This post contains detailed spoilers for Sophie Hannah’s Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders. If you haven’t read the book, stay away. If you have read it, prepare to have your eyes opened. And, if you are Sophie Hannah, I apologise!
I very much enjoyed The Monogram Murders, the new Hercule Poirot book written by Sophie Hannah and authorised by the Christie estate. Indeed, I started the book at 8PM on Christmas Eve, and finished it, bleary-eyed, as Santa Claus was sneaking down the chimney. While I found the denouement satisfying (if slightly outlandish), there was one clue that caught me earlier on which didn’t seem satisfactorily explained. I now suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that Hercule Poirot did not adequately solve the case, either out of lack of information, or possibly – just possibly – compassion. I might be crazy, but the circumstances of these murders are already quite odd, so what’s a little more craziness?
In 1929, Poirot and Edward Catchpool solved the murders of Richard Negus, Harriet Sippel, and Ida Gransbury. The truth came out: many years earlier, the three had – on the basis of a single jealous lie – come to believe their local vicar, Patrick Ive, to be a charlatan and an adulterer. Their horrific slanders led to the vicar’s wife, Frances, poisoning herself. On discovery of his wife’s body, Patrick also took his own life. As we discover years later, the slanderous trio was killed by the two other key players in the Ive scandal: Jennie Hobbs, the servant in love with Ive who started the rumours, and Nancy Ducane, the woman with whom Ive was actually having an affair. This last part is quite shocking, as most of the book champions the idea that Ives was a noble man, thus shattering our conceptions when his affair with Nancy comes out.
I have no doubt that Nancy and Jennie were truthfully found guilty of the other deaths. Jennie conned Richard Negus into believing that they were committing a murder-suicide pact with the other ladies, only to turn on him. Jennie and Nancy kept up a pretence of being estranged acquaintances both in love with the same dead man, to hide the fact that they had actually become friends. They killed Richard, Harriet, and Ida in cold blood, and colluded to cover up this fact. No, what I’m concerned about, are the original deaths: Frances and Patrick Ive. I’m convinced that there is more to their story than meets the eye.
The official record is that Frances and Patrick’s deaths were accidental. The village doctor, Ambrose Flowerday, knew otherwise, but covered up the double suicides so their reputations would not falter. He was the only person who knew the whole truth, until he told the new vicar and his wife, Margaret Ernst, who of course kept his secret as good friends. However, he was the only person who knew Frances and Patrick and also knew the truth. Or was that the truth?
Frances Ive is perhaps the most intriguing link in the chain, since we know so little about her. Did she ever suspect her husband had been untrue? Or did she really believe the tales of seances and adultery to be a tissue of lies? Either way, we know that after months of slander, she stole two vials of Abrin – a highly toxic poison – from Dr. Flowerday’s rooms, and swallowed one. When Patrick found her, he swallowed the other. They both left notes, notes that proved to Flowerday and Jennie that they had committed suicide. These notes were subsequently destroyed by Flowerday, determined to keep the truth unknown.
Think about this, though, and questions arise.
First, why did Frances steal two vials? After all, she had no intention of taking Patrick to the grave with her. We know from the details of the notes that they didn’t commit suicide together. And Frances was, we are told, a saint of a woman. Flowerday had those vials specifically as a backup, a careful man worried about suffering extreme pain due to any illnesses in the future. This was an era when it was reasonable to fear living for months or years in pain at the end of one’s life. As a true friend, surely Frances would have left him one of the vials? And why take two, if she was only going to drink one? It makes little sense. (The outside possibility strikes that taking them both would be cleaner. If Flowerday happened to glance around the room, he might not notice that they were gone, but he’d certainly notice if there was only one. But I don’t think that being discovered would be that important if you were about to commit suicide.)
And secondly – although we’ll return to this – why did Patrick leave a note? Coming home to find his wife dead, suicide note by her side, did he really go to the study and draft his last thoughts on life, death, and transsubstantiation? After all, it’s not as if he needed to clear his name: finding a husband lying next to a dead wife with her suicide note, it should be clear what happened. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
So, it looks like someone else stole the vials, to kill Frances. And also, it would seem, to kill Patrick. Now, the entire town disliked the Ives in the last week of their lives, but – as Catchpool notes in relation to the Bloxham Hotel murders – one doesn’t sit down to tea with one’s enemies. The person who killed the Ives must have known them well. And, really, this leaves only two viable candidates: Jennie Hobbs and Nancy Ducane.
Both had motive, of course. They were both in love with Patrick and clearly would do anything for his love. Patrick would never leave Frances, that much was clear, and his determination to stay in the town even after his name was so badly sullied suggests that only something serious would lead him on to a new life.
All of which leads to the revelations at the end of the novel. After several weeks of slander, Nancy brought the whole town of Great Holling together to inform them that she had been in love with Patrick, but their affair was chaste. Of course, the townspeople didn’t believe her but Jennie did and, more importantly, this stirred the embers of doubt in Richard Negus’ mind, doubt that would ultimately lead directly to the chilling Bloxham Hotel murders. We learn during the denouement that this was a lie: Nancy and Patrick’s love affair had been passionate. This comes as news to Jennie. She is ultimately the book’s most heartbreaking character. She put aside her own feelings for the man, finally realising that she could never have him, but happy to be close at hand. Clearly Frances Ive was a great woman, to permit an obviously infatuated servant to travel with them across the country and live in their home. From everything we know of Jennie by the end, she, too, believed Patrick and Frances were tragic suicides. Jennie had long ago admitted to herself she would never have Patrick. And finding out the truth leads Jennie to fatally stab Nancy, in front of Hercule Poirot, before revealing her own truth to him.
So, we must assume Jennie is innocent of the Ives’ murders. But Nancy Ducane? In my mind, Nancy Ducane was a horrid woman who murdered the Ives in cold blood, and got away with it. Nancy meets Patrick and – as she told Poirot – falls in love straight away. She uses all her wiles to start an affair with him (we’re told he was a man of noble spirit, who didn’t give in to Jennie’s desires, so one doesn’t imagine he would have seduced Nancy immediately). When the rumours start spreading, Nancy goes into damage control. We know that she’s a reasonable actress, seeing how she almost fools Poirot and Catchpool with her alibi story, and she performs a decent Harriet Sippel at the Bloxham Hotel. She invites the townspeople together to string them a melodramatic monologue about her chaste relationship with the vicar. She hopes that this will paint her as a victim, while also taking the pressure off the Ives, allowing her and Patrick to eventually run away together. It doesn’t really work. But she finds one supporter in Dr. Ambrose Flowerday, and learns of his secret supply of poison. Ever since the affair began, Nancy has been trying to convince Patrick to leave his wife. Nancy has no great love of Great Holling; they can flee and go elsewhere. Even in light of the scandal, Patrick is steadfast. He won’t abandon Frances, particularly not now. Moreso, Frances has begun to suspect. She’s a smart woman, and she’s kept Jennie Hobbs close because she recognises that love is unrequited. But now Nancy is here, and Frances begins to fight to keep her man.
Nancy tries one last time to convince Patrick, but he turns her down, tells her that they cannot see each other again. Nancy – a great beauty, by all reports – is distraught and angered at this rejection. She steals the Abrin from Dr. Flowerday and arranges to have tea privately with Frances and Patrick (much as Ida and Harriet will later be lured to their deaths at the Bloxham). No doubt Frances is intrigued after the public monologue, so agrees to the meeting. Perhaps she phrases it as “one last farewell” before leaving town. Or perhaps she claims to have a way to quell the slander. Or perhaps she simply begs. Either way, once the drinks are poured, it is easy for Nancy to kill the faithful couple she now detests. She scrawls two notes to suggest that the two killed each other separately. After all, psychologically-speaking, Nancy can’t think about the couple committing suicide together even to cover up her own guilt. No, it’s far easier to see Frances as the annoying victim who killed herself just to be pathetic, and Patrick as the henpecked husband who – even at the moment – chose not to find freedom but instead to join his wife in a crowded grave. By creating this false scene of suicide, Nancy tells a little story that she, too, can come to believe over time. Freed at last, Nancy leaves town, and becoming a minor celebrity in London.
This theory seems to clear up two things:
1) Nancy is clearly a sociopath. Her alibi for the Bloxham murders is perhaps the most bizarre element of the entire book. She hastily painted over a jug and bowl of a painting of a friend so that Poirot wouldn’t recognise it? Yet she didn’t bother to steal the jug, or – easier – “accidentally” break it? And asking her friends to lie, particularly as they are nobility, seems fraught with peril. A man of St. John Wallace’s pomposity must have taken some convincing; indeed, one wonders if Nancy wasn’t up to her old tricks with married men. Housekeeping staff at the Bloxham – hardly socialites – recognise Nancy instantly, so how could she possibly have maneuvered around the city and the hotel all night without being seen? No, it seems more likely that she’s frayed at the edges, and these elements of her plan were part of a mind that liked creating devious stories, rather than one that could plot out perfect plans. No Richard Negus, she. Not to mention, she seems to get on very well with Sam Keen, the other character in the book who possesses a cold, amoral talent for deception, even though they are clearly not of the same social class.
2) Margaret was insistent that Catchpool not question Dr. Flowerday about covering up the suicides. The claim is that Flowerday would lose his license for doing so. And yet, at the end of the book, Flowerday willingly comes out and admits it. He clearly knows that compassionate people won’t turn him in to the medical board. What’s more, the deaths are almost two decades old. He could just claim that he made a mistake and misdiagnosed the causes of death – many doctors do at some point in their career. No, that theory doesn’t hold water. It’s clear that Flowerday was covering up more than just suicides. He recognised that something unusual happened. I doubt he knew that Nancy was the killer. He probably thought that one of the couple killed the other and then turned the poison on his or herself. Either Patrick, to spare Frances any further pain, or Frances, as revenge once she realised how deep was his love for Nancy. After all, Flowerday and Margaret are intelligent people. They, too, must have questioned why Frances stole two vials, and why Patrick left a note.
Is it insane? Perhaps. But I find the idea of the two vials too unusual. And the plan conceived by Nancy, Sam Keen, and Jennie was full of odd grace notes. Of course, it had to fit around Richard Negus’ original plan, I accept that. But it also seemed as if the group was operating on different levels. Indeed, much as perceived ringleader Richard was hoodwinked by Jennie, so perceived ringleader Jennie was hoodwinked by Nancy. Think about that. Smart, cagey Richard was somehow convinced by Jennie that he should die first, and she promised to take care of herself later. What folly! So, too, did Jennie and Sam agreed to go to jail for a short period of time for false incrimination while Nancy herself? Would suffer in no way whatsoever. She was clearly the smartest of the team. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nancy planned on finding a way to keep Jennie in prison for longer.
But, of course, we will never know. The final chapter of The Monogram Murders gives us closure on Jennie Hobbs’ story, and the public record of what happened to Frances and Patrick Ive. But with Nancy Ducane’s untimely death, the truth about what happened in Great Holling will never be known. Whatever dark secret Dr. Flowerday knows (and there is, surely, something dark lurking around Flowerday and Ernst, the only two seemingly unimpeachable characters in the novel), it seems that Hercule Poirot himself never figured it out. Or, perhaps he did. After all, with Nancy dead, what purpose would there be in his admitting what he had realised? For this truly would destroy the happiness of Dr. Flowerday, not to mention opening old wounds that perhaps should be best left untouched. Perhaps Poirot truly does know all.