Saturday, November 11, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

After watching all 70 episodes of British ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, I thought no one else could ever do the character of detective Hercule Poirot as well as actor David Suchet did. I was mistaken.

For my birthday, I treated myself to an opening day viewing of Twentieth Century Fox's Murder on the Orient Express. About the movie in general, I'd say its only weakness is that for many of us, the reveal of the murderer is no surprise because we already know the story. Otherwise, this was a remake worth doing and seeing. The acting is all-around as first class as the accommodations on the eponymous train, which is no surprise considering the A-list cast.

But let me focus on the portrayal of detective Hercule Poirot by also-director Kenneth Branagh. My introduction to Branagh was as Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I didn't again encounter him until I started watching the British TV series Wallander, where he plays Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. In Chamber, he played a foppish buffoon. Wallander was where I first got to see him in a strictly dramatic role. In that show, he plays a police detective who is deeply affected by the suffering he encounters in his work. He is tired, and from time to time his beliefs are challenged.

Branagh is on the mark when he brings both those traits of Wallander to his version of Poirot. At the start of Orient Express, Poirot is already weary from all the evil and injustice he has encountered through his work and is on a much needed holiday. Poirot, too, will see his beliefs challenged by the case.

But Poirot is not a totally dramatic role. He is far more than persnickety and an outright pompous ass. Even author Christie came to dislike the character (but since fans adored him, she continued to write stories with him). Branagh brings wonderful comic acting to the role. Like Suchet, his Poirot is deserving of both respect and derision.

One detail I feel compelled to mention is the vast difference between the mustaches of Branagh's and Suchet's Poirots. Suchet's has a slim, almost dainty one, while Branagh's is a wide, thick, handlebar of one. But both Poirots are proud of their mustaches and groom them obsessively. Branagh's Poirot even sleeps with a protective guard on his upper-lip hair. When I first saw Branagh's mustache in a trailer, I thought it was wrong for the role, but when watching the film, I quickly changed my mind.

So, even if you thought Suchet was the only one who could do proper justice to the role of Poirot, I think you, like me, will be pleasantly disabused of the notion.

I look forward to the eventual DVD/Blu-Ray release of this movie because I will want to watch it over again. Oh, and some brief dialog at the end of Orient Express suggests Branagh may follow up with a film version of Death on the Nile.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Onset": A Short Story

I've finally gotten through the first draft of the first act of my mystery novel. It's been slow going. I'm continuing to develop the character of Evelyn Malsage, a schizophrenic woman who becomes the amateur sleuth of my story. Here's just a little bit of backstory on Evelyn. Enjoy.


It was the fifth of July in Denver and Evelyn was twelve. It was only morning but the sky was cloudless and the temperature was at least eighty. Her denim shorts, Broncos t-shirt, and sneakers were about right, and better than the sundress her mother had suggested, at least to Evelyn's thinking.

The night of the fourth had been filled with the sounds and flashes of illegal fireworks, so, like many other children in the area, she was scouring the neighborhood for dud firecrackers. One by one, while the others watched, a kid would open a dud and pour the gunpowder on the ground in the alley. Whoosh! would go the uncontained powder when lit. Some kids were more ambitious and amassed the powder from two, three, even four crackers to get a bigger whoosh and flash. The lucky ones had found crackers with fuses. Those, they would set off with a Bang!

Then it happened.

One boy—Evelyn didn't know his name—rushed over, holding out something pinched between his thumb and index finger. It was small and cylindrical, with a dull gray, rounded nose atop a tarnished, almost golden shaft. It had a flat head—what Evelyn might later call a flange—at the end opposite the gray nose. They all knew what it was. A bullet.

Along with oohs and ahhs came calls to get rid of it, maybe bury it. Others disagreed but couldn't settle on what to do with it.

Evelyn then demonstrated both the judgment and imagination of a twelve-year-old, suggesting, "Let's make a gunpowder fuse and launch it straight up like a rocket. That way it won't hit anybody."

Three camps formed immediately, all sides offering thoughtful arguments for their positions, such as "No!" and "Yeah!" and "I think it's cool but they're gonna hear it." All during the exchanges Evelyn and the boy traded glances. After long debate with no side gaining or losing much strength, it seemed that no agreement was possible. They had, after all, been at it for at least a minute.

The boy—whose name Evelyn never did learn—interrupted with a point of order. "I found it, and I wanna launch it." Majority rule had been trumped by individual property rights. He handed the bullet to Evelyn.

She waved for everyone to follow. "We need a gunpowder fuse. If you want to watch, you have to share your firecrackers."

Even some of the naysayers gave in and handed their firecrackers over to the boy as Evelyn led them all to the back of her house. She tapped a garbage can lid. "Here."

Evelyn watched as the boy, joined by two others, opened up firecrackers and poured out the silvery gray powder in a line. Once they had emptied all the firecrackers, the boys stepped back. Evelyn moved forward and placed the bullet atop one end of the gunpowder trail, which reached at least nine inches long. "Somebody, give me a match," she said. A boy gave her a forbidden baby Bic instead. She waved her hands. "Now everybody duck." Evelyn lit the fuse and ran for cover. She heard the Bang! as she bent down.

Something tapped the back of her left shoulder.

Turning her gaze down toward a gentle metallic clatter, she saw something almost golden. It was the shell casing of the bullet. It had found her. It went after her, on purpose, telling her, "That was stupid. Do you understand? I kill people. Don't you ever do this again!" She didn't hear the words, but those were the words it said as she looked at it. She was guilty, and the bullet chose with its dying effort to teach her better.

She bent down to pick up the casing before anyone else saw it. She didn't say anything about it, not at the time nor ever after, but she never forgot. She put the casing in her pocket.

Evelyn would later learn the word "serendipity," which means, "meaningful coincidence." She would also come to understand the difference between literal and figurative. And she would learn what a metaphor was.

The shell casing tapping her shoulder was not serendipity. That it sought her out to teach her a lesson was neither figurative thinking nor a metaphor. It was real.

Evelyn Malsage had formed her first delusion.