Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Black Coffee

I’m continuing to enjoy my participation in the Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. For the letter B, I’ve chosen Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee. Black Coffee, written in 1930, was Agatha Christie’s first stage play. It didn’t have the astounding run of The Mousetrap, nor was it staged in as many venues; for instance, it never had a New York run. Yet it established her as a playwright as well as an author of novels and stories. In 1998, HarperCollins published Charles Osborne’s adaptation of the play as a novel, and it is that adaptation that I’ll focus on in this post.

The story begins when Hercule Poirot receives a call from Sir Claud Amory, a famous physicist. Amory has developed a secret atomic formula for the Ministry of Defense. That formula is worth a great deal of money, and Amory fears that someone in his family is trying to steal it. Poirot and Hastings travel to Amory’s country home for the week-end to investigate. Meanwhile, at Abbot’s Cleve, Sir Claud’s home, we meet the members of Sir Claud’s family. He shares the home with his spinster sister Caroline, his son Richard Amory and Richard’s wife, Lucia, and his niece, Barbara Amory. We also meet a houseguest, Dr. Carelli, who’s supposedly an old friend of Lucia Amory’s, and Edward Raynor, Sir Claud’s secretary.

Directly after dinner that night, Sir Claud gathers everyone into the library for coffee and orders Tredwell, his butler, to lock the doors. He then announces that his valuable secret formula has been stolen and that, what’s more, he knows that someone in the room stole it. When everyone denies having stolen the formula, Sir Claud insists that he knows it’s been stolen, and that Hercule Poirot has been called in to find the formula. He also says that the thief will have one opportunity to return the formula; the lights will be turned off for one minute, and the thief can place the formula on the library table without any repercussions. Tredwell obeys his master’s instructions and, when the lights are turned on again, the formula reappears. It’s just at that moment that Poirot and Hastings arrive. At first, Richard Amory claims that Poirot’s services are no longer needed…. until it’s discovered that Sir Claude is slumped over in his chair, dead from poison slipped into his after-dinner coffee. In the commotion following the discovery of the death, the formula disappears again.

As Poirot and Hastings investigate the murder, they find that nearly everyone in the house had a motive for murdering Sir Claud. They also find that everyone had access to the murder weapon, a tube of hyoscine stolen from a box of old hospital stores. Poirot uses his famous “little gray cells” and his compulsion to be neat to find out who murdered Sir Claude, and to recover the formula.

One of the things that makes this story effective is Christie’s skill at describing the dark undercurrents of fear and suspicion that lie beneath everyone’s well-bred mask. As more and more is revealed about the characters, we see some of them beginning to suspect each other, and this adds to the suspense. There are also well-placed “red herrings” in the story that add to the atmosphere; some of them are very tempting, too.

Christie also does an effective job of making the characters sympathetic. For instance, one of the characters turns out to be a victim of blackmail; we sense that character’s helplessness and we want the blackmailer stopped. I even found myself liking the character who turns out to be the murderer – at first. The reader wants to clear the innocent characters of suspicion and wants everything to turn out well for them. At the end of the play, when Poirot identifies the murderer, the reader feels a cloud lifting. That’s how likeable and sympathetic many of the characters are.

That said, there are always some limitations to a play that’s been adapted as a novel. Whereas a playwright can depend on facial expressions, visual effects and dialogue to reveal the story, that’s not as easy for a novelist. Some of the descriptions in the story are a little awkward, and there are places where the suspense lags because the reader can’t really see what’s happening. For instance, in a few places in the story, characters wait until they think the library (the scene of much of the action) is empty, and then steal into the room. Those scenes are probably much more engrossing seen on stage. Also, I missed Christie’s unique writing style. No-one else could match it.

However, please don’t let those limitations stop you from reading Black Coffee. Charles Osborne has done a very effective job of adapting the play to a novel. He stays faithful to the dialogue and the personalities of Poirot and Hastings. The novel is engaging and enjoyable, and the plot keeps the reader interested. Besides, the play isn’t staged often, so reading the novel might be your only opportunity to meet these interesting characters and experience one of the few Christie works that include Hastings but are not written from his viewpoint (in fact, perhaps I’m wrong, but this may be the only one). If you get a chance, though, I urge you to see Black Coffee staged, as Christie intended it to be.

One interesting fact about the play: According to Matthew Prichard, Christie’s grandson, Christie wrote Black Coffee because she was dissatisfied with the way The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had been adapted for the stage. Her determination to see that her work was staged the way she wanted it staged led her to develop herself as a playwright.


  1. I'm not familiar with the play at all, Margot--thanks for the heads-up. I'll be interested in reading the book. I love Christie's red herrings!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Christie's red herrings are some of the best in the business, there's no doubt about that! I've been taken by them more than once, I admit. The original play is harder to find than the novel is, but either will give you the flavor of what Christie intended.

  3. I hadn't heard of this one either Margot. I forget that Christie was also a playwright, although I did go and see The Mousetrap on my first trip to the UK

  4. Bernadette - I am so envious that you got to see The Mousetrap! I always wanted to see that, being the Christie fan that I am, but even though I've been to the UK several times, I never have. I'll bet it was wonderful.

  5. VIntage Christie! I'd be interested to see the play. I've actually directed "The Mousetrap" (and played one of the smaller roles). It's funny, many people in the theatre community look down on "The Mousetrap" because of its enduring popularity. Doing a production of it is considering 'pandering to the masses'. I discovered it is a very good script although a creature of its time. It has everything; the trapped house guests (who knows who?); the inability to communicate with the outside world, the unexpected guest; hidden identities; you name it, it's got it. Good fun.


    P.S. I will admit my cast and I started to make jokes about how many times the phrase "homicidal maniac" appears in the script. It made for some fun rehearsals.

  6. Elspeth - I was really hoping that you would post a comment, because I know you've got a strong theatre background. You have a point that the Mousetrap script is a creature of its time; so is that for Black Coffee, actually. Still, it's got all the makings of a good play, and I know The Mousetrap does, too.

    There's got to be something about the characters and script that makes a play fun to direct and fun for actors, too. That, to me, is a sign of what Christie was able to achieve as a playwright.