The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

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This book was heavily marketed as being “The brand new Hercule Poirot”, the first authorised by the Agatha Christie estate. Sophie Hannah apparently came up with a plot idea that would cleverly echo the sort of complicated if not impossible case Poirot enjoyed. Even better, from the first chapter Poirot finds a personal connection as he speaks to a distressed woman in his new favourite restaurant. It is not long before he is plunged into a full blown multiple murder mystery, which seems to draw in many motives and potential culprits.

One of the standard elements of a mystery novel is the need for a ‘side kick’ or person who can do a little detecting but essentially exists to ask questions and receive answers from the main detective. It is useful if the same character can act as narrator, as he or she sees what the reader wants to see in the quest to solve the mystery. Rather than use one of Christie’s usual “Watsons” such as Hastings, Hannah establishes Edward Catchpool, of Scotland Yard. I’m not convinced by this choice and her development of his character; for a presumably experienced policeman he seems disinclined to get involved in solving the murders, and backs off from using information once obtained, even if it may prevent further attacks or murders. As with Hastings, he is at once intuitive and inspired to follow information, as well as scared of getting involved in death. He also finds Poirot infuriating as the demands to come up with answers to questions that only Poirot/Hannah has a clue about come thick and fast. I know that a policeman has to be involved to give official status to Poirot’s investigations, but I struggled to believe in this one.

Another familiar part of the mystery writing genre is the idea of a closed community and therefore a limited pool of suspects, such as the country house type murders at which Christie excelled. When this book relocates the action to a village it improves; the concept of the possible murderer emerging from the whole of London let alone with the connivance of a huge hotel staff makes the focus unclear. I also have a favourite character in the village whose sheer force of will and determination becomes vital.

It is difficult to write a review of a murder mystery without revealing too much. This book is a good read, which certainly keeps the reader guessing. The question of whether it is a good Christie sequel or copy is more difficult. Poirot is developed as a character in this book but not beyond a reasonable level. It is not a caricature or cartoon, but a thoughtful development of his irritating but successful character and detecting abilities. I think that there are a few too many leaps at the end of the book where his theories are look a little unsubstantiated, but true to form he explains it all at the end. My criticism is that Hannah has lost some of the simplicity that marked Christie’s writing at its best. She tends to over-complicate and repeat, which makes for what feels a longer book and one that seems difficult to follow. Overall this is a good book, which generally good characterisations and an enjoyable if slightly depressing plot. I am glad that Hannah has risen to the new Christie challenge, and I look forward to her second outing of this type, “The Closed Casket”.

This book made for an interesting discussion at our book group! Views were polarised as to everything from the characters to reviewing policies for newspapers. Overall it was agreed to be very different from our previous book choice, “Lark Rise to Candleford”!