Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Monogram Murders: Hercule Poirot Returns

As a massive Agatha Christie fan, I was thrilled to learn the Christie estate had authorized a new Hercule Poirot novel. Written by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders is the first novel to feature the Belgian detective since 1975's Curtain: Poirot's Last Case. While it is thrilling to see Poirot back in action, using his "little grey cells," the novel itself a reminder that no one can craft a mystery as well as Agatha Christie.

The novel opens in 1929 London, with Poirot having a vacation of sorts and staying in a guest house. His fellow boarder is a Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool. Catchpool is our narrator: it's unclear why Hannah chose to introduce a new narrator instead of the dependable Captain Hastings, but perhaps having to re-introduce one formidable Christie character was enough for her. Catchpool is very Hastings-esque, able to do solid police work but unable to make the intellectual leaps that are Poirot's forte when the two of them get caught up in a murder investigation of three dead bodies found with monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths. On the evening of the murders, Poirot met a frightened woman named Jennie, and he is convinced that she is linked to the victims and might be next. Catchpool is battling his own psychological demons and is happy to have Poirot's help on this case, despite being constantly made to feel like a dunce as the Belgian makes enigmatic suggestions and laments the deplorable state of Catchpool's intellect. It's a spot-on character study, and Hannah has certainly managed to bring back the Poirot of yore.

Despite Poirot behaving exactly as you'd expect, where The Monogram Murders fails to engage me is the plot. It is entirely too convoluted and melodramatic, reminiscent of the weird spiritualistic novels towards the end of Christie's career. Every Poirot novel features the grand denouement at the end, where he explains everything and points out all the clues that were right under our noses. This novel, however, has multiple denouements, as layer upon layer is added to the mystery until you almost don't care who the murderer is by the end. It's certainly an ingenious plot that works, but it feels too overwrought for a Christie novel. Several plot points also hinge a great deal on people's use of grammar, which makes this feel even more like a labored literary exercise than a truly exciting murder mystery. It all wraps up neatly, but ultimately does not have the ease and and awe-inspiring panache of a Christie novel. 

The Monogram Murders is a fun book for Christie fans but is certainly not a replacement for Christie herself. Rather than await future Poirot or Marple reboots, this novel has convinced me to just re-read the classic Christie novels. Nothing beats the original.

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