The aptly titled Agatha Christie Megaset Collection is, indeed, a gigantic collection. Nine discs strong, this boxed set packs in nine feature-length Miss Marple features and four feature-length Poirot features. This combination set shines the spotlight on the Queen of Crime's two most famous, and enduring, characters. First we meet the elderly Miss Jane Marple, whose sweet little-old-lady appearance and interjections of "oh dear!" are accompanied by a mind that's as sharp as tacks, and a passion for seeing justice done, no matter what. Sharing the set with Miss Marple is the Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, a fussy and eccentric man but one with an equally sharp eye for spotting crime and a brain that's second to none in finding the solution to even the most puzzling mysteries.
The Megaset is an odd collection, in a way, because despite its size it's not a complete set of either the Miss Marple or the Poirot films. Three other Miss Marple films (The Body in the Library, A Murder Is Announced, and A Pocket Full of Rye) appear in a separate set, the Miss Marple Gift Set; the Megaset contains the remaining nine. For Poirot, there are quite a few more, all produced by Acorn Media: apart from the 50-minute episodes appearing in the Collector's Sets, the other feature-length Poirot films have been released on DVD both separately and as part of the Movie Collection 1 and Movie Collection 2. The four films that appear in this A&E collection do finish out the series of feature-length Poirot stories; these were the last ones to be filmed.
Let's start with a look at the contents of the set:
Miss Marple:A Murder is Announced (aired 1985; novel written 1950)
Sleeping Murder (aired 1986; novel written during World War II and published posthumously in 1976)
At Bertram's Hotel (aired 1987; novel written in 1965)
Nemesis (aired 1987; novel written in 1971)
Murder at the Vicarage (aired 1987; novel written in 1930)
4:50 from Paddington (aired 1987; novel written in 1957)
A Caribbean Mystery (aired 1989; novel written in 1964)
They Do It With Mirrors (aired 1991; novel written in 1952)
The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (aired 1992; novel written in 1962)
Lord Edgware Dies (aired 2000; novel Thirteen at Dinner written 1933)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (aired 2000; novel written 1926)
Murder in Mesopotamia (aired 2001; novel written 1936)
Evil Under the Sun (aired 2001; novel written 1941)
All of the stories, whether starring Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, show Agatha Christie's characteristic style, generally with a complex puzzle involving various suspects, and a generally surprise twist as to who actually "did it." Both detectives have the common thread of being very distinctive (in their unique ways) and of being given an excellent portrayal by their respective actors: after seeing Joan Hickson and David Suchet in the roles, it's hard to imagine any other actor filling their shoes as Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.
The two series do have distinct flavors, though: they're definitely not interchangeable. The Miss Marple stories tend to be slower-paced, with more time spent on introducing the situation and the characters before the key mystery element is introduced and the puzzle begins to be solved.
Of the nine episodes featuring Miss Marple, I found The Moving Finger and Nemesis to be the stand-outs. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple is called in by a friend to trace the source of vicious "poison pen" letters that are being sent to many of the people of the normally quiet town of Lymston. As it turns out, the unpleasant notes are just the tip of the iceberg... as events proceed, the ante is upped to murder. It's a very entertaining story, and it's well told; there are quite a few characters, but they're fairly well defined and it's clear who is whom throughout the story. Nemesis is even better in terms of story structure: as the story opens, Miss Marple is sent on an investigation without even knowing what crime she's supposed to solve... only that a letter from a recently deceased friend asks her to act as his "Nemesis" and right an injustice. The pieces of the puzzle come together one by one, and since we're eager to find out "what was the crime?" as well as "who did it?" there's always something interesting developing in the story.
Not all the Miss Marple stories work particularly well, unfortunately. At Bertram's Hotel strings viewers along through an interminable amount of set-up concerning characters in whom we have, as yet, no particular interest, only to finish up with a fairly weak ending in which half of the plot threads are unrelated to each other. Murder in the Vicarage is another weak episode; a gaggle of characters (none particularly distinctive) is introduced all at once, and the viewer is evidently expected to immediately match name to face and keep track of everyone, even before anything of interest happens in the plot. For the most part, though, the Miss Marple stories are reasonable, if not outstanding. 4:50 from Paddington, for instance, offers an entertaining story about a murder that's witnessed first-hand... except that the body disappears and no one reports a missing person. The main drawback of this story is that Miss Marple herself doesn't play as big a role as she could have, instead delegating most of the detecting to a secondary character, but it's watchable.
The Poirot episodes are, in my mind, the better part of the set. Set in the 1930s with a meticulous eye for period detail, including the "Art Deco" theme of the credits, these stories seem to have a bit more spark to them from the beginning. Of course, the brilliant portrayal of Hercule Poirot by David Suchet is an essential element of the episodes' appeal; for followers of the Poirot series, it's also a pleasure to see the characters of Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon play important roles as well. While these characters didn't actually appear in as many of Agatha Christie's novels as in the filmed versions, it's much more fun to have these continuing characters rather than yet another generic policeman or bystander in the same part.
The four stories here give Poirot a nice selection of puzzles to solve. In Evil Under the Sun, he's sent to a spa for his own health, only to discover that murder is afoot among the other guests. Though the "impossible" nature of the crime isn't explained as well as it might have been, it's quite an entertaining puzzle. Lord Edgware Dies presents Poirot with a plethora of equally likely suspects in the title character's murder, while Murder in Mesopotamia presents Poirot and Hastings with suspects but a shortage of clues when there's a murder on the site of an archaeological expedition. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has a retired Poirot teaming up with Inspector Japp to untangle a nasty web of deceit at the Ackroyd estate.
The Agatha Christie Megaset Collection consists of nine DVDs in separate keepcases, all stored inside a large, sturdy cardboard slipcase. Five of the DVDs are devoted to the Miss Marple episodes (with two episodes per disc except for They Do It with Mirrors, which has its own disc), and the remaining four contain one Poirot episode apiece. All of the episodes are "feature-length," meaning that they run between 90 and 115 minutes each.
It's difficult to put a rating for video quality on this set, because the Miss Marple and Poirot episodes differ sharply in quality. The Miss Marple episodes are in very poor condition overall, certainly worse than I'd expect for their late-1980s air dates. Contrast is typically poor, and the image is usually quite soft and blurry. Print flaws appear frequently, and at times we even get strange distortions: in The Moving Finger the image tends to ripple slightly, causing a peculiar sense of movement in areas of the image that ought to be static, and in At Bertram's Hotel there are several instances of distortion in the form of colored lines across the screen. Overall, I'd give the Miss Marple episodes only a star and a half for image quality.
The Poirot episodes are much better; in fact, they're the best-looking of any of the Poirot features that I've seen on DVD. The image is clean and clear, colors look bright, vibrant, and natural, and contrast is handled quite well, with the image offering satisfactory detail in both brightly lit and dimly lit scenes. The outdoor footage looks just as good as the indoor footage here, which is a great benefit for episodes like Evil Under the Sun, which takes place largely outdoors. Overall, I'd award three and a half stars to the Poirot episodes for their respectable image quality.
Both the Miss Marple and the Poirot episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
As with the video portion of the transfer, there's a difference between the quality of the soundtracks for the Miss Marple and Poirot episodes, though not so extreme as with the image quality. Both feature a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack.
For the Miss Marple episodes, the 2.0 track is passable, but it sounds more like a mono than a stereo soundtrack. The track is clean-sounding and the dialogue is adequately presented, though rather flat-sounding. I'd give it two and a half stars, an average mark. The Poirot episodes offer a clean, satisfactory sound, with all the dialogue coming across crisp and clear. I'd give it three and a half stars for audio.
There's not much here by way of special features. The Poirot DVDs offer a listing of all the Agatha Christie Poirot stories, and biographies of David Suchet and Agatha Christie. The Miss Marple DVDs are equivalent, with a listing of all the Miss Marple stories, and biographies of Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, and Agatha Christie.
If you're a big fan of Agatha Christie's mysteries on film, then the Agatha Christie Megaset Collection offers a gargantuan dose of puzzles and crimes, featuring her two most famous sleuths. The set is more heavily weighted toward Miss Marple fans, with nine episodes from that series, and four from the Poirot series. All of the DVDs are also available for purchase separately (or, in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Lord Edgware Dies, in a two-pack), so if you are only a fan of one of the two series, you can pick up only those episodes that you like. However, if you're fond of Agatha Christie's stories in general, this Megaset is a convenient way to get a lot of mystery entertainment in one fell swoop. Just make sure your expectations for image quality are not too high: although the Poirot episodes look great, the Miss Marple episodes are disappointingly sub-par. All in all, I'll give this a "recommended" for mystery fans.