I have always been a sucker for sequels and when it comes to authors I love, I lose all will power and good sense. More often than not sequels have always disappointed me, but I still persevere. When the Agatha Christie estate announced that they had commissioned a new Poirot novel I was equal parts appalled and excited – because having read so many sequels to the works of so many great authors by other great authors I have realized that it is almost impossible to replicate a particular style of writing, and yet hope springs eternal in the heart of a bibliophile.
So, I got my hands on the Monogram Murders as soon as possible, which was not fast enough for me. The gold and black cover design is very chic and stylish and reflective of the cufflinks that give the book its name. The silhouette of the beloved, slightly portly Poirot on the cover is a nice touch, though I was not a fan of the body shaped outline in the shadows. The book is priced very competitively and even more so on Amazon.in, which is always a major consideration for the Indian market, and still manages to be printed on good paper and have a classy cover.
Hercule Poirot has taken lodgings just opposite from his home in order to get away from the constant flow of petitioners who keep popping up at his door. While there he makes a new friend in Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who is the other lodger and the narrator of this story. Poirot makes a weekly outing to Pleasant’s Coffee House in the not so upmarket part of London in pursuit of the perfect brew and his dinner. On the Thursday evening that we meet Poirot, his dinner is interrupted by a distraught and frightened lady bursting into the cafe. Since she appears to be terrified of something or somebody Poirot takes it upon himself to inquire if he may be of any help.The lady confides in him, makes a very cryptic comment and after proclaiming that she is about to be murdered rushes out of the shop, leaving Poirot suitably worried. On returning to his lodging, Poirot encounters the distraught Catchpool who has just returned from an inquiry into three murders that have occurred in the Bloxham hotel. Each dead body has a monogrammed cufflink in his/her mouth. Poirot immediately concludes that the two events are somehow linked to each other and undertakes solving Catchpool’s murder mystery for him. Catchpool is more than happy to let Poirot take over as he has his own set of limitations when it comes to dead people. Their inquiries lead them to the village of Great Holling and the dark secrets that reside there and to a famous portrait painter. The Bloxham hotel plays a recurring role throughout the book and is the theater where the last act of the tragedy takes place. The employees of the hotel are presented as the sweetest, most co-operative people to have ever worked in the hospitality industry and surprisingly I found myself wishing for a hotel manager like Lazarri.
My feelings about this book are extremely mixed.
The Poirot that we have grown up falling in love with is definitely missing from the pages. Sophie Hannah’s Poirot is more English than he ever was in the original Christie novels. He speaks much better in more complete sentences than he did before and he ‘smiles to himself’ a bit too much. There are occasional mentions about his moustaches and a token one about his need for symmetry in his surroundings. After going through almost half the book, I realized that if the author had named her detective something besides Poirot I would have actually been satisfied with his character. Even though he is present in every chapter in the book, his presence never really registers over that of the plot and its main characters. But for Poirot, all the other characters are superbly etched. Catchpool, Fee, Lazzari and the rest of the cast are easy to like or loathe depending on their criminal orientations.
Edward Catchpool is the most irritating Scotland Yard detective I have ever read about. His psychological problems with dead people make me question how he has ever survived in the police department for 6 years, two of them in Scotland yard. The author keeps harping about a childhood incident that has scarred him for life and yet it did not elicit even a small drop of sympathy for him from me. He is always horrified or just about to faint whenever anything remotely shocking takes place or is even told to him secondhand as evidence. He is so skittish around witnesses and situations that it is a wonder he hasn’t managed to hurt himself in the process. Hastings was never such a morose, sickly fellow. Perhaps, someone should have suggested to Catchpool that given his revulsion towards the dead and uncomfortable situations he would be better served working as a lawyer’s clerk or a gardener.
The plot itself is not so bad. It is complicated and takes into account human nature which was a favourite theme in Agatha Christie novels. However, maybe it becomes too complex by the same measure. A number of deductions that Poirot manages seem to be no more than excellent guesswork. He leaps from one deduction to another without any discernible clues. In fact, the deduction about the blue basin in the portrait seems debatable to me. The basin links a suspect, who works as a servant, to the village of Great Holling and so must be painted over. The basin in question has been painted into the portrait of a lady who provides another suspect an alibi. It is assumed that the painting was done before the murders took place and the servant disappeared from the house. My question is why would a lady get her portrait painted in a servant’s room where the basin is kept in order to get it into her portrait? After a while, you are just as eager to get to Poirot’s dissertation in front of an audience of about a 100 hotel employees to be able to derive some sense of the puzzle in front of you. Of course, it is all neatly tied up in a bow in the end and all questions are answered, except the one about the blue basin, and you can finally sit back and take a breather. Also missing from the narrative is the characteristic, subtle and unexpected burst of humour that was a staple of all Agatha Christie books.
Agatha Christie wrote books that seemed so superficial and simple at a glance, but the clarity and completeness of her characters and her plots were never compromised. She never seemed to dwell on explanations of the psychological hang-ups of her characters, instead stating them in a matter-of-fact way and moving on, which is not the case in this book. Dissecting deep psychosis in lead characters is a modern concept and works well most of the time, its just not very Agatha Christie-like. Also, if Sophie Hannah chooses to continue the series, I would suggest losing Edward Catchpool at the first opportunity, not because she has failed him but because she has described him so well that it is impossible to fall in love with him.
So,my verdict is, I liked the plot but felt let down by the almost insipid Poirot in the narrative. Would I read another Poirot book by Sophie Hannah? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably yes.