In Christie's stories - and in the TV series - Poirot first met the Countess in 'The Double Clue', a short story published in the early 1920s. A member of the ancien régime of Russia, she is described by Hastings as a 'whirlwind in human form' (Hart 233), and later as 'big' and 'flamboyant' (Hart 234). By the end of the jewel-robbery case, Poirot is completely enthralled by her:
'What a woman!' cried Poirot enthusiastically as we descended the stairs. 'Mon Dieu, quelle femme! Not a word of argument - of protestation, of bluff! One quick glance, and she had sized up the position correctly. I tell you, Hastings, a woman who can accept defeat like that - with a careless smile - will go far!' (Hart 234)In later references, Poirot describes her as 'A woman in a thousand - in a million!' (Hart 234), further enhancing our impression that this truly is Poirot's Irene Adler. The two met again in the novel The Big Four (apparently not in the adaptation that was filmed recently). This time around, the Countess was backed by some of Poirot's toughest opponents yet. In the end, she helps Poirot and Hastings escape a certain death, on the terms that Poirot would reunite her with her long lost son. Then, for the third and final time, they met on the escalators of the London Underground in the 1930s, and in the nightclub called 'Hell':
'Though it was something like twenty years since he had seen her last the magic still held. Granted that her make-up now resembled a scene-painter's sunset, with the woman under the make-up well hidden from sight, to Hercule Poirot she still represented the sumptuous and the alluring.' (Hart 237)After 'The Capture of Cerberus', they were never to see each other again, but in Christie's words, Rossakoff remained 'the flamboyant creature of his fantasy'.
On television, Countess Rossakoff was portrayed by Kika Markham in the 1991 episode The Double Clue. Though the adaptation differs significantly from its source material (I will probably come back to this in greater detail in my 'episode-by-episode' series), I would still count it as one of my favourites - in terms of characterisation and character development. Markham and Suchet are both given much more to play with in terms of the 'relationship' between the characters, with walks in the park, visits to museums and picnics in the countryside. Also, the final scene at the train station has remained iconic. Markham was lovely in the part.
(Rossakoff was also an added plot line in the adaptation of Murder in Mesopotamia, which didn't really make sense to me. I mean, Poirot travelling all the way to Mesopotamia because she has sent him a cryptic message asking for his help? Oh well, I guess it was a nice touch and a way of showcasing his affection for her).
Now, rumour has it, based on this interview, that actress Orla Brady will be playing Countess Rossakoff in Labours. At first, I was slightly taken aback by this. (Not by Brady - she's an excellent actress - but by the recasting). Sure, Markham is older now (72-73, according to Wikipedia, cf. 50 when the episode was shot), but so is Suchet (67 now, 44 then). However, having looked at some recent photos of Orla Brady and compared them to screenshots from The Double Clue, I'm now convinced that this was, if not the right choice, then at least a right choice. As has been mentioned on the IMDb forum recently, Brady is closer in age to what the character would be in chronology terms (if we rely on my chronology, The Double Clue is set in the mid-30s and Labours will hopefully be set just before WW2). Also, she looks remarkably similar to Markham in 1990! In other words, the recasting will somewhat ease the chronology issues, and the two actresses are sufficiently similar not to annoy viewers. (As an aside, I remember when they recast the role of Helen Lynley in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. That was... Well, they didn't even look remotely similar....).
All in all, I am just happy to see the return of Countess Rossakoff (if indeed that is the case). As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think her presence in one of the remaining episodes is absolutely necessary to close one of the important chapters of Poirot's life (what I have nicknamed 'Poirot's-lamentation-on-love' storyline).
(Picture copyright ITV, quotations from Anne Hart's The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot)