Books

Sophie Hannah
The Monogram Murders

The year is 1929, the place, the Bloxham Hotel, where three people have been found murdered, each with a monogrammed cufflink placed in his or her mouth. Meanwhile, across London, a woman finds Hercule Poirot and delivers a desperate monologue forecasting her own demise: “Does it count as murder if I give in and let it happen?” she asks. “It’s what I deserve.” But the great detective is rarely one to think that murder is deserved, so naturally, his famous “little grey cells” are set to work.

Of course, it is in fact 2014, and Agatha Christie hasn’t published a full-length Poirot mystery in 39 years. This book, by Sophie Hannah, is the first “Christie” book to have been authorised by the late author’s estate, and fans will be performing their own sleuthing while reading it. Is The Monogram Murders good on its own terms? Is it good on Christie’s? Thankfully, it’s both a fine act of ventriloquism and something slightly more, occasionally playing with the limits of Poirot’s world.

Hannah’s version of the detective is wonderfully himself – confident, rude, incredulous, qualities that aren’t lost on Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, the “author” of this story. “I am writing this for the benefit of nobody but myself,” he explains, in an attempt to make the case sit well with his conscience. It’s an old-school framing device, of the type we rarely see anymore, one of many choices that put us neatly within Christie’s mode.

Apart from some vague attempts to imbue Catchpool with backstory – he dislikes corpses, “mixing up this business at the Bloxham with my unhappiest childhood memories” – not much time is spent fleshing his character out. Frankly, the effect is comfortable and charming. In a fiction climate full of damaged, antiheroic psychologies, it’s lovely to enjoy detectives forming an awkward alliance, concerned with procedure and etiquette, as they puzzle through a dark, propulsive plot.

Christie’s novels, at their best, are complex wind-up toys, their components linked by mechanisms that only Poirot understands, until he at last gathers the suspects in an unlikely, blissful scene and lays out all its workings for everyone involved. “I must say,” writes Catchpool, when this moment finally comes, “I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience.” But Sophie Hannah gets it – it’s a fun way to spend the time. One hopes she and Poirot stumble on many further crimes.  CR

HarperCollins, 400pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders ". Subscribe here.