Are you an Agatha Christie completionist? If you are, there's certainly a lot to collect, as it seems like there's been a film or television version of everything Christie ever wrote, from her masterworks down to her minor and almost-forgotten pieces. The massive set Agatha Christie's Romantic Detectives collects a generous handful of lesser-known mystery adaptations: the complete set of Tommy and Tuppence episodes, plus two minor non-series mysteries, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery. I have to admit, though, that you'll have to be a Christie completionist to find much to like in this set. I've really enjoyed various film and TV adaptations of the Poirot and Miss Marple stories, but the stories included in this set are of a much lesser caliber.
Tommy and Tuppence: Partners in Crime Sets 1 and 2
For some reason, I've always felt a slight antipathy toward Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence novels. While the mysteries starring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple always seemed interesting and worth reading, whenever I picked up a Tommy and Tuppence one, I always seemed to put it down again right away. When it came to Partners in Crime, the television series adapted from Christie's novels featuring these characters, I ended up having exactly the same reaction as to the novels. I could sit through the episodes, but I certainly didn't find them particularly entertaining.
The Tommy and Tuppence stories are essentially humorous, with a consistently light tone and slightly over the top acting; plot is secondary. This is all very well in theory, but in practice it just doesn't come together for me. It's not that I prefer my mysteries to be deadly serious; in fact, I find the humorous elements in the Poirot series to be highly entertaining. It's just that in the Tommy and Tuppence stories, I felt that the actual mystery plots were not particularly well developed. Even in "The Secret Adversary," which with its longer running time (an hour and forty-five minutes) had more opportunity to develop an interesting story, there are a number of weak links in the plot. Actually, there's probably some justification for problems in the plot of "The Secret Adversary"; the novel of the same name that it was based on was only Christie's second novel, published in 1922.
As with other BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie's work, the Tommy and Tuppence stories presented in Partners in Crime appear to be quite faithful to the original sources (The Secret Adversary and the collection of short stories also titled Partners in Crime). Unfortunately, here this turns out to be a liability rather than a plus: the stories in Partners in Crime are parodies of detective stories that would have been known to 1920s readers, with Tommy and Tuppence parodying a different author's stories in each episode.
Humor tends to age badly, and parody more so. Given that modern viewers are unlikely in the extreme to have even heard of authors like Herbert Jenkins, R. Austin Freeman, Isabel Ostrander, and Anthony Berkeley, they will have no cultural background to appreciate the parodies of these authors. All that's left is a light and rather silly framework for rather lackluster mysteries.
The other main appeal of the episodes appears to be its costumes, as Tuppence gets to wear a variety of outfits for different investigations. However, I found this to be utterly uninteresting, though devotees of fashion may feel differently about it.
The Partners in Crime collection is spread across two sets. Set 1 starts with the longer introductory "The Secret Adversary," and the shorter, fifty-minute episodes "The Affair of the Pink Pearl," "The House of Lurking Death," "Finessing the King," and "The Clergyman's Daughter." Set 2 contains six fifty-minute episodes: "The Sunningdale Mystery," "The Ambassador's Boots," "The Man in the Mist," "The Case of the Missing Lady," "The Unbreakable Alibi," and "The Crackler."
Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
Agatha Christie is most famous for her novels and stories starring the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but she also wrote a few non-series stories. Some of these have become famous both in their original form and on the screen, such as And Then There Were None. Others are more minor works that have not weathered the passing of time quite so well, such Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery.
Based on Christie's 1934 novel of the same name, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? mixes a slightly comic approach with a convoluted mystery plot. The end result is best described as simply "uninspired." It's watchable, sure, but somehow it just plods along, never really involving the viewer in the events on screen.
At over three hours in running time (188 minutes), the plot is fairly complicated. Unfortunately, it's the kind of plot that best appeals to people who have very good memory. The film seems to operate under the assumption that once a character has been introduced and given a name, the viewer will flawlessly remember both the character and the name for the rest of the film. If there were only a few characters, this might not be too difficult, but as it happens, there are a lot of characters... some of whom appear to be minor characters at first, but then turn out to be quite important later on. Furthermore, much of the exposition of the mystery happens with the protagonists talking about the other characters, rather than dealing with them directly, which doesn't do much for jogging a viewer's recollection of the characters in question. Between my less-than-perfect memory for names, and the film's extremely careless method of introducing characters, it was rather difficult to keep track of who did what to whom and why.
The overall feel of the film shares the light touch of the Tommy and Tuppence episodes (and in fact shares the co-stars of the later series). Though the humorous angle isn't played up as much in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, there are still many instances of scenes having humorous elements included. The dramatic scenes also have a slightly soap-opera, melodramatic feel to them, as if they're being played from an ironic point of view. Overall, it's not terrible, but it's far from one of Agatha Christie's great mysteries. The best part, in my opinion, is the opening half hour or so, which sets up a genuinely interesting situation. However, this promise is never realized; from there, the story plods onward, but never manages to get the viewer truly interested in the resolution of the overly long and overly convoluted plot.
The Seven Dials Mystery
If Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is plodding but barely watchable, The Seven Dials Mystery is plodding and unwatchable. The premise doesn't sound too bad: a prank at a weekend house party ends in a death, which is then followed by another suspicious death with rumors of a secret society being involved. That's all well and good, except that the way a story is handled is as important (or, really, more important) than the basic idea, and The Seven Dials Mystery gets it all wrong.
We've got the list: lifeless performances, a plodding script, poor editing, and a general lack of any sort of life or charm to the story. The BBC's hit Poirot series may have demonstrated the appeal of a stylish 1930s setting as part of an overall solid package of storytelling... but in this made-for-television mystery, putting the actors in period clothing and going for exquisitely accurate detail in the setting doesn't overcome the fact that the film is poorly made.
Probably the only reason to watch this film would be to see James Warwick, assuming that you have a special fondness for this actor, who appears in all the mysteries on this set. You'd have to be really extremely fond of him, though, to make it worthwhile.
Agatha Christie's Romantic Detectives is a fat boxed set with seven keepcases inside a glossy paperboard slipcase. The individual DVDs all have the same (undistinguished) cover art as in their individual releases, but the set is livened up by the attractive design of the slipcase.
All the episodes in Tommy & Tuppence: Partners in Crime are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is average, taking into consideration the 1980 air date. The image is fairly washed out and bland, with obvious edge enhancement and print flaws. We also get some colored halos. Outdoor shots look terrible, with a grainy, noisy appearance, but most of the action fortunately takes place indoors.
Why Didn't They Ask Evans? offers a mixed bag of image quality. The indoor scenes are adequate, considering that this is a 1980 television production. Edge enhancement is apparent, and some odd colored halo effects pop up here and there on the edges of objects, but on the whole it's watchable. The outdoor scenes, on the other hand, are very poor. Colors are washed out, and the image on the whole is grainy and noisy, with a liberal helping of print flaws to boot. Unfortunately, there are quite a few outdoor scenes throughout the film, enough to constantly remind the viewer of the uneven image quality of the overall production.
The Seven Dials Mystery looks fairly bad, overall. As is the case with most British television productions of the time, the outdoor scenes are very soft and fuzzy, while the indoor scenes look sharper, though not necessarily significantly better. The image tends to be murky, with poor contrast and a lot of flaws and noise.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for Tommy & Tuppence is satisfactory. The chipper 1920s-style music is balanced well with the rest of the track, and dialogue is reasonably clean and clear. No background noise is evident.
Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery have Dolby 2.0 soundtracks that are adequate. The actors' voices are presented fairly naturally, without any distortion, though at times some of the dialogue is slightly unclear. A slight background hiss is noticeable in some of the quieter scenes as well.
There's not much by way of special features on the individual movie/episode discs: just cast filmographies, information on Agatha Christie, and a trivia quiz. The real special feature here is the inclusion of the made-for-TV movie Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures. This 90-minute film dramatizes events from Christie's life, centered around her 11-day disappearance in 1926. It's reasonably well done, despite being trapped in the awkward zone between documentary and drama; a selling point that's emphasized in the film itself is the use of Christie's own words as taken from various sources such as letters, but it's also pulled toward the sensationalistic wherever the facts aren't well established. In any case, it's a lot more entertaining than the main features on this set, and is presented in an attractive anamorphic widescreen transfer to boot.
Agatha Christie's Romantic Detectives is really a fairly weak collection, with its contents ranging from dated and silly (Tommy & Tuppence) to dull (Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Seven Dials Mystery). I'll suggest this as a rental at best, to viewers who are really sold on seeing film versions of everything that the Queen of Mystery ever wrote. The highlight of the set is the reasonably interesting biographical drama, Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures, which fortunately is available for purchase separately. Rent it.