Hercule Poirot is back, mes amis! As you probably know, crime novelist Sophie Hannah received permission from the Christie Estate to resurrect Poirot for a new 1929 adventure in The Monogram Murders (William Morrow, Sept. 2014). There’s a new narrator this time round–a young Scotland Yard detective named Edward Catchpool, with whom Poirot shares a lodging house. Catchpool is less bumbly, but oh! a lot more confused than Hastings of the beautifully unsuspicious mind.
At a London coffee-house, Poirot strikes up a conversation with a scared woman named Jennie who claims she’s being pursued by a murderer–and that she deserves to be killed, as it’s “the only way to make things right”. Later that evening, he meets Catchpool, who tells him about three murders at the swank Bloxham Hotel. Two women and a man have been found poisoned in their respective rooms, their bodies laid out in a formal manner, each one’s mouth holds a monogrammed cufflink bearing the letters PIJ. Intuiting a connection between the two events, Poirot sends Catchpool off to Great Holling (a St. Mary Mead stand-in), where the two murdered women came from, to talk to the locals and figure out what PIJ stands for, while he tries to track down Jennie, fearing she’ll be be the next victim.
Taking on the creation of a writer who’s been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible is a gargantuan (and to me, mostly thankless) task; no wonder the curtain has stayed down all these years. I’ve never read any of Hannah’s work– she’s authored nine psychological thrillers, and they might all be superb, but alas! The Monogram Murders left me mostly unmoved. I finished this book primarily to find out the identity of the killer, for Hannah’s writing isn’t anywhere nearly as readable as Christie’s deceptively easy style. The book is undone by meagre characterizations, and none of the cast really comes to life. Catchpool was so thinly fleshed in that I can’t picture him at all. Hastings was a bit of an ass, but he was a loveable ass; Catchpool is just…flat. His defining characteristic–he’s a Scotland Yard detective with a long-standing aversion to dead bodies–seemed ill-chosen and downright weird. Don’t get me wrong: it’d be a great plot point were it lovingly explored in a psychological thriller, but in a brisk whodunit, the set-up borders on the ridiculous, because we never learn why Catchpool, given his phobia, chose to deal with murder in his professional life.
The plot centres around events in the past, and while it’s a solid, well-engineered plot triumphantly evocative of Christie, there’s little in the present-day narrative to make the reader feel truly invested in the outcome. Fatally, Hannah omits from her dramatis personae a likeable person (or persons) whose fate depends on the investigation. There are very few secondary characters, so the identity of the murderer is restricted to a small cast of suspects. And there simply aren’t enough juicy sub-plots involving these characters–the whole lot of them could have been poisoned too, for all I cared about them. Furthermore, I enjoy the touches of melodrama in Christie’s books (it’s at least partly why Poirot and Marple make for such good convalescence reads), and I found the book curiously staid. The dewy romance, the illegitimate child given away under duress, the snooty titled lordling, the long-lost sibling returned from the colonies, the false identity–all plausible plot devices in the time period, and ones that Christie employed with much relish in her oeuvre–are noticeably absent in Hannah’s work. The setting is 1929, but you wouldn’t figure that from atmospheric detail but from the absence of modern technology. Hannah is careful with dialogue and setting, but mostly in terms of what she leaves out, and she makes little effort to build a picture of 1929 London for the reader–there’s scant references to the outside world or of the characters’ attitudes towards the issues of the day.
What about Poirot? Well, of course, there’s a generous scattering of Belgian-not-French reminders,references to the little grey cells, and exclamations of the incroyable! variety. I actually thought Hannah got Poirot down very accurately, apart from one sour note–this Poirot is grievously lacking in compassion compared to Christie’s creation. ‘Poirot’s face was a mask of contempt. “If that is your opinion, then you must be every murderer’s favorite policeman.” ‘ he tells Catchpool. In another instance, he tells the unfortunate Catchpool not to console him. “Always you want to turn away from pain and suffering, but I am not like you, Catchpool! I cannot countenance such…cowardice.” Zing! We all hold deeply cherished opinions about Poirot, and while he’s always seemed arrogant and full of himself and pompous and theatrical, I’ve never thought him capable of meanness, especially to his friends. I could (of course) be completely wrong in my assessment of Poirot, but let’s face it: it’s going to be nigh impossible for any author to win this game against us beady-eyed Poirot aficionados who’ve had decades in which to cement our opinions. Sophie Hannah, I feel for you, I do.
In sum, I found The Monogram Murders admirably plotted, deftly engineered, and singularly devoid of charm. I think the probability of liking this book boils down the mysterious affair of writing style. It’s hard to judge if newcomers to Christie would warm to this novel; I imagine they’d enjoy the intricacy of the plot, but wouldn’t quite see what the fuss surrounding Poirot was about. And that would be a bit of a shame, ne c’est pas?