Poirot is back! I’m a huge Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot fan, so I admit to being initially a bit wary of Sophie Hannah’s take on such a beloved character. To Hannah’s credit, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Christie’s style nor to present a Poirot rigidly identical to Christie’s original, but rather pays homage to author and character while weaving her own yarn of a story. The mysteries themselves are akin to what Christie may have written — a series of mysterious deaths in a hotel (Monogram Murders) and a matriarch changing her will and thereby causing a murder in the family (Closed Casket) — but the dialogue and characters and plot twists feel more Hannah than Christie.
This is especially evident in Closed Casket, which I think is much better than Monogram Murders. Closed Casket just feels a lot more confident, Hannah coming into her own as a Poirot writer and simply letting the mystery take shape rather than worrying about proving how much she knows Christie’s Poirot.
It’s due to that confidence, I think, that she finally gives Edward Catchpool, her narrator, his due as a character in his own right rather than merely a bumbling foil for Poirot’s brilliance. Catchpool is, of course, still not as smart as Poirot, but we can at least understand now why Poirot saw such potential in him. Whereas Catchpool annoyed me in Monogram Murders with his sheer stupidity (seriously, how he even got a job in Scotland Yard baffled me), he appears more like a real detective in Closed Casket. He still doesn’t have quite as many little grey cells as Poirot (because no one really does), but he’s at least become a valuable partner, slightly more capable perhaps than Hastings and a bit more like Martin Freeman’s John Watson than Nigel Bruce’s take.
I also geeked out quite a bit more over the Closed Casket mystery, possibly because it felt more Christie-like, and also possibly just because I love family dramas that culminate in locked room (locked house?) murders. There is a tiny pool of suspects, all of whom have known each other for years, most of whom have a viable motive to kill. It begins with Lady Athelinda Playford, a wealthy author of children’s mysteries (and possibly Hannah’s take on Ariadne Oliver?), inviting Poirot and Catchpool to her home and then announcing to her family at dinner that she has changed her will to leave everything to her secretary rather than her children. The catch? Her secretary is fatally ill and expected to live only a few weeks more. Why would a woman leave her fortune to someone whom she will very likely outlive? And who better to figure it out than a Belgian detective with an overload of little grey cells and a penchant for relying on psychology to solve a case?
I absolutely loved the mystery in this book. Like the characters, I couldn’t figure out Athelinda’s motive for changing her will in that way, and when a murder is committed, I couldn’t figure out who could have done it or why it was done in the first place. As Catchpool and Poirot uncover clues and learn about the other characters’ stories, Hannah keeps the psychological twists and turns coming and, as with any of Christie’s best mysteries, I found it best to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Best of all, the big reveal did not disappoint. The culprit’s motivation was unexpected and chilling, and as messed up as the motive of any of Christie’s murderers.
Hannah’s Poirot isn’t (to me) as loveable as Christie’s original, but this book will certainly stay in my collection of beloved mysteries. More than anything, it made me want to read more of Sophie Hannah’s work. If she does this well with a classic character, how much better will her mysteries be when she’s completely unfettered by tradition and can completely let loose with her mystery-writing muscles? Part of me also wants to re-read Monogram Murders to see if I will appreciate it more now, and perhaps despite the annoying level of Catchpool’s stupidity, there’s the same gem of mystery genius I enjoyed so much in Closed Casket.
It’s tough to fill shoes as big as those of Agatha Christie, who is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I hesitate to call Sophie Hannah as the successor to Christie, but then that hesitation for me would apply even to such mystery writing greats as Val McDermid and P.D. James, simply because their styles are all so different from Christie’s. Rather, I say that Sophie Hannah is a brilliant mystery author in her own right. I enjoyed Closed Casket and can’t wait to start reading Sophie Hannah’s non-Poirot mysteries.
As an aside, isn’t the UK cover (top image, right) gorgeous? Both covers have their charm, and possibly a mood will strike when I prefer the US cover, but the UK cover just really caught my eye.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.