The ABC Murders premiere recap: season 1 episode 1


In this Amazon Prime exclusive adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, writer Sarah Phelps turns a jolly, clever mystery romp into a harrowing cautionary tale about xenophobia and rising fascism.

The narrative follows aging Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (John Malkovich) as he tracks down a killer who calls himself A.B.C. and chooses his victims and locations alphabetically.

The series opens with a creepy letter being typewritten. “Are you lonely,” the letter asks. “Don’t be lonely. I am here watching you. Chin-chin, A.B.C.”

After the opening credits, a figure emerges from the teeming masses of the railway station and is introduced as Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farren). London, 1933.

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Cust arrives at an address in a dirty alley with a huge poster prominently displayed on the wall outside that reads, “March for Britain. We must stem the alien tide. March for your country and your blood.”

The lightning bolt emblem of the British Union of Fascists graces the poster. We will see a lot of these posted around England, giving us a very good idea of the national attitude at the time. This is, after all, the year that Hitler comes to power in Germany.

A wretched woman named Mrs. Marbury (Shirley Henderson) answers the door. Cust is her new lodger and the length of his stay depends on the success of his enterprise. Marbury claims to be for good old fashioned manners and English propriety, but she’s an abusive, fascist drunk who pimps out her daughter to the tenants.

Cust unpacks his parcels, which contain women’s stockings, the ABC railway guide, a new jacket, and a typewriter.

Poirot gets the first of his letters from A.B.C., first saying that he followed Poirot and was concerned for the aging detective, that he seems tired and defeated. And indeed, Poirot does walk as if his feet hurt, seems to have trouble getting out of bed, and even attempts to dye his white beard to appear black.

The way his back hunches, when he bends to pick up the letter as it comes through the mail slot, is distressing. A.B.C. tells Poirot that he intends to be feared, that he will become a faceless beast leading lambs to the slaughter. Despite the multitude of threats and taunts that Poirot receives in the mail every day, there is something about this one that he takes seriously and brings the letter to Scotland Yard.

At Scotland Yard, however, his friend Inspector Japp has retired and in his place is the young and arrogant Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint in an alarmingly mature, excessively British role that he totally nails). Crome is out when Poirot comes calling and when he finally arrives he scoffs and refuses to even speak to him.

Poirot is disappointed but doesn’t seem surprised. He goes instead to see the retired Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally). Poirot gets hate mail daily from the xenophobic public who don’t even know enough to know he’s not French. He brings these letters by way of comparison to the tone and intent of the A.B.C. letter.

Japp tells Poirot that he’s out of sorts and too much on his own, otherwise he would see that all those letters are just worthless. Japp invites him to stay for dinner and burns all his hate mail, but then suffers some kind of attack and dies.

Meanwhile, Cust dresses up in his new jacket and hat, looking quite a lot like Poirot, and heads out with his supplies. Poirot gets a letter telling him to be ready for the 31st in Andover. Cust arrives in Andover and stops in to sell stockings to Mrs. Alice Asher (Tazmin Griffin).

Poirot takes the letter to Scotland Yard, but no murders have been discovered in Andover so they laugh him off. His beard dye starts to run as well, so he leaves rather embarrassed and goes home to wash his beard. Poirot, acting on a hunch, travels to Andover and discovers Alice Asher’s body in the back room of her shop, with a copy of the ABC railway guide opened to “A” next to her. He vows to bring her killer to justice.

Meanwhile, Cust wakes up in his room bearing marks of a struggle. Police in Andover think that Mrs. Asher’s drunken husband — who can barely function or plan beyond his next drink — killed her, but Poirot doesn’t believe it for a second.

Betty Barnard (Eve Austin) of Bexhill is a flirt and stole her plain sister’s fiance. Poor Megan Barnard (Bronwyn James) is a good person, but still foolishly in love with the man who would dump her as soon as a pretty girl showed him any attention.

As awful and conceited as Betty is, she is right when she tells Megan she did her a favor by showing her how fickle Donald, her ex-fiance, really is. Cust arrives in Bexhill and meets Betty at The Ginger Cat where she works as a waitress.

He tries to sell her stockings, but once she tries them on she refuses to pay for them because she “doesn’t pay for things. Men give them to me.”

God, she is intolerable. Of course, she’s wearing them now and he can’t force her to pay. Or can he?

Later at a club, Cust sees Betty and tries again to make her pay for her stockings. Again she walks away but is immediately confronted by her boyfriend Donald (Jack Farthing), accompanied by her sister Megan. Donald threatens not to marry her if she doesn’t leave, to which Betty laughs derisively.

Donald storms off and Megan goes to follow him. Megan does appear to have some regard for her sister because she tells her to have some dignity and not follow him. Of course, she does anyway.

Poirot gets a letter from A.B.C., but too late to save Betty who is found strangled on the beach with her own stocking with an ABC railway guide opened to “B” next to her.

Meanwhile, in Churston, Carmichael Clarke (Christopher Villiers) goes for his daily walk with his dog and accompanied by his secretary, Thora Grey (Freya Mavor). His ailing wife stays behind but sends her brother-in-law Franklin (Andrew Buchan) to go with them.

She is suspicious and jealous of Thora, which is probably justified. When Cust arrives back in London he officially meets Lily (Anya Chalotra), Mrs. Marbury’s daughter. Lily prefers to pimp herself out while her mother is away so at least she gets to keep the money. Cust hires her but warns her that what he wants isn’t ordinary.

Poirot arrives home to find Scotland Yard has invaded his home and have a warrant to take anything they want as evidence in the A.B.C. case, claiming now that he has been withholding evidence.

Crome is so antagonistic toward Poirot because Japp vouched for him and it turns out there’s no record of a Poirot in the Belgian police anytime before the war. Poirot claims the records must have been destroyed, but it doesn’t matter because Japp lost his reputation over it and his word is worthless to Crome.

Poirot is not who he says he is and it has something to do with the war.

Poirot, who is known to have been born a Catholic, has quite a lot of religious artifacts in his home and is fairly dedicated to his prayers. He apparently has some kind of buried trauma related to the fact that he’s a refugee.

He came to England in 1914 after his home in Belgium had been invaded and has made England his home for the last 19 years. And yet, Poirot suffers a number of casual indignities perpetrated by proper English folk wearing the Fascist emblem.

These days most people wouldn’t think of a white male — Belgian or not — as a foreign refugee. Sarah Phelps has ingeniously used Poirot’s race and gender to elicit sympathy from those who may have a hard time relating to the current Middle Eastern refugee crisis simply because the refugees are not white and American/British.

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Who knew that this fun little mystery would become a cautionary tale against modern Fascism?

It is also worth mentioning that Poirot is lacking his usual confidant — his friend-biographer, the trusty Watson-type Captain Hastings. Having Poirot on his own is much more effective for this adaptation though because it illustrates how lonely and difficult his life as a foreign refugee is in a hostile country.

Stream Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders now on Amazon Prime Video and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.