This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Third Floor Flat’.
Beware: Here be Spoilers
Two phrases always spring to mind when I think of this episode: ‘unnecessary snake’ and ‘awesome drink’. To explain the first, I have a very visceral, physical phobia of snakes – even thinking about them makes me feel a bit nauseous and weak at the knees – and am slightly annoyed by the fact that TV shows and films aren’t required to warn you about snake appearances. I put this phobia down to the fact that, when I was eight, we moved to an area near a nature reserve that had adders, and so suddenly I was confronted by (what seemed like) terrifying signs everywhere warning me about the forest of snakes that lay on the other side of our garden fence. I haven’t been able to look at snakes since. Fortunately, I’ve seen this episode enough times now to know exactly when to look away from the screen, and simply listen to Poirot deliver a portentous comment on human nature, inspired by the discovery of a viper. And more on the awesome drink shortly…
‘Triangle at Rhodes’ was first broadcast on 12th February 1989; it was directed by Renny Rye and written by Stephen Wakelam. As with ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, Clive Exton acted as script consultant – there’s a great blog post about Exton’s contribution to the Poirot series here, by the way. The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in This Week in February 1936. It also appeared in The Strand, published as ‘Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes’ in May 1936. In the story, Poirot has taken a holiday to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of Rhodes. And just to note, in the story and adaptation, Rhodes is still part of the Isole Italiane dell’Egeo (so, an Italian island rather than a Greek one): there’s a little joke about this in the episode, when Douglas Gold (played by Peter Settelen) proclaims that he hadn’t known where Rhodes was before they arrived, noting that it ‘turns out it’s Itai’. Back to the short story though, befriended by the bubbly Pamela Lyall and Sarah Blake, Poirot engages in a gentle bit of people-watching, observing the ostentatious Valentine Chantry and the mousy Marjorie Gold (and the women’s respective husbands). He quickly recognizes the pattern that he sees in his fellow holiday-makers’ interactions, sketching the shape of a triangle into the sand.
Despite giving a stern warning to Marjorie Gold – ‘Leave this place at once – before it is too late’ – Poirot is unable to prevent the inevitable tragedy from occurring. Valentine Chantry is murdered, just as (it transpires) Poirot had feared. In a quirky deviation from the usual formula, Poirot has already noted all the significant clues prior to the murder taking place, so the ‘reveal’ comes quite quickly after Valentine’s demise. He is asked by a shocked Pamela why he did nothing to stop events transpiring, and makes a typically Hercule pronouncement:
‘And say what? What is there to say – before the event? That someone has murder in their heart? I tell you, mon enfant, if one human being is determined to kill another human being –’In a lot of ways, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has much in common with Evil Under the Sun (first published in 1941), and some people have seen the later novel as an expansion of the short story. There are certainly a couple of recycled features (as well as a plot point that had previously been used in Lord Edgware Dies), but personally I prefer to think of the two as discrete texts. Perhaps this is because I really like both of them, and because the characters in both are rather distinctive.
On to the adaptation (because it’s starting to look unlikely that I’m going to get to Curtain by Christmas unless I get a wriggle on)… the episode begins with an overcast shot of Whitehaven Mansions. A postman arrives with mail for 56B (the address used for Poirot’s flat in the TV series – I’ll return to the question of Poirot’s address in a later post), concierge Dicker (portrayed by George Little, in his second appearance in the role) tells him not to bother: ‘they’re all on holiday’. Thus, we’re set up for the first episode that doesn’t feature Japp, Hastings or Miss Lemon, and also the first episode to take place overseas. While Hastings has ‘gone off shooting things’ and Miss Lemon is visiting her sister in Folkestone, we follow Poirot to the ‘white sand’ and ‘sparkling blue water’ of the Mediterranean.
As with the previous episode, the central mystery follows the short story quite closely. The means, motive and perpetrator of the murder are almost identical to those in the source text – though the nature of the poison used is different, which leads to some additional post-murder investigation that is not found in the short story. A number of other changes have been made; some of these are rather superficial, but some are more substantial.
The characters of Pamela and Sarah are conflated into one, Pamela Lyall (played by Frances Low). The TV version of Pamela latches on to Poirot when he rescues her from the over-attentive Major Barnes (Timothy Kightley). Poirot appears here as a sort of avuncular figure, a role he’ll reprise again in other stories, and it’s in-keeping with the show’s repeated suggestion that Poirot is very comfortable in the company of women. In the short story, Poirot seems somewhat less avuncular and even more comfortable in the women’s company. The story gives no indication of how or why Pamela and Sarah have befriended the detective, but simply opens with a ‘dandified’ Poirot (in ‘white flannels and a large panama hat’) happily sitting on the beach with a young woman who is ‘wearing the barest minimum of clothing on her sun-browned person’. He’s a bit of player, is Poirot.
In fact, one thing I did notice on rereading the short story is that the TV episode is far coyer about the opening/early sunbathing scene. In Christie’s text, Pamela is scantily dressed and Valentine has ‘slip[ped] the straps of the white bathing-dress from her shoulders’ in order to tan more completely. In the adaptation, Pamela (presented as a borderline spinster, rather than a flirtatious young girl) is more modestly dressed and Valentine’s straps stay resolutely in place. Given that a number of the later episodes introduce sex scenes that aren’t present in Christie’s books, this coyness in an early episode is quite charming.
As I say, other alterations are a bit more substantial. Christie’s General Barnes, ‘a veteran’ who serves as little more than an additional guest with whom Poirot passes a little time, becomes Major Barnes, a suspiciously overfamiliar man who claims to be in Rhodes for the fishing. I’m not a huge fan of the Major Barnes subplot in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ – it feels too much like padding and doesn’t really add anything apart from a red herring and a silly maritime chase scene. There is also a deviation involving Poirot’s abortive attempt to leave the island. As his holiday has come to an end, Poirot tries to board a boat at the harbour; however, he is detained by customs officials and accused of being a spy.
While the Major Barnes subplot is a bit pointless, the customs incident does serve some purpose other than padding, and it needs a little explaining. Chronology in Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories is a tricky thing, and it doesn’t always run smoothly. The stories and novels have shifting settings, with contemporary mores and references often making it hard to pinpoint the timeline of Poirot’s life (and making the detective, who had already had a full and successful police career in Belgium by the outbreak of World War I, very very old by the time of his death). Moreover, mores and styles shift with time, and this is reflected through the course of the books, making the decades that divide ‘The Third Floor Flat’ from Third Girl (for instance) very apparent. The makers of the TV show, therefore, had a difficult decision to make about chronology and setting. Do they adapt the stories in the order they were written? Or in a reflection of the stages of Poirot’s career? And should the timeline follow a logical aging of Poirot starting at his arrival in England during WWI? Or set each book at the time of writing, making Poirot’s implausible longevity more obvious?
The programme makers decided to take a different approach, which results in a rather trippy experience of time in the series. With the exception of The Mysterious Affair at Styles (set during WWI), ‘The Chocolate Box’ (set, partially, in flashback to Poirot’s career in Belgium) and Curtain (to be set in the 1940s), the producers set out with the intention of setting all episodes in 1935-36 (or thereabouts). This doesn’t hold strictly true, and some of the later feature-length episodes deviate a little from this, but the majority of episodes are indeed set at some point between about 1935 and 1939. Some fans have found this to be rather frustrating, and at least one person has gone to some lengths to divine a more detailed chronology for the cases featured in the series. I’m happier to simply accept that – like Heartbeat – this is a show pretty much permanently set in one particular year, with a coherent aesthetic inspired by this setting.
This perma-35 setting has a significant result. The world of Agatha Christie’s Poirot is always on the brink of World War II, but never quite there. Fascism is always on the rise; international relations are always unstable; political beliefs and allegiances are always under suspicion. There will be other episodes that deal more directly with the threat of Nazism, invasion and trauma, but ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ gives us our first taste of this recurrent theme. Rhodes is peppered with Italian blackshirts; Major Barnes gives a stark warning about the world being ‘on the brink of war’; and Poirot’s apprehension at customs has sinister overtones. All this serves to heighten Poirot’s role as an embodiment of (perhaps futile) order in a world about to descend into chaos.
There’s probably a lot more I could say about ‘Triangle at Rhodes’. It’s always been an episode that’s fascinated me, but I don’t want to risk turning this review into a full-blown essay. So I’ll end with a comment on that ‘awesome drink’.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was only ten when this first series aired, so my memories of watching individual episodes for the first time are a little patchy. What seems to have happened is that certain details stuck in my mind, even if the plot and solution faded away. Like the ‘white slavers’ in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and the bowl of cherries song in ‘The Third Floor Flat’, the means used to deliver the poison in ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ lodged itself firmly in my young mind.
Probably best to gloss over the details of that night, but suffice to say, come the next morning, I did not look as glamourous as Valentine Chantry.
To bring this review to a close, then, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ has its problems as an adaptation, but it’s always been an episode that’s close to my heart. For me, it was one of the more memorable episodes of the first series, and it introduces Poirot as the international traveller with an eye for the wickedness in human nature. It’s also the first episode of the series to rely on a really really important ‘rule’ of Agatha Christie’s fiction… but I’m not sure I want to say what that is, as once you know the rule an awful lot of detective fiction is spoilt (so let’s just call it the Peril at End House rule).
Time to move on, though. Next up, it’s ‘Problem at Sea’.