Notes On Black Coffee

(A Play novelised by Charles Osborne)

Rating: four out of five

Year of Publication: 1998

Motive for Murder: Wealth (for a formula)

Plot: Hercule Poirot is invited by Sir Claude Armory, a famous scientist, for a weekend at Sir Claude’s home Abbot’s Cleve. Not for merely an after dinner party, but the detective is to be trusted with a secret explosive formula.

Moments before Poirot arrives, however, it has gone. The fifty-thousand pounds worth a piece paper has been taken from Sir Claude’s safe. Of all people who live in the house, who could have stolen it? Sir Claude’s Italian daughter-in-law Lucia? Her husband, his only son, who is on the dole? Tredwell, the long-standing butler? Or Dr. Carelli, who has turned up at the dinner?

After the dinner Sir Claude announces everyone to stay. ‘It is now ten minutes to nine. At a few minutes past nine, the rat-catcher will arrive.’ At nine o’clock, as per his instruction to Tredwell, the light goes out. When it comes on, the scientist is found dead in his chair.

Having walked into the crime scene, Poirot must work out what has occurred in the brief moment of darkness. What can these sounds tell him about the formula thief: a rustling of paper, the clinking sound of a metal, a tearing and a loud bang? Will the thief also be the murderer?

 

Highlights:

This is the first adaptation of Christie’s play by Charles Osborne, of three which he has novelised.   The others are Spider’s Web (see the notes) and The Unexpected Guest.

As Osborne seems to follow the play closely to its minute detail, this review therefore will focus on Osborne’s writing compared to Christie’s. For instance, his portraying the cast of characters, particularly the Belgian sleuth.

To begin with, readers might be aware of the fact that Black Coffee was Christie’s first play, which came out on stage after Alibi; the stage adaptation of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. Interestingly, Sir Claude Armory’s personae resembles Roger Ackroyd’s; rich and respectable, but domineering and lonely.

Furthermore, I am intrigued by Poirot’s response having received a phone call from Sir Claude. Therein he questions himself: ‘I wonder – can Sir Claud want to engage Hercule Poirot to be a tired old watchdog? The inventions of war, the secret weapons, they are not for me…’ As far as I am concerned, this proud little man neither hesitates about himself nor the wish of his clients. As I have no knowledge on the play script, I wonder if such hesitation of his was the exact words.  Did Osborne take the liberty to invent the ‘less confidence’ aspect in Poirot?

Selina Cadell as Caroline Sheppard in the novel’s adaptation into television series

Then to my mind there are other details which remind me of the other novel. Firstly, the name of the village (Dr. James Sheppard lives in King’s Abbot). Second of all, his spinster’s sister name “Caroline” is also emerged, although Caroline Armory’s personality is totally different than Caroline Sheppard. Third of all, the circumstances of the crime; Ackroyd is killed in his chair at his study just as Sir Claude’s, both are murdered more or less at nine in the evening and then a doctor is in sight – albeit an Italian Dr. Carelli in Black Coffee (see Cast of Characters).

Kudos to Osborne for his descriptions on minor characters. On the one hand, they are similar to Christie’s and he builds up the conflicts among them is like the way she does. An intense evening with which Sir Claud seemed to be on his guard and everyone has a motive to have wanted his death. For his son Richard that would have meant the money; for Sir Claude’s niece is her knowledge about poisons and a stock of drugs that has been stored in the library. As for Caroline Armory, it could have been an older sister who had been weary of her brother’s ruthless attitude to others. And how about a secretary who has known much work of his employer, including the formula?

On the other hand I wonder if Osborne’s sticking to the thirties’ style of language is wise. I believe he ought to tweak the old-fashioned phrases a little. It was after all published towards the end of 20th century and surely Christie would not have minded of his omitting either ‘By Jove’ or formal verbs, which are almost unheard of.

What I like most is the scene when Poirot steps into the library right after Sir Claude has been announced death.  Osborne’s depiction seems like the one in The Hollow ( see the notes)-  minus a swimming pool and a woman with a gun in her hands staring at the dead body of her husband. It is then wrapped up by Hasting’s focal remark not knowing yet of the murder: ‘What a delightful room.’ It is followed by his being ‘unhelpful’  to Poirot during their interview with the butler; the somewhat arrogant attitude of Tredwell’s, which puzzled the Belgian completely, especially when Tredwell’s saying about the Italian doctor Dr Carelli that “he’s not one of us” (see Clues).

It is fascinating to realise that in the hands of Osborne’s the little man with an egg-shaped head becomes forthright; a contrast to his being polite and tactful in Christie’s world.  The Belgian is also less subtle in addition to his reacting to his sidekick’s playful mood. In this regard Osborne shows so-called ‘the man stuff’ between Hastings and Poirot; their banters and Poirot’s ‘making it square’ to Hastings towards the end.

Overall, this adaptation of Christie’s play is a delight, as the details are just right and the style suits well to Christie’s loyal fans.

 

The Twists:

-Lucia Amory deliberately leaves her handbag behind in the library. She comes back later to pour out coffee near to Sir Claude’s seat and hide the cup inside a bowl of a house plant.

-Caroline Amory hears the tearing sound of a ‘silk’ when the light goes out

-Dr Carelli asks Lucia Amory to consider a suicide

-Edward Raynor does not drink coffee

-Lucia Amory’s jewels were missing two months before the murder

-Dr Carelli’s real name is Tonio

Cast of Characters:

Barbara Amory (Sir Claude’s niece)

Caroline Amory (Sir Claude’s elder sister, the housekeeper)

Dr Carelli (Italian, a guest at Sir Claude’s dinner whose presence is unexpected)

Sir Claude Amory

Edward Raynor (Sir Claude’s secretary)

Hercule Poirot

Inspector Japp (of Scotland Yard)

Constable Johnson

Dr. Kenneth Graham (the doctor who examines Sir Claud)

Lucia Amory (Sir Claude’s daughter in law)

Richard Amory (Lucia’s husband)

Tredwell (the Amorys’s butler)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Caroline Amory

The spinster sister of Sir Claude’s knows the house like the back of her hand. She resembles her predecessor Elsa (Death Comes As The End). She is quiet as  Miss Marple, yet her attention to details and her understanding of other people’s affairs is second to none.

Her interview with Poirot reveals Richard’s row with his father over the nephew’s debts and the missing of Lucia Armory’s jewels two months before her father-in-law is poisoned. Moreover, she provides Poirot with further information about the mysterious appearance of Dr Carelli at the dinner. For she has invited him because she thought that the doctor might have been Richard’s wife’s old friend that happened to be in the neighbourhood. More importantly, she tells the sleuth about Dr. Carelli’s reference that a glass tube hyoscine hydrobromide can kill twelve strong men.

As a judge of character, she is a very good one despite a little vague and at some point has come to a wrong conclusion. She sees in Lucia’s gesture her submission to Dr Carelli ; “The man must have wormed his way into her confidence” and inadvertently identifies the sound of a tearing silk in the darkness. Most significantly, she heard her brother’s dissatisfaction as to the bitterness of the coffee (see Clues).

On the other hand, she can be irritating. To Barbara Armory she is an old pussy – her tending to get carried away in her stories annoys the other a lot. Also, they do not see eye to eye when it comes to deal with things. To Dr. Carelli, she unwittingly stalls him from fleeing the house and stops him from making an important phone call as she occurred to have been in the same room prior to his coming- knitting. This comical scene is clinched with Inspector Japp’s entering and identifying the doctor as a part of a thief gang also interested in getting hold of the formula.

Be that as it may, she takes Lucia under her wings and fusses a lot about her. Is it a kind of yearning feeling for a daughter she would never have?

At the end of the day, it is an elderly spinster, well over seventy years old, whose sharp mind has made Poirot find the missing link to the case.

 

Clues:

Sir Claude Armory to Hercule Poirot:

‘Look here, Poirot. I’ve got a devilishly tricky problem on my hands. Or rather, I might have. I can’t be certain. I’ve been working on a formula to bombard atom – i won’t go into details, but the Ministry of Defence regards it as of the utmost importance. My work is now complete, and I’ve produced a formula from which a new and deadly explosive can be made. I have reason to suspect that a member of my household is attempting to steal the formula. I can’t say any more now, but I should be greatly obliged if you would come down to Abbot’s Cleve for the weekend, as my house-guest. I want you to take the formula back with you to London, and hand it over to a certain person at the Ministry. There are good reasons why a Ministry carrier can’t do the job. I need someone who is ostensibly unobtrusive, unscientific member of the public but who is also astute enough..’

Dr. Carelli to Barbara Armory:

‘My dear lady, is that not an extremely unjust –what do you say- non sequitur? Why should an Italian know any more about poisons than an Englishman? I have heard it said, ‘he continued playfully, ’that poison is a woman’s weapon, rather than a man’s. Perhaps I should ask you-? Ah, but perhaps, dear lady, it is an Italian woman you were thinking of? Perhaps you were about to mention a certain Borgia. Is that, eh?’

Tredwell to Poirot and Hastings:

‘In my opinion, Mrs. Richard Amory did not want the Italian gentleman asked to dinner. I observed her face when Miss Amory gave the invitation.’

‘What is your own impression of Dr. Carelli?’ asked Poirot.

‘Dr Carelli, sir, is not one of us.’

‘Did you feel that there was something odd about Dr Carelli’s coming to the house in the way that he did?’

‘Precisely, sir. It wasn’t natural, somehow. And it was after he arrived that the trouble began, with the master telling me earlier this evening to send for you, and giving orders about the doors being locked. Mrs. Richard, too, hasn’t been herself all the evening. She had to leave the dinner-table. Mr. Richard, he was very upset about it.’

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