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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

William Morrow, 320 pages, $25.99

Hercule Poirot is not dead. Agatha Christie may have passed away thirty-eight years ago, but her creation lives on through author Sophie Hannah (with permission from Christie’s family). However, if you are looking for another Poirot book in the style of Agatha Christie, you can fuhgeddabowdit.

Part of what drove me away from Agatha Christie’s books many, many years ago — and eventually drove me back into her literary arms soon after — was how two-dimensional her stories and characters were. Now I find that two-dimensionality comforting. In Christie’s books, there is much “wickedness” and very little ambiguity. Sophie Hannah has added a layer of psychological depth. Instead of wickedness, there is a blanketing darkness.

Écoutez. Poirot is temporarily trying to escape the burden of being Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective and current thorn-in-the-side/consultant to Scotland Yard. He has left the comfort of his perfectly aligned home for the suffocating coziness of a boarding house not far from his digs. Of course there is a police detective also in residence, Edward Catchpool, with whom Poirot investigates three (almost) identical murders at a hotel.

Catchpool is no Hastings when it comes to chronicling the activity in Poirot’s “little grey cells.” That is both good and bad. Catchpool and Hastings are equally clueless, both having rather simple approaches to solving a murder, but Catchpool comes with his own mental baggage, which strangely interferes with his duty as a detective of homicides. Christie was lean and tight in her storytelling; Hannah tends, through Catchpool, towards more details and frills.

Whether Hannah will captivate enough readers to continue wearing Christie’s mantle remains to be seen. In the positive column, I could clearly hear David Suchet’s voice whenever Poirot spoke. In the less successful column — if she is trying to emulate Christie — her story lacks the humor and tartness of the original. All in all, by today’s standards, her story has the complexity and psychological darkness to qualify as an emblematic British crime novel.

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