Charles Gray as Eugine Valmont in The Absent-Minded Coterie by Robert Barr
Adapted by Alexander Baron. Directed by Peter Duguid
French amateur detective Eugine Valmont (Charles Gray) is consulted by Inspector Hale (Barry Linehan) of Scotland Yard. Whilst Valmont easily manages to wrap up Hale’s little problem (a gang of counterfeiters) it leads him onto another case, which may be much harder to crack …..
The Absent-Minded Coterie was written by Robert Barr and was published in 1906. Barr was responsible for the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs (in 1892) and followed this up with The Adventure of the Second Swag in 1904. Although these two stories took gentle digs at the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon they didn’t affect his friendship with Conan-Doyle. Both of these stories, along with his tales of Eugine Valmont (including The Absent-Minded Coterie) can be read here.
Although he didn’t write many Valmont stories (only eight in total) each one was an entertaining inversion of the sort of tales which had already become cliches, thanks to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. And at first glance The Absent-Minded Coterie does seem to be little more than a Holmes knock-off since Valmont, like Holmes, is a private detective who finds himself constantly badgered by Scotland Yard to help them solve their cases.
In Valmont’s own words, courtesy of Robert Barr –
Myself, I like the English detective very much, and if I were to be in a mêlée tomorrow, there is no man I would rather find beside me than Spenser Hale. In any situation where a fist that can fell an ox is desirable, my friend Hale is a useful companion, but for intellectuality, mental acumen, finesse—ah, well! I am the most modest of men, and will say nothing.
Alexander Baron’s dramatisation and Peter Duguid’s direction takes Barr’s source material to craft a very familiar late Victorian/early Edwardian setting – complete with fog shrouded streets. The case of the counterfeiters rumbles along for a while, but it seems so commonplace that it’s difficult to understand why Hale should need Valmont’s help.
At this early stage the episode is nothing special, but it changes gear once Miss Mackail (Suzanne Neve) comes fully into view and Valmont’s fallibilities are laid bare. When you understand that Valmont lost as often as he won (making the title of Barr’s book – The Triumphs of Eugine Valmont – deeply ironic) things begin to fall into place. Both Barr’s original, and Baron’s dramatisation, take delight in using tropes familiar from the Sherlock Holmes stories and then turning them on their head.
Valmont jubilantly confronts Miss Mackail but is perturbed to find that she’s quite calm about it and gently goes onto remind him that as the only evidence he holds was obtained illegally it’s inadmissible in a court of law. Just prior to this there’s a lovely moment where Valmont turns all the lights off, except for one directed straight at him. As he stands in the spotlight, he grandly reveals to Miss Mackail that his name is Eugine Valmont. Alas, the spell is broken when she admits she’s never heard of him!
Charles Gray sports an outrageous French accent as the vainglorious Valmont. It’s interesting to ponder whether Agatha Christie was influenced by Valmont when creating Hercule Poirot. Certainly the two share some similarities, although Poirot’s belief in his own abilities was well founded. Gray’s performance is somewhat stagey, but it suits the material since Valmont isn’t supposed to be a rounded, three-dimensional character.
Barry Lineham gives a rather odd turn as Hale. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is, maybe it’s his slowness of speech, but there’s something about him that doesn’t quite click. But Suzanne Neve is lovely as the cunning Miss Mackail and it’s a joy to watch her run rings around Valmont at the end.
The adaptation probably loses some of the sparkle of Barr’s stories (which are certainly worth a read) but it does have a lightness of touch which makes it something of a joy.