I've frankly never gotten the literary elite who dismiss Agatha Christie as a cliché-ridden author who basically writes the same story over and over. While it's true you do get some time-honored mystery traditions in virtually every Christie story, the amazing variety of characters, red herrings and victims (not to mention detectives), makes Christie's work some of the most distinctive and impressive in English literature. That's right, I said literature. So let's get the usual literary suspects out of the way first. You know going into any given Christie mystery you're going to have at least one puzzlingly murdered victim, a group of interrelated suspects, all of whom usually have one or two figurative skeletons in their closets, and (at least) one slightly eccentric detective who will ferret out the facts and deliver a stunning denouement in a "Moishe the Explainer" segment that brings all the disparate clues home while explicating the various characters' behaviors during the story. Acorn has gone back to its many Christie adaptations and pulled out a sort of bizarre collection in this repackaging, featuring one of the "new" Miss Marples, a great vintage Poirot, the lesser seen Tommy and Tuppence, and a standalone television movie, The Pale Horse, which if nothing else will have you thinking twice about your dental hygiene routine.
Let's start with the best in this set, and it is inarguably the sublime Poirot episode "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," the second season closer for the series and one of the few extended length Poirots from early in the show's long, successful run (new episodes have just been broadcast in the UK and should be stateside soon). Has there ever been a more perfect melding of role to actor than David Suchet to Christie's obsessive-compulsive (long before Monk, mind you) Belgian know-it-all? Suchet has inhabited this role so completely that it's almost impossible for the modern viewer to accept anyone else in it, even relatively recent (and decent) portrayals by the likes of Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney (and less acclaimed older ones by the likes of Tony Randall, of all people). Suchet's fussy, overly mannered performance is simply perfect, and this early episode is all the more delightful in that it depicts the first real working together of Poirot and his two recurring character comrades in arms, Hastings (the delightful Hugh Fraser) and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson). In fact one of the interesting things about "Styles" is how Japp has not yet become the exasperated foil of Poirot and actually defers to him, much to the consternation of Japp's superior.
"Styles" is vintage Christie, with a baffling locked-door murder, a houseful of suspects, and Poirot dealing with the most likely suspect who seems to have an airtight alibi. This episode is helped immeasurably by its more leisurely pace and longer length; some of the Poirot episodes crafted for an hour's broadcast time feel awfully truncated, with not enough time to fully develop Christie's always brilliantly plotted character backstories, but "Styles" is an elegant exception featuring lush production values and some nice location footage, and is easily one of the most satisfying episodes from the early years of the series.
Moving slightly down the quality chain we get the unusual Christie outing The Pale Horse, featuring no Miss Marple or Poirot to lead the investigation, but rather a befuddled if eager young man named Mark Easterbrook. Easterbrook finds himself investigating not only a series of mysterious deaths (including one for which he is the main suspect), but also an equally mysterious illness, which may or may not involve witchcraft and the occult. As is typical with Christie, there's an odd assortment of decidedly eccentric supporting characters, all of whom share various at times sordid backstories which, in the denouement, helps to explain their suspicious behaviors during the course of the mystery. Pale Horse isn't vintage Christie, and in fact devolves into a sort of silly over-the-top violent climax that is very atypical for Dame Agatha (and, truth be told, doesn't occur in the original book). There are some delicious supporting performances here, though, chief among them Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs) as one of three spinsters who claim to be witches. This is an unusual sidebar to the Christie canon, and while lacking the lightness of some of Christie's best work, does present an intriguing central mystery, which, as mentioned above, involves not only the trials of dental hygiene but also the obvious evils of telemarketing.
Tommy and Tuppence are two Jazz Era amateur sleuths that aren't among Christie's better known detectives, even though they work the same time period as the earlier Poirot mysteries. The two offerings included in this boxed set are the pilot film for the short form series Partners in Crime, which ran in the early 1980s, as well as one additional episode of the series. The pilot, named after Christie's initial Tommy and Tuppence novel, "The Secret Adversary," finds our title pair hooking up toward the end of WWI, after having known each other as children. They're both broke and somewhat destitute, but soon find themselves ensconced in a mystery involving the sinking of the Lusitania and a draft treaty with an unnamed foreign power that might prove embarrassing to English royalty. "The Affair of the Pink Pearl" finds the duo, now married several years later, trying to find a missing mystery woman and then attempting to locate a missing pink pearl from the home of a noblewoman who happens to be a kleptomaniac. While the Tommy and Tuppence series was among the most lighthearted and slight of any television adaptation of Christie, there's simply a lot of fun to be had here, especially in the delightful portrayals of the detectives by Francesca Annis and James Warwick. "Pearl" especially highlights the pair's expert comic timing as they struggle to maintain a façade of competence around well-heeled clients when the fact is they really literally don't have a clue about how to proceed with a proper investigation.
At the nadir of this collection is the newest offering in the bunch, this sadly repurposed "update" of the Miss Marple mystery The Body in the Library. While this is one gorgeous looking piece, with a filmic sweep and some very fun supporting performances (notably by Joanna Lumley, just slightly less than absolutely fabulous), there have been so many liberties taken with the original Christie story, not to mention the character of Miss Marple herself, that I for one can't stomach these newer versions. Geraldine McEwan plays Marple the way she's written for these versions, so the fault can't be placed at her feet. Marple here is not the slyly doddering spinster that Christie wrote, but instead a feisty go-getter with a romantic backstory (which only makes a tangential appearance here, thank heaven). The most infuriating thing about this adaptation is the sullying of the identity of the murderer as Christie wrote it with a patently unnecessary change that is simply silly. (It's interesting to note that these new Marples actually adapted one of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries, "By the Pricking of My Thumbs," for Jane Marple herself, with a now aged and pretty unhappy Tommy and Tuppence as supporting characters. It's actually the best of the new Marples, probably because it doesn't defile an original Marple story, and fans of Christie may want to check out that episode).