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New Releases: The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

UK_Monogram_Murders_jacketVery nearly forty years after the 1975 publication of Curtain, the last (in both senses) Hercule Poirot story, a new Poirot novel, officially sanctioned by the Christie estate, has finally seen the light of day.

Poirot finds himself caught up in the baffling events of a triple murder in the Bloxham Hotel, an exclusive London establishment. The three victims are all found at the same time in separate rooms, each laid out identically and each with a matching monogrammed cufflink in their mouth. At the same moment as the murders are occurring, Poirot encounters a young woman in a cafe who confides in him her certainty that she will soon be killed, and that when it happens no one should try to find her killer. Are these two situations linked? Poirot is the only one who sees a connection.

Written by poet and novelist Sophie Hannah, the story is set in the 1920s, when Poirot was very much London-based and before the globetrotting, internationally-renowned later years of the Nile, Mesopotamia and Orient Express expeditions. But it lacks any of the regular London supporting cast which Christie established; no Hastings, no Miss Lemon, no Chief Inspector Japp. Instead Hannah has created her own companion character, Inspector Edward Catchpool, a fellow resident of the lodging house to which Poirot has temporarily, implausibly, relocated. Catchpool is assigned to the hotel case, and, in his disquiet regarding the situation, he confides in Poirot. Poirot ‘assists’ him in solving the case by taking charge and applying his usual methods.

Inevitably reviewing a book like this one is actually reviewing it twice: once as a detective novel and then as an addition to the canon. The author is pressured not only to have created a crime plot that works and is engaging, but also to have re-created at least the feel of the original mythology. It’s the same challenge that Anthony Horowitz, for example, faced when he created new Sherlock Holmes novels - though he at least had the advantage of decades of dubious Doyle-lite efforts cluttering the landscape against which he could try to stand out. In Poirot’s world, it's only this against the 'real' version.

So does it work as a detective novel? That’s a qualified yes. The set-up is impressively intriguing; three separate locked room murders in the same building at the same time is a great high concept to work from, and the clue gathering, linking of the disparate strands, and uncovering of the historical motives for the crimes work well enough to be satisfying. It’s also well structured as historical fiction; for the most part 1920s Britain feels well-drawn both geographically and societally, though the rural village sequences feel less credible; dominated by a superstitious hysteria that seems imported from an earlier period.

The diversion to the countryside is also narratively odd, as almost everything Catchpool discovers there is simultaneously uncovered by Poirot working in London, rendering the trip little more than filler. It does, however, introduce the most interesting of the limited supporting cast, so there’s that.

Where The Monogram Murders falls down is in the resolution of the mystery. The motive for the murders, as was frequently the case with Christie’s own work, is buried in the past, but the decision to execute the killings and the details of the plan go beyond the kind of complexity that even she occasionally attempted. Keeping track of who was where and when, what happened in each room and in which order, and how all the decades-old relationships now shake out - these all force the reader to stop and review too often to keep the novel moving as it should. Details such as the location of specific keys, the identity of Poirot’s ‘woman in the cafe’, and the order of initials presented on monogrammed cufflinks look on the surface like the kind of clueing for which Christie is rightly famous, but actually end up adding confusion and breaking the reader’s flow.

The other weak point in all this is Catchpool, and, as he’s the narrator of a good fifty per cent of the book, that’s a significant flaw. He’s a Scotland Yard detective who has problems being around dead bodies, and his ongoing awareness that he’s basically Poirot’s gopher takes away most of his credibility. 

As an addition to the Poirot canon The Monogram Murders also gets a qualified nod. On one level Poirot has never been much more than a collection of foibles and thus making an apparently authentic Poirot sounds like a relatively easy job. In fact I suspect it’s not, and it’s to Hannah’s credit that this Poirot usually feels like the Poirot and not just a bad pastiche.  Though he's less warm and generally harsher than Christie's version. The decision to take away most of his usual support structures feels odd though. Perhaps the aim was to avoid possible crutches, but then we get Catchpool as a replacement, who is too weak to support the narrative and too uninteresting to engage as a character in his own right.

Structurally, the book deploys a number of very Christie-esque elements, and (re)uses some ideas that feel very ‘right’; why is it important that all the bodies are discovered at a specific time? what item is missing that should have been in a painting? (though this last, a very visual clue, does not work well enough in the written medium); what is the significance of a number of possible corpse-transporting containers and their movements? To a dedicated Christie reader this will all feel like familiar territory.

Hannah goes a little overboard in one area though; the stereotypical Poirot set-piece is the gathering of all involved for a grand reveal of the solution to the mystery. There are two such gatherings in the book, both of which apparently involve every member of the hotel’s staff. So a major, up-market London hotel is able to let its clientele go hang while the funny little Belgian lectures its entire workforce? 

There’s also a frankly incredible bit of fake alibi-ing going on that irreparably weakens the resolution.

The Monogram Murders is an odd beast. At times Hannah achieves exactly the feel of a Poirot story, but when she doesn’t (in the unnecessary complexity, the weak sidekick, the occasional overuse of ‘the Poirot toolkit’) it really falls flat. And it misses the sharpness and clarity of Christie at her best. Even the title is odd - the monograms are ultimately such a minor detail in the case that I'm left wondering if they were more significant in an earlier draft and the title never changed when their role did.

The job of creating new Poirot was always going to be a poisoned chalice and it’s to Hannah's credit she took it up. But on balance, it feels that the main thing The Monogram Murders does is show how hard it is to deliver a good murder mystery and a new Poirot. In the end you get something that's not quite either.