“Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions.”

Since lock down kicked in, I’ve realised I’m really missing the theatre. I’m not someone who goes particularly regularly – a few times of year at most – but I love it. Musicals, plays, comedies, dramas – what’s not to love? Theatre is second only to books for me as a way to tell a story. It’s there and vivid and right in front of you. If you’ve been on my blog before, you almost certainly know that I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and while people may know her for her novels and be aware that she is responsible for the longest-running play in history – The Mousetrap has only been halted by this bloody lock down – she wrote many other plays. In fact, she is the only female playwright to have three plays on at the same time in London, and she was so revered that when she died, all the theatres in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour in her memory.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to say that in the 1990s, three of her plays were adapted into novels by Charles Osborne. The other two, Spider’s Web and The Unexpected Guest are already on the blog, so it’s time to complete the set. It’s time to enter her first play, Black Coffee.

Notable inventor Sir Claud Amory calls his family into the library after dinner with an announcement. In his safe he had a formula for a powerful new explosive that would change the face of war forever, but now it has gone. The thief, he knows, is in the room. He has already called Hercule Poirot in who will be arriving imminently. Amory offers up a simple option. He will turn the lights off in the room for a short while, the thief can place the stolen formula on the table, and no further questions will be asked. However, once the lights come back up again, the formula – or at least the envelope it was in – has appeared on the table, but the darkness brought death, and now more questions arise, just as Poirot and Hastings turn up on the doorstep. Now there are two puzzles to solve, and a lot of tangled familial relationships to unwind before the answers can be found.

So, it’s a Christie story at her peak. Obviously it’s good. But like with the others, it still lacks something. Reading an adaptation makes you realise quite how much difference there is between prose and scripted story. Most of the action here takes place in a single room, as it would on stage, but here that seems a little unnatural. Quite often you feel like you’re simply reading stage directions, and the mind’s eye can’t help but envision the whole drama unfolding on a stage. In those terms, it still works. The mystery is also particularly engaging, and I only remembered the solution as it drew closer. Christie uses Poirot’s obsession with neatness to assist him once more in solving the plot, but it’s done remarkably well. Unfortunately, because of the stage direction elements of it, some actions are deliberately pointed out to us whereas, in the theatre, we might not have seen them.

The characters are perhaps not quite as fully rounded as some of hers, but with a play you have more limited time to get things across. There’s a deft touch of humour throughout the story, too, as there is in all the best Christie’s. It’s a satisfying solution, with Poirot proven his talents once more. A quick, charming read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!