For Agatha Christie fans, there will probably never be a Hercule Poirot greater than David Suchet, whose meticulous (and marvelously mustached) embodiment of the famed detective on PBS’s Poirot remains the high water mark against which all others—including Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, Ian Holm and, most recently, Kenneth Branagh in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express—must be judged. To that end, John Malkovich’s version of the character in Amazon’s new three-part miniseries The ABC Murders (premiering Feb. 1) will not be remembered as the finest in the sleuth’s long and illustrious history. But thanks to this engaging—and slyly timely—adaptation of Christie’s 1936 novel, it ably earns first-runner-up status.
Having originally aired on the BBC last December, The ABC Murders is the latest small-screen Christie affair penned by Sarah Phelps, previously responsible for 2015’s sturdy And Then There Were None and last year’s over-the-top Ordeal by Innocence. Here, she hews closely to her source material when it comes to basic plot mechanics, but fleshes out her drama by concocting a backstory for Poirot that doubles as the show’s second mystery. Via repeated flashbacks to a shattering incident in his native Belgium shortly before he arrived on English shores, Phelps’ saga casts Poirot’s true identity as a secret to be uncovered. Along the way, it posits him as an immigrant refugee navigating a 1930s Britain where a Brexit-style nationalist (and xenophobic) movement is afoot.
No matter that he’s resided in England for two decades, Poirot finds himself an outsider whose lies about his past as a Belgian police officer have gotten retired Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally) in hot water, as well as angered Japp’s replacement, Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). Compounding matters is that Malkovich’s aged Poirot is widely viewed as a has-been whose time in the celebrity spotlight has come and gone. Crome and his law enforcement cronies still resent the icon for spending years making them look like “fools,” and Poirot himself has been shaken by his fall from grace, going so far as to dye his gray goatee in a vain effort to assert his vitality. Poirot’s arrogance, of course, remains. Yet in Malkovich’s skillful hands, the detective is a more detached and interior genius, destabilized by his shaky professional standing and, also, by the long-ago catastrophe that made him who he is today.