This review of “The Monogram Murders” does not contain spoilers for plot information. If you’ve read the book, however, do check out my insane theory on the story’s real killer.
After four decades, that most delightful of detectives makes his return to the printed page. The Christie estate authorised his return in Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders and I think it was worth the wait.
Hannah sets her narrative in 1929, by which time – in the confused chronology of Poirot’s life – he was a respected detective (if not yet quite as iconic as he would like to think) and finally accustomed to the ways of the English people, and their strange culture and foods. It’s a Golden Age for the character, and the one most casual readers associate with him, so it’s a smart choice. Hannah also returns to that Christie staple, the secondary character as narrator. In this case, it’s young Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, about whom more below. By giving the narrative voice to another character, Hannah effectively lessens the amount of time she must spend in Poirot’s distinctive speech patterns, and it’s probably a good thing – at least for the first novel in what is (hopefully) a series.
The Hercule Poirot in this book is a reasonable facsimile of the original: loquacious, full of wit and bonhomie, and keenly observant in matters of human relations, but at the same time barely able to conceal his rage at the idiotic or shallow people he is forced to deal with on occasion (in this book, it’s a sublimely eager hotel owner who almost pushes him over the edge). In an almost-ridiculous-but-very-Poirot touch, the Belgian has decided to take some time off from his workload to recharge his “little grey cells”. And where does he relocate to? Why, a house merely 300 metres from his own. Not only does this allow him to avoid the revolving door of policemen and new cases, but he can continue with his beloved routine where possible. Bringing Poirot (slightly) out of his element also allows Hannah to write her own tale, without having to spend too much time bogged down in Dame Christie’s trappings. Indeed, this seems to be a running theme. Poirot here is not particularly meticulous (aside fom an early scene featuring the scattered cutlery of a coffee house), nor is he overly arrogant. Perhaps it’s because these are the additional traits Christie added as she grew more frustrated with the character, but perhaps it’s because we actually don’t spend a great deal of time with Poirot on an intimate level. Through Catchpool’s wry commentary, we are certainly able to appreciate the great detective’s brilliance, and he’s well-formed. At the same time, the book will read better to those familiar with the character already, who can shade in the edges. Outside of Poirot’s lovely relationship with a young waitress, he remains a bit of a cipher here. The Poirot of the novels and short stories is every bit as complicated as the great David Suchet would prove him to be. Poirot here seems like a line drawing of the same: a high-quality, ligne clare drawing, but a line drawing all the same. If Hannah is to write more of these (and I hope she does), I’d hope for a deeper analysis of him sooner or later.
What the “Catchpool-as-narrator” conceit allows is a (largely unspoken) comment on the nature of Poirot’s rightness. As with Hastings, Japp, and the others in that storied line of good men assisting the great one, Catchpool’s assumptions are not often correct. They are, however, often in the ballpark of correct, and that’s just as important. Poirot sees the younger man as a protege, trying to pull from him a better deductive method. At the same time, there are insights – particularly of character – where Catchpool seems to be on the right track. In a couple of cases, Poirot dismisses him out of hand, but one gets the feeling that the author hasn’t dismissed them quite as easily.
Catchpool himself is also a welcome companion. His ability to read character leads to some of the book’s most insightful moments, particularly in his visit to the village of Great Holling, a kind of funhouse mirror version of St. Mary Mead, in which hate and sorrow seem to lurk in the corner of every room, and the only resemblance to a Christie village is the speed with which gossip spreads. Catchpool internally questions the motives of others throughout the story, but his greatest insights are those about his own character, which is filled with self-doubts. It’s an intriguing, semi-revisionist, portrayal of the 1920s detective, and I’d enjoy having him back to narrate the next. (There’s something else intriguing about Catchpool, which Hannah leaves to the astute reader to pick up … although it’s disappointing that Poirot doesn’t seem to*.)
The supporting characters are also overall well-written. Like Christie, Hannah chooses those she’s particularly interested in, and those she’s not. The most notable character is the street-smart waitress Fee, who earns Poirot’s respect with her observational powers, while the most well-written would be Margaret Ernst, a smalltown pariah with many secrets to share, and some of her own as well. (On the other hand, spare for a thought for Lord St. John Wallace, who provides a peculiar alibi without being granted a shred of characterisation.)
And the mystery? It holds up fairly well. I won’t discuss the details here, for the sake of new readers, however it is an exceedingly complicated story but smartly written, so the reader is always able to keep track of the pieces in play. The initial conceit is full of half-mysteries, gradually resolved throughout the first half of the book only to leave greater ones in their stead. The principal settings – the village of Great Holling, a cosy tearoom, and the implacable Bloxham Hotel, come to life effortlessly, and Hannah’s sense of time and place is a vivid caricature of Christie’s world. The mystery becomes fairly outlandish by the end, although Hannah foregrounds it in a rich and tragic backstory that ultimately wins you over to the story. (This is one area in which the novel recalls the later Christie novels, rather than the earlier, in that Poirot seems wedded to the idea of criminal justice rather than showing any sympathy to the convoluted circumstances.)
So, T“. Recommended? Absolutely. Individual fans and historians will find quibbles, no doubt. And as mentioned, the characterisation of Poirot is good, but seems deliberately to marginalise him – or at least make his presence very goal-oriented rather than filling the room with his trademark ambience. Still, I found this a solid mystery, uniting the puzzle aspects that many Christie and Golden-Era fans adore with some interesting character work. For the first “Agatha Christie” novel published during my lifetime, I’m quite happy.
And if you’ve read the book, don’t forget to jump over and have a look at my completely unlikely theory about the real killer of The Monogram Murders.
* I suppose he became very Catholic towards the end. Or was that just M. Suchet?