Missing Hastings: Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders

DSCN1355 - Version 2Hannah, Sophie. The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery. New York: HarperCollins-William Morrow, 2014.
In common with many others, I suspect, I approached Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders with a certain amount of trepidation. Co-incidentally, I had just watched David Suchet in Curtain, so perhaps I was feeling somewhat bereft of the rotund little Belgian detective. By the way, I have only read Curtain once because I must admit to difficulties with Christie’s premise in the novel. Would Poirot really . . . .? No, just in case you haven’t read it or seen it, I’m not going to reveal all.

DSCN1357 - Version 2Anyway, to return to The Monogram Murders. It was curiosity more than anything that drew me to Sophie Hannah’s novel. Could anyone bring Poirot back? I’m still not sure.

DSCN1358 - Version 2Other than the blurbs on the book’s cover, I did not read any reviews of The Monogram Murders until after I’d finished the book. I wanted to be sure that my response to it was at least relatively uncoloured by any preconception. However, I did do a very little superficial research on Sophie Hannah who, I have to admit, was a writer new to me. I discovered that she is generally described as “an internationally bestselling writer of psychological crime fiction, published in 27 countries” (Goodreads.com); or as poet who has also written “a series of commercially successful psychological crime thrillers, which are certainly guided by ‘dark passions’” (http://literature.britishcouncil.org/sophie-hannah).

DSCN1357 - Version 2 I was wondering how this strength might work with Christie’s Poirot who while he may talk of the psychology and logic is not as complex a created character or as rounded as say Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey or P. D. James’ Adam Dalgleish. Poirot is a glorious, Dickensian caricature, one dimensional yet larger than life.

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So I came to the book with a relatively open mind. I didn’t not enjoy it. The plot worked; the characters were recognisable, the pre-war milieu deftly created. So why did I finish the book feeling somewhat numb? Was it because I missed Hastings, Miss Lemon, Inspector Japp, and the manservant George? No. Hastings isn’t in all of Christie’s Poirot books; he is in Argentina. Neither is Miss Lemon. So why my lack of enthusiasm?

DSCN1355 - Version 2I’m not sure that I really could buy into Poirot’s moving into Mrs. Blanche Unsworth’s lodging house just because he wanted to escape “the rushing of the many thoughts.” Yes, Poirot has endured the discomforts of other guest houses and small hotels—one recalls his misery at the Summerhayes’ house in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead—for example. But such horrors are suffered only through necessity. The fussiness of Mrs. Unsworth’s “flounces and frills” must surely be entirely inconducive to “restful inactivity” (14). I was also a little challenged to place the novel within the Poirot chronology, a challenge in itself when dealing with Christie’s novels. Just when did Poirot retire to grow marrows, for example? Christie herself commented on her difficulties with having created Poirot as quite middle aged and feeling compelled to keep him going on into the sixties.

DSCN1357 - Version 2I also needed some referents to place the novel more exactly within the canon of the others. Where is Hastings? In Argentina already? Somewhere else? What is Catchpool’s relationship with Inspector Japp?

Perhaps I found the fact that in The Monogram Murders we are dealing with a serial killer somewhat problematic. Not many of Christie’s books deal with multiple murders. Some but not all. Or perhaps I didn’t warm sufficiently to Catchpool the narrator.

DSCN1355 - Version 2Ultimately, I found myself thinking that the novel worked; it was clever, but that something was missing. The Monogram Murders felt somehow unreal. Christie’s novels, despite their being fiction and being somewhat two dimensional, somehow feel more real than The Monogram Murders. Hannah’s book feels, I suppose, like a pastiche, an homage, but not the real thing. Not Christie.

DSCN1356 - Version 2There are very few Agatha Christie novels that I’ve finished reading and felt somehow unsatisfied. Yes, Christie’s novels are genre fiction, but in many ways they define the genre. Hannah is perhaps trying too hard. The Monogram Murders needed something of Christie’s lighter, humorous touch.

DSCN1358 - Version 2It was at this point that I allowed myself to think about others’ reviews. And what did I find? Laura Thompson’s Guardian review published 9 September 2014. As I read it, I found myself nodding in agreement. She suggests, “For all its approximation to an Agatha Christie, the book actually bears very little resemblance to one. It is a dense, complicated, vaguely old‑fashioned detective story, containing diluted essence of Poirot” (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/09/monogram-murders-sophie-hannah-hercule-poirot-agatha-christie-novel-review). I couldn’t say it better myself, so I won’t. What I really enjoyed about Thomas’ review was her comment “Christie knew about life, about human nature. She just didn’t feel the need to go on about it.”

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“Go[ing]on about” things can often be a bore. So I will stop here. If you read The Monogram Murders, you will, of course, draw your own conclusions.

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