Synopsis of "Black Coffee" by Agatha Christie

by Sara Clark
Agatha Christie's 'Black Coffee' revolves around theft of a secret formula.

Agatha Christie's 'Black Coffee' revolves around theft of a secret formula.

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Agatha Christie's first play, "Black Coffee," was first staged in 1930 in London. It was subsequently made into a film in 1931 by Twickenham Film Studios, starring Austin Trevor. In 1998, some 20 years after Christie's death, her biographer Charles Osborne reworked the play into a novel. A finely crafted murder mystery with Christie's typical touches of humor, "Black Coffee" stars her most famous detective, the Belgian Hercule Poirot. The original production starred character actor Francis Sullivan as Poirot.

Cast of Characters

"Black Coffee" was the first appearance on stage of Christie's most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The plot revolves around scientist Sir Claud Amery and his secret formula for atom bombs. Additional characters include Sir Claud's son Richard and Richard's wife, Lucia, as well as his sister Caroline and niece Barbara. When the formula is stolen, Sir Claud's suspicions fall on his family. But could his secretary, Edward Raynor, his butler, Treadwell, or the mysterious uninvited guest, Dr Carelli, be involved? Helping Poirot investigate are Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp and Dr. Graham.

Act I

The play opens on the library of renowned scientist Sir Claud Amory. Sir Claud has developed a secret formula for a bomb and has promised it to the Ministry of Defence, but it has been stolen from the safe. He thinks a member of his family is responsible, and summons Hercule Poirot to question his family and try to establish the traitor. While waiting for the detective, Sir Claud gathers the household in one room and questions them over coffee. He makes the significant remark that he is finding the coffee rather bitter that evening. Sir Claud announces the impending arrival of Poirot, and requests the return of his formula. He instructs the servants to put out the lights to facilitate the return of the formula. When the lights come up, the formula has indeed been returned, but Sir Claud is dead.

Act II

Act II of the play sees the entrance of Poirot, with his quintessentially English assistant Captain Hastings. Have been summoned to investigate a robbery, the duo are taken aback to discover a corpse, but start the investigation. Much of the mystery hinges on the fact that all the suspects were locked in the same room when the murder was committed, but as the plot takes a series of twists and turns, Poirot manages to trick the murderer into betrayal. The audience is offered a series of clues throughout the process, but how many are red herrings is only revealed when Poirot unmasks the villain with his usual brilliant flair.

Social Context

Following a period of economic depression caused by the First World War and fallout from the Wall Street crash, Britain was just about to enter a period of increased prosperity. Unemployment figures were beginning to fall, and mass culture was beginning to develop in the form of the British Broadcasting Corp. and pop music. The population was beginning to develop a taste for accessible culture such as plays, and at last had the means to support it. Christie's play hit the mood of the time, consisting as it did of escapism structured round a topical theme -- loss of state secrets to a foreign power.

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