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A 1965 photo of Agatha Christie autographing French editions of her books. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A 1965 photo of Agatha Christie autographing French editions of her books. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

BETWEEN THE LINES: Hercule Poirot returns

British writer Sophie Hannah resurrects Agatha Christie's detective in a new series

British writer Sophie Hannah made the sensible decision of not writing “as Agatha Christie, in her voice," when she was commissioned to resurrect Hercule Poirot in a new mystery series. She decided to opt for a Dr Watson-like figure to tell the story instead.

In The Monogram Murders, published this month, Hannah brings back the immensely popular Belgian detective almost four decades after Christie wrote Curtain, her last Poirot mystery. A successful poet and a writer of horror and crime fiction, Hannah took on a formidable challenge in her latest venture and seems to have passed it tolerably well.

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This odd encounter leads to the discovery of three corpses in a London hotel—of two women and a man, who, we gradually learn, share a troubled past, and have been executed by cyanide poisoning. All the bodies are found with a cufflink, bearing the inscription “PIJ", stuffed in their mouths, hence the title.

The case is compelling enough for Poirot to end his self-imposed sabbatical and help his friend, Edward Catchpool, an investigator with the Scotland Yard, solve the mystery. Typically, Poirot has nothing but scorn and condescension for Catchpool’s working methods—and honestly, the latter does come across as rather daft at times.

Seasoned readers of crime fiction may find themselves cringing at Catchpool’s dim-witted approach to detection. He tends to miss vital clues and does not pick up on puzzles that seem too obvious to be overlooked. No wonder Poirot’s patience is frequently stretched thin, and we frequently find him berating Catchpool for not exercising “the little grey cells". But, of course, Catchpool’s natural disadvantages work in favour of Hannah’s exposition.

Like the plot of Christie’s first Poirot mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the basis of The Monogram Murders may appear a little too ingenious. In the classic Christie mould, Hannah creates a compelling situation with layer upon layer of complication. The reader is taken away from London and into a remote village; Poirot’s fastidious zeal for orderliness is juxtaposed with Catchpool’s blundering missteps; bitter secrets are exhumed from a past tainted with vendetta and thwarted love.

If Hannah stresses the logical and deductive approach Poirot is renowned for, she also introduces psychological darkness into her plot, lending it more depth and drama than Christie usually did.

But while the complexity of Hannah’s mystery keeps the reader riveted, the unfolding of it may feel a little laboured. Apart from her crisp and inimitable style, Christie excelled for the brevity of her novels and elegant resolutions, especially so in the Poirot mysteries.

To Hannah’s credit, we are transported back into the world of 1920s London, and allowed to enjoy, once again, the sharp wit and keen eye of Poirot in The Monogram Murders. Yet, in spite of its delicious intricacies, Hannah’s plot tends to drag a bit, and the closure, when it finally comes, feels clumsy and not exactly unexpected.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers, and publishers of the past, present and the future.

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