(by Sophie Hannah) (2016)
For those whose guilty pleasure resided in Agatha Christie’s detective novels featuring the finicky Belgian, Hercule Poirot, we can recommend some of the better offerings from her oeuvre.* She cheated with her plotting, but always ingeniously and within her own rules. For those who want something new, or have ploughed through Christie’s seventy odd books already, Ms. Hannah has produced her second Poirot mystery, a homage to the Christie style and her most famous character.
The scene of the crime is Lady Athelinda Playford’s mansion in County Cork, where family, staff, lawyers and detectives are summoned for…what? A new Will, for one thing, always a harbinger of doom in those golden days before Inheritance legislation gave the courts the imprimatur to re-write our vindictive testamentary dispositions.
The first five chapters, the set-up, pall somewhat, a rather self-conscious effort suggesting Christie on an off-day. But then the pages recounting the families’ chat in the drawing-room, after some embarrassing revelations and outbursts, start to crackle, in some ways more keenly than one would find in an original. Lady Athie dramatically reveals her new bequest at dinner and an unexpected victim is bludgeoned to death with – no, not a mashie niblick – some sort of African club. Or was he? Claudia, Lady Athie’s daughter, was seen wielding the club whilst the victim pleaded for mercy. Or did he?
Our problem with this engaging book is that the writing is often clunky**, and too many padded pages plod to little effect^, so that the drama palls and impatience for revelation grows. And when revelation arrives, it doesn’t convince, psychologically, factually, or in a literary sense. The neat resolution strikes false, and seems too elementary to justify the overly tortuous unwinding of the mystery. You’ll have to take it on trust that The Varnished Culture picked the culprit, on the basis of identifying the most annoying character rather than a process of deduction, which would be impossible here.
Moreover, Poirot is not only largely absent but daftly muted, an éminence grise suggesting that Ms. Hannah struggled under the scrutiny of ‘Agatha Christie Limited’ in giving us flesh and blood, only presenting a series of Poirot-ticks and tricks. Yet there is enough here to hope she keeps her shoulder to the wheel, tightens the florid prose, gets more comfortable with the great detective and perhaps re-reads some of Queen Agatha’s titles, ahead of a third book.[*Some suggested Christie titles (with spoilers): The ABC Murders (1936) (X kills A, B, and E to divert attention from murdering C), Appointment With Death (1937) (Sadist on holiday expands her circle of victims, gets more than she bargained for), The Big Four (1927) (Poirot as James Bond), Five Little Pigs (1941) (jealous lovers kill more than anybody), Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) (with a family murder, consider the extended family), The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) (Suspect the poor who hang around the rich), Taken at the Flood (1948) (the tide sweeps in but it also draws out, and siblings take advantage of doubt). We suppose we should also mention the early classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) (beware the unreliable narrator) and Dr. Freud’s favourite, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) (They all did it).] [**Chapter 27 begins: “I met Iris Morphet when I was studying at Oxford. That is also where, and when, I met Joseph Scotcher. I cannot resist adding, though it is quite irrelevant, that I met them on the very same day, although they did not until later meet each other.” (Know many people who talk like that?)] [^Chapter 29 begins: “Late the following afternoon, I received a telephone call. ‘It is I, Catchpool – your friend Hercule Poirot.’ ‘No need for such a formal introduction, Poirot. I recognized your voice immediately. Besides, an uncharacteristically garrulous Hatton told me it was you when he summoned me to the telephone. How is England treating you?“ (Bring us the head of the editorial department.)]