“The ABC Murders,” a three-part miniseries that aired last year on BBC and is now on Amazon Prime, is a case study in the creativity and/or annoyances that come from reinventing source material in an adaptation. I’m not much of an Agatha Christie historian, but writer Sarah Phelps’ previous adaptation of the mystery author’s work, 2015’s “And Then There Were None,” rates an 8.0 on IMDB compared to a 6.6 for this one. My mom is a big fan of David Suchet’s work in “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013, ITV), and she found the reinventions here to be strange, making John Malkovich’s turn essentially PINO – Poirot in Name Only.
Outside of Suchet’s turn in the TV series, which is known for faithful adaptations, this is the third time “The ABC Murders” (1936) has been adapted in unorthodox fashion. The 1965 film “The Alphabet Murders” is a comedy and the 2012 foreign film “Grandmaster” is inspired by Christie’s book but changes names and details. This new adaptation is quite loose, too, and perhaps should’ve considered changing Poirot’s name so it could more easily be judged on its own merits – as an original work heavily inspired by Christie’s premise.
Subtracting the baggage, “The ABC Murders” isn’t too bad as a standalone piece, but it’s colder than, say, “The Alienist” (2018), another mix of murder and squalid period detail (in that case, 1890s New York; in this case 1930s London). Granted, murder mysteries should have some coldness to them, but I always appreciate the escape into investigative methods, theories, and discussions among the investigators.
In this version, there’s no escape, because Malkovich’s Hercule Poirot is downtrodden, in an inexplicable career slump, and haunted by flashbacks to the war — a time when he was canonically a policeman, although Phelps alters that and Poirot corrects someone’s misconception. He has a whole ’nother background that’s revealed in Part 3, when we finally see the complete wartime flashback after too many partial cutaways to it.
Poirot is receiving typewritten letters from the killer, nicknamed ABC, announcing ahead of time that he (or she) is going to kill someone with the initials A.A. in a town starting with the letter A. He (or she) then repeats the pattern alphabetically. After a while, Poirot is obsessed — sitting by his door, waiting for the mail to drop.
A major suspect, Cust (Eamon Farren), is a traveling ladies’ stocking salesman with psychological issues. He’s so put upon that he’s almost worth rooting for, except that he’s horrifically disturbed. He hires a woman to step on his back in high heels, leaving oozing wounds. Director Alex Gabassi revels in the squalor that surrounds and defines Cust, who lives at a hotel with poison set out to catch bed bugs. The proprietor wanders around, lambasts her daughter, and complains like Moaning Myrtle (indeed, she is played by the same actress, Shirley Henderson).
Speaking of “Harry Potter” connections, Rupert Grint is solid but straightforward as the official detective on the case – the one who makes knee-jerk, poorly examined arrests only to be rebuffed by the shrewd observations of Poirot. To stretch the “Potter” linkage further, a major character is named Lady Hermione.
As for the mystery itself, it kept me guessing. For example, I wondered why Cust seemed to be first sending letters to Poirot announcing the upcoming murder, then is treated rudely by the person he’s going to murder. How could he have known his target would treat him rudely, therefore giving him a motive after he had already planned to kill them? There is an explanation for that, and indeed, everything holds together even with some late-game surprises.
But the mystery is subsumed by the grimness of Phelps’ adaptation, which also peppers in the idea that Poirot has been outright (albeit vaguely) mistreated by his adoptive country of England. Usually, he only contends with the annoyance of being mistaken for a Frenchman (he’s Belgian), but Phelps digs into the racism and nationalism of 1930s Britain, drawing a parallel to modern times. A viewer wanting to have fun solving a mystery almost feels chastised by the serious themes.
The murders are also a bit grisly here, although granted, they generally happen offscreen. Still, for the polite, bloodless murders and intellectual focus of Christie, you’ll have to go back to the book or perhaps check out the other adaptations. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from.