There’s always been a bit of fun in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. Yes, there’s also always been at least one dead body, but that’s mostly just been an excuse for the game of trying to figure out who’s the killer. For a grim and gritty examination of the brutal cost that comes with the extermination of a human being, you might want to look elsewhere.
And yet, rarely has an Agatha Christie adaptation been as much fun as the French series Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games. Keeping the basic plots but shifting the location to the French countryside in the 1950s, the series also swaps out Christie’s traditional sleuths for the double act of brilliant yet reserved police officer Swan Laurence (Samuel Labarthe) and curious girl reporter Alice Avril (Blandine Bellavoir). They might be the most obvious difference here, but they’re not the only reason these adaptations are so fun to watch.
Swan Laurence is not quite a parody of the '50s urbane crime-fighter, but the series is smart enough to play up to the clichés when need be. And if you’re wondering what a slick detective is doing solving murders in rural France, let’s just say that his high-flying career back in Paris was derailed when he messed with the wrong politicians, which gives him yet another thing to be sarcastic about.
Plucky (would-be) reporters don’t come much pluckier than Alice Avril, making her the perfect foil for Laurence’s super-smart sleuth. Well, in her eyes at least. He’s not the type of guy to warm to anyone, so much of their working together involves him telling her to back off and stop annoying him with her crazy schemes while they sling snarky insults at each other (that they don’t really mean… probably).
And watch out for Élodie Frenck as Laurence’s somewhat ditzy blonde bombshell secretary, Marlène. While she only makes minor appearances in the first few episodes, she quickly became a fan favourite, with her role rapidly expanding until she becomes one of the series’ central characters.
Christie’s original mysteries weren’t exactly known for their snappy banter, though pretty much all the recent adaptations have managed to slip in a wry joke here and there. This series plays things a lot closer to comedy than most, starting with the double act of Laurence and Avril. Usually when you put a straightlaced detective and a plucky outsider together you expect a bit of banter, but Laurence’s aloof, arrogant attitude leads to plenty of snark towards Avril, even when she proves useful.
There’s great chemistry between Labarthe and Bellavoir right from the start, but the series never slides into “will they/won’t they” territory – even Laurence’s relationship with his sexy secretary is one-sided, as her crush on him goes unrequited. This could be a commentary on the stoic nature of detectives – how can you expect to solve crimes of passion if you allow yourself to be swept away by it? But really, it’s just more fun this way.
Does it get any cooler that '50s era France? No, no it doesn’t. It’s a period of sharp suits, snazzy cars, classy décor, glamorous women and pretty much everyone looking like they just stepped out of a Gitanes ad. From Laurence’s razor-sharp skinny ties to Alice zipping around on a scooter, the series doesn’t let a chance slip by to look stylish. The production is polished, too. Even at a time when we’re used to quality period dramas, this stands out thanks to a commitment to recreating the fun and flashy '50s that the pop culture of the time embodied.
One thing they haven’t messed with – well, not too much – is Christie's original mystery plots. Episode one is adapted from the Miss Marple mystery They Do It With Mirrors, although, unlike the traditional slow burn with Miss Marple taking her time getting to the scene of the crime, this version doesn’t mess around. In this case, the crime scene is a country manor turned into a home for wayward boys (in reality, more like the criminally insane) run by a husband-and-wife team who clearly have something to hide. The mystery kicks off with a young woman sexily dancing in a garage to music while one of the more dim-witted inmates leers at her. He then promptly (and mysteriously) has his throat cut in broad daylight.
Enter Laurence, tackling his first case since he was shunted out to the countryside. He’s clearly not thrilled by his new status, and his mood doesn’t improve when Avril, amateur sleuth and lonely hearts columnist at the local paper, starts pestering him for the hot scoop on what really went down. When he refuses to provide anything even remotely like a “scoop”, she decides to go undercover, gets herself hired as a servant and quickly discovers the most dangerous people there aren’t the inmates.
OK, there isn’t a whole lot of this, and what there is – largely in the person of Marlène – is played as much for laughs as anything else. But this is French television: it couldn’t be unsexy if it tried. And if sharp tailoring is your thing, Laurence’s outfits are more eye candy than you can handle.
Stream Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games now at SBS On Demand: