The New Hercule Poirot Mystery: The Monogram Murders

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 holding 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, n’est-ce pas?

Miss Marple’s cleverer sister

A sad, sad, day six years ago, I finished reading everything Agatha Christie had published. Yes, even the Mary Westmacott weepies. Just as I resigned myself to  hanging around her grave waiting for a miracle, I discovered Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries.

book cover of   The Case of William Smith    (Miss Silver)  by  Patricia Wentworth

The Case of William Smith

It’s soon after WWII when we meet William Smith, second-in-command at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar in London. Although William seems perfectly ordinary, down to his commonplace name, he suffers from amnesia. Life before 1942, when he woke up in a German hospital with a head wound, is a blank. William has, however, managed to pull it together. He carves quirky wooden animals for the toy shop, has scraped together the funds to buy a car, and is now in love with the new shop assistant, Katherine, who is beautiful and gentle and willing.

Then, an attempt is made on William’s life, and the only reason can be William’s missing past. Katherine decides to consult Miss Silver.

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A retired governess turned private investigator, Miss Maud Silver  is first a lady, at least by her own definition, and then a detective. More British than a Beefeater’s elevenses, Miss Silver dresses drably, believes in breeding and restraint and God and King and good old-fashioned classism. She is clever, oh, preternaturally so, to the extent some police friends believe she hides her broomstick in the hall closet.

Miss Silver is most often compared to Christie’s Miss Marple–both are elderly unmarried British women whose innocuous appearance helps them gather information when more flamboyant characters might fail. But unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is a professional.  And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling; Katherine, for instance, “feels the kind of panic which comes in dreams when you find yourself naked among the clothed.” Yes, Miss Silver could probably rotate a 3X3 matrix in her head while casting off stitches for a woolly jumper.

Tempering Miss Silver’s acuity is her sympathy for her clients. It’s a tad strained, reserved for those fulfilling Miss Silver’s ideas of morality and good behavior, but it’s there, and thank goodness for it, for I wouldn’t like these books as much otherwise.

Furthermore, while Miss Marple plays a lone hand, keeping everyone (including the reader) guessing till the end, Miss Silver works with her protagonists to solve the mystery, and we follow her thought process and actions through the story. Miss Marple’s modus operandi, in essence, is to draw a parallel with some village event—a murdered cabinet minister reminds her of the ne’er-do-well nephew of the fishmonger, and presto! she deduces the identity of the killer. Miss Silver relies on inductive reasoning; presented with a set of facts, she can isolate the possible outcomes with great precision. The suspense in a Wentworth isn’t as much to do with the crime already committed as with the one yet to take place–it’s important to find William Smith’s identity (and that of his would-be assassin) so as to prevent the next attempt on William’s life from succeeding. And to make sure William and Katherine live happily ever after. Every Miss Silver mystery has at its heart a romantic couple (not a romance necessarily). This couple must and will unite; under no circumstances will either party die or prove to be a villain, and if a crime was committed by either, it will have been in ignorance, and with no lasting ill-effects. (Such foreknowledge about the end has never diminished my enjoyment of the books–the romance triumphant is as much part of the series as Miss Silver’s velvet coatee, or the creepy brooch with the hair of her grandparents).

The chief issue I have with Wentworth is her all-too-evident dislike of ambitious women. Her heroines aren’t weak—most exhibit immense strength of character, toil without complaint, and show great loyalty to their loved ones—but they do not prize independence or success. A woman who deliberately plots  to advance her social/financial position through marriage or professional achievement is considered a dangerous unsettling force in Wentworth’s universe, for her ambition usually twists her femininity into something unwholesome.  While Miss Silver is indeed a professional, she is in it to serve Truth and Justice, and definitely not for the money, and you know she’s rather go hatless than advertise.  Modern-day readers who are impatient with such biases may find Wentworth’s heroines hard to digest. And the heroes are of course all tall dominating providers, but you’ve guessed that by now.

Wentworth’s prose, while lacking the depth and beauty of say, a late Sayers, is unfussy and clean, and does the job satisfactorily. Her plots aren’t as ingenious as Christie at her peak, and are sometimes overburdened with tedious detail, but keep me turning the pages.  I’ll stop the faint praise here to assert that the appeal of a Miss Silver mystery chiefly lies in Miss Silver. To watch that mind at work, to savor her critics’ reaction turn from scorn to fear, to smile over the small details of her physical appearance, to startle at and then appreciate her rare wit—these are the reasons I read these books over and over. Miss Silver is an institution, and somewhat to my own surprise, one I’ve grown fond of. And, if I might presume to guess, so might you.

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Note: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver mysteries, starting with Grey Mask (1928). There is very little information about her on the net;  a rather threadbare account of her life may be found at Wikipedia.

This post is my contribution to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.