Agatha Christie wrote a heck of a lot of books, and sold a heck of a lot of them, too—she remains the world’s best-selling English author even today, more than 35 years after her death. British television, never one to pass up a good book that could be made into a lively TV show (see also: I, Claudius), has seized with typical gusto the opportunity to dramatize Dame Agatha’s oeuvre. Agatha Christie’s Poirot has aired on the ITV network since 1989; its companion series, Agatha Christie’s Marple, has run since 2004. The Poirot stories number some 70 episodes, the Marple, 23. Both series have more episodes forthcoming.
With such an abundance of material out there, the casual-but-interested viewer might be forgiven for feeling rather overwhelmed. Where to start? The Poirot and Marple Crime Anthology Collection? The Poirot Definitive Collection? The Poirot Classic Crimes Collection? Marple Season 1, or 2, or 4? It’s all so confusing. And I haven’t even mentioned the dozens of movies and hundreds of hours of previously-produced television programming, much of it available on DVD.
Dedicated Christie-watchers will no doubt have their own preferences, but a newcomer to the party could do worse than turning to the Poirot & Marple Fan Favorites Collection. This collection consists of episodes which, as the title suggests, were chosen by fans of the show as the best of the series thus far. While not every episode knocks it out of the park, there are more hits than misses, and it’s handy to have a selection of stories featuring each of the detectives—six for Poirot, five for Marple.
In general, the Poirot stories are gripping and well made. David Suchet is utterly perfect as Poirot; it’s tough to imagine anyone else playing the part, and his mixture of dandyish egotism and high-minded brilliance strikes the perfect note. (Plus, he refers to himself in the third person. How cheeky is that?) “Murder on the Orient Express” is a story that will be familiar to many because of the 1974 film starring Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Alber Finney; the plot is the same here, of course, but the game cast does its best to make you forget that other version, and for the most part succeeds. The performances are strong, and it’s fun to spot Hugh “Lord Grantham of Downton” Bonneville and Barbara “Black Swan” Hershey among the many guest stars.
Elsewhere, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” features a typically convoluted plot that involves upper-crust aristocrats, an inheritance worth a fortune and some very bad behavior. In fact, it’s striking how many of these stories contain both these elements: aristocrats and money. Maybe it’s just the particular nature of this selection of episodes, but I was struck by how frequently the motivation for the murders came down to simple greed. And more often than not, the milieu was the rarified world of the British upper class.
Perhaps for this reason, the episode I enjoyed most on the entire set was “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”, largely because I’m a sucker for all that ancient Egypt stuff, but also because the change of scenery it afforded was a great relief. The sight of the immaculately preened Poirot bouncing in a Land Rover through the Valley of the Kings was one of the highlights of my viewing.
Sadly, the Marple episodes were less compelling in the main, despite the fact that the core concept of a brilliant outsider snooping about crime scenes—in this case, an elderly woman that nobody takes very seriously—is a strong one. But the stories cleave even more consistently to the “wealthy aristocrat/socialite/industrialist dies with a sizeable inheritance” storyline, with only occasional variations. It must be said, too, that the two actresses portraying Marple are considerably less arresting than David Suchet’s Poirot. Geraldine McEwan is possessed of an maddening simper and a squeaky voice that suggests nothing so much as a large rodent. Julia McKenzie is better, playing the role straight but without much panache. It’s left to the show’s rotating cast of guest stars—Derek Jacobi, Zoe Wanamaker et al—to inject some verve into the proceedings.
That said, these stories are engaging enough to keep most voiewers watching. Christie well knew the value in providing a little setup before the bodies start to arrive—and once they did, to keep compounding the confusion with more confusion. Even if not every episode is riveting, all are competently told and acted, and the visuals are consistenly lush.
Newcomers may be disappointed that there are no extras whatever in this set, a surprising choice considering that it’s essentially a repackaging of previously-released material aimed at drawing in new viewers. In any event, it’s the stories that are the main draw. And the mystery, of course.