Last night I watched another of KPBS’s telecasts of the British TV series Poirot, this one based on Agatha Christie’s book Curtain — which I had been under the impression she actually wrote during the 1950’s but kept from publication until after her death. She wrote this book, in which Poirot would die — and another, Sleeping Murder, that killed off her other big series character, Miss Marple — with instructions that they be published after her own death to supply definitive endings to both series and prevent her publisher from hiring other writers to continue producing books with those characters. It wasn’t a great story but it was worlds better than the last Poirot episode PBS showed, “The Labors of Hercules,” mainly because it had fewer and more interesting characters and some actually sort-of developed relationships between them. Poirot shows up in a wheelchair kvetching about the heart condition that has disabled him — in that regard, watching this was a busman’s holiday for me! — in the company of his friend Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), who’s essentially Watson to Poirot’s Holmes (though Holmes never insulted Watson’s intelligence the way Poirot does to Hastings throughout this story). The action takes place at Styles Manor, famously the setting of Christie’s first Poirot story (and the book whose blockbuster success established her reputation), The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and it involves Hastings’ concern that his daughter Judith (Alice Orr-Ewing) is having an affair with a scapegrace officer, Major Allerton (Matthew McNulty). Only she’s really dating a married medical researcher, Dr. Franklin (Shaun Dingwall), with whom she hopes to go to Africa. Naturally both she and Franklin are suspected when Franklin’s wife Barbara (Anna Madeley) turns up dead from poison. (The PBS biography of Christie I saw on their series Extraordinary Women mentions that she had served in World War I as an Army nurse, and traced her interest in poison as a murder method to the knowledge of pharmacology she gained in that job.)
Later a hanger-on, birdwatcher Stephen Norton (Aidan McArdle), approaches Poirot and said he saw something relevant to the murder — only before he can tell anyone he’s found dead in his room from a gunshot wound to the forehead. Poirot himself dies two-thirds of the way through the episode, but he hangs around long enough to explain the crime after his own death via a letter he wrote Hastings giving the solution (and giving writer Kevin Elyot and director Hettie MacDonald the chance to show the actor playing Poirot, David Suchet, in flashbacks): Norton was really responsible for the crimes since, under the lash of a domineering and emotionally frigid mother, he’d developed an addiction for setting up scenes in which he would goad other people to commit murder (including Hastings, whom he nearly convinced to murder Allerton because of the supposed affair he was having with Hastings’ daughter) and get a vicarious thrill when the murders happened. It also turns out that Barbara Franklin was involved in a murder plot of her own; she wanted to dispatch her husband so she could marry the wealthy William Boyd Carrington (Philip Glenister), and to that end she spiked his coffee with poison, only Hastings accidentally reversed the table the cups were on so she got the poisoned one. Poirot deduced Norton’s role in the whole affair, and having faked his disability (though his life-threatening heart disease was real), he killed Norton himself and faked it to look like suicide — a self-plagiarism from Christie’s And Then There Were None (in which a judge, frustrated throughout his career by the people who committed murder in ways the laws could not touch, assembled 10 people on an otherwise deserted island and knocked them off one by one — Christie even cribbed the detail of the forehead wound, “the mark of Cain,” from her previous book). “Curtain” is more interesting than the general run of Poirot stories, mainly because Norton proves to be an unusually compelling character for a Christie villain — she had a real gift for writing psychos and I find myself wishing she’d have written more psychological thrillers (including “Philomel Cottage,” filmed hauntingly in 1937 as Love from a Stranger with Basil Rathbone as a serial killer we know is guilty almost from the get-go and the suspense, as in a Hitchcock movie, is over what’s going to happen when the other characters figure it out) and fewer dreary whodunits.