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Saturday, February 28, 2015

How Can You Plan a Murder Like That?

Beware of spoilers throughout this post—because this is incredible!

I just watched the David Suchet version of Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and I could not believe it when it finished. It was an impossible murder! I had to go back to my books and find it under its U.S. name, The Patriotic Murders, and reread it to see whether it could be at all possible, however improbable it was, that Agatha Christie had created a murder that did not fit the timing of events.

Of course she did not. Her version works perfectly.

What I saw on the screen was Hercule Poirot, entering his dentist’s office. As Mr Morley starts working on him, he says, “We’ll just start the preparatory work today, Mr Poirot.”

Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale is just leaving, making a return appointment for 6 August, 11:45 a.m. She emerges from the front door and recognizes the just-arriving Mr. Alistair Blunt as the husband of a former fellow actress of hers in India. Mr. Blunt tries to get rid of her as Poirot emerges and walks behind them across the street.

How short was Poirot’s appointment? No more time than for Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale to make her appointment, walk down the stairs, and utter two sentences! This is impossible. The dentist is either lightning-fast or shamming.

Cut to the hotel where Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale is staying. She meets a former fellow passenger from the ship that brought her to England from India, a Mr Amberiotis, who it seems also has a toothache. She recommends her dentist, and she tells him about her chance encounter with an old acquaintance on the dentist’s doorstep.

Amberiotis recognizes Mr Blunt’s name and powerful position in government finance, and additionally, the discrepancy between the name Miss Sainsbury-Seale gives his wife and the name of the Mrs. Blunt who was an heiress to another powerful family in financial circles. Blunt must have committed bigamy to marry the heiress, he realizes. Amberiotis goes to his hotel, enters his room, and picks up the telephone to make a call. He is starting to blackmail Blunt.

Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale, still in the same dress, coat with fox fur, hat, and pearls (therefore it’s the same day), arrives at Litchfield Court and enters a lobby of some flats, asks for the flat of Mrs. Albert Chapman where Mrs. Blunt is staying, is shown up, and knocks at a door. Someone opens it and Mabelle says, “Gerda, after all these years!”

She wasted no time in tracking down where Gerda was. We did not see it happen, but Blunt must have given her that address before he entered the dentist’s office.

And knowing that this is where and when the first murder occurs, how did Blunt plan it that quickly? Could Blunt have instantly devised the plan even as he talked to Mabelle there on the doorstep? Did he race back to his bank and talk to Gerda, who in the movie is acting as his secretary? He must have told her to leave work, get over to the Chapman flat, prepare to murder her old friend and mutilate her face afterwards and stuff the body into her fur trunk, and order Mabelle’s bags to be moved to another hotel. Then she must later put on Mabelle’s clothes, making sure to buy similar shoes. They are also going to switch the labels on the dental charts of the two women.

Additionally, Alistair Blunt and Gerda had to think of all those details and be ready psychologically to carry them out after having done nothing more criminal all their lives than to conspire for Alistair to commit bigamy. It strains credulity. In the book they have a week to decide they had to do it, and then to plan and commit the murder. In the movie they have mere moments.

Cut to a porter bringing three bags down hotel stairs. Receptionist asks him what he’s doing. He says Miss Sainsbury-Seale telephoned and wants her bags sent over to the Carlisle Hotel.

Cut to Alfred arriving at Morley’s—Morley watches Alfred from an upper window, telling his sister, “Damn boy’s late again, and smoking on the front doorstep.” We realize it must be a different day—perhaps the next day, but we don’t know how much time has passed. He tells his sister, “Gladys isn’t coming in today. Her aunt’s had a stroke and she’s had to go up to Yorkshire.”

Morning tea arrives in Mr Amberiotis’s room at the Astoria. He has a bad toothache and sends breakfast and tea away. So perhaps it is the next day. Since Amberiotis had a toothache on the boat and talked about it with Miss Sainsbury-Seale over tea in her hotel’s lounge, we can’t assume much time has passed. Again, in the book three months has passed, but the movie condenses the time drastically.

Poirot arrives again at Mr Morley’s and is shown in. Frank Carter arrives, angry and impatient.

Mr Blunt closes a board meeting at the bank and tells his associate he has a dentist appointment.

Cut to Poirot in the chair, Morley complaining that Gladys is away, that early appointments were late and that he has a very full schedule, but that the very important man, Blunt, is coming and is never late.

Blunt arrives and enters Morley’s. Poirot is finished and Morley tells him he’ll see him in six months. Poirot gets his hat and gloves from the room where Carter is pacing and Blunt reading.


As Poirot leaves Morley’s, he sees a woman’s buckled shoe and stockinged leg emerge from a taxi, and her shoe buckle wrenches off as her other shoe crosses it. He picks it up and the woman says she is Miss Sainsbury-Seale, but we see she is not quite the same one as before.

So, how did these three all have appointments on the same day at first and then all have appointments again on the same day, which appears to be the following day in the film? Why can’t the dentist take care of all their problems in one visit? It strains coincidence to think they all need crowns, but it could possibly happen. In the book, Poirot goes to the dentist only once, on the day of the murder. Only Blunt needs two appointments; the fake Miss Sainsbury-Seale calls for a second appointment because she says she has a toothache, which is part of the murder plot.

Chief Inspector Japp phones Poirot later that same day to tell him the dentist was killed. But in the summing-up, Poirot says Blunt saw Mr Amberiotis’s name in the appointment book and decided to murder him.

This is absolutely impossible. The book gives them three months to make the complicated arrangements, which could not have been done in one day, much less in the space of one dental appointment as in the movie.

First, they had to plan the appointments carefully so that the fake Miss Sainsbury-Seale had the appointment before Amberiotis. Miss Sainsbury-Seale already had a return appointment in the movie—how could it be the exact right date and time they needed? In the book, the fake Miss Sainsbury-Seale calls up and asks for an immediate appointment because of toothache. Morley has to work her in during the noon hour.

Second, Blunt had to have a gun with him, one with a twin with which to frame Frank Carter. Most people of that time and place did not carry guns around. The head of an international bank would not have carried a gun; if he had felt the need for protection, he would have hired a bodyguard. With no history of violence in his life, Blunt would not have usually had a gun, except if he had specially planned to need one.

Third, Blunt and Gerda had to arrange for Gladys to be called away that day by the fake telegram. They had to find out Gladys’s relatives, had to find one who lived far enough away to keep her away all day at least in riding trains there and back again, and they had to hope to find someone Gladys would definitely go see without question. They were very fortunate the exact requirements were met! In the book the aunt lives in Somerset; in the movie, she lives in Yorkshire. Since Gladys was already called away when Blunt could have seen Amberiotis’s name in the appointment book, he had obviously already started the plan.

Fourth, Blunt and Gerda had to think up (maybe research?) the cool, calculating plan for Blunt to pretend to be Morley and inject Amberiotis with the overdose of anesthetic that would kill him later in the day. In the book, it helps that Amberiotis is a very fat man, prone to die of heart problems. In the movie, he is a slender, fit-looking man.

Fifth, Blunt had to have his own white coat with him. He could not afford the time or the tampering of evidence to remove Morley’s coat and wear it and then put it back on Morley.

Sixth, in the movie, Gerda has to have a plausible excuse for missing quite a lot of work in the time it would take to establish and maintain all her various aliases. In the book, she does not work as Alistair’s secretary; instead, she impersonates a second cousin of his who had lived and died in Canada, whose name was Helen Montressor. He gives his “cousin” a home with him, and her comings and goings are nobody’s business but the household’s, which does not keep a very close eye on her. The movie makes Helen his secretary at the bank. How she explained her job there to all those other secretaries and underlings who would have known exactly how much work she missed is, of course, not covered in the script.

All these elaborate pieces of the three murders had to take time, which in the movie is condensed to seemingly overnight, but which must have been meant to be longer. The script writers and director should have made it clearer that there was more time between that shot of the porter taking Miss Sainsbury-Seale’s luggage out and the shot of Morley complaining at the start of his day about Alfred and Gladys.

The explanation at the end of the movie (not in the book) that Blunt saw Amberiotis’s name in the appointment book is impossible, because the name was not there on the occasion of Blunt’s first visit, and on Blunt’s second visit, the murders were all planned and one had been carried out.

But just suppose the murder of Amberiotis was completely without premeditation? Does it work? It would mean they meant to kill the dentist all along just to cover up Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale's murder. That would take care of their need to get the appointments lined up and for Blunt to carry a gun, and they would have gotten Gladys out of the way for the day. But they would not have expected Blunt to try to impersonate a dentist, because they would have to assume the patients all knew their dentist, so he still should not have had a white coat to put on. Maybe there was a spare one hanging in the office right there, a spare one that would fit a tall man of regular build rather than a short, fat one like Mr Morley was. That would be a coincidence; another piece of good luck.

Blunt saw Frank Carter in the waiting room, but without exchanging names, he could not have known this was the boyfriend of the absent dental assistant. Blunt was not there when Frank arrived and asked for Gladys and was told she was gone for the day. Blunt should have assumed this was a patient, and the only patient whose name was in the book and was of the right gender was Amberiotis. Perhaps Blunt asked Alfred who this young man was, and neither the book nor the movie told us he did so. Yet somehow Blunt figured out who this was and immediately planned to use him as a scapegoat. Another coincidental piece of good luck for our murderers.

As Blunt sat there in that waiting room, he would have had to plan how to murder Amberiotis. He would have had to know already how much more of the two painkillers would constitute a sufficient overdose to kill; he could not afford to guess nor to be wrong and risk the patient waking up after a couple of days in a coma ready to identify him. Where does a banker and financier gain knowledge of these things? Does he regularly read murder mysteries? If this plan was made on the spur of the moment, he was taking an enormous risk. Of course by this time his inner life was full of risk and he thrived on it. Nevertheless, it is still another coincidental piece of good luck that he knew exactly how to kill a man hours later through a wrong dental injection.

When Blunt had killed Mr Morely and Gerda had been shown upstairs as a patient and was busy typing the labels to switch the charts, he should have been quickly filling her in on the change in plans, the additional murder to be done. But all in the movie is carried out in silence except for the typewriter keys clacking. He had to count on Alfred sticking to his usual pattern of not entering the room as he showed a patient in, for if Alfred had seen him, it was all over. He had to risk that Amberiotis had never seen him in person as Blunt either. He could not know for sure that his blackmailer had not been to his bank to spy on him unknown to him. He had to trust that his hand would be steady with the needle, even though he had likely never held a hypodermic needle before. He had to trust that he would inject the poison in the right place, that it would both numb the mouth and get into the bloodstream without hitting a nerve, knocking the patient unconscious too soon, or some other mishap. But in all these things Blunt is replete with good luck. None of these things that could have happened did happen to mar his murder.

Thus we see it is barely possible for the murder of Mr Amberiotis to be without premeditation, but only if the most extraordinary good luck holds for the murderers. And it does, but I prefer the version that has a modicum of believability tied to a reasonable period in which to plan these things.

Then as soon as he leaves the dental office, Blunt must arrange that very afternoon for Frank Carter to be employed as a gardener at Blunt’s country home, and Frank must be made to believe it was a Secret Service job, a fantastic story that only gullible Frank would believe was true. They had to plan and carry out the fake shooting incident while Poirot was at the country estate with Blunt so that Frank would be well and truly framed for both an attempt on Blunt’s life and Morley’s murder. In the book, Gerda has the additional task of disguising herself and interviewing Frank for the job. In the movie, the interview doesn’t appear onscreen and Gerda does stay at the country house in her secretarial capacity but is implausibly expected to join them socially.

There is one last fishy piece of nonsense in both book and movie, which helped cause a few critics to howl upon the first publication of the book. That is, the second part of the murder of Miss Sainsbury-Seale—the switching of the dental records at Mr Morley’s office. In the book this is necessary to the murderers so that investigators will think Miss Sainsbury-Seale murdered Mrs Albert Chapman and then disappeared, and it is necessary to the author’s purposes that the government Secret Service people force a hush-up because Mrs Albert Chapman, an alias of Gerda Blunt’s, by coincidence is the name of one of the top government spies about whom nothing can be known publicly, a piece of enormous good luck for the murderers. In the movie the need for the switch is simply to confuse things, which is confusing in itself. Without all the spies, why does it matter who murdered whom?

In addition, in the book the murderers have to rely on more good luck for the body not to be found until they can murder the dentist in order to switch the women’s names on their dental records. If the body had been found before then, it would have looked like a Mrs Albert Chapman had murdered Miss Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale, and the government might gone to some trouble to track down Mrs Chapman as a potential threat to the national security. Even if the search were hush-hush, they might have found that Mrs Chapman was a certain Helen Montressor, alias Gerda Blunt. But the relative obscurity of Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale and their making her change hotels suddenly helps them hide her disappearance. In the movie, the length of time is unimportant, since it seems as if Miss Sainsbury-Seale was murdered the day before, or shortly before, the dentist. The length of time it takes to find her body is then nothing more than a seeming annoyance to Japp and Poirot. When they do find her, the absence of anybody but Poirot wrinkling his nose is the only incredible thing about the scene.

As usual, Mrs. Christie had the timing of everything down to an impeccable perfection for the plot, however implausible it might be. The movie should not have condensed the time quite so much—it would have left the original plot workable, even if unbelievably full of coincidence and luck.

Most critics were in the habit of accepting whatever Agatha Christie wrote by the time One, Two, Buckle My Shoe was published to not pay too close attention to anything wrong with her story. But a few howled about the close coincidences on which this particular plot rested. Yes, the coincidences were there. But sometimes in life, coincidences do happen. Once in a while, a coincidence might lead to murder. Try to be somewhere else when that happens, with a good, solid alibi, won’t you?

2 comments:

  1. Surely some other actors from the theatre would have known that Alistair Blunt was married to Gerda at the time of his second marriage.

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    1. Yes, you would think so, wouldn't you! Thanks for your comment.

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