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Little Grey Cells: An Advance Review of PBS' "Poirot: Cat Among the Pigeons" and "Poirot: Mrs. McGinty's Dead"

Fans of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, the funny little Belgian detective famed as much for his fastidiousness as the fact that he's the self-proclaimed most famous detective in the world, have long waited for actor David Suchet to slip back into the role.

That wait is over as PBS' Masterpiece Mystery will this month offer the US premiere of two new Poirot mysteries starring Suchet as part of its "Six by Agatha" season, which features not only two feature-length Poirot mysteries but also four Miss Marple whodunits, starring Julia McKenzie (Cranford) as Miss Marple herself.

The two mysteries, entitled "Cat Among the Pigeons" and "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," will seriously put Hercule Poirot's famed "little grey cells" to the test as he must contend with two very different murder scenarios. In the first, "Cat Among the Pigeons," the Belgian detective goes undercover at the Meadowbank School for Girls, where he encounters not only murder and missing foreign princesses, but hidden rubies and kidnapping, all of which strive to disrupt the school term. The following week, in "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," the investigation of the murder of an elderly charwoman--an effort to free a wrongfully accused man from swinging at the gallows--results in Poirot uncovering the truth about a pair of decades-old homicides and their connection to the present day.

Of the two new mysteries, both of which are making their US premiere here after airing in the UK last year, the first is far more successful in terms of its plotting and tension. Breathtakingly directed by James Kent (Margaret), "Cat Among the Pigeons" is classic Christie at its very best: a series of red herrings, bait-and-switches, and intelligent detection on the part of Poirot with the deft skill of a chess master. The atmosphere at the Meadowbank School for Girls is filled with claustrophobia and paranoia and Poirot discovers himself entering the world of high-stakes international espionage as he uncovers various connections to a coup in the Middle Eastern region of Ramat and some spies coming in from the cold.

It's as gripping and tense as any of Christie's finest work and the cast, which includes Atonement's Harriet Walter, Miss Potter's Anton Lesser, Vanity Fair's Natasha Little, Bridget Jones' Diary's Claire Skinner, Harry Potter's Katie Leung, EastEnders' Adam Croasdell, Spooks' Miranda Raison, Green Wing's Pippa Haywood, and The Jewel in the Crown's Susan Wooldridge (along with, of course, David Suchet as Poirot) are all top-notch giving the piece an aura of timelessness as well as menace.

Someone stalks the corridors of this venerable educational institution and Poirot will not only meet an adversary worthy of his time and intuitive and deductive reasoning but will also encounter a kindred spirit in a young girl who proves herself to be a protege worthy of the master himself.

The second Poirot mystery, "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," feels a little tired in comparison. The fault doesn't lie with the actors or the sensational direction--this time from Afterlife's Ashley Pearce--but rather with an over the top and oftentimes baffling plot from Christie herself, which isn't helped by a confusing screenplay from Nick Dear.

In this case, Poirot reluctantly agrees to look into the death of an elderly charwoman in the small town of Broadhinney in order to free an man whom the prosecution believes may in fact be innocent of the crime for which he's been accused. This investigation stirs up some long-buried secrets as Poirot attempts to unmask Mrs. McGinty's true killer and in turn ends up exposing several people's concealed pasts.

The cast includes Zoe Wanamaker (My Family) as Poirot's confidante Ariadne Oliver, a detective novelist believed to have been modeled on Christie herself, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall's James Bentley, The Shellseekers' Richard Hope, The Forsyte Saga's Amanda Root, Gallowglass' Paul Rhys, Ivanhoe's Sian Philips, and Peak Practice's Simon Shepherd.

"Mrs. McGinty's Dead" isn't bad television and it isn't bad Poirot either; rather, it pales in comparison to the deftness and complexity of "Cat Among the Pigeons." Here, there are so many suspects and so many needlessly confusing elements--such as the newspaper report of two murder cold cases from decades earlier--that it's hard to become invested in the plot at hand with the same glee and abandon as one does with the first installment.

Still, it's a real treat to once again see Suchet step into Poirot's spats and ingeniously solve two cases by using his smarts rather than his fists. The wit is as pointed as Hercules' trademark mustache and these two mysteries offer the perfect antidote to a sweltering summer evening.

Poirot returns with two new mysteries, "Cat Among the Pigeons" and "Mrs. McGinty's Dead," on Sunday, June 21st and Sunday, June 28th at 9 pm ET/PT. Check your local listings for details


Mapeel said…
What, no Captain Hastings? Still, I'm thrilled. I didn't realize any new ones had been filmed.

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