“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Review: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah
The latest fictional detective to be resurrected is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who featured in more than 30 novels. By some distance the most popular mystery author of all time, Christie’s final Poirot novel, Curtain, was published in 1975, although Christie – who died the following year – had written that book some three decades previously.
In Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders (HarperCollins), which is set in 1929, we first encounter Poirot, ‘the retired policeman from the Continent’, in ‘a most enjoyable state of hibernation’. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done.
Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Naturally, the heinous crime is much more complicated than it at first appears, and only Poirot has the required acumen to disentangle the strands. Agatha Christie was justifiably celebrated for her intricate plots, and Sophie Hannah has done full justice to that reputation with a story that baffles to the final page.
Not that everyone is entirely pleased by the bewildering nature of the tale. ‘Next time you’d like me to grasp something at once,’ Catchpool reproves a preening Poirot, ‘open your mouth and tell me facts. Be straightforward about it. You’ll find it saves a lot of bother.’
Indeed, Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders. The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique. Poirot is on holiday here, and has taken up residence in a house a whole three hundred yards from his home for the pleasure of looking back to enjoy the view. While the story is a full-blooded Poirot tale, a very English story of murder from the mystery novel’s Golden Age complete with quaint villages, vicarages and rare poisons, and – a clue! – afternoon tea taken at the wrong time, there are occasions, as above, when Hannah, via Catchpool, gently points out some of the flaws in Christie’s story-telling, particularly when it comes to Poirot’s infuriatingly obscure ‘method’, which as often as not delivered crucial clues to the reader about the identity of the murderer very late in the proceedings.
Christie is also criticised for being too mechanical in her plotting, which makes Sophie Hannah an intriguing choice to write a Poirot novel. Hannah’s own crime novels are largely concerned with the psychology of criminality – the village of Great Holling, where this story has its roots, can be found in the same Culver Valley that provides the setting for Hannah’s books – which adds a frisson to Poirot’s declaration that, ‘We must think not only of the physical facts but of the psychological.’ Ultimately, we discover, The Monogram Murders is a novel in which the mechanics of plot, and Poirot’s reputation as the canniest of detectives, are harnessed for the purpose of exploring that simplest and strangest of all human emotions, love.
Yet there is much more to The Monogram Murders, as Catchpool the crossword enthusiast discovers to his regret, than the solving of an emotionally charged puzzle. Hannah invests her tale with depth and breadth by investigating the grey areas between sin and crime, as her characters wrestle with Christian morality and the unforeseen consequences of a hypocritical interpretation of the spirit of Christian values (the ostensibly picturesque Great Holling is described as ‘a hell-pit of a village’). Further, the core event of the story offers a scenario that might, seen from different angles, be read as murder, execution or assisted suicide. To muddy the waters even more, Poirot asserts the conventional view that, ‘If a crime has been committed, one must ensure that the criminal is dealt with by the law in an appropriate fashion,’ only to be confounded at a later point by the declaration, ‘We were murderers, not according to the law but according to the truth.’
In a fascinating act of literary ventriloquism from Hannah, the only real bum note is struck by the portrayal of Catchpool, the quasi-Hastings who faithfully records Poirot’s every utterance. A Scotland Yard detective with a terror of dead bodies, who lacks confidence in his own ability and who undermines his investigation on a number of occasions, the unfortunate Catchpool may well be the most hapless detective ever to grace the pages of a mystery novel. ‘Perhaps,’ he suggests when Poirot makes another brilliant discovery, ‘I’m in the wrong job,’ and it’s very difficult indeed not to agree.
That said, there are occasions when it’s impossible not to agree with Catchpool, such as when Poirot assembles a host of characters in the Bloxham Hotel’s dining room for the traditional denouement. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’
Catchpool and Sophie Hannah make a valid point, but then Hercule Poirot, luxuriant moustaches and all, would be nothing without his sense of theatre. Poirot may well be an entirely implausible creation, but his adventures – and The Monogram Murders deserves to take its place among them – are no less enjoyable for all that. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.