ So we begin to discuss possibilities. I look at him. He’s wearing a jacket and a raincoat over the top. I say,’ You can stuff a couple of paperbacks into your jacket pockets and one of the smaller ones into your inside pocket. If you have a car you can hide the books near the car go and get your car keys and then put the books into the boot and bring them in one by one. A bag will rustle.’ He looks at me slightly strangely and suddenly I realize that the whole shop is listening to our conversation and I feel like Fagin teaching Oliver Twist to dip handkerchiefs. ‘I don’t have a car,’ he says. ‘Well then, yes, you are in trouble.’ As I bag the books up for him he says, ‘I’m devastated that you’re closing.’

‘Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books; homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.’

VIRGINIA WOOLF – STREET HAUNTING

I am now beginning to feel shell-shocked by our customers’ devastation and on the edge of behaving, if not badly, erratically, so I go out the back to make myself a cup of tea. There is half a pint of rancid milk and a thousand dirty cups festering in the sink. It has reached Withnail and I levels of rottenness. The volunteers are depressed and feel let down. They love the shop. It’s a shelter for them too. The sink is a symbol of distress. In a fury I squirt too much fairy liquid into the sink and the bubbles fly up in the air and burst on my nose. I scrub away savagely until it all looks better.

Our final customer of the day buys thirty-six books. He has been making piles of books and knocking them over for about an hour. At the till he says, ‘I’ve had a terrible year,’ ‘Oh dear,’ I reply. ‘It’s awful,’ he says, ‘people have been getting married.’ I become slightly confused, ‘Really?’ It’s been so bad that I have to check the house insurance.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘In case the house falls down.’ I feel torn because he is obviously off his medication. I wonder if I should suggest that he leaves some of the books. ‘Are you sure?’ I begin waving my hand over the huge pile on the till. ‘Oh, they’re not all for me. I’m going to give them to other suitable people.’ ‘OK, then, but will you be able to carry them all?’ ‘My strength is as the strength of ten because…’ ‘Right,’ I say and start bagging the books.

‘We were the only customers downstairs in the shop and there were no windows and only two dim bulbs, without shades. There was a pleasant soporific smell, as though the books had stolen most of the air.

IAN MCEWAN – SWEET TOOTH

We have to close early because there are no volunteers for the afternoon shift. I think that’s terrible and feel infuriated. A volunteer phones up and in a worn out voice says she doesn’t think she can… ‘Can I stop you there,’ I say with all the tact of Godzilla. ‘The shop’s closing this afternoon we’re doing the cashing up. ‘Oh,’ she says. I slam down the receiver.

In the back, when we are getting our coats, a ladder falls on my colleagues head. ‘This place is turning into a death trap,’ I say. ‘Everything is falling apart.’

On the way home, I wonder what will happen to some of our more vulnerable and eccentric customers. Where will they go to get out of the rain? They can’t go into Boots and stare at bottles of shampoo for an hour, can they? And anyway Boots doesn’t have a chair to sit on. Our bookshop is not simply a place where people buy books. For some people it is a refuge. It is a place where maybe they have the one conversation they are going to have all day. What’s going to happen to them?

Do you have a favourite bookshop? What does it mean to you?