Like other the recent Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders (based on the novel of the same name) collects a great cast for a slow, hauntingly dramatic tale that misses the spark of the novels. ABC Murders is the first of these recent adaptions though to revive Hercule Poirot, one of Christie’s most famous and enduring creations. He was iconically portrayed for over a decade by David Suchet, but now John Malkovich has taken over the role, trading in Suchet’s wit and charm with somber penitence.
The three-part series, which is now premiering in the U.S. on Amazon Prime after a U.K. run, features an older Poirot towards the end of his career. He’s no longer famous or particularly wanted, and his detective partner Hastings is nowhere to be seen, nor is his mentioned. The show dispatches with another friend of Poirot’s almost immediately, setting the stage for an adaptation that is totally focused on darkness. Poirot is haunted by his past, which is revealed through patchwork flashbacks over the three episodes, and culminates in a totally new origin for the detective that is sure to be divisive among fans. But the series starts with a letter that brings him back into the investigative fold, teasing him about a spree of killings that he will not be able to prevent.
This is where, naturally, the ABCs come in, with the killer choosing someone with a surname that matches each letter, who also lives along a British rail line that also begins with that letter. If you are an Asher in Andover, for instance, you should probably watch out. Though Poirot brings the case to Scotland Yard, he is dismissed and somewhat humiliated by a young new Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). Crome has no idea what he’s dealing with in terms of the case though, and Poirot is soon hired on by a family member of one of the victims to do his own investigation.
Humiliation is part of Poirot’s dour sentence in ABC Murders, as we see him questioning his religion and living an austere existence. There is a small attempt to weave in some of his trademark vanity and blunt speech, but he is so cowed in this portrayal that it falls flat. The murders themselves are hardly so buttoned up, though; they are gruesome, with extended shoots of corpses and blood leaking out of them (and others). The killer seems to be revealed almost immediately, but any Christie fan should know that there is always more than meets the eye when it comes to her crime stories.
Still, when the final truth is revealed, it feels hurried after two slow episodes. And while some of the murderer’s plans are explained, there are several loose threads that writer Sarah Phelps (who also adapted And Then There Were None) seems interested in pursuing, without having a real reason within the story to do so. A few crude dialogue flourishes are also added, perhaps to make the story feel more modern than its 1933 setting, but they stand out as unnecessary and hardly Christie-like. (A landlady talking in depth about breaking up big poops with a stick is not really how I want to start any show, but especially one that doesn’t give that conversation the comedic tone it deserves).
This is, however, still a classic Christie story, which means that it is a twisty crime thriller. But too many liberties were taken with its structure to make it work as well as it should, and the dark, dull tone is a disappointment.
The ABC Murders premieres Friday, February 1st on Amazon Prime.