Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Black Coffee Rag

「オレは今、オレ自身の2つの問題で精いっぱいさ。コーヒーはなぜ、黒いのか? そして‥‥なぜ、ニガいのか‥‥?」

"Right now, I have my hands full with my own two questions. Why is coffee black? And why... is it so bitter...?"
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations"

Coffee is something I don't see as much as a tasteful beverage, but more like a practical drink for its caffeine. Ice coffee however is a completely different story, as I love that.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is asked by the famous scientist Sir Claud Amory to come by his house as he is facing a problem he himself can not solve. Amory had created a formula for a new explosive, but then he discovers that someone in his house has stolen it, probably to sell to a foreign agent willing to pay much for it and he needs Poirot's grey cells to figure out who did it. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at stately Amory manor though, it's been too late: Sir Claud had been poisoned through his black coffee. Was it the thief of the formula who murdered the man, or was there another person intent at taking the inventor's life? Hoping to at least help Sir Claud in his death, Poirot decides to investigate the manner of Sir Claud's demise, as well as of the theft of the explosive formula in Charles Osborne's Black Coffee (1998).

Black Coffee was originally a play written by Agatha Christie herself in 1930 featuring her famous creation Poirot. The play was not very well-known among Poirot fans, but in 1998, Charles Osborn wrote a novelization of the play, giving Black Coffee new life. When I first heard about this book, I have to admit I was not very interested, as it was "just" a novelization by someone else, and even though the source material was by Christie herself, I have to admit I was never that much a fan of the other plays by her I knew (like The Mousetrap or the other Poirot plays). Of course, now we're several years later and as I know all the other Poirot stories now, I thought that perhaps trying Black Coffee out could not hurt (yes, I know, I didn't exactly go in with really high expectations).

That said though, there is very little to say about Black Coffee, as it is an incredibly simple story, and even in novel-form you feel it was made for the theater. The whole set-up (Poirot being called to find a thief/murderer among a small household) reminds a lot of the Poirot short stories The Under Dog and The Incredible Theft, and Black Coffee is basically simply another variation on that theme. In terms of scale, Black Coffee is also barely a short story worth of plot, so that strengthens the similarities between these stories. As a mystery story, Black Coffee is nothing special at all, which is once again something this story shares with the Poirot stories mentioned, as I suspect few view them as the highlights of the Poirot short stories. Christie for example makes use of a device in regards to the whereabouts of the formula that was probably already old and over-used when this story was written and most of the rest of the tale consists of Poirot asking people questions that don't seem to lead anywhere. Black Coffee is definitely not Christie gold.

I can't compare the novelization to the original play, but you definitely can tell that this story was originally a play. Most of the story takes place inside the room where the murder took place, with all the characters moving in and out of the room to suit the plot. Of course, every time a person is all alone in the room, they'll act suspiciously for no apparent reader but to show the reader they're suspicious, I guess the novelization is probably faithful to the play in this regard, and it shows it respects the source material, but I had definitely preferred some more variety. This is a novel, so you don't need to incorporate every element of the play, especially if it's something that probably only exists because of the limitations of a medium. One might say that the final solution with Poirot works better if the whole story is set in the same room, but I don't think the effect is weakened that much if we'd see even a bit more of the outside world, and in any case, the prologue is in fact set outside the room (in Poirot's apartment to be exact), so I don't think it would've hurt that much.

I had hoped I'd be able to write something more substantial about Black Coffee, but there's so little I can say about it. Black Coffee is a full novel, but the core plot mystery is just barely enough for a short story in truth, as it's quite simple and nothing special, and certainly not something I'd consider a Christie classic (and she has written some great short stories!). The novelization is also, I suspect, quite faithful to the original play in being mainly set in one location, but this again strengthens the feeling of this being a short story being dragged out to a full novel. had this been a short story, Black Coffee would've been a mediocre effort of a mystery story. As a full novel, it's simply tedious and nothing special, and not even Poirot and Hastings can save it.


  1. And doesn't Osborne include a stage direction showing the murderer at work?

    1. I'll be perfectly honest here, and say that I really, really don't remember. I actually read this book August last year, and then the review basically got pushed back a few times in the schedule as it was rather low on the priority list and now we're almost ten months further ^_~

  2. I think 'The Unexpected Guest' is the best among the Christie's plays which have been novelised by Charles Osborne.Have you read it? If not,you should give it a try.

    1. I think I recall having listened to the radio play adaptation of that story.

    2. Spider's Web is way better. Being a fair-play romp with self-parody of at leasy dozens of particular books and even her own tropes.